Date: January 21, 2018
Title: “Nickel and Dimed”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Micah 6:6-8
Grace and peace to you from God, and from Jesus who calls us together this day. It is a joy for me to be back home from Dallas, Texas, where incidentally it was 18 degrees this week – and where I participated in the seventh of nine meetings of the United Methodist Commission on a Way Forward. Together with 31 of my brother and sister United Methodists we struggled to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. And I’ve got to tell you – it gets harder to do every time we meet!
It is no simple task. To begin with, good, faithful disciples, earnest followers of Jesus do not even agree on what justice means, what kindness looks like, and humility… well, that is too often in much too short supply!
So this mrning, we hear the conclusion of a rant from the prophet Micah. Micah was justifiably angry; the people of Israel had sold out to corruption. The very ones who should have done the most good are doing nothing, other than making things worse by pretending that all is well with the world. The plight of the poor is bad enough. But what Micah really gets riled up about is the vast inequality in wealth which allows poverty to exist in the very shadow of extravagance and wealth. Earlier in this chapter Micah says:
Hear this…you who abhor justice and pervert equity, who build Zion with blood. Hear this… Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins.
There will be consequences for the corruption in Israel, and Micah makes no bones about it. Anne Michele Turner suggests:
It is easy to hear all this anger that Micah has against the rich and the powerful of his day, and think, “Ooh, what villains they must have been back then, long ago, there in the dark ages.” Good thing we know better. Really?
According to Forbes Magazine, America’s top 25 billionaires (a group the size of a major league baseball team), just 25 people hold as much wealth as 56% of the population of the United States – 204 million people, more people than the populations of Mexico and Canada combined.
Not only that, but one in five American households (over 19% of us) have zero or negative net worth. Sixty percent of Americans do not have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency, while the combined wealth of the top 400 of the richest Americans adds up to $2.68 trillion. That’s trillion, with a “t”… more than the Gross Domestic Product of Britain, the fifth largest economy in the world.
The lion’s share of this nation’s wealth is held in a tiny number of hands, and no natural phenomena created this situation. What led us to this point is a system of economic policies which benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.
Not one of us is in that top 400 of the Forbes list. And the thing is, we who are somewhere in the middle, we are like the frog who sits in the pot of water set on the stove to boil. It’s not so bad for us. Sure, it’s getting a little warmer, and those bubles are disconcerting. But we convince ourselves things will settle down, and we will be fine. Again in Turner’s words:
Are we, then, the ones who pervert all equity? Are we the ones who abhor justice? Of course not…we’re not villains. But then, maybe neither were Micah’s contemporaries. It’s just that all of us are limited in self-awareness. We have a vast capacity for self-deception. We are far too comfortable letting injustice slide, especially if we happen to benefit from it.
After all, economic policy is complicated. It’s tough to know what would really help, and Micah doesn’t offer us any easy answers, no ten-point plan to eliminate the problem. It seems that Micah wants to go beyond this problem, to awaken us up to our better selves. Micah wants us to remember that even if it is normal in 2018 for people to go hungry, or to have to share a one bedroom apartment with three families or to end up on the street… even if it’s normal, it is not right. Even if income inequality is the way of this world it is not the way of God’s world.
For a little over a year, from the spring of 1998 to the summer of 2000, Barbara Ehrenreich conducted a personal experiment to see if she could make a living on low-paying hourly jobs. She then wrote a book entitled Nickel and Dimed to Death: on Not Getting By in America. In it, she wrote:
My aim here was straightforward and objective – just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day.
Investigating many of the difficulties low-wage workers face, including hidden costs involved in necessities like shelter and food, Ehrenreich concludes that it may not be possible to pick ones’ self up by the bootstraps any more. The gap between those who have enough and those who do not is not only widening every day, it is threatening to swallow up our compassion and our hope. Toward the end of the book Ehrenreich makes a remarkable observation, one which the prophet Micah would echo:
When someone works for less pay than she can live on – when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently – then she has made a great sacrifice for you…she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.
The “working poor” are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high.
To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.”
This past Monday we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr Day. It might be helpful for us to remember that King listened to Micah not only for history’s sake, but for the sake of his own day. Marc Bayard, director of the Black Worker Initiative says that we tend to have a fairly limited and sanitized view of King’s legacy. In fact, in the last months of his life, King was focused on plans for a multiracial Poor People’s Campaign.
When sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike to demand fair pay, benefits and union recognition, King went to Memphis not once but twice, to support them and to show his commitment to economic justice. And do you remember the full name of the 1963 March on Washington? It was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Marchers that day had ten demands, among them a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers, and a national minimum wage to give all Americans a decent standard of living, to lessen the gap between the rich and the poor.
What would Dr. King think – what would Micah say to us, realizing that neither of these demands has yet been met, and that economic gains keep funneling to the rich while the middle class continues to shrink and disappear? Perhaps King would reiterate these words from his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Micah, no doubt, would simply reiterate his words to us … Do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk Humbly with God. Did you know, there are only nine words associated with the word “justice” in the Bible? Widow, fatherless, orphans, poor, hungry, stranger, needy, weak, oppressed… nowhere on this list do you find the word “rich”. Nowhere do you find the word “strong” or the word “privileged” linked with a Biblical notion of justice. For the Bible, a concern for justice is always a concern for those on the margins.
Today, a concern for justice must mean to pay attention to broken systems which continue to create broken lives. We are tied in a single garment of destiny, so it behooves us to wake up to the fact that we are sitting in a pot full of water about to boil over. This life of income inequality is no more sustainable for our civilization than life on top of the stove is possible long term for the frog!
Do justice. And then, love kindness. Loving kindness drives us to practice compassion for the suffering of others. But it also calls us to practice compassion for ourselves – wherever we may be within the economic range, and however we may recognize our complicity in the inequalities of this world.
Do justice, yes. Love kindness, absolutely. And do not forget to walk humbly with God. If there is to be any good news at all in this prophetic word, I find it in this last line. Walking implies slowing down, trusting a deliberate, measured, focused approach to life. When you walk with God, you cannot be so full of yourself that there is no room for God. To walk with God, you cannot be so preoccupied with your own agenda that there is no time for God. You cannot be so distracted by your own desires, or demoralized by your own inner chatter that you cannot hear God’s love for you or recognize God’s hope for us all.
Finally, after all of his fire and fury, Micah reminds us of that love, and offer us that hope. In the last two verses of his entire prophecy he gives those same drunken religious leaders, corrupt politicians, greedy business people and self-serving citizens this word:
Who is a God like you,
Who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever , but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
Perhaps this old Franciscan blessing will help us in this brave new world:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that you may live deeply within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may wish for justice, freedom, and peace. May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
We can do what others claim cannot be done, when we choose to walk humbly with God. Amen.