Tuesday, May 13, 2014


44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Happy Mothers' Day…to all the happy mothers among us, to all your loving spouses, and to all God's children who love and honor their parents.  Together, we are family.
We were all reminded of that yesterday as we came together with Tina and her family to honor her Dad, John.  Leaving, one lady remarked "What a lovely service.  I've never been in a church like this."  I replied "Neither have I."
I have not.  This place is special.  And, because we are family, because I love you, I feel a need to talk about a problem that impacts us all, but, most especially, families.  I feel a need to talk clearly, honestly about that problem – the gaping inequality of wealth in this country and in the world.  It's a growing inequality that has propelled the super-rich to levels of pomp and power not seen since the first Gilded Age a century ago…that has gutted the middle class…and trampled the poor under foot. Bear with while I try to lay it out from the perspective of the political animal that I am.  But, before I end, I will also try to put things into the proper context - the context of our reading today from Acts, the context of the Gospel.  I promise.  For we are dealing here not so much with a simple issue of economics or partisan politics, but rather with a profound moral issue about how we lead our lives and order our society.
As some of you know, there's a book out there containing the sermons and thoughts of an old deacon.  It begins with a simple declarative statement: "These are troubled times."  After pointing to the endless wars and foreign misadventures that have marked this last decade, it then offers the following by way of elaboration and a call to action:
At home we still suffer the consequences of decades of the rampant greed and reckless risk-taking that produced a Great Recession in an America we hardly recognize any more…an America where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
We are at a crossroads and the stakes are high.  We need to get off knees and find our voice.
Surveying the same scene a few years earlier from Paris, Stephane Hessel painted an even bleaker picture. A survivor of the Holocaust, a veteran of the Resistance, and a drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Hessel pointed to:
The grievous injustices inflicted on people deprived of the essential requirements for a decent life, not only in the third world…but in the suburbs of our largest Western cities, where seclusion and poverty breeds hatred and revolt.  The widening gap between the very poor and very rich is made all the more insulting by the access the poor now have to the internet and other forms of mass communication that highlight these inequalities.
Noting that "the worst attitude is indifference," Hessel - then ninety-three and on what he called the "last leg of my journey" - pointed to what he called the "unbearable things all around us." He urged the youth in particular "to look around you and you will find the themes to justify your indignation." 
His little red book, Indignez Vous, a Time for Outrage, inspired the Occupy movement which, in turn, focused national and global attention on the economic inequality that threatens not only our democratic system, but our very moral values.  Occupy's voices, however, were soon drowned out by those in the corporate echo chamber who cried "Class warfare!" and insisted instead on balancing our federal budgets on the backs of the poor and middle class. 
And, in the brief two years since the last tents were torn down on Justin Herman Plaza, the ranks of the poor have mushroomed, as those of the middle class have dwindled.  Meanwhile, the wealth of the ostentatious super-rich – promoted by ever newer tax loopholes and protected in ever-more creative tax havens – has reached obscene proportions. 
That wealth is being used in unhealthy ways to create an economic apartheid that is eroding our democracy and, with it, the means to break free of what is overtaking us.  How so?  Need I mention the uneven playing field created by the money that is polluting our politics and drowning out the voices of the common man?  Need I mention, Citizens United, McCutcheon, and the trek to Las Vegas by half a dozen presidential candidates to kiss the ring of a multi-billionaire with a questionable agenda?  Need I mention the starving of our public school system, while Walmart's Waltons lavish billions on the creation of a parallel charter system?  Need I mention how American college graduates are being crushed by student loan debts, while their schools recruit the children of wealthy foreigners to pay the top-heavy salaries of administrators?  Need I mention the consolidation of the media and the message in the hands of the wealthy few?  As T. H. Marshall said half a century ago, "freedom of speech has little real substance if…you have…no means of making yourself heard."
And so, as a recent Princeton study shows, our democracy slips ever deeper into oligarchy – rule by a privileged few.  And the things all around us become indeed unbearable.
The evidence of what is happening can no longer be ignored.  And, this time, it's not the kids in the streets who are ringing the alarm bells, but, rather, respected economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and, above all, Thomas Piketty – another Frenchman - who are providing irrefutable evidence that things are even worse than we thought. 
What sort of evidence?  How bad?  Take salaries.  Over the past thirty years, median salaries have stagnated and many poor and middle class families have experienced cuts in take-home pay or outright unemployment.  Meanwhile the already astronomical salaries of top CEOs – the .001 percent – have risen an average of nine percent a year to a median of $13.9 million a year.  Near the bottom, those making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour are earning $15,000 a year.  Consider that when the federal poverty level for a family of four is $23,000 a year.  Consider that when the President has just signed a budget that cuts food stamp funding but continues subsidies to big oil.  Consider that when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison raked in $73.4 million in 2013 or $37,692 an hour.  And, as the New York Times reports, "He seems not to care what you think about that."
Those of us who do care know that these are not just abstract facts and figures.  There's nothing abstract about the new homeless I see on the streets – the well-dressed father at Open Cathedral; his two sons so happy to get a few colored Easter eggs; the man in a good-looking suit on our soup line at the 16th street BART; the outrageous prices being charged for poorly heated, roach infested SROs in the Tenderloin; a housing market that's pricing out middle class families in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and, yes, the East Bay…pricing out the salt of the earth – teachers, nurses, firemen, policemen, baristas, who find it hard to live where they serve.  Just how bad is it here where we live?  Well, as an article in the New York Times last month reports that, of the 100 largest metro areas in the country, we're number one – number one in income inequality and number one in terms of least affordable housing.  Indeed, some of us in this room know what it's like to be housing poor.  Others of us know what it's like to be unemployed or to have to rely on food stamps or whatever's in that Shared Manna basket by the door or on the table  of donated layettes outside.  No, there's nothing abstract about any of this.    
But, as Piketty points out, it's not just a matter of salaries.  There's an even darker underside to all this.  The growth of income from idle capital – as in Das Kapital – inherited, accumulated wealth – has begun to grow at a rate geometrically faster than earned income from labor. 
We have, he says, reached a point where simply increasing the progressivity of income taxes will no longer do the trick.  He proposes instead a global tax on accumulated wealth and a redistribution of the proceeds to the ninety-nine percent who earn their income from labor.
Not surprisingly those in the one percent and their apologists in the media have taken to calling Piketty a communist.  He's in good company.
 Pope Francis, too, has been called a communist.  Why?  Because, as he said
I believe in Jesus Christ and his Gospel.  And, the core of the Gospel is the proclamation to the poor. When you read the Beatitudes, for example, or you read Matthew 25, you see there how Jesus is clear in this. The core of the Gospel is this. And Jesus says of himself, "I came to announce to the poor, freedom, health, the grace of God"…to the poor…[to] those who need salvation, that need to be welcomed in society… This is a banner of the Gospel, not of Communism; of the Gospel!
And the oligarchs of El Salvador called Oscar Romero a communist for holding high the same banner, a banner that proclaimed Christ's "opcion preferencial por los pobres."
One wonders how many good Christians harbor thoughts that even Luke must have been a communist – or, at least, a proto-Marxist - for reporting, as he did this morning, that
44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
How many good Christians balk at this because they mistakenly feel it's a notion only first propounded by Marx?  How many dismiss it as a utopian concept?
But we're not talking here about some utopia – some imaginary, unattainable state of perfection.  No, Luke is talking here about a concrete reality that actually existed in a specific time and place.  He's writing about the Christian community in first-century Jerusalem and how it ordered its life together.
Now, I'm not na├»ve and neither, I expect, are you.  While "day by day the Lord added to their number" - three thousand, we were told last week - we know that the first Christians comprised a small, compact, homogenous community.  And we know how hard it would be to replicate such an economic system in a country as large and diverse as ours…just as hard as it would be to expect our political system to operate as transparently or as responsively as the pure democracy of the tiny city-state of Athens.  No, these are ideals to strive for…much the same as those contained in our Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…
But, oh, how far we've drifted from these ideals – of possessing equal voice and vote in our politics, of enjoying equality of opportunity in our pursuit of happiness, and of caring for the least among us as Jesus commanded…of creating a society where Shalom prevails – where there is, as in first century Jerusalem, a just and harmonious balance between individual self-realization and communal sufficiency.  Looking around us, we are right in concluding that the doors to self-realization are closing, that the least among us are falling off the edge, and that our capacity for caring is growing ever smaller…as our fear of being crushed beneath the weight of greed and inequality grows ever larger.  Yes, "look around you and you will find the themes to justify your indignation."
The cause of our fear and indignation is clear and simple. 
In case you haven't noticed, that Pope in Rome is given to plain-speaking and knows how to use the media, including the social media.  Two weeks ago he said it all in a three-word tweet – "Iniquitas radix malorum."  For the few of you who don't speak Latin that translates to "Inequality is the root of social evil." 
But we are a people of hope.  We can overcome evil.  We can overcome this…by returning to the roots of social good…the roots embedded in the Beatitudes, Matthew 25, and the example found today in Acts.  "The rich," as Francis has said, "must help, respect, and promote the poor," while we all must strive "to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beingFrancis, of course, is getting vocal pushback from his American bishops, while ours are sadly silent.  But church is more than just bishops.  We are the church, we the people.  And the time has come to speak – clearly, plainly, forcefully.  The church needs our voice.  Our society does.  Christ does.  So hold high the banner of the Gospel.  Give voice to your indignation.  Speak the simple truth
"Iniquitas radix malorum." 

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