Sunday, September 22, 2019

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

"You cannot serve God and wealth"

Rev. Kealahou Alika

Amos 8:4-7 & Luke 16:1-13

Late in the week, a news segment about climate change turned into a harsh criticism of 16-year-old Swedish teen Greta Thunberg and those who are concerned about climate change. Greta helped organize the global Youth Climate Strike that took place on Friday to demand urgent action on climate change. She will be among those who will be in attendance at the world leaders meeting at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit tomorrow in New York City.

Although the exact number of participants in the strike worldwide varies, organizers reported there were over 2,500 events in over 185 countries on all seven continents. One estimate placed the number of participants at 4 million. That included 40,000 in France; 2,600 in Ukraine; 5,000 in South Africa; 10,000 in Turkey; 5,000 in Japan; 100,000 in London; 330,000 in Australia; 250,000 in New York City; and 1.4 million in Germany.

On Thursday, September 19, 2019 the day prior to the strike, a panel of four female panelists welcomed “one lucky guy” as their guest. The lucky guy was identified as a political pundit who argued, “Climate change is a religious belief for people who think they’re too smart for religion.”

One of the panel members added, “They’ve got Catholic guilt and they’re going to confession. But they just have forgotten about God, so they’re worshipping the environment.” (“Fox News Panel on Climate Change says Liberals have ʻforgotten about Godʻ and are “Worshipping the environment instead,’” Newsweek, H. Alan Scott, September 19, 2019). It is not clear how a political pundit or a newscaster would make what appears to be offhand statements by invoking the name of God. But it has occurred to me that Jesus did say something about God and about wealth.

In January of this year, Thunberg addressed the global business elite in Davos, saying, “Some people, some companies, some decision makers in particular have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue to make unimaginable amounts of money.” There is great wealth to be had in the fossil fuel industry, an industry that we all participate in every time we fill up with a tank of gas.

At a meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna in early July, Mohammed Barkindo, OPEC’s Secretary General claimed that “unscientific” attacks by climate activists are “perhaps the greatest threat to our industry going forward” (“Greta Thunberg Thanks OPEC Cief for Suggesting Climate Campaigners Pose ʻGreatest Threatʻ to Oil Sector,” Jessica Corbett, Common Dreams, Thursday, July 4, 2019).

Jesus said to his disciples one day, “There was a rich man who had a manager and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property, [his wealth]. So he summoned him and said to him, ʻWhat is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer” (Luke 16:1-2).

The parable is puzzling in that the rich man praises the manager not for being dishonest but for shrewdly figuring out how to do some good for him. However, in the telling of the parable, Jesus makes clear what we know to be true - one cannot serve God and wealth. One will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other (Luke 16:13).

Why would OPECʻs Secretary General see a 16-year-old girl as a threat to the fossil fuel industry? I believe it is because she knows that the industry is willing to sacrifice the environment for the sake of the wealth the industry generates for some.

To say that Thunberg and others have forgotten God and have chosen to worship the environment makes for a good sound bite on national television. But it is not good theology.

Would the panelists and the political pundit be so quick to make that judgment of what Jesus sought to teach the disciples? “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

It is an admonition worth considering as see the choices others have made. In a recent court filing, the New York State Attorney General’s office said that it found new account transfers by members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma, the maker of opioid OxyContin. The transfers were made through Swiss bank accounts.

It appears that the family tried to shield its wealth as it faces a raft of litigation over its role in the opioid crisis that has led to the deaths of thousands of people. Forbes estimates the family fortune at $13 billion. Some believe the family has far more hidden away, as a safeguard against a cascade of litigation that is certain to come.

Thousands of municipal governments and nearly two dozen states have reached a settlement with the Sackler family and the company it owns. It appears that the family has siphoned off company profits that should be used for to pay for the billions of dollars in damage caused by the opioids.

Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

It was over a little of a year ago that the Juul e-cigarette was first manufactured in China while the pods were made in the U.S. Contrary to its branding, it is not a cigarette. The company has argued that people can switch from dangerous smoking to supposedly healthier vaping. But the tiny aluminum device helps people basically switch from nothing to vaping.

Juul received a $12.8 billion investment from Altria Group, previously known as Philip Morris Companies. It is one of the largest producers and marketers of tobacco, cigarettes and related products.

The Centers for Disease Control says the percentage of high school students who have used an e-cigarette with a 30-day period grew by 75%. That’s 3 million teens or roughly 20 percent of all high school students. In 2018, the company reported a revenue of around $1.5 billion.

At least 7 teen deaths in recent weeks have led to efforts to ban e-cigarettes. On September 19, 2019, the Federal Drug Administration announced a criminal probe related to vaping as illnesses rose to over 530 cases across 38 states.

Shamaan Walton, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently spoke of the city’s ban on e-cigarettes, the first such ban in the U.S. Walton said, “I am not going to put [the] profits of Big Tobacco over the health of our children and our young people” (Over Heard, The Christian Sciene Monitor Weekly, July 8 & 15, 2019, page 14). “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Last week, Colt Manufacturing announced the company’s decision to suspend the manufacturing of the AR-15 for the civilian market. The AR acronym stands for ArmaLite rifle after the company that developed it in the 1950s. The rifle is not an assault weapon but it is a semi-automatic version of the U.S. militaryʼs M16. The rifle can hold a high-capacity 30-round magazine. Some can hold as many as 100 rounds.

It is designed to kill people quickly and in large numbers and has been described as the assault-style rifle that was used in mass shootings at a Las Vega concert; an Orlando nightclub; an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut; a church in Texas and a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Some have wondered if the decision was made in response to social pressure on gun control. Remarkably, the company has insisted that its decision was market-driven and if that is true, then the decision is based on whether or not the production of the rifle is profitable. The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates that there are about 16 million AR-15s in the hands of civilians today.

It appears that Colt is basing its decision on whether or not it makes sense for the company to produce the rifles in a market that is saturated while other companies continue to manufacture the rifles. Hours after the company released its statement, the Department of Defense announced that it had awarded Colt a $41.9 million contract to manufacture the rifles for sales to militaries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, Oceania and the Caribbean.

Our dependence on fossil fuel for energy and the ownership of AR-15s one politician characterized as a “God-given right” and our addiction to opioids and e-cigarettes, compels us to consider the parable of the dishonest steward. Is our love and devotion to God or to our material wealth and possessions? We demonstrate and bear witness to our love and devotion to God the Creator, to the One who made heaven and earth, through our care and stewardship of the world in which we live, not through the accumulation of wealth and possessions.

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