August 28, 2016

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 27 Lao Tzu
A good wanderer leaves no trace.
A good speaker does not stutter.
A good counter needs no calculator.
A good door needs no lock,
Still it can’t be opened.
A good mooring needs no knot,
Still no one can untie it.

Therefore the sage takes care of all people,
Forsaking no one.
S/he takes care of all things,
Forsaking nothing.
This is called following the light.

So, a good person is the bad person’s teacher.
A bad person is the good person’s task.
The one who does not honor the teacher
And the one who does not honor the task,
Although ever so knowledgeable,
They are confused.
This is called the subtle essence.

“…if you’ve got excess money and throw it away on booze and cigarettes, then that’s your business. But if you’re poor, then that’s a sin and a shame. Because if you’re poor, rich people assume you’re on welfare, or you’re getting food stamps or some other social services. Once you take a penny from the government, a morality clause goes into effect, where you’re never allowed to have anything that you might actually enjoy. It’s the hair-shirt of welfare….Rich people get way more from the government than poor people do– …mortgage interest, capital gains, light inheritance taxes, retirement savings breaks—but the poor are the only ones getting shamed for it. You want to know how I could justify relaxing sometimes while I was on benefits? The same way you justify blowing a reckless amount of money on a really nice dinner while you take a business deduction because you talked about work for ten minutes.”
–Linda Tirado, Hand to Mouth, pp. 84-85

Amos 8:4-6
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, ‘When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’

Linda Tirado
“I don’t claim to be an expert. I don’t know what we do to solve the problems of stratification. What I do know is that we can and have to do better than this. We’re so far behind the curve on these issues that we’re having a public fight about whether or not the poor are too comfortable. (Hi, Paul Ryan!) It’s not…pleasant to be poor. It’s not a free ride, a gentle swing in the hammock. It’s what ‘s left when you’ve lost everything, when you’re fighting to survive as opposed to fighting to get ahead.

If you feel that something must be done before the villagers find their pitchforks, here is what you can do: Stop being a dick to service workers whenever possible. Start filling out those stupid surveys when someone’s done their job well, because they really do make us get a quota of them. Stop pretending you’re doing us a favor or performing some high moral duty by refusing to tip. And start admitting that you need us as much as we need you.

And the next time you feel as though you’re shouldering more than your fair share of society’s burdens, ask yourself: How badly do I have to pee right now, and do I need permission?” pp. 190-1

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In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes:

“A good person is the bad person’s teacher.
A bad person is the good person’s task.
The one who does not honor the teacher
And the one who does not honor the task,
Although ever so knowledgeable,
They are confused.”

The next question is, which am I?

The good person or the bad person?

Lao Tzu is toying with us. He uses “good” and “bad” to move us beyond “good” and “bad.”

Who is good? Who is bad? Who is my teacher? Who do I honor? There must always be someone better than me, and I can’t know beforehand who that is. Therefore I must honor everyone because anyone can be my teacher.

And, there must be someone not as good as me, and I can’t know beforehand who that is. So everyone must be my task.

“The sage takes care of all people.”

This is called the subtle essence, says Lao Tzu.

How would we live our lives if we were conscious always that everyone has something to teach us and that we can learn from everyone? Do we honor the teacher?

And how would we live our lives if we were conscious that we are always in the process of teaching someone else, that people are learning from us? What are they learning? Do we honor that task?

Lao Tzu is talking about superlative humility. You leave no trace as you wander. It is not about you, me, ego. It isn’t about needing to justify ourselves or our existence or being noticed or loved or needed. It is becoming the empty vessel in order to honor the teacher, honor the task.

This summer we have invited Linda Tirado to be our teacher. Her book, Hand to Mouth: Living In Bootstrap America, is a blunt account of what it is like to be poor in America. Her audience is her task. She is the teacher.

The prophet, Amos, is also a teacher. He lived in the 8th century BCE. The book in the Bible that bears his name is a remembered collection of his oracles. Amos is both a person and a book. Amos the person, was a sheepherder from a small easily forgotten town, Tekoa, 20 miles south of Jerusalem, in the wilderness. John the Baptist also tramped around in this area of the country.

Amos takes it upon himself to go north and talk to the powerful and mighty about what he has seen, what he has heard, his truth, perhaps as he himself says, God’s truth. A word from the lord.

It is somewhat like the 1939 film starring Jimmy Stewart, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Mr. Smith, Amos, Linda Tirado, all with a good dose of hutzpah, speak directly to the centers of power and wealth what life is like on the other side of the tracks. What life is like from the person who in Amos’s time herds your sheep and dresses your fig trees. In Linda Tirado’s time, what life is like from the perspective of those who serve the food, clean the rooms, build the houses, pick the grapes, oil the cars, bag the groceries.

The language can be coarse from these teachers. Blunt. Unforgiving. It is as though this story has been pent up inside for so long that when it finally comes out, when it is at long released, it explodes like water crashing down from the top of Multnomah Falls.

From Amos:

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
And bring to ruin the poor of the land,
Saying, “When will the new moon be over
So that we may sell grain;
And the Sabbath,
So that we may offer wheat for sale?”

Amos is saying that the wealthy have no concern for holy days, for days of rest like Shabbat. For them, Shabbat, a day of rest and justice for all people, all laborers, all animals, is a nuisance. If they could remove this profit-reducing piece of government regulation, they would in an instant. In the meantime, they do whatever they can to chip away at it. Any type of restriction is an affront to them.

They are the gods. Their cause of unrestricted money-making regardless of land or people is divine law. Unregulated free trade is their creed. And with laws and justifications and propaganda and fear-mongering they own the rhetoric: “Any restrictions you place on us will cause more suffering for you,” they threaten.

We have heard that before. We have never not heard it from the wealthy and powerful, those who manipulate the scales in their favor. They said it in Amos’s time, they say it now. When a lie works, keep repeating it.

“We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
And practice deceit with false balances….”

Of course, they say that to themselves. To the microphone, television camera, advertising agency, they say that they are the ones oppressed and restricted by the environmentalists and the bleeding hearts. They blame the poor as lazy, as freeloaders, as the great unwashed. They are the benefactors. “A rising tide raises all boats” they say. Except that the boats of the poor are sinking. Filled with holes because they cannot afford to repair them.

In order to squeeze out every bit of profit says Amos,

“they buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals.”

Ancient interest is that, taking the pledge of the poor’s sandals as collateral in anticipation that the needy will never be able to repay their debts. They will then take everything, even their sandals.

Not only is the ephah small, the shekel great, the balances false, the interest choking, what they sell is chaff mixed with wheat, the sweepings, the junk.

Amos has had enough.

The late Marcus Borg, in his final book, Convictions, devoted a chapter to Amos. For him, Amos revealed the core of the Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition. In the oracles of Amos Borg discovered the essence of faith. If it doesn’t address social injustice, faith is worthless.

Linda Tirado, with the fire of Amos, writes from the poor to the wealthy:

“Start admitting that you need us as much as we need you.”

Here is the challenge.

Can we honor the teacher?

Or will the myth that the poor are poor because it is their fault override anything that might challenge that myth?

OK full disclosure.

I am on your team. Linda Tirado and Amos challenge me more than I like. They make me uncomfortable more than I like and they inspire me as well. You know the truth when you hear it.

I am concerned that we have become a country that is so individual-focused that we have lost much of our sense of the common good. I think we need to reclaim it and I think it is incumbent on all of us regardless of where we are on the economic spectrum or political spectrum to seek the common good.

To in the words of Lao Tzu: “Take care of all people.”

In that spirit, I took a bit of a risk this morning and got political. I invited Matt hew Grover of the Yes on 97 campaign to come and speak and join us for a conversation after worship.

I myself have endorsed this campaign along with many other of my clergy colleagues and other community leaders. I think that corporations that take profits must contribute to the common good by paying there fair share of taxes on those profits.

We took students one year to West Virginia for an Appalachia Service Project. This particular county is one of the poorest in the nation. The school we stayed in was not in good shape. The town was not wealthy. Yet this county exported a fortune everyday in coal. It had some of the richest coal deposits in Appalachia. It all went out and nothing for schools, for roads, for the people who live there.

That is deregulation. That is so-called trickle down economics.

I grew up in Butte, Montana. The richest hill on earth. I am reading a book now about the mine disaster of 1917 in which over 160 people were killed in a mining fire for lack of safety measures that were required. The Anaconda Company that owned the papers and the politicians found a way legally to pay virtually nothing to the surviving families. The company managed to divide and destroy the union workers. The legacy of the Anaconda Company today is one of the largest superfund sites in the U.S. A big pit of toxic waste.

Again. Again. Again. All around the world.

This is a political sermon.

I admit it. Because the tradition that we follow, the texts that we read, include Amos. Amos demands of us that we be political. Political comes from the Greek word, polis, which means city. What is good for the city?

Our tradition says we need to listen and speak and work together for our polis. In particular, our tradition calls us to be political for the cause of justice for the poor and the needy. That we care and act on behalf of the common good. That we go out on a limb when we need to do so, to demand a change, and to work with others for that change.

Having said that, I especially enjoy being in this congregation because the congregation also doesn’t just sit there and take it, but engages. I hope you will stay and join us after worship and talk about this measure with Matthew and see if this measure might be good for our state. And if you think differently, we especially need your voice as well.

At the end of the day:

We are each other’s teachers.

We are each other’s task.

Amen.