Nickeling and Diming the Needy

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, September 29, 2019.

In her book Nickeled and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich tells the story of taking a series of low paying jobs to see what it is like to earn and live on $6 or $7 an hour. She notes that almost 30% of the workforce earns $8 an hour or less. So, she finds a job as a waitress in Key West, where she earns $2.43 an hour plus tips. Because servers have to share a portion of their tips with the bartenders and busboys, she actually earns about $5.15 an hour.

 

Jobs are plentiful, because wages are low and the turnover is high. She serves, sweeps, scrubs, slices food, refills jars, restocks shelves, and is under constant surveillance by a demanding manager. She seeks a cheap place to live, visits a trailer park and a few flop houses with no air-conditioning in the sweltering heat, no screens, fans or television, just the landlord’s fierce attack dog. She eats in cheap restaurants that offer unlimited refills of refried beans and cheese.

 

She notes that the worst customers are the visible Christians, who wear WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) jewelry and crucifixion T-shirts. A table of ten boisterous Christians, heartened by Sunday evening worship, runs her ragged with requests only to leave a $1 tip on $92 bill.

 

Unable to survive on her wages, she seeks a second job. Occasionally, she returns to her real home to send emails, pay bills and get phone messages. Writing large checks to her health club and Amazon.com forces her to see her old life through the new lens of living hand to mouth. Her previous life of conspicuous consumption suddenly seems completely excessive.

 

As I read her book, I thought about all the times that I nickeled and dimed a server or a babysitter or failed to support a charity while indulging on extravagances for my family and myself. I’ve always believed that my biggest gift should go to the church, because God gave me the gift of life and should receive my greatest gift in return. But there are other groups doing God’s work, and I skimped on supporting them. Her book made me think how we even nickel and dime God, who has bestowed everything upon us, so often giving God our leftover time, talent and treasure.

 

The problem is not that money is bad, but rather in the words of I Timothy read today, it’s “the love of money” that “is the root of all kinds of evil.” If you look back to any major problem in your life, there is probably a financial root or component underlying it.

 

A friend of mine worked for a billionaire on the West Coast. The man that had more money than he could ever imagine spending. He had three sons. When they were young, he made them come to his office every day during their vacations and had them read annual financial reports of various companies. He wanted them to succeed, but he never helped them to develop broad, balanced lives. Flash forward 20 years. One son drank and drowned in his father’s swimming pool. Another son crashed his Ferrari into a wall, and the third son had ruined his brain and body with drugs. This man had more money than he knew what to do with but no one to inherit it, little joy and little sense of purpose beyond making money.

 

Thus, Jesus spoke more about money than any other topic except the kingdom of God because he knew the money is God’s chief competition. The more money we have the less that we feel that we need God, and the more money can undermine our spiritual journey, values and relationships. Studies also show that the poor consistently out-give the rich in terms of the percentage what they give away. We think that when we earn and save enough, then we will be generous and make big gifts to our church and charities that improve the world. But studies confirm that the more we have, the smaller the percentage that we give away.

 

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus puts flesh and blood on Mary’s Magnificat and the Sermon on the Plain by telling a story about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man enjoyed the finest foods and the most expensive wines. He had a significant investments, wore hand-tailored suits, drove a fancy car and had several stunning homes.

 

His lifestyle had blinded him to the needs of others, for at the end of his driveway sat a poor man named Lazarus, whose teeth were yellowed and half were missing. His feet were sore, blistered and badly in need of medicine. The rich man could easily have paid for Lazarus to visit a doctor, but he thought, “If I care for him, he’ll be back with ten friends.” So, he let Lazarus suffer as he sifted through the garbage hoping to find some leftovers. Only the dogs pay attention to him, licking his oozing wounds.

 

The rich man wasn’t evil. He was not disdainful of Lazarus. He simply didn’t notice him. The error of the rich man was not something that he did, but rather what he failed to. It was a sin of omission. The rich man simply never bothered to help Lazarus. Lazarus was invisible.

 

He thought that it was natural that Lazarus should suffer, while he enjoyed the good life. This is what landed him in hell. The rich man’s heart was never pierced by the sting of another man’s grief. He had trained himself to ignore those who were struggling, sick or starving.

To quote author David Brooks, the rich man was living on the first mountain of life, the mountain of being self-focused. In all likelihood he had never traveled through the valley of despair, suffering or loss, which prepares and leads us to the second mountain, where we live a life for others. The first mountain is all about acquisition – renovating our house, purchasing a vacation home, buying an expensive car, jewelry or clothing. The second mountain is about contribution, “planting yourself among those who need, and walking arm in arm with them.” The second mountain is what Jesus reveals to us.

 

People living on the second mountain have moved from a life that is aloof, invulnerable and uncommunicative. They are not caught up in the sins of withdrawal, workaholism or a failure to empathize. Rather, they give themselves away by prioritizing people over time and nurturing authentic relationships that transform those around them, especially those who suffer or hurt. There are a lot of second mountain people in this congregation and community, and I truly admire them. But many are living on the first mountain.

 

In his book American Mojo, Greenwich author Peter Kiernan and former Wall Street financier, notes that “the world’s 85 richest individuals are worth more than the bottom 3.5 billion who inhabit the planet. The top 85 versus half of everybody else.” I believe that that is deeply immoral, and it’s what Jesus alludes to in this story, and for this reason the parable speaks as powerfully today as when Jesus first told it.

 

We might think that this story is just something that happens elsewhere in the world, but I have served four wonderful churches, and it’s been a reality inside each of them. I have met members who are likeable, well-mannered and very successful, who regularly attend church and lead rich lifestyles, but who fail to pledge even a single dollar to their church.

 

When we nickel and dime God, we hurt the poor for the first thing that most churches cut when giving is poor is the giving outside the church to help those in need. So, I was deeply surprised when I first learned that Christ Church Greenwich gives away only a quarter of what I would normally expect a church like this to give away to the poor and needy through outreach grants. I believe that we can quadruple our giving to the poor and needy within ten years or less.

 

The church is meant to be the most significant transformative institution in the community and the champion of caring for the poor, the sick, the suffering and the dying. But unless each church member is generous and makes a pledge, the church will be diminished and other institutions must step up and be real hands and feet of Jesus to transform the world.

 

The story ends with Lazarus dying. The rich also dies. In typical gospel fashion, the first become last and the last become first. Life is redistributed. Lazarus is in heaven and the rich man learns that payback is hell. He calls to Lazarus to fetch a cup of water to quench his thirst.

 

But Father Abraham intervenes. “Sorry,” he said, “you will remember, during your lifetime you enjoyed a life of luxury while Lazarus lived in squalor. Now he is being comforted with me, and you must agonize where you are. Between Lazarus and you is an abyss that no one can cross.”

So, the rich man thought about his family and said, “Father Abraham, I have five brothers who are still alive. Send Lazarus to them to let them know what will be in store for them if they do not change the way that they are living today and care for those like Lazarus.” Abraham shook his head. “Why would they listen to Lazarus? They have the Scriptures, Moses and the prophets. Even if someone rose from the dead and came back to life, they would not believe.”

 

By telling this parable, Jesus gives us fair warning for he rose from the dead, returned to earth and called us to care for folks like Lazarus. If we ignore them, the world will be hellish, and we will not reach the second mountain of life and discover the true riches found by leading a life dedicated to others, which is the most joyful life of all. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). The happiest people that I know are content with what they already have and are focused on caring for others, especially those in need. That’s the life that really is life, the abundant life that God so longs for each of us. Well, amen.