The Big, Short Sermon

Maybe you remember the old children’s books where you could “choose your own adventure” by choosing how the story would end. You don’t get to choose how this sermon ends but you can choose what to call it.

The title of this sermon is either:   a) The Big Short Sermon, b) the Big, Short Sermon, c) or the Too Big To Fail Sermon.

Put simply this sermon is too big to fail, or it’s not.

Some of you may know the name, Kareem Serageldin. Mr. Serageldin was an asset manager at Credit Suisse, an investment bank, during the 2008 housing crisis. Serageldin has the dubious distinction of being the only person criminally prosecuted for his actions related to the subprime mortgage crisis that led to what is now known as the “Great Recession”.

8 million people lost their jobs. 6 million people lost their homes. 3.3. trillion dollars in home equity was lost and another 6.9 trillion in shareholder wealth was erased. 6.9 trillion, is almost 7 thousand billion, right? The failure was huge and involved many, many people but only one person convicted of a crime. I don’t know if it’s right or not, but it doesn’t “seem” right, does it?

Of course, I am not an expert in the Great Recession, or the subprime mortgage crisis, but I did watch the movie the “Big Short”, four times, and therefore now feel that I can speak intelligently about this issue. (Sigh, of course not.) This is what passes for expertise in our social media laden world.

One consequence of the crisis is the entrance into our common vocabulary of the phrase, “too big to fail.” This term originated way back in the 1980’s in reference to banks and other institutions that were so large and intertwined with the national and international economies that to allow their failure would have catastrophic international effects. “Too big to fail” became an identifier of those organizations that must be kept alive, even at great cost to average individual Americans.

Please note, this is the first and I suspect only time, that I will quote Ben Bernanke at the Wheatland Mission:

“A too-big-to-fail firm is one whose size, complexity, interconnectedness, and critical functions are such that, should the firm go unexpectedly into liquidation, the rest of the financial system and the economy would face severe adverse consequences.”

He continues with:

“Governments provide support to too-big-to-fail firms in a crisis not out of favoritism or particular concern for the management, owners, or creditors of the firm, but because they recognize that the consequences for the broader economy of allowing a disorderly failure greatly outweigh the costs of avoiding the failure in some way. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

The film, “The Big Short”, is interesting and funny, and it almost makes sense of how the housing crisis happened. There are celebrity inserts in the film, where actors, famous chefs, and musicians describe specific aspects of the crisis in documentary-like fashion, that are almost helpful.

“The Big Short” breaks the rules of good filmmaking by breaking the fourth wall and using extensive text onscreen at the end of the film explaining what happened to several of the characters in real life. The text also describes some of the changes that have occurred in our financial system that will ensure that the events of 2008 never happen again; of course, they make the point that nothing has changed that will keep something similar from happening again.

Bottom line, “The Big Short” teaches us that we have failed to learn from our colossal mistakes.

The fact that Wall Street and Washington have failed to learn from the mistakes of 2008 does not mean that we can’t. We are God’s people, citizens of an unshakable Kingdom, who yet reside in a world that is broken, hurt, and violent. What are we to learn from this? Equally important, what does God say to us about it? How can we live in our two worlds, the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the USA, remaining faithful to Jesus?

Our learning begins with the phrase, “too big to fail.” On its face, the phrase simply means what Bernanke said it meant. He paraphrases Spock from Star Trek:

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” This is the overt meaning.

Here is the covert, unintended, meaning: (the one we will work with)

“It is OK, and often necessary, to sacrifice the individual for the good of the whole.”

In other words, “It’s OK to hurt one little guy, if it means we can save the whole world.”

Or to use Dostoevsky’s, greatly paraphrased, words, “It’s OK to torture one child to death, if it would save the whole world.”

But, this is not the way of the Kingdom of God. This was not the way for the people of the Old Testament. This is not the way of Israel, the Mosaic Law, or the 10 Commandments.

Tonight, we’ll talk about what the Law of Moses, and the Kingdom of God, have to say to us about the doctrine of “too big to fail.”

Consider these selections from Psalm 119:

Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long. – 97

Truly I love your commandments
more than gold, more than fine gold.
128 Truly I direct my steps by all your precepts;
I hate every false way.

129 Your decrees are wonderful;
therefore my soul keeps them.
130 The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.
131 With open mouth I pant,
because I long for your commandments. – 127-131

Seven times a day I praise you
for your righteous ordinances. – 164

I hope for your salvation, O Lord,
and I fulfill your commandments.
167 My soul keeps your decrees;
I love them exceedingly.
168 I keep your precepts and decrees,
for all my ways are before you.

“Our Lord, make the word of Christ to dwell in us richly, teaching us with all wisdom, generating thankfulness in our hearts to God. Amen.”

Law, decrees, commandments, ordinances, your words… all of these are references to what is written in Leviticus, parts of Exodus, and Numbers. We call this collection the Old Testament Law, the Mosaic Law, or just, the Law.

We don’t speak this way of the laws of our land. We don’t sit down and write poetry extolling the virtues of our criminal code or our tax code or our federal laws that regulate everything from speed limits to marriage to employment to copyrights. Not to mention the criminal laws. “O, Kansas, how we love your law, larceny, murder, all are evil, Amen.”

We don’t speak this way about law-like things such as HOA covenants. “O Woodland Lakes, how I love your rules, about not having privacy fences or farm animals, and insisting that our trash bins be on the street no more than 24 hrs.” As important as these things are they are not the content of our poetry. (unless it is a complaint)

But, the people of Israel prayed about the Law, so that they might obey it.

They praised God for the Law, because they loved it.

They did so not because the Law was something they could love if they wanted to; nor because the Law was a set of ideas that might be helpful to them.

They loved it because it was from God and it made them who they were. The Law Made them.

“I did not make it, no it is making me, it is the very truth of God, not the invention of any man.” –“Creed”, by Rich Mullins

What is the point, Moses? What is the Law all about?

The Law contains  614 commands, or 613, depending upon which Rabbi you ask. These commands have to do with everything from how to care for your family, your livestock and your home; to how to deal with mold in your house; to cooking, hygiene, and instructions on marriage; to varying penalties for homicide and theft.

Some commands make immediate sense. “Do not lie.” That is a good idea. “Do not steal.” Again, regardless of how well these commands are obeyed, even those who disobey them recognize their importance.“Do not trip the blind.” It is strange that such a command was needed but again, on its face, it makes perfect sense.

Then there are commands that make less sense. “Do not boil a kid (a young goat) in its mother’s milk.” Ok, didn’t think to do that but I’ll keep that in mind. “Do not trim the edges of your beard.” No goatees. Unless you have a small child in the family who likes to draw. In those cases, dads, keep your goatees. It’s the only way you will be recognized on those paintings that adorn refrigerators.

Some commands are neatly packaged. They are arranged with other important commandments. For example, if you want to know what to do with mold in your house, or with a specific skin disease, you just turn to Leviticus 18. Or, if you want to know the requirements for the various kinds of sacrifices the Israelites were commanded to make you can go to Leviticus 1-7.

Other commands just seem to drop out of nowhere and land on the page. I don’t think they are that random but it seems like it. For example, in Exodus 23 we see that infamous passage I mentioned earlier, “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Again, I wasn’t really planning on it, but now that you’ve absolutely taken that off of the table I’ll make sure I don’t do that. This is an example of how the Israelites were simply supposed to be weird.

So, what is the point of the Old Testament Law? What does it mean for us?

Our relationship with the Old Testament Law is complicated. We have believed at times that we are to keep all of it. We have believed that we should only keep some of it. We have believed that we only keep the parts that Jesus repeated.

But to look at it in these three ways is to largely miss the point of the Law in the first place. The Law was not created as a trap. It was not created to catch people in their wrongdoing. It was created to create. It was created to create a people who would love God and their neighbor.The Law was created to create a people, and to keep them weird.

 When we read the Old Testament today we will see commands that make immediate, intuitive sense to us. It makes us happy to see it say what it does.

Other times, we read the Law of Moses and we wonder, why does God care so much about that? Is it really a matter of faith when, and where, I have my period? Why does God care if there is mold in my house? Does that need to be a faith issue?

The simple answer for Israel is yes. These things had to matter to Israel because God was making them into his:

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” – Exodus 19

They did not make it, no it was making them. It was the very truth of God not the invention of any man. God was making them a people, and he was making them wierd.

The Law as Prophetic Practice

When Jesus refers to what we call the Old Testament, he describes it as the Law and the Prophets. Sometimes, he calls them the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (Psalms). This refers to the Hebraic threefold division of the OT: Torah, Kethuvim, and Nev’im.

 All divisions like this are arbitrary. They help us understand something but they aren’t 100% accurate. Like maps, they show us the general terrain but fail to take into consideration the nuances on the surface.

The same can be said of Scripture. While the Law is law, instruction and history, it is also prophetic. It proclaims what is true about God. Even though it does so indirectly, through the sometimes odd behavior of the people of Israel. Like the prophets, the behavior of Israel was supposed to call people back to the God of Israel, the God of the universe, YHWH. Israel was God’s prophet and priest to the whole world, calling the world to leave its evil ways and return to God.

The Law of Moses made this happen through practice more than through proclamation. The actions of Israel, the prophetic practices of Israel, were that which was to bring the world back to God. When Israel did the things that they did it communicated something to the world at large about God, Israel, and the world itself.

Paul Watzlawick is famous for saying, “You cannot, not communicate.” Israel could not, not communicate to the world around them. They sometimes communicated clearly (when they obeyed the Law) and other times quite poorly.

When Israel lived and obeyed the Law of Moses, when they delighted in the Law as Ps 119 says, they fulfilled their vocation as a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”

The Kingdom of God is Prophetic Practice, Too

When the church operates in the Kingdom of God, when it stays close to Jesus by “bearing one another’s burdens” and “loving our enemies as ourselves” it is (we are) performing this same prophetic practice.

Perhaps the most prophetic practice we can perform right now, is reminding ourselves, and those around us, that Jesus remains Lord of the Universe, regardless of who wins the White House. That we will follow the crucified Lord, even if it hurts, even if we lose, because we cannot but stay close to Jesus, and we take great comfort in that fact.

How Does the Kingdom of God and the Law of Moses Intersect

Put simply, if Jesus restated something from the Law of Moses then we should begin there. We should do what Jesus did and what Jesus said.

We should also look at the Law of Moses as if it were a part of our history, because it is. Our grandparents obeyed laws that are no longer in effect. We are no longer bound by them. However, we still learn from those rules. We still get a sense of how we are to live in light of those rules.

Emmaus Church and their no passing rule.

Emmaus Church, a 100+ year old rural Mennonite Church, forbids its members from passing other cars on their way to Sunday worship. Why? In the early years of the church everyone were farmers. There were farmers who were richer than others. These wealthier farmers had “Sunday horses”; fresh horses that were ready to go on a Sunday.

Other farmers with fewer financial blessing had to hook up their team that had been pulling the plow all week long. For their wealthier counterparts to fly past them with fresh horses, especially on the way to church, would have been a slap in the face. In the 21st Century this rule is simply, strange. But, when understood in relationship to its original context it makes sense and, it reminds church members of the priority brotherly affection within the church.

What are our forebears, under the Law of Moses, saying to us today? What should we draw from their 614 commands in this day and age.

The Law of Moses foreshadows the Gospel of Christ and much of what it is in the Law of Moses was repeated by Jesus in a variety of ways. How are we to treat the alien, the poor, the sick?

Too Big To Fail As Prophetic Practice

“Too big to fail” is looked at as a necessary evil in light of the extraordinary events of 2008. Even Ben Bernanke acknowledged that it was morally problematic.

One thing the Mosaic Law teaches us, is that the individual is of worth. Even the individual who is unlike you, the alien, the stranger, or the poor are of no less value to God than you are.

Here is Leviticus 19:32 on the stranger:

As the citizen among you, you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Here is Lev 19, again, now on the poor:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Here is Lev 19, again, now on the disabled:

You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

And we haven’t even gotten into the idea of Jubilee. Put briefly, Jubilee, which is described in Leviticus 25, makes arrangements for land that was indebted to be returned to its original owner after 49 years (7 sets of 7 years). It also made arrangements for the release of slaves after only 7 years.

Built into the Law of Israel was the practice of regularly releasing slaves, prisoners, and debts. Israel was to perform the prophetic practice of releasing slaves, returning purchased or rented land to its owners, and behaving with extravagant generosity one to the other.

“Too big to fail” makes no sense in this kind of economy. Nor does it make sense in the economy of the Kingdom of God. In our broken and sin infected systems, “too big to fail” may make sense and it is accepted as a necessary, though painful and not quite fair remedy, that is born on the backs of the poorer, less powerful, individuals.

In the Old Testament Law and in the Kingdom of God, the church, the powerful are never allowed to lord it over the less powerful, the rich are to serve the poor as if they are brothers and sisters, because that is exactly what they are.

If something is good for the overall organization, then it must be good for the individual. +++

The needs of the many never outweigh the needs of the few because we live in an unshakable Kingdom where there is always enough.

I hope our souls can be imprinted with this parable of Jesus:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. – Luke 15:3-7

The Kingdom of God will does not victimize the small for the benefit of the large. The Kingdom of Jesus does not allow the poor, or dispossessed, sick suffer for the sake of the larger organization.

“Too big to fail” is an example of tragic thinking and it does not apply to residents in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God will not fail because it cannot fail. Jesus’ behavior toward the outcasts, the down and out, the losers, the poor and the poor in spirit, the orphan, the widow, the slave, the alien, the disabled, the sick, the female, and the sinful shouted the truth of Jubilee, that all debts are cancelled, all sins forgiven, all slavery ended.

– preached October 29, 2016
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