In the Name of the One, Holy and Living God. Amen.
Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine and noted culture critic once said (and I paraphrase) “The only thing [sic] becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention.” Today, I’d like to talk about abundance and about scarcity; about a trip to Africa – a pilgrimage that I made – one that continues to unfold within me even now that I have returned home; and about the story of a woman with a pound of costly perfume.
Many of you know that I have just recently returned from overseas. In conjunction with an organization that my colleagues and I run called the Recycled AIDS Medicine Program and another called Zimbabwe AIDS Relief. My partner and I and our colleagues travelled to Central Africa loaded down with suitcases full of collected medications to distribute to people with HIV at an open clinic in Zimbabwe. In doing so, we have probably saved the lives of over 400 people with very little cost to us, save for the time spent traveling through airports and some hours of planning and preparing. But this story is not about heroics or good works. It’s about sin. Well… and it’s sort of… also… about accounting.
Let me get to the beginning… I want to start with this idea of abundance. Our culture is saturated with it. We are truly one of the most affluent nations on the planet. We consume abundantly and we are consumed by our own abundance. And the sin… is that even while surrounded by so much, we have absolutely no concept anymore of value.
We pay much more attention to a thing called “cost”. And, sadly, more often than not, cost equals value in our final analysis. And I suggest that this approach is reaching the end of its usefulness for us as a people and as a nation. It is, in addition, contrary to the Gospel for us as a Christian people.
Before we get tangled up in a strange paper on Christian Economic Theory, let’s look at some examples of how, in our limited perspective as a Western, affluent nation, cost equals value.
I have a good friend who just bought a brand new, very expensive, very large SUV. She was very excited about this new purchase. And I am happy that she is happy. I hope that her happiness will last a lot longer than the time she will spend paying off the debt her new car.
For my friend, this vehicle is worth a lot of money… it is of great value. In terms of freedom, in terms of mobility, it really doesn’t have any more value, per se, than any other car half the size and a third the price. Both kinds of cars would suffice to get her from point A to point B. But, because it costs a lot in terms of money … for my friend this car has great value both in terms of benefit and status. Cost equals value because, frankly, why would one spend more money on a car that does the same thing as a vehicle that costs less?
Here’s another example: I recently went to a store to buy a new CD. I will often pay about $20 for some new music CD by an artist that I enjoy. I don’t often do much with the CD, usually I just burn it on to my computer, being very technologically savvy about such things, and then toss it in a drawer. Most of my CDs are very scratched, some are missing cases, some cases are missing CDs. But in my mind, it doesn’t really matter all that much. It’s only $20. Cost equals value.
Until I begin to analyze things more closely. Traveling to Africa tends to make one analyze things more closely. When I realized that it will take my friend in Zimbabwe who is a doctor nearly two months to earn that $20, then suddenly the cost of a drawer full of scratched CDs tends to take on a whole new significance. And then to discover that Zimbabwe has an unemployment rate of 80% makes for an even starker reality. The relative value of $20 skyrockets into another realm.
RAMP exists because it understands the value of HIV medications has not been diminished because their recipients have changed regimens or died or the medications are no longer effective. Medications worth many thousands of dollars languish in closets and cabinets because the recipients of them no longer need them. They are just shy of refuse. Insurance companies have received their money so they don’t want them back. In fact, they can’t even take them back to give someone else once they have been distributed. Agencies in the United States can’t take them because they are too worried about legal liability. So… medications that can cost as much as $30,000 a year go to waste.
We occasionally hear from grateful people thrilled to find out about our organization, simply because they didn’t know what else to do with these medications and they somehow knew that throwing them out was not the right thing to do – if only because they COST so much. But, for many people, there isn’t even any impetus to do anything with these medications. They just sit until after they have passed their expiration date and it finally occurs to folks that perhaps they should see if there might be something to be done with them. No sense of urgency, because they are no longer useful to us. I shudder to think how many medications are lost because of this situation… cost has been considered, value has not.
And so, RAMP collects them. We took suitcases full of these medications to Zimbabwe early this month. 17 people each laden with the maximum number of bags allowed by the airlines, most of which were full of these medications that we had carefully collected, sorted, bagged, and labeled in individual three month supplies.
We took them hoping that we would not be stopped by customs agents in the airport, knowing that if discovered they would be confiscated and likely sold on the black market somewhere for high prices to desperate people. People who know the value of them.
What did it cost us to do this thing? Well, in terms of time… about a few hours a month over three months to collect and sort medications. About 24 hours of travel time to ZImbabwe. Factor in an hour here or there to get vaccinations and have planning meetings. So, in terms of time… it didn’t cost very much.
How about money? Well, the plane tickets cost a bit. Time away from work. Lodgings, meals, and transportation in ZImbabwe don’t cost much when dollars are involved. The economy is pretty bad and the dollar goes a long way. So in terms of money… it didn’t cost very much either.
But… what was the value of this journey? Well… I suppose we should ask any one of the over 400 people who now have medications to keep them alive for the next three months until the group goes back again for another open clinic. How do you measure the value of over 400 people who now have a shot at life they didn’t have before? Contemplate the ripple effect on families and children who now have hope they didn’t have before that their family members will stay healthy. A child who may now not lose her mother to HIV? A woman who will now not lose the economic support of her husband? Suddenly, the cost of this transaction doesn’t seem to matter at all. But the value is immeasurable. Ask Charity, who started as “Patient One” in Mutoko, who was near death and who now, as about as robust as she can be, offers her time as a nurse in the clinic there to help other people. She has a new life.
Our organization, by the way, does what we do on an annual budget of $5000. Last year, we gave away nearly $2 million worth of medications. Most of our budget is spent simply getting word out about who we are and what we do and where people can drop off or send medications. This year, we hope to do even better. So, let’s add it all up. Annual budget, plane fare, few hours a month, carry the one, round up. Let’s say $10,000 saved the lives of 400 people this year. Hmm… would you be willing to pay $10,000 to save the lives of 400 people today? How much would you be willing to pay? One dollar a day? I remember those ads from when I was younger, Sally Struthers and that guy who played Trapper John MD… “for just the price of a dollar a day, no more than the price of a cup of coffee, you can save the life of a child…”
Cost, the thing we most consider in our country, is always about how much time, or money, or effort I am going to have to spend to get what I want. And the most important thing is to minimize the cost. But, once the cost is paid, it’s paid. There is no more to consider other than how long it will be before I have to pay again. And once the costs are paid, and a thing has fulfilled it’s purpose, we throw it away or cast it aside. What is the life of a child worth? Or the lives of 400 people with AIDS?
What is the value of anything? As a nation, we throw away more each year more than some nations consume in a year. We are so saturated with abundance that we don’t even recognize it. We rarely stop to contemplate value much anymore even though it is always, relatively speaking, a net positive for someone if not for ourselves alone.
There’s one more thing to consider when discussing the way we deal with the issues of cost and value. We tend to see most things, including even our relationships and responsibilities from a transactional perspective. Cost paid versus value received. We want our relationships to be “low maintenance”, friendships to be easy-going, non-threatening. The result is that even our relationships and responsibilities seem to have become as disposable as our possessions in our culture of abundance. This was recently recognized by the House of Bishops in it’s response to the Dar es Salaam communique when they said: “one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, [is] to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them and be instruments of reconciliation. The real cultural phenomenon that threatens the spiritual life of our people, including marriage and family life, is the ease with which we choose to break our relationships.”
Relationships are simply another type of transaction. In order for any transaction to be seen as equitable, cost must equal value. The negative and the positive must balance each other out at the very least. And a really GOOD transaction is one where the value exceeds the cost. We are particularly uncomfortable in our culture when a transaction is out of balance. Firstly, if the cost of something exceeds the value we feel ripped off. We feel cheated if we pay for something and don’t get exactly what we feel we’ve paid for.
I noticed this side of our transactional thinking when in Africa some of our traveling companions began trying to negotiate prices down on things they wanted to buy. It’s always better when you can try to save a dollar here or two dollars there on a rug or a carving, right? Especially when you’ve just witnessed what endemic poverty does to a people in a country with 80% unemployment. Because a dollar is so much more valuable to us than to someone who may not eat tonight, especially when it is roughly the equivalent of three days wages. But there we were, an affluent group of Americans in the underdeveloped world, saturated with money, trying to make sure we didn’t pay a dollar too much for a piece of art.
On the other side of our transactional thinking, we grow uncomfortable when the value of something exceeds the cost not due to our negotiating skills but because of unexpected generosity. When someone gives us a gift unexpectedly and we suddenly feel indebted. I notice this when I get a Christmas card from someone NOT on my Christmas list. How long do you think it takes me to have a card in the mail to them, or to certainly make sure they’re on my list for next year? How terribly strange does it feel when confronted with moments of random generosity?
So.. let’s turn to the interesting thing in our Gospel reading today. Judas is complaining about Mary’s use of the costly perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet. Here is a moment of extraordinary, random generosity. Mary has done an extravagant thing. She has anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. Remember that… it is costly. Judas is angry and the gospel makes no bones about telling us that it’s because Judas is feeling ripped off. Since he steals from the common purse, this lost money hits him directly. Now, Jesus knows that the money from the perfume wouldn’t benefit the poor in any event because Judas is a thief. He may try to hem and haw about caring for the poor, but for Judas it is clearly about a transaction that is out of balance, by about 300 denarii to be exact, and the cost of the perfume vastly outweighs, in Judas’ mind, the value of anointing Jesus’ feet because of its cost to his own pocketbook.
Even if we put aside that Judas was a thief, if we go back to this theory about cost versus value we’ve talked about up until now, we’d all have to admit that we have to agree with Judas, right? Shouldn’t we, given our cost, value analysis be indignant that such an expensive thing was wasted when the 300 denarii clearly could have been used to benefit the poor. It is the right thing to do. But this assumes that the thing of great value in our story is really the costly perfume. See… here is my sin. Cost equals value.
Jesus turns our thinking upside down. Cost notwithstanding, the thing of great value in the story is not the perfume, but is Jesus himself. What happens to our analysis then? “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus knows what the disciples have not yet figured out. That Jesus is about to engage in the ultimate transaction, the ultimate out of balance transaction where the cost to him far exceeds anything we could afford, and the value to us leaves us indebted in a way that we still haven’t unwrapped completely these two thousand years later. What Jesus is about to demonstrate with the approach of Holy Week is that our relationship to God, to each other, and to the world around us are NOT intended to be transactional! All of his teaching about the poor, our responsibility to care for one another, lay down our lives for each other… what do they mean in the final analysis? His rebuke of Judas is meant to indicate that, as Christian people, our relationships and our responsibilities should be, instead, sacrificial. And we are about to see just how much is being asked of us. In the coming weeks, Jesus will show us in very real terms the sacrifice required of his followers.
What kind of sacrifice are we talking about? What of the poor? Have any of us stopped to consider how much we owe the poor? Do we even realize that we are indebted to them? Ask yourselves how real that is the next time you go to the market. At what cost do we have so many choices? The vast accumulation of choices that rely on labor paid sub-standard wages labor in sub-standard safety conditions to keep things inexpensive. How about the import of vast numbers of goods at rock bottom prices from the developing world under the guise of helping poorer nations pay off international debt. What is the cost of an unbridled capitalism that allows the few to have so much at such high cost to the many, and allows the many to have so little left for themselves? Do we recognize that this is why we have amassed so much? Because we have ridden the backs of the poor to a level of abundance that we no longer even recognize as such… and because, somehow, we have come to feel entitled to what we have.
A Muslim Imam was instructing his followers about giving to the poor. “Fill your pockets with change before you leave the house. When a poor man on the street asks you for money,” he said, “give it to him. This is your responsibility.” One of his followers asked, “How do I know he will not use that money to drink or to buy a prostitute?” The Imam replied, “What he does with it is between him and God, and God who is compassionate will sort it out. But of you, God requires giving.”
The Gospel for me, today, is an illustration of what happens when we have either lost a sense of value, or have come to value the wrong things entirely. What is abundance? And what is scarcity, truly? What does it mean to stop thinking about things in terms of a cost versus value transaction? What are the implications of such a Christian economics, a sacrificial economics, for the way we spend our money, or what we throw away? For the way we give ourselves in relationship to others? For the way we perceive our responsibility to others? What are the implications for the environment? For social and economic justice?
In Africa, I started a personal pilgrimage of coming to terms with our affluence and the abundance we are surrounded with as Americans. I went on a humanitarian mission to give hope to people by providing them medications that, for us, no longer had any value. In doing so, I learned about the cost of discipleship, and the value of sacrifice. After a long journey, I feel like I am starting to understand Paul’s words: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus…For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
I guess what I’m asking of all of you this morning is this: Can we, as Christian people, begin to re-evaluate? And by that I mean, literally, to “re-value” – to re-value what we use and how we live and what it really means to share our abundance with others? Can we start to hold ourselves to a different standard of generosity than the prevailing culture? Can we begin to come to terms with our abundance both as a community and in our personal lives and start making the kinds of sacrifices necessary so that none of God’s children have to do without without? And can we do this without considering the costs to ourselves?
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