For the Love of Money and Power and . . .


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

August 4, 2019

Texts: 1 Kings 22:1-12; Luke 12:13-21

       They met in the lobby of one of those grand old hotels that you only see in the movies. It was January and very cold in Moscow that night, but the reporter needed his story and so he waited … and waited … and waited. How had he managed to do it, the reporter wondered, how? He had struck his first business deal in 1992 when he was only 25 years old by buying three old Antonov cargo planes. The following year he moved his operations to Dubai where the new rich of Russia were flocking to buy duty free goods, including everything from perfumes to Mercedes limousines.        Within three years, he was running a cargo plane service that employed more than 1,000 people ship-ping everything from gladiolas to frozen chickens. Sounds like a Horatio Alger story, doesn’t it?  

       Soon afterward, Victor Bout was flying more than luxuries for the Russian nouveau riche who had money to burn. He moved into transporting arms to such idyllic places like Liberia, the Congo, and Sierra Leone. He supplied arms to the Taliban and to the Northern Alliance. Called the Merchant of Death, Bout was arrested in a sting operation in Thailand and extradited to the United States where he stood trial on conspiracy and terrorism charges. A Russian national, Putin de-cried his 25-year sentence calling it groundless. Bout’s associates were also arrested, tried, and convicted.

          Merchants of death have always taken advant-age of unstable situations and the wars that countries fight for control and power. In 1846, a few thousand Anglo settlers, encouraged by the illegal importation of guns manufactured by Colt-Winchester which they had used to attack Mexican authorities, managed to prevail on the U.S. government to invade the territory now known as Texas to annex it because they opposed Mexico’s prohibition on slavery. Fast backward three thousand years and there is Ahab, King of Israel, now possessing the vineyard he so desperately coveted, asks his servants, “Do you not know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, yet we are doing nothing to take it out of the hands of the king of Aram?” Sounds all too familiar. 

        Although the recorders of our story in the book of Kings says nothing about the origin of the weapons that were used, I suspect that Ahab’s day had its own merchants of death, eager to make a shekel off the misery of others. Archaeological records indicate that the Roman legions that commanded Palestine in the time of Jesus had obtained their weapons from the ancient world’s equivalent of independent dealers.    Unfortunately, the world has always had a Victor Bout eager to supply arms to the highest bidder without regard for ideology or the horror those arms caused. 

         What is it in the human psyche that drives us toward an unrelenting grasp for money and power?  It’s far easier to blame it on some external source, like Satan, terrorism, or even poverty. Poverty and econ-omic or social inequality are only symptoms of the real problem, namely that each of us in our own way has the capacity to write off the evil that lies within.                We don’t have to personally trade in arms; we just have to shut our eyes to the reality of the events around us or let ourselves believe that we are power-less to change even a small part of the world we live in.

         Now, none of us in this room are driven by the desire for money or power in the same way that modern demagogues are. But our desire for comfort––and I am no exception here––often keeps us from doing little more than shaking our heads in disbelief or horror at the stories we read. I don’t know about you, but I must get at least a dozen e-mails a day asking me to sign onto this or that petition or pitches in the mail asking me to contribute to this or that cause, organization, or charity. It’s really difficult to make choices that make sense and come from the heart. How do we choose?

       Making choices is really difficult. I know I focus on those small, out of the way organizations that probably don’t get a lot of support but that help empower people to take control over their own lives. Other people may make other choices. But it’s not just financial support these organizations or causes need. They need our voices, our letters and phone calls to our elected representatives to get support for the social policies that lead to continuing empowerment or to needed assistance. 

         It was Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that his justice will not sleep forever.” God’s justice was visited on Ahab, who met his doom, coward that he was. Afraid that he would be attacked because he was the king, he disguised himself as a regular warrior and thus was struck with an arrow that led to the fulfillment of Elisha’s prophecy as punishment for his seizure of Naboth’s vineyards. 

       The parable in Luke speaks to our national obses-sion with wealth to the point of protecting the wealthy against the obligation to give back to the society that helped them to obtain their wealth. There was a time when the graduated income tax helped to level the playing field, but no more. The members of our own state legislature cannot muster up the courage to pass an increase for the income tax of millionaires from 8.97 percent to 10.75 percent, or about $10,750 if my math is correct. 

         As a society we are so obsessed with the illusion of power that money brings that one of the more successful reality shows was Homes of the Rich and Famous. I don’t know which is worse: Flouting the wealth or creating envy in those who have no wealth. Talk about bread and circuses!

         It all seems so frustrating. What can we do? Where do we get the strength or the will to speak out on these issues? We can draw on the strength we get as a community, a community of faith united through the meal our Lord offered us. This meal binds us together. This meal reminds us that there is hope even in this world. As we share the bread and the wine, let us remember that it is through us that Christ speaks to the world. Amen.