WHO’S ON SECOND?
Texts: Psalm 86; Luke 12: 22-40
In the Abbott and Costello routine of “Who’s on First,” Bud Abbott, dressed as the manager of a baseball team tries to explain to “Sebastian,” the character played by Lou Costello, the names of the team by their positions on the field. It is a verbal sequence of confusion over names because Costello does not understand Abbott’s responses to his questions. Costello asks the names of the players and Abbott responds, “Well, Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I don’t know is on third.” “That’s what I want to find out,” responds Costello, “What’s the fellow’s name?” No, Abbott says, “What’s on second.” “Who’s on second?” asks Costello, and Abbott responds, “No what’s on second. Who’s on first,” and the routine goes on for about five minutes of total verbal confusion. The routine is funny because we understand what is actually going on.
There are times when we certainly feel similar confusion and become distressed. Reading the Gospel lesson this morning certainly brings on such confusion and distress. We hear the words so often that they are like blips on a radar screen. Sounds nice, we think, but this is not reality. I mean, are we really supposed to sell everything and give to the poor? The preachers that promise wealth as a reward for our good works aren’t doing that but their gospel of wealth is a blight that besmirches the very name Christian.
We live in a time of overwhelming greed. In fact, today’s so-called gospel of wealth bears little similarity to the term first coined by Andrew Carnegie in an article he wrote for The North American Review in 1889. He begins his essay with the sentence, “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.” He continues with a defense of the development of wealth as a means to bringing material goods “heretofore unimagined,” as he puts it but acknowledges that the social costs are great because “rigid castes are formed.” After addressing the then new theory of communism, which he calls “impracticable,” his essay turns to the question what do we do with surplus wealth.
Calling on his fellow -- and they were all men -- capitalists, he calls for a new approach to wealth: Philanthropy. Carnegie himself made good on his own words, not just with libraries but with specialized endowments and institutions. We have seen the equivalent in our own time with the call by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates to the wealthy to literally give it away. More than 30 billionaires, including Eli Broad and Michael Bloomberg have signed “The Giving Pledge” in response to this call. As Carnegie said, “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” It’s a far cry from the so-called religious leaders who preach a new kind of gospel of wealth.
What is it about wealth that attracts us? It’s actually more than the money. We have illusions of what wealth can bring us: status, respect, admiration, power, envy. You see it in advertising. Companies just don’t manage your investments or your money; they manage your wealth. The very term “wealth management” conjures up images of status and power. The early church community shared everything -- in the beginning. By the second century, however, as the church grew, divisions grew between rich and poor. The rich expected to be more respected, to be in charge, to have more power.
The wealthy still expect to be above everyone else in society. The society of Luke’s Gospel recognized that. Jesus’ message is clear; the kingdom changes the old order of society. The master for whom the servants wait brings them to the table and shares his table with them. The master serves the servants. It’s not about who’s on second anymore because there is no second just as there is no first.
Back to Carnegie. He made money, lots of it through hard work and a helping hand from his boss who recognized in young Andrew the germ of something special. The difference between Carnegie and the Wall Street wonders is that Carnegie was not greedy and greed drove Wall Street into the financial meltdown the aftereffects of which we still endure. Neither Carnegie nor the Wall Street wizards want to be second to anyone or anything. Everyone wants to be on first. Wanting to be on first comes from our all too human desire to be respected, admired, and even envied. Although we really hate envying others because they have what we do not, we actually want to be envied by others because then we will have something that others do not.
The Psalms we have been reading along with the Gospel speak to our deepest needs and fears. We pray, incline your ear and answer me. Don’t leave me hanging. Yes, you are our God, greatly to be praised -- so answer me! Turn and take pity on me. It is the cry of despair of a person who’s always on second, feeling bereft, even ignored.
Contrast the Psalm’s sense of supplication with the Gospel’s promise of the kingdom where who’s on second won’t matter anymore and where the master serves the servants. The question for us then becomes how to move out of the despair of not being first and into faithful lives of everyone being second.
Let us pray: Listener to hearts, grace us with your spirit so our lives may reflect that of your servant Jesus who brought a new understanding of you into our lives. In the name of the One who was your greatest servant, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.