Sunday Worship, July 31, 2022 - FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY AND POWER AND …

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 shipping everything from gladiolas to frozen chickens.  Sounds like a Horatio Alger story, doesn’t it?

    Soon afterwards, 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.  He had been barred from doing business with U.S. companies.  But Bout was under contract with KBR and shipped regularly to U.S. troops in Iraq.
Merchants of death have always taken advantage 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, asking 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 more than a shekel or two 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 someone like Victor Bout eager to supply arms to the highest bidder without regard for ideology or the horror those arms caused. But, like, Ahab, his luck ran out.

What is it in the human psyche that drives us towards 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 economic 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 powerless 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 Victor Bout was.  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 emails 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 difficult, 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 to 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.  Our government’s reliance on arms dealers who have no scruples led to those arms being used against us; Victor Bout, the same dealer who supplied KBR also supplied the insurgents in Iraq.

         Bout did get his comeuppance, not quite in the same way as did Ahab.  In March 2008, he was arrested in Thailand, a country where he thought he would be safe from the long arm of the law.  Spirited to the U.S., he was convicted on terrorism charges and was sentenced to 25 years.

But that’s not the end of the story because he’s a Russian citizen and it seems that he’s the offering to get former Marine Paul Whelan and NBA rocket star Brittney Griner out of Russian prisons.

There are other Russian citizens in American jails for crimes but it seems that Putin is interested in Bout.  Why?  He’s still a goldmine of contacts and intelligence.  If three’s a way to get arms to kill people, such as in Ukraine – or other countries like the Baltic States – Bout will know how to access them.

       Like the landowner in the Gospel, he’ll store the weapons and build more places for weapons.  The world does not need an arms dealer like him to go into the service of another instrument of death like Putin. It would be a terrible sign of weakness to cave in on this one.

       But so many Americans are short-sighted and the political pressure on Biden is enormous to spring a woman who was stupid enough to go to Russia for money, as if she didn’t have enough, because she thought she was above the law even as Putin was threatening to invade Ukraine.
That’s the real lesson of today’s Gospel reading.  Pushing for more and more and more when in the end it will not save you.  Orthodox Jews bury their dead in a simple white shroud without pockets because you can’t take it with you.

        Let us come to God in prayer:  O Divine Creator, Lord of life, help us to see beyond our desire for more and to share what we have with others. In the name of the One who gives, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.