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As you know, part of what happens from this pulpit on Sundays is the seeking out of scriptural insights into how to best live with God, right here, right now. And when we live in harmony with God, we live in balanced and healthy relationship with the world as God made it. And when this happens things are better; for us individually, and for our community, and for the broader world.
There are two interesting things about this search for right relationship with God:
- That we (or shall I say me) are often surprised to find that something I thought was good was actually not so good;
- That there are things I know don’t create balanced relationship with God, but because I accrue some benefit from them, and I am disinclined to change.
And so, every time we explore scripture, we risk being confronted either with our ignorance or our selfishness. That doesn’t sound so fun, but there is an upside our learning and our selflessness makes God smile; and when God smiles, God’s radiance fills our souls and there is no greater joy.
Today we enter the scripture and meet the prophet Amos who points out how we are out of relationship with God, and then Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, points us to the way back in. This is the same pattern we saw last Sunday with Jeremiah and Jesus.
The particular ignorance or selfishness we will explore is around the idea of efficiency, and how this seemingly positive attribute actually weakens communities. Jesus will show us a better way, but before we get there let me share a story.
In 1992, I was working as the product manager at a factory that made industrial friction parts in Medina, Ohio, which is nothing like Medina, Washington. We shipped them all over the world through a well-established distribution network: from master warehouses, to warehouses, to distributors, to wholesalers, to dealers, to retailers, to the end-user. This hierarchy was set up based on relationships.
One day, my boss gave me a book by Eli Goldratt called The Goal. It was a novel about a general manager in a factory who turned the company on its head by vastly increasing its efficiency. In manufacturing, efficiency means money, and that was the goal. Over my five years or so at this factory we started to make significant inroads in the disassembling of our distribution network as a means of maximizing profits. Turns out relationship sales is inefficient in the world of fax machines and then the Internet.
Business was good. We were hitting our numbers. We did an IPO. We hired some people…and we put a lot more out of work. We were just doing what you do, when times are good and you have the means and power and ability to maximize efficiency toward the goal.
As I read the Bible, I realized there was nothing really new in what we were doing. It was old school, really old school, like 8th c BC old school, like in the days of Amos the prophet old school. He would describe what we were doing this way… “You sold the sweepings of wheat.”
This quote from Amos returns us to the word efficiency. And I wonder, what does that word mean to you? Profits? I hope so in some cases, but might it also take on a more irrational edge? That is exhausting and has cost to us and our neighbors and leaves us out of balance with God.
Let’s take a look at Amos. Things were very good in the days of Amos. Business was good, and many people were hitting their numbers; businessmen were streamlining production, in other words, doing a better job harvesting even the sweepings of wheat.
Amos considered this a sin, and if it continued, he asserted, this would call upon Israel the wrath of God. He claimed efficiency toward the maximization of profit was the wrong goal; and when this goal became the ends, as opposed to something else, what at first seemed rational, like seeking efficiency, became irrational and unsustainable and, to use Amos’s words, unjust.
What stirred Amos’s ire was the fact that the nation of Israel itself grew forth from the soils of inefficiency. The story of Ruth and Boaz tells the tale found in the book of Ruth. Ruth was a widow who returned from Moab to Israel after her husband died. She had no means of providing for herself. One day she passed a wheat field as the reapers were harvesting the grain. Ruth followed behind them picking up the grain they dropped. This was called gleaning, and it is what people did who had no other way to survive.
The owner of the land was a man named Boaz, and he saw what she was doing; so, he instructed his reapers to spill additional grain to ensure she had enough to eat. This goal, for his laborers to be less efficient at their task for the sole benefit of one on the margins, was irrational for a businessman. And yet, were it not for the inefficiency Boaz created, were it not for his irrationality as a businessman, Ruth may have died or gone away, and then Ruth and Boaz would not have married, and would not have had their son Jesse, who had a son named David, who brought the kingdom of Israel into being.
In the world as God made it, we need the margins. We need the space at the edges. It is within the folds of inefficiency that massive change takes place. Evolution happens in the pool of inefficiency. It is in these spaces that new relationships can develop; and relationship, as we know, is primary in the kingdom of God. Jesus honors this inefficiency because it strengthens relationship, and creates resilient communities.
The Gospel of Luke today makes the point. It starts this way… there was a rich man. Maybe someone like Boaz. His manager was a thief. Not sure what that meant, other than he was squandering the rich man’s property. So, the rich man told the manager he was going to fire him. The manager then went out and sold the rich man’s property at a discount, building relationships, so, when he had no employment, he at least has friends.
The rich man hears of this and congratulates the manager…and in this we are confronted with the same irrationality of inefficiency that we meet in Boaz. It seems that the rich man had an agenda that was different than we might imagine. It seems that his goal for his property was not about efficiency or maximization of profits, but something else.
Consider this: If God is the rich man and we are the managers, all wealth, according to Jesus, is “dishonestly gained,” because all wealth, which really means all things, comes from God and belongs to God.
And so, what the rich man (that is God) counts as valuable is not the efficient use of resources but using resources to build relationships. After all, in the Kingdom of God relationship is primary; and that means that sometimes inefficiency is the higher priority. This inefficiency can and indeed does create resilient communities.
So, let me return to my days as a friction material salesman to make the point. My goal was profits, and happy customers were a part of that goal. But if something went wrong in the factory, and I shipped parts a few days late the customer may be mad, but, worse-case scenario, we lost a couple hundred dollars a year.
The farmer, on the other hand, who had equipment down for a few days due to lack of parts…well, that was a huge problem. Our efficiency in market domination was good for us, but gave very little margin to the farmer.
The inefficiency of the old relationship sales model was more resilient. The salesman knew the farmer. He would drop by the farm every so often. They were friends. They lived in the same community. And the salesman would keep some extra inventory for the farmer, just in case the machine went down. Then, if there was an emergency break down, the salesman would jump in his pickup truck, and drive over right away with the part, and probably help the farmer put it on the tractor. It was just what good neighbors did, and it was inefficient.
In the Kingdom of God, inefficiency breeds resiliency, and resiliency always grows in places where relationship is primary, where friendship is more important than customer bases, where my life and your life are inextricably linked, and we are glad for it.
And so, I wonder this morning, where is efficiency the goal in your life? Where are you driven by it; and what do you get from it; and what does it cost you?
And so too, I wonder this morning, where are your pools of inefficiency? Where do you seek them out? Do you value them when you fall into them? And finally, do you recognize that where you are right here, right now, is a time and a place intentionally designed as a pool of inefficiency? For there is nothing that makes a community more resilient than the worship of God.