Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bearish on Chocolate

Bible readings for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost include Hosea 11:1-11 (the basis for this opening prayer), Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21

Holy God, you call us to be yours.
You are to us like a nanny lifting us to her cheek,
like a father teaching us to walk,
a mother leading us with cords of human kindness, bands of love.
You feed us, you heal us.
You sigh in pain when we bend away from you and reject your call.
You roar like a lion to claim us, yet must wait for us to return,
trembling, like doves nearly sacrificed on the altars of false gods.
Your fierce anger flushes us in a flutter of wingbeats,
Free to rise, and choose.

Choice, a theme strong in our summer readings from Luke. Last Sunday, we heard Jesus pray the Our Father, teaching us to choose the Kingdom of God as the lens through which we see all our needs as they get met by the provident Spirit of God.

The Sunday before that, Mary and Martha, sisters from Bethany, showed us how the choice to know Jesus must come before the choice to serve him. “Teacher, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work while she sits at your feet, listening? Tell my sister, then, to help me!”

And do we hear an echo of that anxiety in today’s set-up? “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

As he did with Martha, Jesus says to this fellow, “The choices you’re making aren’t getting you anywhere, are they?”

A Collect for Guidance in our Prayer Book asks God to “grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what (God) would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in (God’s) light we may see light, and in (God’s) straight path may not stumble…”

One false choice this fellow makes today is to cast Jesus in the role of family court judge. This disgruntled brother is anxious. Jesus had to say to Martha, “You are anxious about so many things—one thing is needed…” Here is another anxious sibling, another trembling dove for Jesus to warn away from a false god’s altar. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in how much you own.”

Like Martha, this man wants Jesus to vindicate him. “I need a judge!”

“No, you need a purpose that will wake up your soul and reveal your true choices.”

In a pattern that Luke uses often, an edgy little story is followed by a pithy little parable. Here, it is the story of a man’s good fortune in the marketplace that ultimately leads to his losing his life on the altar of a false god.

Did you read about Anthony Ward, the hedge fund operator in Europe who has set about cornering the world market in cocoa? In recent weeks he has purchased a quarter million tons of cocoa. That is an astonishing amount, enough cocoa to make 5.3 billion quarter-pound chocolate bars. It represents 7% of the world supply, and while that sounds like a small percentage, it’s enough to drive the price of cocoa even higher than its recent all-time high. This rich man shares an urgent need with the rich man in our parable, for he plans to stockpile all that chocolate, to hoard it, ensuring that prices keep rising until he decides it’s time to start selling.

“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”

Let’s not worry too much about Mr. Ward’s problem. Dubbed “Choc Finger” by the British press, Ward in 2002 made £40 million in two months after making a similar deal. He bought 204,000 tons of cocoa when West Africa was experiencing poor harvests and political instability, sat on it a while, then watched the price of cocoa increase from £1,400 a ton to £1,600 Cocoa prices have more than doubled since 2007, following increased demand from China and India, forcing chocolate makers to raise prices and in some cases to change recipes to use less cocoa. Boo…

Mr Ward has not made himself available for comment. He’s rather busy, building larger barns.

That pattern, of course, lies at the heart of our economic system, so who are we to condemn strategic investment? Isn’t it what makes the economic world go ‘round?

But, like most human pursuits, our economic choices require accountability to law and to good ethics. A new financial reform law out of Washington last month may help curb excessive speculation like Mr. Ward’s.

The ethical argument is made by the World Development Movement in a damning report last month saying that risky and secretive financial bets on food prices have deepened the effect of recent poor harvests. Volatile food prices make it harder for producers to plan what to grow, push up prices for consumers, and in poorer countries may spark civil unrest, like the food riots seen in Mexico and Haiti in 2008. 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from five countries-- Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria and Cameroon—some stable, some not. Investment banks like Goldman Sachs make huge profits by gambling on the price of foods, says World Development Movement Director Deborah Doane (interviewed in The Guardian), but only a few wheeler-dealers benefit from this kind of reckless gambling. The Fairtrade Foundation argues that these deals help hedge fund operators hedge, but small farmers cannot hedge, cannot take advantage of short-term price spikes.

“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” Like our contemporary Choc Finger, this fellow in the parable could likely have come to this conclusion years ago… but isn’t it the nature of greed not to recognize when enough is enough? And isn’t it the nature of greed to put personal security above social and global security?

We use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible from the lectern, but you can’t beat how the earlier RSV catches the irony in God’s reply to the man who has just said to his soul, “Soul, you’re all set…” “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”

And that is a moment brought to you by the Planned Giving Ministry Team… whose members invite you to consider the moral drawn by our Lord, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

By nature, we lay up treasure for our children and grandchildren and others whom we love. By nature of the kingdom of God, the lens through which we see God’s purposes being worked out on earth as in heaven, we consider what it means to be rich toward God.

“The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” is a question we may answer in a legal document, a will or last testament which, if we’re thoughtful, we’ll draft and keep current as a responsible gift of lovingkindness to those who come after us. By our nature as children of God, we may choose to provide for the future of our wider family, the Church.

And by God’s nature in us, we may hear that question, “The things you have… whose will they be?” and recognize the power we have to choose to return some good portion to the poor who did not get all that great a share, the first time around.

I’m not suggesting that we wait for death to do our strategic investing. To be rich toward God, our present stewarding of our time, talents, and resources must be guided by the purpose of God, the bringing of justice and peace on earth as in heaven.

And that will happen as we worship at the altar of the God of truth, made known to us in Jesus Christ who is our life, who is all and is in all. His word, in story and parable, roars across two thousand years, stirring us doves to fly from the altars of false gods who demand blood sacrifice and give the world nothing but trouble, suffering, and war. His Spirit flushes us, free to rise and choose to be rich toward God.