Sermon – September 29, 2013 by the Rev. Michael Phillips, Interim Rector, Trinity Episcopal Church, Saugerties, New York
Consider these two scenarios:
Number 1: Four men gather at the club house of a local golf course for their monthly outing. They have been playing together for years and always make a friendly wager. Each golfer puts $20 into the kitty and then at the end of the round they tally their scores, weighted for each player’s handicap, and distribute the money like this: out of the $80 total, the golfer with the best score gets $50, the second place golfer gets $20, the third place golfer gets $10, and the loser gets nothing.
Number 2: The four golfing buddies decide to take a Saturday and drive to a casino resort where they can try their luck. When they arrive, they find a parking spot in the huge lot and walk to the casino entrance past rows and rows of buses and cars. They enter the bright, lively, bustling main room of the casino and wonder where to start. Each one of the men decides to gamble with $20 and keep gambling until it’s gone. One guy starts by taking $10 and getting a roll of quarters for the slot machines. He goes through most of his quarters until he hits a jackpot and walks away with $50. He takes the $50 and moves to the black jack table where after a few games, wins again, this time $2,500. He takes his $2,500 to the roulette table and by the end of the night walks away with $50,000. His buddies were not so fortunate. One went home with $50, and the other two, after a lackluster evening of ups but mostly downs, lost everything.
What’s the difference between these two scenes? Both have winners and losers. Both involve making an initial investment with the hope of gaining more. However, they also have significant differences. For example, in the first scene, the winnings are modest, at the most $50. The second place golfer gets his ante back and the third place golfer gets half of his orginal investment back. Only the last place golfer loses everything. But also and more importantly, the winning is based upon the skill of the golfer. Even though they have handicapped the scoring, it turns out that the winner is the golfer who spent hours at the driving range and on the putting green, working on the details of his game. The loser is the guy who only plays a few times each summer and doesn’t really take the game that seriously. With his handicap he sometimes comes in third and once on a really good day he actually came in second. But for the most part, the dedication and commitment of the serious golfer pays off.
In the second scene, gambling, it’s a “no skills required” environment. Practicing pulling the lever of a slot machine does not increase or decrease your chances of winning. Winning big at gambling is a matter of pure, dumb, luck. The other difference is that one person won big, really big, $50,000 big, while most of the thousands of people who came to the casino that night walked away losers. But even though the one guy won $50,000, the truly big winner, consistently, every night, at every casino without question is “the House.” The House never loses. The House will share some of its profit with a few random individuals to keep people coming back, and when I say “people,” I mean, contributors to the House coffers. The House knows exactly how much to share to keep gambling appetites whetted, and how much to keep for itself. Casinos do not exist for the gambler. They exist for the House.
So let’s take a look at the proposed casino legislation in New York State from a faith perspective.
One of the hallmarks of Christians, from the very start, is that we are not chasing after wealth – unlike most of the people of the ancient world – and the modern world too for that matter. “Seek first the reign of God – and everything else will fall into place.” Or in another passage of the gospels, “You cannot serve both wealth and God.” The passage doesn’t say, “It’s really hard to serve both,” or “It takes a lot of attention and focus to serve both.” No, it simply states that you can’t do it, you just can’t. We have to choose one or the other. The Christian model, based upon the self-giving sacrifice of Christ on the cross, is to offer ourselves in service to our neighbor, especially our neighbor in need. This isn’t a “do-gooder” philosophy, but rather, a radical and revolutionary way of living that flies in the face of all natural logic. St. Paul wrote that such an approach “… is folly to the [ancient] Greeks…” (philosophers) and “…a stumbling block to the [first century] Jews…” (specifically Temple officials and Pharisees who kept a strict adherence to the purity laws of the day.)
Gambling is all about seeking money, both by those who gamble, but especially by those who conduct gambling. The reason our elected officials in New York State are so keen on promoting casino gambling is not to create jobs –even though that’s what they say – nor to increase funding for education – although that’s also what they say – but rather it’s a way to increase revenue without raising taxes. By the way, remember when New York established its lottery? Remember that the proceeds were to fund education? They may have poured all the money into the education bucket, but didn’t notice that the bucket had a number of holes in it. Look at the evidence – decades of statewide lottery, and I ask you: are teachers adequately paid? Are our schools fully equipped with the technological tools needed these days to prepare our children for citizenship in our communities? Do our children perform at the highest levels when compared internationally? If New York had the best paid teachers in America and if our schools were the pride of the nation I still wouldn’t approve of the lottery, but I might not be so hard on it. At least it would be accomplishing a worthy goal. But that’s not what’s happening.
Gamblers want money without having to do anything to earn it. Gambling has nothing to do with offering one’s skills and talents and efforts in service to one’s neighbors, and being adequately paid so that the worker can provide for his or her family. The gambler simply places a bet, and the deck of cards, or the roulette ball, becomes the most impartial of all objects. You can be rich or poor, black or white, foreign born or a native citizen, uneducated or with multiple Ph.Ds, the roulette ball doesn’t know or care, it just rolls around and around, and some lucky person is going to win, but many, many will lose.
Historically, the pursuit of wealth creates the most wars, enslaves the most people, and destroys the highest number of ecosystems and habitats. When wealth becomes the highest good, everything else becomes expendable.
This nation of ours, in spite of our lofty ideals, and founding principles, is and has always been a place to pursue wealth. Boot strap mentality is all about moving from poverty to riches. The American Dream is all about working hard and making it big – the bigger the better. As for New York, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. But what have we done in our pursuit of wealth? We conducted near genocide of the native population. We have polluted our lakes and rivers that now must be restored at considerable cost. We have ripped open great gashes of landscape to extract minerals. We have spilled millions of gallons of toxic waste – all in the name of achieving wealth for the few, while impoverishing the many.
In the late 19th century, Charles Eastman served as a medical missionary at the Wounded Knee Reservation in South Dakota. He recorded a conversation he had with a local Lakota Indian who observed that “…the White Man did not follow the example set by his brother, Christ.” He continued to say that “…Jesus was opposed to material acquirement and to great possessions. He was inclined to peace. These are not principles upon which the White Man has founded his civilization. I have come to the conclusion that Jesus was an Indian.”
At its core, gambling is poor stewardship. God has given each one of us gifts and talents for us to offer for the welfare of the community. Our work strengthens and builds up the fabric of human society. Gambling takes no skill, and rather than strengthening the community, it rewards the few as it impoverishes the many.
Driving home from the casino with the winnings in one’s pocket, money taken from the pockets of those who lost, is akin to stealing. The commandment against stealing is not about what is “gained” but what it does to one’s neighbor. Stealing constitutes financial and emotional violence against one’s neighbor. As your pastor I oppose casino gambling because it sanctions a system by which we treat each other poorly. “The worker is worthy of his wages,” Jesus says in the gospel. God wants us to work, and to have money in our pockets to pay our bills, provide for our families and be generous to those in need. But even more, God wants to be proud of how it got there.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
photo image “Where There’s Muck There’s Brass” from flickr creative commons 7762644@N04/2295584401
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