Summary: We are so into upward mobility; but God's version is different. It involves building us up so that the powerless have power; binding up the wounded so that they can understand brokenness; and lifting us up so that we can use our power for others.
I can remember when the word "furlough" was a happy word. It was a happy word because it meant that somebody in your family was coming home from military duty for a while. "Furlough" for me brings up a memory of standing, as a small boy, in Union Station in Louisville, waiting for the train to cane in with my cousin Paul in his jaunty sailor cap and his stories of battle in the Pacific.
But all of a sudden the word "furlough" has taken on some sinister meanings, hasn’t it? Now when we say "furlough" we really mean out of work and out of pay for a few days, or many days, or who knows what? And this weekend for a whole lot of Washingtonians and for a good many of you, furlough means anything but a picnic, anything but a pleasant break from the routine. Now furlough means, "How do I pay the rent? How do I take care of the next tuition payment?" And maybe even, "Where can I find a better jab?"
But, you know, I’m convinced this morning that the reason most of us are so threatened by this business of a federal government furlough has nothing to do with paying the bills. It has nothing to do with the money we need to get by; a few days here and there will do some damage, yes, but many of us can survive on a lot less than we have. And we will survive. It’s not the money.
No, I believe that the issue with furloughs has to do with our idea of what it is to be successful. We just don’t want anything to tarnish the image of being successful. We have to stay busy, we have to earn a lot and spend a lot, we have to be relentlessly on the move in order to look successful. And for a whole lot of us, there is no substitute for upward mobility. Either you are moving up in the social scale, the economic scale, the status scale – either you are moving up or you are moving out.
And so if you are on furlough it means that somebody has classified you as "non-essential". What a horrible label that is! Non-essential, not needed; who needs you? They’ve shut down the government; who will even notice? And what difference will it make?
Well, the difference it makes for a whole lot of us is that we have so gotten into upward mobility that unless we are roving on and roving up, we think we are going nowhere. We just have to be moving up. Do you remember the theme song from the TV show, "The Jeffersons?" "Movin’ on up, Fish don’t burn on the grill, movin’ on up."
So the real estate folks try to sell us what they call "starter homes", on the assumption that when you get that mortgage paid down a little, you can move on up into a larger house, a larger yard, and a larger mortgage. If you are into upward mobility, you expect to move on up.
Upward mobility has affected the Christian ministry too. Plenty of pastors stick around a few years and then start looking for bigger churches with more people and more dividends and more of everything; I was once a member of a church whose pastor left us after a grand total of nine months’ tenure because, as he said, he wanted to go to a "sounding board" pulpit, where lots of people would pay attention to what he said.
Upward mobility. Lots of us are looking for it. And lots of us are wiped out when anything threatens it. Got to move up: up, up, relentlessly up.
Now the Scripture speaks too of moving up. The Bible speaks of God’s people having a certain upward mobility. But it is quite different from what l’ve just described. The Bible speaks of a God who brings us up from where we once were, but the way He does it and the purpose for which He does it …that’s quite different from the upwardness we give so much attention to.
When we read the 147th Psalm a few moments ago, I wonder if you noticed how many times the word "up" is used. God is also into upward nobility, but it's very different. The psalmist describes God’s kind of upward mobility as being "built up, bound up, and lifted up". So will you listen up!
First, "The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel." "The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel."
You see, what God does is to take folks who have no special background, no extraordinary resources, no particular advantages, and builds them up and make them powerful. What God does is to take the disadvantaged and tell them they have power; what God does is to take the poor and remind them of the riches of the human spirit. And what God does, what God always does, is to pour His Spirit upon flesh. And when you really feel that happening, you find out that no financial setback can really harm you. No furlough can take away your self-esteem. And no short paycheck can shortchange your personal power. "The Lord builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel."