My American Dream

Miss Saigon 1989 production - Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I recently saw a production of the musical “Miss Saigon.” One of the main characters is a Vietnamese man who fled into neighboring Thailand after the fall of Saigon. There he is sadly employed in the trafficking of women and children. It is a sad consequence of war and the forcible displacement of families and communities. His song is about the American Dream, his American Dream, to be more precise. It is not very flattering. It is full of misconceptions and images of excess. To him, America is where prosperity is as accessible as “pre-packed and ready-to-wear” merchandise, where everything is for sale, where nobody is really poor, where women can buy breast implants and bald men can grow hair, where people live like Hollywood celebrities and anyone can get more than their fair share of wealth and success.

The story is fictional. But what fuels it is quite real. Do you have an American Dream? We all have our own personal version of the American Dream, each distinctly unique yet strangely similar. In essence, we all want the same things in life: good looks; a positive outlook; a healthy and happy marriage and family (or something closely resembling it); a nice, big, comfortable place to live in (preferably with lots of storage space and an inexpensive mortgage); good neighbors (interesting but not strange); engaging and personally fulfilling jobs with excellent benefits; a couple of handsome vehicles; maybe a boat or two; maybe a pet or two (or not); a nice healthy lawn and flower gardens; good weather; successful financial investments; an affordable health plan; an exceptional retirement plan; grateful and well-behaved children (and one day grateful and well-behaved grandchildren when you’re ready); good schools; a lot of good food and drink; loyal friends; a nice welcoming church community with good music and good preaching; a kind and gentle pastor who isn’t too tough and doesn’t yell in church; access to healthy recreation; wholesome entertainment; stimulating vacations; good books, music, TV and movies; quiet lazy days for yard work or golf; fun and excitement when you’re up to it; a comfortable lifestyle; an enviable sense of fashion; an artistic or musical talent of some kind—even better if it has potential to turn a profit; an unobstructed cash flow; and opportunity to make even more with the least effort or investment. Does that about cover it? Cheap gas, free Wi-Fi, free refills. No junk email, telemarketers, or political advertising. I think it all comes down to three essentials—opportunity, freedom and prosperity—or in more familiar terms, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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The Constitution guarantees it. We will not be satisfied with anything less. We know what we want. We know we deserve the best. And we are willing to work hard for what we believe is ours. The majority of us do succeed at achieving our American Dream slightly adjusted for inflation. And we are the envy of most of the world.

There is nothing wrong with prosperity, abundance and wealth. It is sensible and lawful to enjoy the fruits of our labors, to save or spend the money we earn from wholesome and honest work, to invest and collect interest on our investments, to profit from our ideas and our industry, to provide useful services for the community. This is all acceptable and reasonable. But scripture has a tendency of looking down on the rich, like we read today. But most of us do not consider ourselves rich, so we don’t think the message is for us. What exactly does it mean?

The author of the book of Amos seems to dislike the rich as well, who “lie upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, eating lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall; who improvise to the music of the harp, like David, who devise their own accompaniment; who drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils.” Yet it is not their wealth that is displeasing to God, but rather their complacency, that “they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph,” that they are not moved by the poverty, hunger and despair that surround them, that they are blind to the sufferings and deaf to the cries of the poor.

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Such is the setting for the gospel parable. Everyday the rich man enjoyed the comforts and conveniences of prosperity while a poor hungry beggar sat at his gate. It is for his neglect of his neighbor’s needs that he finds himself in torment in the next life. Abraham tells him, “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.” It is easy to tell that most of us have not missed too many meals, yet there are families in this country, in this state and county, who go to bed hungry each day. We can afford more cars than there are people to drive them. Some can even afford more than one home while there are people who can gather all their earthly belongings into a shopping cart. It is not essential to Christian discipleship that we give up our luxuries. That requirement seems reserved for those of Jesus’ followers called to special ministry and radical witness. Solidarity with the poor does not require that we eat only one meal every couple of days, or live in cardboard boxes like them. But Jesus does remind us there are beggars who sit daily at our gates. We cannot afford to ignore them any longer.

Who are these people who sit at our gates? They range from victims of natural disasters to the underemployed and underinsured. They are family members, they are passing acquaintances, they are nameless strangers in far away lands. They live down the street from us, they ride the school bus with our children, they sit in church with us week after week. They mourn their dead who are innocent victims of war and senseless violence. They mourn their dead who take up arms in defense of freedom and the hope of a better future. They are young mothers who make the difficult choice for abortion. They are helpless babies who were never given a choice to live. They languish months and years in jail, some are guilty, some are unjustly accused. They lie sick in bed with disease or disability. They are mentally ill, they are victims of abuse, they are welfare recipients. They are teenagers who are without hope or direction. They are elderly who are abandoned and forgotten. They sit at our gates everyday. We drive past them on our way to the grocery, to dinner and the movies, to church, and to parties.

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The people who sit at our gates are essential to Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom in the life to come. Do they have a place in your American Dream?

Rolo B. Castillo © 2013