- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

Excerpts from a Lenten sermon by the Rev. Linda Jacobus at Colesville United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Md.:

This Lenten season we have heard the term "Enronitis," as if financial dishonesty is a disease that may be cured. Most of us are confused about how such scandals take place.
As one person told me, "Capitalism used to be about selling one of your cows to buy a bull. And when your herd grows, you sell them to retire." Now it is, "Sell three cows to a publicly listed company using letters of credit. Then, execute a debt equity swap to get four cows before you sell the milk rights."
This would be funny, except that jobs and savings are lost, and we lose trust in our corporations. Enron is not the first case, of course. In the 1790s, the assistant secretary of the treasury, William Duer, quit his post to speculate in federal securities with "insider trading" knowledge, and when his empire collapsed, Wall Street panicked. As long as there is money to be made on Wall Street, there will be people of dubious morals coming up with new ways to fleece the sheep.
Our Lenten text [Genesis 2:15-17] tells us something about the temptations we face, both in corporate and ordinary life. In Genesis, God placed man and woman in the garden saying they may eat of every tree except "the tree of knowledge of good and evil." When we eat of the tree, how much easier it is to choose the evil over the good. At Enron, they believed in "a new way of seeing things." Well, this "new" approach is often a very clever way to get around "the old rules," such as the ones God has set down for us. Remember the old Ten Commandments? You shall not steal or bear false witness. Most important, worship only the Lord your God.
Our Gospel lesson [Matthew 4:1-11] is about Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. It reminds us that all of us, including Jesus, are tempted to choose the easy way, the self-serving way. In one case, the devil tempts Jesus when he is hungry, saying, "Command those stones to become bread." Jesus says, "One does not live by bread alone." Even the mother of Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of Enron, seemed to know this when she said, "Self-interest becomes a distortion of one's personality." When we live only for our desires, we fail to be whole persons. Greed ultimately has consequences.
The devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down." God will save you. But Jesus said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." We often believe we can test the God-given laws of nature, and even defy human decency without getting hurt. Jesus shows us otherwise, and calls us to responsibility, much like the conscience of Sherron Watkins, who told her boss that Enron was headed for trouble.
Finally, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms, saying, "All these I will give you if you fall down and worship me." Power can corrupt, whether in a huge corporation, at the Olympics, or in the church and our family lives. Big egos can go on big power trips. But author Anne Wilson Schaef also reminds us, "It is not just the top executives whose basic character sets the tone of the organization, it is any person who is 'key' in the system," and who refuses to point out what is wrong.
The collapse of Enron reminds us, in a not-so-gentle way, that all of life is really a question of values. Kirk Hanson, a professor of business ethics, thinks that Enron will become "the morality play of the new economy." And Jesus reminds us, in the story of the temptations, that self-centeredness, greed and unbridled power will never get us into the kingdom of God. Only as we follow Jesus' lead and serve with humility do we stand a chance of seeing God's kingdom.

Next week: A sermon by the Rev. Frank Trotter at Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church in the District.

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