Friday, March 4, 2011

Dollars and Sense

Sermon preached February 27, 2011

Texts: Isaiah 49:8-16a; Matthew 6:24-34

A priest walked into a pub and was indignant to find so many of his parishioners there. He rounded them up and shepherded them into the church. Then he solemnly said, “All those who want to go to heaven, step over here to the left.” Everyone stepped over except one man who stubbornly stood his ground. The priest looked at him fiercely and said, “Don’t you want to go to heaven?” “No,” said the man. “Do you mean to stand there and tell me you don’t want to go to heaven when you die?” “Of course I want to go to heaven when I die. I thought you were going now.” (The Heart of the Enlightened, DeMillo, 16-17).
It is not that unusual for people to try and separate their spiritual life from daily life. Spirituality, for many, has something to do with moments – times of worship or prayer, what our fate after death might be. Then there is the rest of our lives. That kind of separation does not fit well with the spirituality of the Jesus way. Eugene Peterson, pastor, scholar, translator of the Bible (The Message) says that when he is asked about being spiritual he responds by saying: How about starting by loving your husband or your kids? Even for the mystics, moments of rapture and ecstasy are rare ad unexpected. Spirituality is no different from what we have been doing for two thousand years, just by going to church, receiving the sacraments, being baptized, learning to pray, and reading the scripture rightly. It’s just ordinary stuff. (The Christian Century, April 5, 2005, p. 6)
Ordinary stuff – Jesus connects spirituality with ordinary stuff. We have been following that these past few weeks as we have been reading parts of the Sermon on the Mount. Yes, Jesus says that we are to be perfect as God is perfect – not too ordinary sounding, but when you look at what he says around that we find him talking about dealing with anger and sexuality and desire and intimacy – the stuff of life. But now Jesus is going to get very personal. He is going to talk about money and possessions. He invites us to worry less about what we are going to eat and drink and wear. He warns us – “you cannot serve God and wealth.” There are not many more ordinary things in life than food and clothing and the economic wherewithal to care for those things. Like other desires Jesus has discussed, these are not bad in themselves – the desire to eat, the desire to be clothed, the desire for a measure of economic security, but like other desires he has discussed, we can get it wrong. We can mismanage our anger. We can mishandle our sexual desires. We can muck up our most important relationships. And we can get it wrong when it comes to money. In one translation, verse 32, which we read as “it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things” reads “it is the Gentiles who long for all these things.” Our longing for money can be come inordinate, Jesus is saying. Our relationship to money and wealth can become distorted, getting in the way of a healthy spirituality. I think he is right.
Last month’s Atlantic (January/February 2011) magazine had a fascinating article on the economy. It reported this conversation at a Manhattan dinner party. “If you are going to buy all this stuff, life starts getting really expensive. If you are going to do the NetJet thing and if you are going to have four houses, and you’re going to run four houses, it’s like you start spending some money” Another guest chimed in: “You know, the thing about 20 is 20 is only 10 after taxes.” Those around the table nodded. They were talking about 20 million dollars. It wasn’t quite enough, apparently. In this same article it was noted that the top 25 hedge-fund managers were paid, on average in 2009, more than $1 billion each. Finally in this same article, Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Chairperson and champion of free market capitalism is cited as worrying that our economy has become “distorted”, with high-income individuals and large corporations and banks recovering nicely while most of the rest of the economy struggling along. Has our relationship with wealth gotten distorted?
Just this past week a former Pennsylvania juvenile court judge was convicted of racketeering in a case that accused him of sending youth offenders to for-profit detention centers in exchange for millions of dollars in illicit payments from the builder and owner of the lockups. Apparently this judge, and another, took more than $2 million in bribes from the builders of new juvenile detention facilities, after they had conspired to have the public facility closed, and also extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the facilities' co-owner. The judge filled the beds of the private lockups with children as young as 10. According to The Pennsylvania Supreme Court he ran his courtroom with "complete disregard for the constitutional rights of the juveniles," including the right to legal counsel and the right to intelligently enter a plea. Did longing for wealth warp a judge?
Tom is a twenty-four year old stock broker and recent business graduate. He shared with his counselor (by the way, this is not someone I am seeing or someone in this church), he shared that when he was twelve he decided that he was going to make a million dollars and retire by the time he was 40. He felt he was right on schedule. Tom is seeing a counselor, though, because he feels he may have some unfinished issues from his childhood, and to placate his wife, who has become distressed by Tom’s occasional outbursts of rage and his extra-marital affairs. As he meets with the counselor, it becomes clear that in his own mind Tom views his wife as an obstacle to his dream of wealth and early retirement. (Miller, How To Want What You Have, 236) Has an inordinate concern for wealth brought a relationship to near ruin?
We can hear these stories and think, “how awful” or “how sad” or “I wish I had to worry about $20 million being only $10.” The truth of the matter is we live in this same society. We breathe the same cultural air, drink the same cultural water, and I think we are influenced by these distorted relationships with money, with wealth. They can affect us, and do affect us. I will only speak for myself. I remember moving back to Duluth and looking for a house and thinking about the kind of house I would have loved to buy. I know the feelings that sometimes arise when I hear about people I knew from high school who have done very well financially – that feeling not of envy, though there may be that, too, but of feeling a little bit less than. I know what it is like to fantasize about the Powerball.
We can’t just take Jesus’ words and look out there to see where a relationship with money, wealth, possessions might be off track. We also need to look in here, peer into our own hearts and minds and souls. The point is not that any desire for economic well-being is wrong. I don’t think Jesus is really saying that we should never be concerned for that part of our lives. There is a little bit of hyperbole in his statements about not worrying about food and clothing, and there is the later passage in the New Testament about “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10). Jesus is not condemning money, per se, or the search for a modicum of economic security. He is inviting us to be aware of how easily our desires in this area can get carried away, become distorted, thereby distorting our very hearts and souls.
Jesus invites us to be aware and to keep our relationship with money and wealth a healthy one. How? I find the advice offered by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in the 1700s, continually helpful. Wesley argued that money in itself was not the problem. He said that some of the rhetoric against money was little more than an “empty rant.” Money is not bad in itself, but our relationship to it could become distorted. Sound familiar? To keep it from becoming distorted, Wesley offers three rules in his sermon “The Use of Money”: (1) gain all you can; (2) save all you can; (3) give all you can. Wesley did add a few stipulations about gain all you can, however. You should gain all you can in ways that are not harmful to your own body and mind and that do not do harm to your neighbor.
Wise advice. Who do you think is better off, the countless lottery winners who just a few years later found themselves broke or bankrupt or fighting with families or the couple in Nova Scotia who won $11 million dollars in the lottery and surprised the world by giving most of it away. Most of us would like that opportunity, but when money comes pouring in like that, most of the stories are not happy. Our relationship with money becomes easily distorted. Jesus invites awareness and caution.
But there is something even deeper here. Perhaps the deepest distortion a skewed relationship with money and wealth can inflict is the equation of one’s worth with one’s wealth. Ask someone in our culture, “What are you worth?’ and the response would move right away to financial assests. It is helpful for us to remember that most of the people listening to Jesus were people just getting by. His audience was primarily Jewish, mostly workers, laborers. The Romans were in charge, and Roman society was a stratified society where wealth and power equaled worth. Jesus’ words seem almost ironic, then. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Many of his listeners probably worried every day about life’s necessities. But then come the remarkable words. Look at the birds – “are you not of more value that they?” Look at the flowers, the lilies, nothing compares to their beauty, and God sees your beauty too!
The only way we can really keep our relationship with our money and our possessions and wealth sane and healthy is to remember who we are – valued people in God’s sight. We fly higher than the birds. We are more beautiful than the lilies. Iin the 49th chapter of Isaiah we read, in the voice of God, these words: Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands (15-16a).
In the story, Hope For the Flowers the only way to keep off the climbing, scratching, gouging caterpillar pillar – which is wonderful symbol of an unhealthy relationship to money and wealth – is to remember that we are butterflies. The way to keep our desires about money and possessions straight is to remember we are God’s beloved people, worth more than the beautiful birds, worth more than the wondrous flowers. We are inscribed on the very palm of God’s hands.
Remembering who we are we may be able to keep both dollars and sense. Amen.

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