Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Money Trap

Sermon preached October 14, 2012

Text: Mark 10:17-27

I borrow shamelessly from popular culture in coming up with sermon titles. This morning’s sermon title is the title of a movie, but it was not the movie I was thinking of. I had in mind a movie with Tom Hanks. The Tom Hanks film, co-starring Shelley Long was really called “The Money Pit.” “The Money Pit” (1986) is about a young couple trying to fix up an old, dilapidated house, and their work becomes a money pit. The film is a romantic comedy about the way home improvement projects can get carried away, and about problems with money.
“The Money Trap” (1965) is a very different movie. The movie starred Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth and Elke Summer and is about a cop with financial troubles because of his wife's constant spending. In the course of his work, he himself turns toward theft in order to make money. It doesn’t end well. There is romance here, but, even more there is tragedy.
Our relationship to money can be comic. Often it is more tragic.
Mark, in today’s gospel reading, relates a tragic story about Jesus’ encounter with a man. It is a story about money/possessions. We don’t have much description of the man here. In Matthew he is young. In Luke he is a ruler. In all the gospels the man is a person of means. Here it is said that “he had many possessions.” This man comes to Jesus, while Jesus is on a journey. He kneels before Jesus. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus reminds him of the basic commandments – and the ones that have to do with human relationships: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
We seem to have here, in contrast to so many others in the gospels, an honest seeker. This is someone asking Jesus questions not in order to trap him, but to move his life forward. Jesus recognizes this – “Jesus looking at him, loved him.” Yet the love with which Jesus loves can be a challenging love. “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” It is too much for the man. He is shocked and leaves grieving.
The shock of the story is not over. Jesus offers some teaching. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God…. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” It is the disciples turn to be shocked. They are perplexed and greatly astounded. A camel through the eye of a needle? By the way, there is no gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle” that camels could get through with great difficulty. Jesus is offering an astonishing image, and impossible image – except with God, anything is possible.
What Jesus is describing is the weird economics of the kingdom of God. In the weird economics of the kingdom of God, the rich are going to have a hard time of it. That is pretty astonishing.
What’s Jesus problem with wealth? Does he simply have a bad case of wealth envy? Why might I describe our relationship with money as often tragic? I want to explore how money, things, possessions can be problematic for us in our lives, our relationships to others, and our relationship to God, but first I want to acknowledge that not enough is also a problem. We cannot take this passage from Mark out of the context of the entire Bible, and the Bible indicates that God is deeply concerned with the hungry, the poor, the ill-clad or ill-housed. God is concerned with those who lack enough. In his sermon on “The Use of Money,” John Wesley encouraged Christians to “gain all you can” – that is, to work hard, though one ought not to work at things that are unhealthy. Wesley had a strong sense that we should not be Pollyannaish about money. It has its uses and not having enough is a problem.
Beyond enough, though, there are other problems – the money trap. The man who comes to Jesus is caught in a money trap, possessed by his possessions rather than possessing them. I want to describe this money trap using some quotes and stories.
After he wrote his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. There he quotes the psychologist Carl Jung: We overlook the essential fact that the accomplishments which society rewards are won at the cost of the diminution of personality (23)
A few weeks ago, I heard the story of a young woman in her twenties who is currently in investment banking. She is doing well, but the company she works for is doing some strange things, making her feel undervalued and underappreciated. She told a friend, “I would look for another job, but I like my lifestyle too much.” In the pursuit of enough to finance a certain lifestyle, is some part of this woman’s personality being diminished?
In 2008, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: The country’s moral guardians are forever looking for decadence out of Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money. I found this in a book entitled Enough written by John Bogle, founder and former CEO of the Vanguard Mutual Fund Group.
Bogle also shares the story about the two writers, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Vonnegut and Heller were attending a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. The host was a hedge fund manager. Vonnegut told Heller that their host had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel, Catch-22. Heller responded, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough.” (Bogle, 1) We lose our way with money and things, and we become trapped when we cannot say “enough.”
In another one of his books, Living a Life That Matters, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes about something deep inside of each of us. Our souls are split, part of us reaching for goodness, part of us chasing fame and fortune and doing questionable things along the way, as we realize that those two paths may diverge sharply. (15) Kushner argues that our chasing fame or fortune has something to do with a deep need to feel important and valued for our accomplishments. It is a desire that can be warped.
Father and son writing team of Robert and Edward Skidelsky, in their book How Much is Enough? name that warping of our desire for importance, when it becomes a warped relationship with money and things, “insatiability.” They identify a number of inner and outer forces that contribute to that sense of insatiability, that sense that even for those who already have everything, there is more to be had. Insatiability arises from an inner restlessness, a sense of joy in novelty. We like to achieve things that others do not have – positional goods, like trophies for first place. Beyond that, we seek to feel special by demonstrating our status. Having things, and consuming conspicuously, feeds status needs. (33ff)
I offer all these thoughts and resources to suggest that the money trap is out there, is real, and is something from which none of us is immune. We all want to feel as if we matter, are important. We all want our accomplishments to be valued, and the currency that seems highly valued in our society is cash. Is your work valued? Show me the money! I know I have asked myself “what if?” What if I had devoted myself to a career that had more to do with making money? I know I have daydreamed about “wouldn’t it be nice to win the lottery?” I don’t daydream enough to actually buy a ticket, though.
We all struggle with those inner and social forces that make cash the value of who we are, that make things the measure of our worth. We can get caught up in money and things in such a way that we are trapped, that we close off life-enhancing possibilities. Jesus looks into our eyes, too, with love, and invites us into a different relationship with money and things.
The money trap is there and none of us is immune. Sometimes we fall in. Jesus offers ways out. Generosity is something that lessens the grip of money and things. When we can give freely and generously to enhance the lives of others, we put money and things in their place. We will discuss that more as we approach our stewardship Sundays, but it is a good lesson to hear whenever.
But being generous is not all there is. Jesus invites us to a searching self-examination as he invited the man in this story to self-examination. In a society where having everything is still not enough, how do we keep balance – rightly prizing hard work, and hard-won income, without getting too caught up in status? How do we possess things without them possessing us? The reality is that sometimes we will get it wrong. Sometimes we will fall into the money trap, and will once again need grace. The Harvard Professor and Minister Peter Gomes argues that the primary moral of the gospel story is of our need for grace. Anything is possible for God, even helping us again and again to climb from the money trap, and maybe helping us fall into it less often. (Sermons, 60-61)
The Reverend Fred Craddock was visiting in the home of his niece. There he encountered an old greyhound, just like the ones who raced around tracks chasing mechanical rabbits. Apparently Craddock’s niece had taken the dog in to prevent it from being destroyed after its racing days were over. Anyway, Craddock strikes up a conversation with the dog – at least that’s how he tells it.
“Are you still racing?”
“No,” the greyhound replied.
“Well, what was the matter? Did you get too old to race?”
“No, I still had some race in me.”
“Well, what then? Were you not winning?”
“I won over a million dollars for my owner.”
“Well, did he treat you badly, then?”
“Oh, no,” the dog said. “We were treated quite well while we were racing.”
“Were you injured?”
“Then why? Why aren’t you racing?”
“I quit.”
“You quit? Why would you quit?”
“I just quit because after all that running and running and running, I found out that the rabbit I was chasing wasn’t even real.” (Bogle, Enough, 211-212)

Jesus looking at him, loved him. “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded.
At its best the church, and the Jesus of the church, reminds us both of the need for enough and the trap that awaits those who continue to stretch what is enough. Jesus looks at us lovingly and offers grace, a grace that makes anything possible. The church points us in the direction of deeper values and more profound mysteries. More on that next week. Amen.

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