Nothing Zero Sum About It!

Let us pray: May these words tell a story of abundance, O God. Guide them and use them. Amen.

There is a common understanding in life that you can’t have one without the other. By this I mean that we often think that life and circumstances are based on a Zero Sum equation. Radio Two host Tom Allan mentioned this in an introduction last Monday to music written by Johannes Brahms. You see Brahms was under the understanding that there some kind of great balance in life, and so if Brahms wrote a piece of happy music, he would quickly write a requiem or something like it – sad, or blue, or meditative to appease the sentiment that everything should be in balance. We do the same thing with weather. If we get a particularly beautiful week or two of good weather, we often think that we are going to pay for it somewhere down the road with an especially cold spell, or lots of rain, or something less appealing. Perhaps Canada’s most well known weather person – chief climatologist David Phillips disavowed me of that notion a few years ago when he was asked on radio to give a long term reflection on some bout of weather just passed and a prognostication, as good as it can be at such a distance of what might be coming. I remember him clearly saying that just because we’ve had it good does not mean that we are going to get it bad at some point in the future and equally just because we are having it bad right now does not mean that we are paying for something because it just might keep on being bad. In other words, at least with the weather it is not necessarily a zero sum game. I say that with a certain amount of hesitation – because I happen to believe what the climate scientists and the earth scientists are telling us – that it is getting worse – the storms, the melting and the temperature, even though rising temperatures might sound like something getting better in the short term.

The point is that in many things there is no such thing as a zero sum. There is no inherent dependency. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news – if that is something you’ve kind of wagered your life on.

Well I’m not completely sorry because I actually think this is good news. It is good news that we don’t live in a Zero Sum world.

A number of years ago I was chairing the board for a couple of theological colleges – St. Andrew’s College, the one from which I graduated in Saskatoon and St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton. There was a time in the early 2000s when they were amalgamated into one body. During that time it made sense for us to do some work on the Mission statement for this amalgamated institution. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been part of a process for creating a Mission Statement, but it can be energizing and frustrating at the same time. It’s difficult to get a group of people – usually with some pretty strongly held ideas – to come to some kind of consensus on what values and principles are important to name in a Mission Statement which is by necessity required to be quite terse. Energizing because there are often great insights and frustrating because it seems like everyone has a different idea about how to express these insights and in what order.

Part of the reasoning for the amalgamation in the first place was to find ways to efficiently use resources. Funding for theological colleges, like many things connected with church in these post-modern western times was dwindling. What that meant for people around that table during this Mission Statement exercise was that they were quite sad and despairing about the situation faced by educational institutions in general and theological colleges in particular. The mood was one that revolved around the down side of scarcity. When you’ve cut funding for programmes and the staff people to implement and manage them as much as you can without thinking that the next step is dissolution, it is easy to see how that mood can permeate the air. It all changed when some wise voice around the table said that the ability to deal creatively with scarcity was a resource rather than a problem. You could feel the spirits lift. A great weight seemed to lift and quietly people came around to the idea that we had a gift to share rather than a burden to bear.

I think that might have been what it was like for the Hebrew people in today’s story from Exodus. The euphoria of their escape from the oppression of the Egyptian Pharaoh was pretty much over and the downward pressure of scarcity was much more clearly affecting their lives. If only they could go back they thought – they would have enough to eat. Moses was like that wise speaker around our Board Table. I’m not sure of the explanation of how Manna and Quail became the daily diet of the Hebrew people during that time. I’ve heard various rational explanations of how and why the sky was suddenly raining down sustenance for them. I also know this is a story to tell a story without it being a recounting of things that actually happened. Or was it a change of perspective – did Moses succeed in reframing things for the Hebrew people such that they were able to find abundance when they had previously only sensed scarcity. Whatever happened we have a story that describes transformation.

As you heard, issues of scarcity and abundance are also part of the story we heard from the gospels this morning.

How did the story upset your sense of justice? Do you think it is fair for someone to be paid the same amount of money for an hour’s work as someone who worked the whole day? Is this a case of “make sure you read the fine print in a contract before you sign on the line”. Perhaps. Or is it a case of “fair living wage”. There is an interesting turn of phrase in the version of this story that I read. The all day workers complained by saying “You have made the ones who only started work at 5:00 equal to us.”

So for those tired workers it was an issue of justice and equality. Is equality tied to the idea of an hourly wage? Arguably we could say that this is a principle which continues to this day, that we value people in part by the amount they are paid or the amount they can charge.

Once again the great disrupter has disrupted. Like that board member who flipped the coin and said that scarcity wasn’t a problem. No, the ability to deal creatively with scarcity is a resource. And almost instantly we felt good about who we are and what we can do.

Things change when we gain the ability to see things differently. We all know that, but then we often get stuck in continuing to follow the old ways of seeing and doing.

How often do we fall into the Zero Sum game – the game that says when there is a gain there must be a loss as well?

One of the great blessings of Creation Time as an addition to the Christian Church year is to mindfully, reflectively engage in an experience of abundance. To recognize with gratitude what we have been given. To commit with intention to preserve what we’ve been given.

Some of you have been involved in an exercise that I find extremely valuable. I wish it had a better name. It’s called “Asset Mapping”. But despite its’ name it is a tremendously inspiring exercise. It uses abundance as a resource to bring hope to a community. It invites people to name all the assets that are present in this community. Some of them are personal. Some of them are things we own or have access to. Some of them are skills and abilities that we’ve been blessed with, or have nurtured, or gained in the following of our passions. Some of them are community based assets. What do we have as a community. What can we offer within the community and what can we offer to a wider community.

I won’t go into the details of how the exercise can be used to transform a struggling community into one that is focused, energized and full of joy, except to say that is like that magic penny I spoke of when the children were here.

Creation time is an invitation to remember the abundance in which we live. Creation time is a reminder that playing a Zero Sum game is often a downer and one that belies the hopefulness that comes with our life as earthlings – the inhabits of this planet home.

Creation time is a time in which to engage in deep relationship with Creating – my new most often used term for the Holy One. Creating – because it describes a God who is not done yet. Creating because of the action implied by such a name. May it be so. Amen.

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