18th Sunday after Pentecost
Let us pray: O God, you continually call us to new ways of being, thinking, feeling and doing. You stir us up with things we’ve never imagined before and you invite us to be transformed and transforming as we engage with people and creation. May the words I speak and the actions that flow out of these words, be ones which are true to your call, your stirring and your spirit. Amen.
I don’t know how many of you are following the blog of our moderator, Gary Paterson. A recent entry told of his trip to the Greenbelt Festival in England. He invited one hundred United Church clergy to go with him to this celebration of Christian life and faith and backed up the invitation with some financial support. By design, fifty of the invitees were under forty – and the other fifty were over forty – hoping for a good mix of youth and experience – with the expectation that the experience of this cohort would expand well beyond their personal accounts to bring an air of excitement and renewal to the church. We’ll have to see about that, as those who attended come back and take the opportunity to share what they saw and learned. I had occasion to spend some time with one of them this week, Donalee Williams, the minister in Fort McMurray, and certainly from the short account of her time in England that I heard her tell, it was a memorable and formative experience for her.
In his blog entry Moderator Gary told about the t-shirt he was given by London Conference and invited to wear during his visit to Greenbelt. On the back it had “The United Church of Canada” and on the front – Risking, Loving, Serving. It was created to be worn by members of The United Church of Canada in the London (Ontario) Pride Parade. But Middlesex Presbytery in London Conference wanted Gary to have something to wear while he was in the land of the other London, so they sent him the t-shirt and according to the blog entry, he wore it a lot.
His blog entry begins with a reflection on being proud. The shirt was created to be worn in a Pride parade and he was being asked to wear it with pride at an international Christian gathering. As Gary states: I know it’s probably not a politically correct word, to be “proud” of the United Church – pride goeth before a fall, and all that; nevertheless…
He then goes on to tell what a great experience it was to be at Greenbelt and to wear the t-shirt and how proud he was to be identified by it.
I had a similar kind of dilemma in the lead-up to this week’s reflection.
We just heard that strange and wonderful and mysterious parable about the Shrewd and Dishonest Manager. The strangest part is that Jesus uses this story of the manager who was looking out for himself as an example of the way we should be in our relationship with God and in our living out of that relationship in the world.
The passage concludes with this terse assessment – in the version I was using: You can’t serve both God and the Bank.
The summative proverb that was swirling around in my head on the same theme – much as “pride goeth before a fall” was doing the same for Gary Paterson, was this one: Money can’t buy happiness.
It’s the kind of thing you can say in a quiet, contemplative, dare I say churchy crowd and everyone will sit there and knowingly nod their heads in acquiesced agreement.
And of course we all go away from such things and just as quietly or perhaps not even all that quietly live our lives as if we meant to say the exact opposite.
Of course I am exaggerating. Of course we don’t all do that, but we certainly can look beyond ourselves and say that we know or observe people around us who for sure live their lives as if money can buy happiness. Or at least as if they believe it can do so, even if it doesn’t.
And even if we are not so consumed by our own things and our own lives, we live as if money can buy happiness for others. Anti-poverty campaigns and advocacy are certainly in part based on the premise that money does indeed buy a certain amount of happiness.
And it is this – when we are not so focused on ourselves – that might be the most influential in helping to clarify just what it is that we believe about the relationship between money and happiness.
I was thinking a lot about that this week – wondering if that is the message of that strange and wonderful parable. Wondering if that is what Jesus was trying to tell us and wondering if Jesus was trying to convince his listeners to follow another way to find true happiness.
I heard of a study in the past several months that in fact calls to question that idea. The researchers discovered that money can indeed buy a certain amount of happiness.
As counterpoint I also heard a radio documentary on what is called “Sudden Wealth Syndrome”. The syndrome comes about when people find themselves suddenly extremely wealthy, perhaps because of a lottery win or when share values rise exponentially after an IPO or some other stock market event. It described people who had all the money they might ever have imagined and who were incredibly unhappy – living lives of stress and tension, often in fear for their lives, their privacy and their peace of mind.
And if you look at the statistics I mentioned last week about the activities and lifestyle of the 1% highest paid people in Canada, you would be led to think that wealthy people are convinced that money is at least a resource in the pursuit of happiness.
So what is it – are these all part of a back and forth – a failure to come to a conclusion about whether or not money is a pathway to happiness. Is Jesus wrong? Are people working as anti-poverty advocates wrong? Is the study that said that money can buy a certain amount of happiness wrong? Are the researchers into sudden wealth syndrome correct?
The key – and I think it runs across all the evidence, research and statistics that I’ve named or alluded to – is this: You cannot serve God and money. Serve. What are you serving? Where are your priorities? Is it all about as Kevin O’Leary would say – the money? If it is then you are setting yourself up for disappointment (if the sudden wealth researchers are correct), sadness and despair (if the proverb is correct), and unfaithfulness (if Jesus is correct).
Anti-poverty advocacy needs to continue to happen. The minimum wage needs to be set at a level which provides sustainable levels of shelter and food. Money does buy happiness when it relieves the daily struggle to surivive. Money does buy happiness when it can allow us to make happier the lives of people around us. It buys happiness when it eliminates stree and tension about where the next meal will come from and where we will sleep.
When Jesus was lifting up the actions of the dishonest manager as ones that we could strive to emulate – it was not the dishonesty, but the shrewdness that he was praising. Be smart in the way you work for God’s kin-dom. Be shrewd in the ways and means you use to glorify God and in the ways you choose to walk according to the way of God.
Of course it is proud to be a member of The United Church of Canada – and the work we have done in supporting PRIDE organizations and parades across this country. Of course it is appropriate to work as anti-poverty advocates – to work to increase the amount of money available for people struggling to survive. It is even okay to want some things for ourselves – to make life better and easier – so that we can focus on other things, so that our lives are not consumed with how we will find our next meal, or what we can do to rid ourselves of stress and tension. It is only when things change so that we serve something or someone other than God’s kin-dom, God’s way, God’s mission that we fall into the ways that Jeremiah was describing in that reading today. When we serve God, when we are proud for pride’s sake, we are not serving God, we are serving ourselves, and our own needs.
It’s not dead cinch easy to figure it out – we sometimes need the persepective of others to help us out. We sometimes need the support and faith example that are channelled at a time of baptism. We often need a spirit of discernment that comes when we engage in conversation with God through prayer – as Timothy was advised.
Money and happiness – a tension that is lived out in our lives – a creative tension – a tension that lays out for us the struggle and blessing that is ours as the people of God. May God give us the wisdom to choose well in the living out of that tension. Amen.