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Money and Happiness

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. 

Getting There

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Year C
Sunday, September 8, 2013

Let us pray: O God, you speak to us in many ways – through tuggings at our hearts, pangs of consciousness, new perspectives to ponder in our minds, glorious vistas of your creation, and the still small voice that reminds us that you are here. May these words I speak be a part of the way in which we immerse ourselves in your presence. Guide them and use them. Amen.

A group of preachers is gathered in contemplation of the passages we just heard – struggling to find a way to make sense of Jesus’ warnings about the cost of discipleship – and the dire warning about family relationships. Is this really what Jesus is about – with a message destined to drive a wedge between family members? Aren’t families in enough stress and tension already without this kind of religious sanction for things to be even worse? Aren’t families among the most important relationships we will ever have, and don’t they provide the template for most of our moral understandings. What then could Jesus mean and what could this passage be inviting us to say?

Not coming to any conclusion about just exactly what Jesus or Luke was getting at, other than to come to the conclusion that being a follower is really hard work and fraught with strained relationships, one of the gathered group says, both facetiously and seriously: “That decides it, I’m preaching on Philemon!”

However, that did not decide it completely, for they still spent time talking about the cost that is a clear message of that passage from the gospel of Luke – what does it have to say about modern day commitment, about attachment to the Christian church, about membership versus attendance. It was noted that Jesus said these things to a large crowd. Was this a way of weeding out the fans from the followers. Was a certain part of the crowd there because they hoped to see some more mysterious miracles, or perhaps even experience a healing of their own – without the faith commitment that Jesus both invited and highlighted among those who were healed. Or perhaps they were there to see the fireworks that often erupted from these two very different religious authorities – the temple leaders and the Pharisees on one side and this upstart upsetter of apple carts – who sometimes disparaged the traditional religious authorities with piercing and direct reference to the will and ways of God – sometimes spotlighted by reference not to the religious leaders, but to the people that hung around on the edge – people with illness, people with little money, people who were spurned in the popular circles. Did Jesus turn on these gathering crowds and treat them with the same critique that he usually reserved for those same Pharisees? Was he trying to make sure that people got the message? This is not a dog and pony show – this is a life changing, life transforming, path I am talking about. If you get it, if you truly get it, it is going to require you to re-evaluate everything in your priority and value system. If family was important to you before, well then, believe me, this is such an important alternative message that it will make you re-think even those relationships.

Let me say that it wasn’t me that spoke the decision to speak about Philemon – but as it turned out, that’s what I’ve done. But it turns out that focusing on that letter from Paul to the businessman Philemon is not a way to avoid the same themes and issues. It’s a kinder, gentler treatment to be sure, and wrapped as it is in a third person letter we might think we can dismiss it by viewing it as interested observers. But as biblical commentaries remind us, things don’t make it into the scriptural record without being to and for us, as much as they are for the characters in the tales, stories and histories.

The letter to Philemon has achieved a certain fame because of its supposed treatment of the issue of slavery. While it does not specifically condemn slavery and whereas we know that slavery was a common practise for centuries beyond the writing of this letter, the case has been made that by calling upon Philemon to treat Onesimus as a Christian brother and by subtly urging Philemon to forgive the punishment that might normally be given to a returned runaway slave, Paul is calling followers of Jesus the Christ to the same kind of priority setting that is much more starkly presented in the passage from Luke.

The connection for me this week was made much more clear by the movie “The Butler” which we had occasion to see on Wednesday evening. Hopefully I won’t be a spoiler by talking about it, but let me summarize the film by saying that it follows the career of Cecil Gains – who went from being the son of a murdered slave to serve eight presidents as a butler in the White House. A major theme of the movie is the relationship between Cecil Gaines and his son, Louis – who have quite different approaches to the struggle for civil rights in the American sixties, seventies and eighties – the wedge between family members described by the passage from Luke. The movie viewer is left wondering which is best – the radical, in your face protests of the “Freedom Riders” and Black Panthers, or the slow and steady pursuit of civil rights through excellence, commitment and dedication. In my viewing this quite clearly represents the difference described by both of our Christian scripture passages today: the passage from Luke which describes radical transformation – to the point of threatening existing relationships and the gentle persuasion and appeal to goodness that is exemplified by the letter to Philemon.

Getting there – where the “there” is a faithful following of the way of God – in pursuit of justice, in pursuit of human rights, in opposition to prejudice and discrimination – is a multi-faceted journey – needing both the radical and strident push and the continual, but relentless raising of issues, especially among the holders and wielders of power.

A particular scene exemplifies this best as Louis Gaines meets with other protesters who have gathered to be inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. Louis expresses his frustration that his father, a butler in the White House does not do more for the struggle for civil rights, and that he is seemingly subjugated by the system to continue the exploitation and oppression that is so fiercely fought by the freedom fighters. But the preacher King reminds Louis that the movement needs people like his father who are changing the system from within – by showing up the system for its ignorance and prejudice and proving that there is no colour barrier in the pursuit of excellence, the commitment to hard work and faithful performance of work responsibilities.

Getting there is a lifelong journey. It is a journey of paved paths where the way is clear and a journey of rocky scrambling where the way is sometimes obscured and requires some decision making about the best way to go. But every step – whether it is the dangerous, risk laden one, or the simple first step on the rest of the journey – is a step on the path towards the faithfulness, the commitment to the justice that is God’s desire for all people. Yes there will be times when it is hard, and other times when we are gently prodded and pulled to follow along, but the journey is ours to pursue. Amen.

You’ll Be, and Experience, a Blessing!

Fifteenth after Pentecost – Year C
Sunday, September 1, 2013

Let us pray: We seek you O God, so that we might know your purpose for us as your people. We listen for your word among the many words that surround us. May these words be ones which serve to know our purpose and echo your word. Amen.

Who is important?” is the question that was asked in the story this morning as it paraphrases a passage from the gospel of Luke in which Jesus tells a story about being guests and hosts at company meal. As you heard, and as usual, Jesus has some important insights into human nature and into God’s economy, which measures things differently than the expected.

My current favourite among versions of the Bible is another paraphrase by biblical scholar Eugene Peterson called The Message. I’m sure you’ve heard me speak of it before, and often the readings come from that particular version. It’s a very readable and understandable rendering, with a down to earth style and metaphors that are both catchy and comprehensible.

As you heard, the gospel passage for today revolves around a sort of aside offered by Jesus as people jostled for position around him, hoping to get a favoured place among his gathered listeners. If you read the verses carefully, you will note that he tells his stories as an admonition and prescription for those who were looking for the best seat around him.

First of all he addresses the invitees. Don’t go and sit at the favoured seat. Sit near the back.

Then he addresses the host. Don’t invite just the important people, the people with status. Invite people who don’t get invited to such dinners.

The point of the story may seem quite easy to grasp, and I’m sure that there were people in the crowd gathered around him that day that felt like they had been properly put in their place by Jesus’ analysis. So at first glance it is an object lesson in hubris. Don’t get to feeling too high and mighty because there may be nothing worse than being embarrassed in front of others. And of course, if it was a simple case of calling out a group of listeners on that particular day we likely would know nothing of it, but it is a story that has survived the centuries and therefore speaks to us as much as it does to those who sat with Jesus that day.

But as we heard, Jesus doesn’t stop at calling out the guests, he offers a surprising etiquette for would-be hosts. Don’t puff up yourself by inviting all the high society people to come and dine with your friends and family. Instead, invite people who wouldn’t expect to be invited to dinner.

So, we might say that this is a pair of stories about humility and pride. Don’t be too proud in case you are subject to a public humiliation and don’t use dinner parties as a way of increasing your self-importance but rather as a way of helping to bring some justice to the community – as food and hospitality are shared with everyone, especially people least likely to expect it.

We could stop there and be relatively satisfied that the point has been made. We’ve learned something and the next time such occasions arise we might respond differently and more faithfully.

But there is another issue lying just below the surface of these transparent and enigmatic stories. I’ve just described the transparent aspect – the one that has us shaking our heads in agreement with the point that Jesus is making, even as we make our own resolutions to do better when we are confronted by similar situations.

The enigmatic aspect of the story is not quite as graspable, although it is also not hidden all that deeply. There are easily identifiable pointers.

This aspect is about motivation. The question that lingers close to the surface of this story is one about what drives us to act in the way that Jesus suggests.

In the first part, the suggestion is that the motivation for sitting in the lowly place at a dinner party is to avoid the embarrassment of public humiliation. Despite the surface message of altruism and humility, closer analysis of Jesus’ words tells us that it is still about self-importance. Avoid embarrassment, but make yourself special by being ordinary. You just might get called up to a place of honour and then imagine how important and proud you will be when that happens. And my how the people will talk. That’s the way I read Jesus’ advice to those who would be guests. It’s a curious little ploy that Jesus uses, and somehow seems a bit of character for him.

It is especially interesting when it is compared with the next part of the story. As host, take action that will have no earthly consequence. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. And what does Jesus have to offer as a motivation for this action? Here’s the way it reads in The Message: “You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favour, but the favour will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.” So, according to Jesus in this passage, the motivation is to experience a blessing, but not a “this worldly” blessing, a “next worldly” blessing – as the passage put it “at the resurrection of God’s people”.

This is the thing that vexed and intrigued me this week. Does there always have to be something in it for us? Even if it is not something to be attained in this life? And what does it mean to be blessed at the resurrection of God’s people? Is this about a kind of “brownie point” view of salvation – where if you do the right things, invite the right kind of guests, sit at the right place at dinner parties to which you’ve been invited, you’ll be blessed in the next life, you’ll make it to heaven, or your heaven will be just a bit better than someone else’s heaven?

What about a motivation that relies on doing the right thing. What if the only reason for doing as Jesus suggests is because it is the right thing to do. It is Godly action. It is something imbued with divine presence – a presence which has a spiritual element to it.

I think of all us, if we think deeply enough about our experiences in life, could come up with situations similar to the one described by Jesus at which we have been in the hosting role and when we have invited or welcomed unexpected guests. It certainly has happened for me. And I doubt my experience is so unique that you have not had the same thing happen. And when I think of those situations, I can quite easily say that Jesus was absolutely right with that phrase, as Eugene Peterson translated it: “You’ll be – and experience – a blessing.” Full stop – no need to go any further in explanation. If blessing is defined as a moment when we especially recognise the presence of God, then this has happened many times, and I would be well instructed to remember it in some moments of my life when I might be tempted to forget it. I don’t need to worry about being blessed at some later event. I know that indeed those moments have been ones of blessing in and of themselves. God is ready to show up in every encounter we have in life – and God is most readily apparent at times when we might least expect the situation to be one that has a spiritual aspect to it, a sense of the divine, and the transcendent.

Jesus told stories that help us to understand what it means to live as God’s people, to be dwellers in the kin-dom. They are stories that upset traditional interpretations, that invite us to consider situations from very different perspectives, that remind us that there are moments of blessing to be found in the most unexpected places. They are stories that encourage us to adjust our actions in ways that are motivated by a concern for the common good, for the building up of community above self, for a society in which the misfits are hard to find because everyone is welcomed, included and valued. And all without concern for what we’ll get out of it, in this world or the next.

You’ll be – and experience – a blessing! Yes you will. Amen.