Can’t Buy Me Love
I was recently in New York at an event hosted by the International Economic Alliance, called the Global Investment Symposium. I had a chance to speak with one of the directors of the IEA who upon learning that I was a clergyperson with an interest in Economics, revealed to me that he was a “Pope John Paul II kind of man…you know, Capitalism…with a conscience!”. Never passing up a moment to use a little holy snark, I replied, “I’m more of a Pope Francis, tear it all down kinda girl”.
There’s a beautiful, rich snark that lies at the intersection of religion and economics, perhaps because we often turn to humor to diffuse tension. And there’s a lot of tense nervous laughter when we talk about God in Econ class, or Money in Church.
I want to start with a little exercise- I’m going to name a few words and I want you all to give thumbs up if you think the word has a positive connotation, and a thumbs down if you think the word has a negative connotation.
Alright. First word: independent!
Alright, how about….co-dependent…
Okay, next word is …self-sufficient?
If any of you who were here a year ago when we welcomed author Chuck Collins to worship with us after having read his book Born on Third Base in our summer book group, you may remember how we talked about how our American creation myth values self-sufficiency and independence.
But I believe God calls us to live interdependently. Where we rely on one another to build community together and help each other out. Where we live like that early community in Acts, holding all things in common...well, maybe not all thiings. I’d like to keep my toothbrush to myself, thanks.
And maybe our beloved community doesn’t look like a commie hippie commune, but there’s definitely something to be said for loosening our exclusive claims over that which might best be used as a community resource: things like money, shelter, food, love. When we loosen our grip on exclusive claims to resources, we find we are left with so much more than we started with. At least that’s what I think Jesus might be getting at when he says, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields,—and in the age to come eternal life.”
Here’s how I’ve interpreted this little puzzle: Is anyone here an older sibling? Do you remember what it was like when you were still the only child? When you had your parents love and attention all to yourself, you had your toys all to yourself? And then came along your little sibling, and suddenly your parents weren’t just your parents- they were your siblings parents as well.
Suddenly you had to share your toys, your room, your Christmas presents were halved as your parents had two children to buy for...you gave up all these things and you gained a new family member. A new person to love and be loved by, a new playmate, a new roommate to stay up late with or blame messes on or team up with to convince your parents to get a dog by drawing faces on spuds and calling them your potato puppies and taking them everywhere and telling everyone about them until your parents relented….ok maybe that was just me and my sister, but you get the point.
Living interdependently requires us to give up our exclusive claims on our family and property, but we also gain access to the care and wealth of all those in the community. Your home may no longer be a place to which you can retreat and shut out the world, pretending you don’t hear the beggars at he door, but you now have many households to welcome you over the threshold when you are in need of safety, shelter, or fellowship. You parent may now care for many in the community, but now you also have gained an entire community of parental figures- fathers who will kiss your skinned knees and mothers who will help you with your homework, parents who will raise you to be compassionate and thirsty for justice.
You may no longer be able to keep all the harvest from your fields, but now you can enjoy the abundance of variety from the harvests of others. “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, and in the age to come eternal life”
This is a great vision of community, some might even say it’s utopian. Many would quickly point out the impracticalities of living life like the early church in the book of Acts, where they held all things communally. And I will cede some of that point...but I think the impracticality A. isn’t as much prohibitive as it is a challenge to be worked through, and B. I think its stems less from logistics and more from our relationship with our private wealth.
And Jesus totally gets this. He’s approached by a young man, so eager to follow God, and the man asks Jesus what more he can do...I think he’s pretty relatable, don’t you? Eager to serve God, eager to love neighbor, wouldn’t we all like to be able to directly ask Jesus what else we can do? How much would we all love to perhaps get a direct answer? How many of us are a little nervous about what Jesus might say?
So the eager young man asks Jesus what more he can do, and Jesus says, “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me” and we are told that the man departs in tears because he had many possessions. We aren’t told whether the man plans to follow Jesus’ instruction and is grieving his possessions, or whether he is grieving his inability to give up his wealth in order to enter the Kingdom.
Jesus later explains compassionately to his disciples that man, it’s hard for anyone to enter the Kingdom…and a rich person? It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, because having a lot of private wealth makes it really hard to live interdependently. Not the fact of having the money, but the kind of value system we need to adopt in order to amass material wealth in our economy makes it even harder to give it up.
Has anyone ever heard about how sharks need to keep swimming in order for their gills to function? I dunno if it’s true or not, but it’s a great analogy for how our economy is set up. The way that American capitalism, especially 20th and 21st century American capitalism works, the economy needs to constantly expand in order not to collapse. And how does the economy expand? By people buying things…by consumerism. We’ve gotta keep the flow of consumerism steady through the gills of American capitalism or it’ll die.
We all engage with the economy when we buy groceries, pay our rent or mortgages, buy gas, clothing, you name it- all the necessities to cover our needs for food, shelter, and health. For many, once these basic needs are met, the buck stops there and the consumption dries up. Some of us can barely afford to cover these basics in the first place, and some go with these needs unmet. Our unhoused siblings and cousins, our hungry children, those of us on Medicaid or who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, commonly known as food stamps, they aren’t the main source of consumerism keeping our little financial shark breathing.
It’s those of us who are able to meet our needs with money to spare. We’re the ones who need to be convinced to keep spending and spending on top of our needs in order to bolster the GDP, to invigorate the economy, to keep the consumerism expanding.
Have any of you sold all your belongings and given the money to the poor? Nope, me neither. Have any of you taken your entire ‘spending money’ budget and converted it into a charitable giving budget? Nope, me neither. So I may be standing up here on my high pulpit but it is the farthest thing from a high horse right now. In fact it’s probably more like a golden calf.
I typed this sermon on my Apple computer when I could’ve typed it at the library or hand-written it and sold my expensive laptop to give the money to the poor. I spent an extra $20 yesterday on my flight back from Philly to get a seat over the wing of the airplane because supposedly you feel less turbulence over the wings. I could’ve given that $20 to the offering plate today.
Why do we keep spending and spending on top of our needs instead of using that money to meet the needs of our neighbors? I think it’s cause we’ve gotten our needs confused with our wants. Our economy has trained us how to justify wants as though they are needs. And it can get kinda creepy and predatory when you think about it… I mean, the beauty and fitness industry, for example, it profits off of insecurity, making people (mostly women) feel like they need to buy this product or that workout plan or get that treatment done or join this boutique gym in order to be acceptable. Also can I just point out how weird it is that razors marketed to women cost more than the exact same razor when it’s marketed to men?
Anyone privileged enough to have traveled in an airplane is familiar with the instruction that in the event of cabin depressurization, you are supposed to put your own air mask on before you help others with their masks. You need to take care of your own basic needs before you can be in a position to help others, but I think that many would agree that Christ does call us to attend to the needs of others before we try to fulfill our wants.
And yet that begs the question, how can we truly do that when we’ve been convinced that our wants ARE our needs?
The goalposts are continuously on the move, it seems. If we can just get to a certain income level, a certain lifestyle, we’ll be happy and satisfied. …but then as soon as we get there, a new goal emerges to compare ourselves with. 2 years ago, when I was temping full time, relying on food stamps to supplement my grocery budget, and ocassionally relying on a local food pantry when I was in between assignments, I would’ve been happy just to get paid on the federal holidays when the office would close, let alone to have paid vacation time. Now here I am with paid federal holidays, AND paid vacation, and…I compare myself somewhat enviously with my friends who travel internationally multiple times per year, or who stay in hotels when they travel instead of renting an airbnb in order to be able cook and save on meal costs. What??
But there it is…the more we have, the more we want. And the more we confuse our wants with our needs, the harder it is to prioritize our neighbor’s needs over our own wants. The harder it is to even be aware of our neighbor’s needs. One of the hallmarks of privilege, after all, is not realizing you have it.
Because of this, for those of us with a lot of material wealth, we have more to “unlearn” in order to adopt and internalize the values and behaviors that enact the kingdom of God. So it’s not so much that Jesus doesn’t want the wealthy to follow, or looks down on the wealthy as somehow less-than, or as people to be kept out of the Beloved Community, but perhaps he just knows that its psychologically more difficult for the wealthy to live in the way that joining this movement requires, than it is for folks who have less private material wealth and are already used to relying on community interdependence to get by. It was hard to learn to share your parents’ attention when your first sibling was born, but when you’re second sibling came along? You know the drill! The more the merrier!
There’s another reason that Jesus acknowledges for how hard it is to enter the interdependent beloved kingdom if you have a mass of private wealth, and that has to do with trust. Part of being an interdependent community is trusting that your community will take care of you, just as you take care of them. It’s loving abundantly and living courageously, it’s allowing others to help you and learning to ask for help. I don’t think we can really live into our trust, in the truest sense of the word, if we still feel solidly in control of our situation.
There’s a reason that when you do a ‘trust fall’ you fall backwards, with your eyes closed. It’s an exercise to test whether you are able to trust your friends to catch you when you have no way of verifying for sure that their arms are outstretched and ready. The safety net that our private wealth provides us makes it harder to really trust our community to have our backs, and it’s nearly impossible to have a healthy, interdependent relationship if we don’t have a foundation of trust.
How do we put this into practice, when we’re all aware that our utopian hippie communes may not be logistically feasible…not just yet, at least,
You know the common financial advice, ‘pay yourself first’ meaning once rent and bills are paid, before you do anything else with your paycheck, put money into savings? I want you to imagine just for a moment what it might feel like to give first. If we were to tithe to church or charity or directly to someone in need, to treat that as a financial and spiritual priority second only to meeting our absolute necessities.
Or on a smaller but similar scale, imagine perhaps going one month without spending money on anything beyond food, bills, housing, transportation, and medicine and hygiene. Compare that month’s budget to the month before, pray about how it felt, what was hard, what was embarrassing or frustrating or empowering or heart-filling.
Or we could give our children a small allowance that they can choose to spend, save, or share with the poor, and ask them how it feels to share versus how it feels to save or spend. We can really, truly make a spiritual practice of our lives as economic agents. It can help our families grow and learn together, it can transform our lives, it can nurture our children and strengthen our communities and our relationships with those in the margins.
We are all in this together. We are all asking Jesus ‘what more can I do?’. We are all peering through the eye of the needle, all-to-aware of the humps on our back. We are all grieving, for we have many possessions. We’re all called to discern how we prioritize wants, needs, and sharing. And we’re all wise to remember the Good News of Christ’s promise, that for God, all things are possible. Amen.