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Sermon (9/19): “Are America’s Rich Falling Behind the Super-Rich?”

September 20, 2010
I don’t think there are that many people out there who hate wealth. And I don’t think there are many out there who looooove wealth either, that loooove money for its own sake. Like Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” Didn’t he once take a shower with money? I don’t think very many people are really like that.

Most of us, I think, most of us are level-headed enough to recognize that wealth is simply a tool, a powerful tool to be sure, but merely a tool nonetheless, a tool that can be used for good, and a tool that can be used for ill. And to whatever extent we may want wealth, and to whatever extent we may work to acquire wealth, I think most of us do so because we hope to use wealth to do something, to do something good, something in the service of the good–in the service of God.

Right? Aren’t those our intentions most of the time? All of us here are church-goers. Surely, we all at least intend to use whatever wealth we have or are pursuing in the service of the good, in the service of God? Right?

However, even though those are our intentions, even though we may set out to acquire wealth merely as a tool to serve God, I think we can get confused and side-tracked along the way. We can come to see wealth as an end in and of itself and we can fixate on it.

When we don’t have it, we can fixate on acquiring it. And when we do have it, we can fixate on keeping it. And when we lose it, we can fixate on how we lost it and we can fixate on how we can get it back.

[click below for complete sermon]
The last few Sundays, we’ve been hearing a lot from the Gospel of Luke about all we must do to live up to Jesus’ call to follow him. And all of those readings, one way or another, have brought up money, riches, and possessions and now, wealth.

Clearly, Jesus wants us to think and pray hard about our relationship with money. And I think that Jesus is asking us to think and pray about ourselves individuals and as a community–as individual Americans and as part of America.

Because I do not think we’re ever going to get right with money on our own–we’re too influenced by the society in which we live in all kinds of ways for us to forge a path entirely by ourselves.

But I also do not think we can lay all of our prayers at the feet of our economic systems or our governmental systems. Because no matter the system, our basic human fallen-ness will assert itself one way or another.

As someone once joked, “What exactly is the difference between capitalism and communism? It’s really quite simple. Under capitalism, man exploits his fellow man. Under communism, the opposite is true.”

Today, in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, I think Jesus gets down to the heart of the matter. He gets to the heart of the matter regarding rich and poor and money and possessions and wealth.

“No slave can serve two masters,” says Jesus, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

First off, I think it’s important to recognize that Jesus is not equating wealth with some sort of anti-God. Jesus is not calling wealth, the “Devil,” an evil force to be avoided at all cost. Rather, Jesus is simply saying wealth should not be served as one serves a master, that we should not be enslaved by wealth.

And, of course, we need not be wealthy to be enslaved by wealth. In fact, we may be poor and hate the thought of wealth, think all wealth is evil, and still be enslaved by it. As I read today’s Gospel, I think Jesus may be warning us that viewing wealth as evil may actually be a warning sign, a symptom, that we are enslaved by it.

After all, whenever we hate or despise anything—be it wealth or poverty, success or failure, power or weakness—then that object of our hatred usually ends up having too much control over us, ends up, in a sense, enslaving us.

But I don’t think there are that many people out there who hate wealth. And I don’t think there are many out there who looooove wealth either, that loooove money for its own sake. Like Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” Didn’t he once take a shower with money? I don’t think very many people are really like that.

Most of us, I think, most of us are level-headed enough to recognize that wealth is simply a tool, a powerful tool to be sure, but merely a tool nonetheless, a tool that can be used for good, and a tool that can be used for ill. And to whatever extent we may want wealth, and to whatever extent we may work to acquire wealth, I think most of us do so because we hope to use wealth to do something, to do something good, something in the service of the good–in the service of God.

Right? Aren’t those our intentions most of the time? All of us here are church-goers. Surely, we all at least intend to use whatever wealth we have or are pursuing in the service of the good, in the service of God? Right?

However, even though those are our intentions, even though we may set out to acquire wealth merely as a tool to serve God, I think we can get confused and side-tracked along the way. We can come to see wealth as an end in and of itself and we can fixate on it.

When we don’t have it, we can fixate on acquiring it. And when we do have it, we can fixate on keeping it. And when we lose it, we can fixate on how we lost it and we can fixate on how we can get it back.

It’s a classic human thing. The pursuit of wealth is so often undertaken with the best of intentions and a great deal of perspective, but frequently those intentions curdle and that perspective evaporates. And we are left focused on wealth or on the absence of wealth, rather than on what we intended to do with that wealth in the first place.

As many of you all know, I spend some of my time reading and digging up stuff on-line to link to on our St. Peter’s blog. And in the last couple of weeks, I stumbled three very different things in my travels around the web that all speak to the issues raised by today’s Gospel.

The Onion comedy web-site did a spoof of a cable-news talking-head debate–on the topic, “Are America’s Rich Falling Behind the Super-Rich?”

One pundit, apparently defending the super-rich, said:

“Look, everyone can’t vacation in Italy. Some have to vacation in Martha’s Vineyard and that’s just the way the world is. The rich are just not wise with their money. They need to learn more about off-shore banking.”

Another mock-pundit pushed back:

“Hey, I take issue with that! Because I grew up rich. Our pool did not have a waterfall, or a grotto. We had to share tennis courts with other families. And I became a wiser man because of it.”

Then, I came across a recent psychological study out of Princeton University that drew on a survey of over 450,000 people, that found that Americans today show higher and higher levels of happiness the more money they earn, until they reach an annual salary of about $75,000. So money can buy happiness, according to this study, but only up to $75,000 per year. Once you cross that $75,000 barrier, money doesn’t seem to buy much more happiness.

The study found that those who make more than $75,000–even those who make much more than $75,000, say 7-hundred and 50-thousand–are not significantly happier than those who make $75,000.

However! However—and this is where it gets interesting—the more money one makes above and beyond that $75,000 threshold, the greater one’s “life evaluation”—according to the researchers.

So once you make $75,000 per year, your day-in, day-out happiness, your basic emotional well-being is not likely to increase even if you manage to make 10 times that amount. However, the more money you earn above and beyond that $75,000 dollar threshold, the higher your evaluation of your life will be.

As the Princeton researchers put it: “High incomes [above $75,000] don’t bring you happiness, but they do bring you a life that you think is better.”

“High incomes don’t bring you happiness, but they do bring you a life that you think is better.”

“Hey, I take issue with that! Because I grew up rich. Our pool did not have a waterfall, or a grotto. We had to share tennis courts with other families.”

“Look, everyone can’t vacation in Italy. Some have to vacation in Martha’s Vineyard and that’s just the way the world is.”

Now, all this is connected for me with something else I came across this past week. A 20-something Evangelical preacher from Birmingham, Alabama, named David Platt, recently published a book called, “Radical,” that argues that the American Dream of ever-increasing upward social mobility may be antithetical to the gospel of Jesus.

Platt and his book are getting a lot of attention. David Brooks mentioned it in his New York Times column a week or so ago and it is selling very well—the last I checked it ranked among the top-40 best-selling books on Amazon.com. And Evangelical and Southern Baptist leaders are all completely supportive of it, urging their congregations to buy it en masse.

In the book, Platt argues that to truly follow Jesus, we should put a cap on our lives. He urges his readers to live as though they make $50,000 and give everything else away—don’t invest it, don’t put it in savings accounts. Give it away.

That’s quite a challenge. And I really wonder, of his thousands of readers, how many are truly taking up that challenge.

One of the more honest reviews of the book that I came across was written by Russell Moore, the Dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He wrote: “Sometimes people will commend a book by saying, ‘You won’t want to put it down.’ I can’t say that about this book. You’ll want to put it down, many times. If you’re like me, as you read David Platt’s ‘Radical,’ you’ll find yourself uncomfortably targeted by the Holy Spirit. You’ll see just how acclimated you are to the American Dream.”

Part of why I love the internet is that I can come across three such disparate sources of information and yet they can all tell me something about the Gospel. And in this case, that Onion comedy bit, the Princeton study, and that Evangelical’s new book are all, each in their own way, echoing the same message–the message of today’s reading from Luke, and the heart of Jesus’ teachings about money and wealth.

And that is that wealth is a tool. Merely a tool. And actually, a fairly limited tool at that.

But I think we know that. We know that. I’m not saying anything revolutionary here.

However, I think we are prone—as Americans, we are dangerously prone—to falling into the trap of feeling that wealth is more than a tool. That wealth is the tool, the key to safety, to security, to happiness, to life itself.

And so, almost subconsciously, I think we can become enslaved to it. And when we do, we find ourselves with an extra master. As Jesus says, we cannot serve two masters, we cannot serve both God and wealth. So something has to give.

And over the past two years, since the beginning of this severe recession, I think something has begun to give. I think we Americans have begun to get some perspective on the creeping, insidious way that wealth has become a second master for so many of us as individuals and for our society as a whole. And so, maybe, maybe God can show us something good, maybe God can reveal something of God’s truth through this recession, by helping us to see that despite our best intentions, it can be very easy to become enslaved by wealth.

And God will be there for us as we recover. As we rebuild. And as we rediscover who and what we are truly meant to serve.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael Adams permalink
    September 20, 2010 7:08 pm

    Thanks for challenging us to examine our priorities in the context of Jesus’ teaching.

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  1. Religion Without Religion « Cathedral Crossings

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