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Money

October 21, 2012
Rev. Marta Morris Flanagan

I have been thinking about money.  On Tuesday Mark Ewert arrived from Washington, D.C.  Mark is a sandy haired man with the lanky physique of Abraham Lincoln.  He is a church financial consultant.  Mark works for the Unitarian Universalist Association. Over the week Mark is meeting with forty representative households at First Parish, asking them about possible renovations and a possible capital campaign to address crowding, accessibility and more.  These meetings are confidential and involve no commitment on the part of the participants.  From these conversations Mark Ewert will recommend a possible financial goal to the Parish Committee.  With a goal in mind, a proposal for renovations will be honed.  Then in January the members of First Parish will vote on whether or not to embark on raising those funds and making those improvements.

I have been thinking about money.  I have been thinking about us, a religious community that is economically diverse.  Even in the wake of a financial crisis some of us live in homes that over the years have increased in value.  Others of us regularly go to the food pantry in an effort to stretch the unemployment check or the disability check.   Some have benefited from family money.  Others are still paying school debts.  Some comfortably receive cost of living increases or more each year.  Others receive food stamps.  We are all here.  It isn’t always easy.  Resentment can creep in along with fear.  We make assumptions, we make mistakes.  And yet this is one reason I choose to serve you as minister and not a more homogenous community.  We are about trying to make it work not in spite of our difference but along with our differences.  And that is a good and worthy task, a task for all the world.

I have been thinking about money.…  how overwhelming the challenges of life can be when money is hard to come by: the flat tire or the lost house key when there isn’t money for cab fare and you will be docked pay.  Studies show that money is the number one stressor in peoples’ lives.  It is the number one cause of divorce.  It is a major source of depression, anxiety and insomnia.  It is a trigger for alcohol and drug abuse. 

I have been thinking about money.  The average young adult amasses $45,000 in debt by the time they turn 29.  We worry about kids eating properly or being careful at night.  We enroll them in driver’s education classes and OWL, our religious education program on sexuality and values. But often we do not equip them with the values or the information to make good financial choices.    

I have been thinking about money.  Religions the world over have addressed the issue of money.  The Buddha spoke of non attachment.  Confucius spoke of simplicity.  The Hebrew Prophets spoke of giving a portion of one’s wealth to those with less.  Jesus both welcomed the poor and chastised those who would condemn the rich.  All are worthy – regardless of means.  All are worthy of praise, all are worthy of a place at the table. 

I’ve heard it said that if you want to take the true measure of someone, observe how they handle sex, time and money.  How do I, how do you, handle sex, time and money? 

We know that sex is a force we all grapple with.  We talk about values and safety.  We teach our children in what is our most acclaimed religious education program. 

We know that time is challenge.  We talk openly about our struggles with time, with feeling busy, overwhelmed, with making choices. 

But money… that’s another story. We even say it isn’t polite to talk about money.  Yet the problem of money dogs us throughout our days, exerting a pressure that, in its way, is as powerful and insistent as any other problem of human existence.  Without talking about it, we make our way largely alone, not being comforted or challenged, not refining or reflecting as much as we might on our choices, on what it is to be a person of faith with regard to money.

What does the presence of money in our lives teach or underscore about life?  This is a theological question.  And so I offer the beginning of a theology of money.

…Money reminds us that life involves limitation.  To live is to be finite, to cope with our finitude in all its forms: death, physical limitation, talent and resources.

…Money reminds us that to be human is to be tempted, to be tempted by what is of fleeting value.  We know what we are supposed to do.  Pay our bills.  Avoid debt.  Share our wealth.  But so often we choose the lesser good, or the easy, quick pleasure.  One of the tasks of life is to manage temptation. 
….Money reminds us that life is unfair and arbitrary.  We are given so much in life.  From birth onward we receive so many unearned gifts.  But those gifts are randomly dispersed.  One person is ill, another healthy, one is born in a rich land and another amidst drought or flood.   Further complicating things is that the value the world assigns certain commodities is arbitrary.  Why are childcare workers paid less than hair stylists or doctors less than rock stars?  Money reveals the inequity of life itself.

These are hard truths but our experience of living with money tells us these are real, they are part and parcel of the human condition.  The question then is, how given these truths, are we go about our days in a faith-filled way? 

Years ago I was an intern, working full time for nine months with the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Plainfield NJ.  I was paid a stipend, which is another way of saying I was paid a pittance.  I say that not to complain.  That is the nature of many an internship.  During that internship I drove a car that wouldn’t have passed an inspection and I made myself three preaching dresses to get me through the year.  I loved the people and treasure the youth who hung out in my office, the many who went along with my idea of housing the homeless for a week each month in the vestry, the women’s alliance that gave me a framed mirror that still hangs in my home to remind me they said of my inner and outer goodness.  But it was Kurt Pollack who never failed to touch me each month.  Kurt was a grey haired man trapped in a corporate job making payments for his kid’s tuitions.  Kurt was also the treasurer of the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, New Jersey.  Every month Kurt wrote me a check.  There were mail slots below the office I had carved out of a room in the church attic.  But every month Kurt called ahead to see if I would be there.  Kurt would make a point of walking up the narrow stairs, sitting in my office, asking after me, telling me something he had seen me do that he thought good or effective….and he would pass me the envelope with my check in it, saying he wished it were more, and saying thank you for what you give us.  I once told Kurt he could just leave the check in my mail slot.  Kurt never did.  At first I found Kurt’s visits awkward.  Then I came to look forward to them.

At first glance it was simply about dropping off a check.  But at a deeper level it was about gratitude.  Kurt was saying thank you to me, the check was a token of appreciation in the truest sense of the word.

One night some years ago Kurt’s heart stopped beating as he slept by his wife’s side.  I think back on Kurt’s visits and am filled with love.

At its core payment should be an expression of gratitude.  Thanks be to the oil and the gas company for warming our homes.  Thanks to the window guy who fixed the broken seal on my kitchen window.  Thanks to the mechanic who fixed my brakes.  Thanks to the phone company and the internet provider for making my life easier. 

To be faithful in our handling of money is to view it as an instrument of gratitude but also as an expression of care and aspiration.  This week I wrote a check for one of you from the Ministers’ Discretionary Fund.  You were in a tight place.  If my life were different I might have done something else, provided you with a lift to work or more.  Instead I expressed the care of this community by writing you a check.  This month I paid my pledge to First Parish and to Planned Parenthood.  There reflect my cares but also my aspirations and my intention for a better way in the world.  What a faith-filled way to go about our days if all the dollars we spent were either expressions of gratitude or of our aspirations for another way in the world.

To be faithful in our handling of money is to be aware of the web that ties us all together in gratitude and in aspiration. 

Now I cannot close a sermon on money without mentioning happiness.  For a long time we been told that increases in income after a certain level of need has been met, don’t amount to increases in happiness. 

But new research reveals that money can indeed buy happiness. 

I’ll explain.  Think of all those stories of people winning the lottery and instead of having wonderful new lives, the presence of such a windfall winds up ruining their lives.  What is that about?  

To get at the answer to this question Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School conducted a series of experiments.  He asked a group of people early in the day to rate their level of happiness.  He then gave them envelopes containing either $5 bills or $20 dollar bills and told them to spend the money on themselves by 5 pm that same day. 

He asked another group of people early in the day to rate their level of happiness.  He also gave them same envelopes with $5 and $20 bills but told them to spend the money on somebody else before 5 pm. 

He phoned each group in the evening and asked a series of questions rating their happiness.  The result?  For those who spent the money on themselves, there was no appreciable difference in their level of happiness.  But for those who gave the money away their level of happiness at the end of the end had appreciably increased.  Interesting as well it made no difference whether one gave away $5 or $20, they accrued the same increased level of happiness.  The results of this study have been borne out in other continents and in a variety of circumstances.

The point is giving money to others, spending money on pro-social activities, increased one’s happiness regardless of the amount.

People who give money to others, to charity to good causes are happier.

I have been thinking about money….   about the limitations and temptations and unfairness inherent in life.   And I have been thinking about happiness, about gratitude, about intention and aspiration.  May we all ponder these things.


Prayer

Four hours ago the sands of our shores stretched out far,
and sunlight appeared on the horizon.
The sun rose shortly after high tide.

Now the waters recede as the sun rises higher in the sky.

So much is known.
So much is unknown.

Please join me in the spirit of prayer.

Holy Spirit
present in the vastness of the sea and the universe
touch us with the majesty of it all.

Mysterious One,
who causes the stars to move in their paths
the waters to swell, and the leaves to turn,
reassure us with the familiar passages of time.

Our days are numbered, we know.
Much happens not of our own hands.
For what we have been given we are grateful.
For loves lost we mourn.
We think especially of mothers and fathers now gone,
longtime companions and
children gone before their time,

Gracious One,
amidst the grandeur of creation and the lessons of life
You touch us with a wondrous love.
Soothe us and prod us with that love.
Open our hearts to what we would be quick to judge.
Help us to speak with care, and act with kindness.

Before each of us there are choices.
We pray for those who are abused at the hands of those they love,
and those living in closets of fear
those who know uncertainty
and those who seek the courage. to do what they know they must.
Open our hearts --
especially to those with less
those who worry about heating their homes this winter,

In world too often beset by hatred
we pray for those in Afghanistan, Syria, Africa, and all places of violence.
In a worldy often shaped by greed and neglect,
we pray for the waters, the land and the skies,
that they might flourish still.

The quiet comes upon us.
Remind us, O Grace, that deep joy is a sign of Your will.
Move us toward such joy.

Let us join together in silent prayer.

 

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