We missed recording the service this Sunday, so here is a rough text of the sermon.
Good morning friends,
It’s good to gather in worship with all of you today!
I’m excited about this morning’s sermon, because it combines two of my favorite things- thinking about how to be content, and thinking about money.
I admit it,
Economics is a hobby of mine. I have NPR’s Planet Money on my podcast list, I follow Calculated Risk daily, I’m curious about how a bunch of people, working together, create such an amazing, horrifying, stupifying, marvelous thing as the modern economy.
It may be an odd study for a minister of the Gospel, but economics is the study of how humans relate to one another using money (my definition), and since church is the community that relates to God and to our neighbors (also my definition) it seems reasonable to me that I have some background information on what people have learned about how this whole money thing works.
Anyway, if you ever want to go deep in the weeds with me on house prices (way to high, and it is mainly local government’s fault), monetary policy, supply and demand, inflation, all that fun stuff, let me know, because Rachel is tired of listening to me. It just doesn’t come up much in sermons because I feel like that’s a little unfair to all of you who came to hear the good news, not the Wall Street Journal.
But I bring it up today because of our scripture passage this morning, which is a reflection on how we think about money, and how we use money.
1 Timothy invites into a position of calm-
“There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”
The letter suggests if we have our physical necessities met, we can flourish.
But when we get swept up with the love of money, then we get caught.
Now, I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say we can be content just with enough food for today and a place to lay our heads- I think most people do better with a little more security than that. But I do think that we’ve let the demands of a consumer culture overwhelm God’s message of contentment, of enough.
Not that it’s bad to enjoy the fruits of the modern world. But we don’t have to taste of the anxiety that undergirds so much of our world.
I don’t need to tell you that money is not a low anxiety issue. I’m not unaware that the Stock Market had a massive selloff in January, and it’s back down to levels from 2 years ago.
My tithe to church, which comes out of a fire and forget account, well I forgot it too long, and it bounced last week, and let me tell you, that wasn’t a ‘low anxiety’ morning figuring out which of my systems went wrong.
And that anxiety, that fear, that restless desire for wealth, power, and influence,
That love of money? Well it has seen people chase get rich quick schemes and fall for fraudsters since the time of Jesus, and the rise of the internet has allowed even more rapid booms and busts as the next big thing arrives, explodes, and collapses, leaving pain and sorrow in it’s wake.
We are the richest people who have ever lived.
One of the more interesting economic thinkers that I follow, Brad Delong, just came out with a book of the history of the ‘long 20th century’ (basically 1870-2010) called Slouching Towards Utopia.
It’s the story of how humanity finally broke out of the poverty that was our reality for most of our history.
Delong argues that for almost all of human history we (we being humans) lived at a subsistence level, having just enough food and shelter to keep ourselves alive long enough to have a few children. Any surplus agricultural calories let more children survive, increasing population, which quickly pushed us back to a more or less subsistence lifestyle with a few wealthy people who had the weapons living a slightly less tenuous life. This is known in the literature as the Malthusian trap, after Thomas Malthus who came up with it.
Delong tells in great detail the story of how in the last centuries economic reality has changed. Since the rise of industrialism, we’ve broken out of the trap, and developed sustained (though maybe not sustainable) wealth creation, such that rather than the vast majority, only a fraction of us work in agriculture, rather than most dying before the age of 40 and nearly every parent knowing the pain of losing a child, we expect to live into our 80s. Rather than spending as much as 50% of our money on food, we budget more like 10%. We actually spend about the same fraction on housing, but now our houses are massive, they have heating, air conditioning, lights, windows, running water, and other modern miracles, and we live as nuclear families instead of in extended clans. And that’s not to mention wealth like cars, cell phones, and other tools of technology that have transformed life in the modern world in many ways. (https://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2007/08/slouching-tow-1.html), https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/03/02/389578089/your-grandparents-spent-more-of-their-money-on-food-than-you-do
A fun example: In ancient Babylon, before the Bible was written, it would take a median laborer 400 hours to get the same light (using candles or oil lamps) as what a 100 watt bulb put out in an hour. By 1800, through the development of technology and murdering all the whales, we got that up all the way to like 50 hours of labor for an hour of light. Kerosene was a big deal, so a century later we were all the way down to 3 hours. But today? With modern LED lighting, maybe a second of work is required to light a room for an hour. We can light a room with LED bulbs for about 20,000 hours for a day’s labor. That’s a whole different kind of material surplus. (https://www.statista.com/chart/10567/the-cost-of-light-through-the-ages/). Now light’s uniquely cheap, not everything has been solved as effectively as light bulbs, but
what it means is that someone with the median American household income of about $70,000 is more or less infinitely richer than almost everyone from even 200 years ago, and even the lowest income people today are living with a very different set of challenges than the fear of starvation and disease that dominated most of our evolutionary history (https://dqydj.com/household-income-percentile-calculator/).
And what Delong suggests in his book is that this new reality should encourage us to ask a different question. Why isn’t life easier?
I’ll quote him here:
“We have technological cornucopia. But the problems of equitably distributing it so that everyone has enough, and of using our technological powers to enable us all to live our lives wisely and well—have flummoxed and continue to flummox us” (https://twitter.com/delong/status/1569729502854651904)
John Menard Keynes, one of the founders of modern economics, looked at our growing material abundance just after World War One and assumed that by about now, a century after his writing, humans would mainly have to worry about what to do with all our leisure time, since “Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week” http://www.econ.yale.edu/smith/econ116a/keynes1.pdf would be sufficient to provide everything needed for a family.
I don’t have to tell you that has not proven the case. We are somewhat less busy than we were- for much of human history people worked 10-12 hour days at hard manual labor every day, and the idea of one day off for sabbath was revolutionary. We have generally cut back from that at least. But everyone I know who gets a job finds things to do. There’s always some new project, some way to do better, something that calls our attention, some way to compete, and with the extra money we earn, there’s always more to want, more to buy, more to do. There’s no amount of money that can buy all the things there are to buy. Only one billionaire is going to get to buy the Phoenix Suns, and a handful of ridiculously rich people are going to be disappointed, despite having far more than the necessities.
We’ve gone from a world where everyone is living in a one room house with a dirt floor and spending most of the day in the fields to a world where we are bombarded daily with images and messages about all the cool things we didn’t know existed and we’ve now discovered we ought to want.
New cars, bigger cars, with all the latest tech. Phones that can transform our lives, listen to our demands, and allow us to purchase anything at the touch of a button. Homes that legally have to be enormous, yards where we can live out our status competitions by propagating exotic species. It’s a lot harder to be content when there is so much we can imagine getting, and everywhere we turn we see people enjoying things that we too might enjoy.
It’s built deep in our human DNA to compete- to compete for status, for wealth, power and influence, to want the next big thing, to keep up with our neighbors, to surpass them if we can. It’s how we survived and flourished and became the apex predator throughout the entire globe.
And like many things built into our systems from the beginning, that competition doesn’t serve us well anymore. The constant comparison with how much others have compared to what we have when we’re bombarded every day with the wealth of the wealthiest fraction of 1%,
That deep anxiety- the universal experiences of jealousy of those who have more, fear of losing what we have, uncertainty about the future, grief for those we’ve lost, anger at those who have done us wrong, boredom when we are idle, frustration when we feel powerless, those experiences remain profoundly real for human beings regardless of our economic circumstances, and continue to be the source of discontent in homes around the world.
And so it brings me back to the Gospel. The good news.
The invitation that while society may be offering a constant list of things we need, a promise of pleasure and fulfillment through consumption and competition, there is another way.
We can be content with what we have right now, as well as what we end up with in the future, and we can act in love and generosity whatever our situation.
And as for those who in the present age are rich- most of us now- command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves a good foundation for the future.
The advice is not to feel guilty because we’ve escaped the Malthusian trap. Instead, it’s an invitation not to try to pull the ladder up behind us, and to continue to seek satisfaction with what we have, to be generous when we can, and to work together to build a world where everyone can flourish.
So to close, is there anywhere where you are called towards contentment?
Are there places in your soul where you feel discontent with what you have? Where you notice yourself struggling with envy, or coveting what others have, or in status competitions with others around you- neighbors, friends, fellow church members?
And Where do you feel the invitation to be generous? Where might you share more of what you have? To let go of what you don’t need? The holidays are coming, this is a great time to plan your generosity, and give to organizations and people who are in need.
Because we do not need to let money be part of our identity, either having a lot, or having to little.
But you, child of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses, and keep the commandments without spot or blame until Christ comes.