(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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In my message on radical hospitality last Sunday, I told one of the parables Jesus used to teach ethics of hospitality. I don’t offer such stories because I believe they are from God, or that they offer unique wisdom. Instead, I occasionally relate them in messages because many of are so effective in teaching universal ideals of goodness. I used a Jesus story last week about a man hosting a banquet to emphasize the spiritual reasons for being hospitable. Showing radical hospitality to all is one of three ways that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed we create a world-wide Beloved Community.
Another Jesus story, as told in the Biblical book of Matthew, says a very wealthy young man approached Jesus and asked him what he must do to go to heaven. As a Jewish man, Jesus replied that he should follow teachings in the Torah. The rich guy asked “Which ones?”
That question annoyed Jesus. Ideals like “Don’t kill,” “Don’t steal,” and “Love your neighbor,” he said, are not ranked from most to least important. “Follow them all,” Jesus said.
“Well,” the rich guy said, “What else must I do?” Jesus likely then looked at him intently and read the guy like a book. Here was a snotty, full of himself, young man who thought money could buy him anything he wanted. So Jesus knew what would be almost impossible for the guy to do. “Go and give all your money to the poor and then come follow my teachings,” Jesus told him. The rich guy looked shocked, turned around, and slowly walked away. He loved his money too much.
Jesus followed up that encounter with one of his most famous statements…….. “It is more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven,” he said, “than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”
For centuries, and still today, that statement confounds and frightens wealthy Christians. They take little comfort in what Jesus next said………….“With humans, this is impossible. But with God, everything is possible.”
Jesus implied that wealth brings many dangers. People are prone to rely on money as the source of happiness and security. Instead of prioritizing love and goodwill in the world, many wealthy people believe money buys them contentment. Jesus knew that we’ll-being, instead, comes from serving, giving, and compassion. Those are things that even some wealthy people practice – so they are difficult to adopt – but not impossible.
I relate this story because it colorfully teaches what is truly valuable in life and death. Being great is not about being rich or powerful. It’s not even about building human equality which, as Dr. King said, only creates stagnant sameness – instead of constructive oneness. People must build a form of heaven on earth – one where we don’t just tolerate one another – we honestly love one another. People must therefore build a world-wide Beloved Community compromising the entire one human family.
Three things, Dr. King believed, prevent such a beloved community from being created – exclusivism, materialism and militarism. I addressed the antidote to exclusivism last week. Next week I’ll discuss the opposite of militarism, non-violence, which was one of Dr. King’s priorities for a beloved community.
Today, I suggest the antidote to materialism is a humble attitude toward wealth. In other words, it’s a gift to our souls to be simple. Money and things are not the problem. They are just objects with no value other than what we assign them. Instead, It is the way people think about money and things that needs to be continually checked and changed. No world religion condemns money itself. Nor do they condemn wealthy people. Instead, it is the selfish obsession with money and things that work against any Beloved Community. Arrogance, greed and the over appreciation of luxury are what most religions say are evil. What is it that a beloved church like us values – its building, budget, salaries, and the amounts donated? Or, is money simply a tool by which a beloved church serves, loves, enlightens and grows people?
Much like Jesus taught, Jews encourage a love of people over a love of money. They believe all people are made in the image of God – of Yahweh – and so every person has innate dignity. Everybody should have sufficient food, clothing, housing and healthcare precisely because they carry the image and dignity of God within.
Jews believe it is selfishness that causes some people to see money as their own – instead of as a resource for the common good. Rabbis sometimes tell in their Sabbath services the story of a man in a rowboat who suddenly begins to drill a hole beneath his seat. Others in the boat are upset and loudly demand he stop. “Why should you care?” the man asks. “I’m only drilling under my seat.”
The point Rabbis make is clear. A self-focused attitude is destructive not only to the individual, but to everyone. It threatens the dignity of all humanity.
Islam, not surprisingly, teaches the same ethic. Muhammad and his wife Aisha were practitioners of voluntary poverty. A person can be rich, Muhammad taught, but he or she can and should renounce the benefits of wealth by living as simply as possible. Muslims agree with Jews that wealth and resources belong to everyone. Muslims are to substantially share the wealth they hold with the poor not out of charity, but because most of it is not theirs anyway.
This voluntary frugality, so that all may benefit from money, is an often overlooked principle of Islam. Imams tell a story of two equally pious friends who die and head for paradise. At the entrance, Allah invites one of the men to immediately enter. The other must wait. When that man asks why he must wait and his friend is immediately invited in, Allah tells him its because his friend had only owned one shirt in life, while he had owned two.
Buddhism teaches about money in very similar ways. Rich people are not bad and neither is money. Instead, Buddhism says that attachment to money, food, sex, or any other pleasure is the real problem. Attachments cause people to worry that they will lose their prized possession – and those fears create anxiety and a lack of peace. Someone can be rich as long as they have learned not to be attached to money or things. To let go of wealth, the rich should see it as something to alleviate the suffering of others. Being generous is a way to both prevent attachment and do good at the same time.
There is a Sufi Islam story that teaches this universal ethic. A man and his family are fearfully traveling through a forest known to harbor thieves. The son is tasked with carrying the family’s bag of gold – because it’s very heavy. The boy is also the strongest one to fight off robbers. When they come to a fork in the path, the son asks which way they should go. The father stops to think and then tells his son to leave the bag of gold at the fork in the path. By doing so, he tells his son, whichever path they choose will be free of burdens and fears. The lesson is clear. Money and things often cause anxiety and a lack of peace.
As a quick aside, despite the arrogant claim by most religions that their’s is the only legitimate one, the truth is that most religions are similar in what they believe. Who is Christ, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha or Brahmin but the same source of Truth? They each represent a fundamental ethic: when we practice love towards everyone, and not just love for ourselves, we find Truth and contentment.
That confirms the point I make today. A beloved community envisioned by Martin Luther King is a holistic one – a type of utopia where everyone lives cooperatively and at peace. As King once said, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing oriented’ society to a ‘person oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
While there are many who love people and not money, including many in this congregation, several very wealthy people are outsized role models of that. Charles Feeney is an Irish-American businessman who started Duty-Free shops around the world. Over the last thirty years, he has given away nearly all of his $8 billion dollar fortune to organizations that promote world peace and improve healthcare for the poor. At the age of 84, he promises to die with no money.
JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, was once worth over a billion dollars – an English woman richer than the Queen. She too has committed to giving most of her wealth away. She is also a big believer in paying taxes – saying they are another way to care for the needy.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is surprisingly a person who has decided to give away most of his money. He and his wife have pledged 99% of their wealth in the coming years to charity. He lives relatively simply – wearing jeans, hoodies and eating at McDonalds. Says he, ”I really want to clear my life…so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything – except how to best serve the community.”
These super rich people are, indeed, role models. Sadly, however, well-off people are statistically the least generous of any demographic. The wealthiest 20% of Americans, those making $200,000 or more a year, donate on average 1.3% of their incomes. The bottom 20% of Americans, those making $30,000 or less, donate on average 3.2% of their incomes. As Jesus and other spiritual prophets understood, wealth can lead one to depend on it as a source of well-being – instead of as a tool to practice compassion, humility and charity – attitudes I believe offer real contentment.
As a practical matter, I suggest this church and all of us as individuals practice simplicity in our lives, and generosity toward those in need. We do that to intentionally build a Beloved Community here and around the world.
As I indicated earlier, every world religion teaches the same principles about money and people. It is not money that is the root of evil. It is the LOVE of money that is the source of negativity in our world. Indeed, as we know from commentators about racism like author Ta-Nihisi Coates, discrimination is rooted in the economic exploitation of one group of people for the benefit of another. This is true of sexism and male attitudes toward women. Problems like climate change, violence, corruption, poverty and even physical and mental disease are all indirectly caused by greed and humanity’s love of money.
Toward that end, I suggest we as a church community, and we as individuals, make an intentional pledge to continue using our money and resources efficiently and with simplicity. I believe we already do that at the Gathering at Northern Hills in many ways, but I also suggest we must be vigilant about it. That means reducing our use of resources as much as possible – electricity, paper, food and water. We can resolve to setting our thermostats slightly lower or higher than what we do now, we ought to use digital media instead of print media whenever possible, limit buying packaged processed foods for our snacks, purchase local produce, practice “reduce, reuse, recycle”, encourage carpooling in fuel efficient vehicles, and use volunteer labor, whenever possible, to maintain our building.
Simplicity also means our Board, and all of us, examine the budget to be sure each expense meets our criteria to focus as much as possible on meeting community basic needs so that we can generously serve the needs of the poor and oppressed. That means each expense item in our budget ought to be justified by how much it serves not just us – but outsiders too. My salary must not be immune from that examination. As a congregation, we must be on the lookout for any waste, inefficiency or improper spending. All of this is not for us amass more money, but to enable us to give more and thereby continue our desire to be a truly Beloved Community.
To aspire to the sublime heights of a Beloved Community, I encourage us to regularly meditate on how that is expressed in everything we do and say. Martin Luther King, echoing the teachings of Jesus, had obviously had done such deep thinking. Genuine love aches at the bigotry and exclusion we see in the world – and it yearns instead for radical inclusivity. Genuine love rejects selfish use of money as it thrills at charity and generosity. Genuine love, as we’ll discuss next week, is always non-violent in speech and action. I encourage you and me, together, to deeply ponder these truths.
I wish us all peace and joy.