Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 4 October 2015
Each possession you possess
Helps your spirits to soar
That's what's soothing about excess
Never settle for something less
Something's better than nothing, yes
But nothing's better than more, more, more
“More”. Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics. Madonna sang it. (You just heard Tara Bissett sing it. It comes from the movie, Dick Tracy.)
The funny thing is, studies show that, past a certain point, money does not buy happiness. It just buys envy, greed and an insatiable appetite for more, more, more — a hole that can never be filled. They also say that when it comes to intimate relationships, money may be the biggest source of stress. More than sex. More than family. More than parenting. So it seems strange that when we talk about wholeness in our lives, especially here in church, we rarely talk about our relationship to money.
Last month, we focused on the theme of ‘risk’, and last week, I asked everyone who was here to answer the question: “Do you need to change your relationship to risk?” People wrote answers on small Post-It notes and placed them on the wall here behind me during our meditation or at the end of the service. (You each have a copy of all the responses in your Order of Service today.) As I read over everything you had written, I was truly moved. There is a lot of longing here — and you need to know that you are not alone in your longing.
This month we’re exploring the theme of ‘integrity’. What does it mean to live your life with integrity? What does it mean to live our Unitarian Universalist values with integrity? Something has integrity when it is whole, when no pieces are missing. But we also say that a person with integrity is someone who is honest, who has strong moral values. I think it takes courage and a lot of work to be whole, to be honest, to live with integrity.
We are made up of so many conflicting pieces. So what is it that makes us whole? Starting long before I became a minister, I’ve always come to Sunday services with a desire to be made whole again — more than just taking a break or a recharging for the week. I think of these words from Rilke (you heard them in French earlier),
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.
I’m still trying figure out how to let what I do flow from me like a river. I wish I could let go and not force or hold back what needs to happen. I guess you could define integrity as being true to yourself, (that’s certainly how the children in our Religious Education program will be exploring this month’s theme). But surely there has to be more than just what I, or you, need as individuals to be fully whole. Otherwise, why don’t we just stay home and read self-help books or watch TED talks on our own? To be fully whole requires being responsible to something beyond the self -- to loved ones, to family, to community, to the earth, to God or to the universe.
So where does money fit into all of this? It seems to me that any religious tradition worth its salt should help you figure out the big questions in your life. To seek the meaning and purpose of life, to deal with the ever present reality of death, to understand the holes that need to be filled in our souls, to figure out what it means to live justly. And money, money flows through everything. It is a reality in our lives that shapes everything, that determines who will have the luxury to find peace and contentment and who will live with anguish.
When it comes to money, our history is complex. People often talk about the Unitarians who established themselves in the 1800s in Boston, and here in Montreal, as a very educated, privileged class. They also talk about the Universalists as the ones who came from simple roots. The farmers with the soybeans versus the investors with the money. You could see our family tree as having the poor side of the family and the rich side.
Of course, it’s always been much more complex than that. But it’s true that, in the 1830s and 40s when this congregation was first coming into being, our founders tended to be captains of industry. Families like Molson and Workman…names you still see on street signs here and plastered across beer distribution centres today. Many were self-made successful businessmen who came from England, Ireland, Scotland and the United States to build the Golden Square Mile in Montreal — a square mile downtown that once held roughly 80% of all of Canada’s wealth. In fact, it’s where our former church building was located until it burned down in 1987.
Unitarianism affirmed the capacity of individuals to determine their own future, and that fit perfectly with our early founders’ approach to the world. But those families are long gone. They left behind a tremendous cultural and spiritual legacy, although interestingly, not a lot of money. Today, we are a completely different community. Those captains of industry no longer keep us afloat or define our personality. I think it’s safe to say we have become a much humbler community, although much richer in our diversity.
Whether explicit or not, every religious tradition has its take on money. For some, money is a gift from God to be managed well. For others, money is the root of all evil. To value money above all other things, to lend money with interest, to fail to give money to the poor: In different traditions these can all be considered sins or extreme human failings. In our tradition, there aren’t a lot of explicit rules about money. Yet we want to act justly in the world. We want to strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the suffering. Surely, that means being just in the way we handle money.
In 1845, a young man named Henry David Thoreau began to write his most famous book, Walden, or Life in the Woods. In July of that year, Thoreau left the comfort of his home in the town of Concord, Massachusetts, to live in a small cabin in the woods for the next two and half years. The Transcendentalist writings of Thoreau that came out of that experience have inspired generations of Unitarians. As Thoreau observed the changing seasons, planted beans and fished in Walden Pond, he reflected upon the meaning of life. He wrote:
“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.”
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
He also wrote:
“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”
I love Thoreau’s Walden. I love the beauty of the world he describes; the way in which he calls us to slow down, to be aware of what is holy in the world that surrounds us. I love how he calls us to consider what it is that we are really fishing for in our lives. I love his commitment to truth over money. I even agree that the fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. But his call to simply accept our circumstances, to celebrate the poorhouse as much as the palace, this I cannot take. It’s a perspective that few Unitarian Universalists would agree with today. Like the shifts in this community, we’ve changed as a movement. These days we would call for economic equality and reform, not economic acceptance.
You could say that Thoreau sat in a privileged place, as a man of his times. During the years that he lived in seclusion, he still had his laundry done by his mother — of course this was in exchange for small repairs he did around her house. Not that Thoreau ever made much money. The son of a pencil maker, he came from a modest though respected upbringing. It would take 150 years after his death before Walden would become recognized as an American classic with millions of copies sold. Thoreau didn’t receive a single royalty, and unsold copies of his book were piled high inside his tiny cabin.
I struggle when it comes to thinking about our faith, the integrity of our values and money. Like Thoreau, I stand in a fairly privileged place. Both my parents came from poor families, but they were lucky to receive free education that led them to live a modest middle class life. I grew up knowing that money was always something you worried about, but there was always food on the table and new clothes for school in September. For ten years, as idealistic young adults, my parents worked underground for the Communists in the U.S. I was four when they became disillusioned and left the party. They had been drawn to it because they believed that all people deserved their fair share. These are values that have stayed with me and have challenged me throughout my life. I have known financial worry and I have known financial shame and guilt. For me, the shame surfaces more in the times when things are going well financially. I never feel I deserve what I have when I know that there are so many people who don’t have what they need. Yet my worrying relationship with money, developed from childhood, can sometimes keep me from sharing what I have.
Each one of us here has a story to tell about the relationship with money. Some of us may have more than we need but only want more, more, more. Some of us have so little and yet manage to give so much to others — there are those in this community who are struggling, who have been looking for jobs for years, who fight each and every week to make ends meet, and who go hungry some days. It’s easy to look around and imagine that there isn’t hunger or want in our midst, but I can tell you that there is. When we ask ourselves why we don’t take more action in the world, we don’t realize how many people living with need find shelter right here, often quietly hidden among us. I can tell you that some of the most generous people in this community live on very limited incomes.
We live in times that call us to consume more, to go into debt, to want it all. We also live in times of growing financial inequality. Those who don’t have, suffer. Those who do, often feel confused. What do you keep for yourself? What do you share? When do we find ourselves falling into greed or insecurity? Whether we have it or not, our relationship to money can keep us far from being whole.
Last week, I had the impression that you willingly spoke to each other about ‘risk’ as you split into pairs to talk during the service. But if I asked you to speak to each other about how you really feel about money in your life, I don’t think many of us would be so willing. It may be the most taboo topic in our lives. So, what if we could become more open and honest about money? What if we could talk to each other about money? Would that be a risk any of us would be willing to take? Could we bring each other back to wholeness, to a place of integrity with this part of our lives that informs nearly everything we do?
I won’t ask you to write on a Post-It note today to answer the question “Do you need to change your relationship to money?” although it is tempting. I would welcome any reflections you might decide to send to me. There’s so much we can learn from each other, if we only dare.
We may have been fishing all our lives, but I am sure that it isn’t fish that we’re after.
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