Money and Happiness

24
Sep

A sermon preached on September 23, 2007 based upon Luke 16:1 – 13, entitled “Money and Happiness”.

We all say, we just want to be happy. The United States may well be the most self-consciously happiness pursuing nation in the world. Thomas Jefferson even wrote it into our declaration of independence that this new country was intentionally founded on the principle of everybody‘s right to “life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness.”

But here’s the odd thing. Happiness, the real deal, can be strangely elusive, despite all the pursuit of it that goes on.

The thing about happiness, though, is that it isn’t really rocket science. If we want to be happy, our best shot comes in living, as best we can, in harmony with the way God designed life. Live according to the ten commandments, which includes such things as keeping a good balance between work and rest, telling the truth, being faithful to spouse and parent, not stealing or killing, refraining from envy. Do these things, the scriptures tell us repeatedly, and we will live — will flourish.

Pretty basic stuff. Happiness isn’t brain surgery. If you desire happiness, put the golden rule into practice: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto your self.” The ministry of Jesus involved refocusing our attention on living the way God designed life:

Forgive. Holding onto resentments will do you in for sure.
Live with integrity. Don’t be a hypocrite, two-faced.
Don’t be self-righteous and judgmental.
Care about the people around you, both family and stranger, and help those
who are less fortunate than yourself.
Strive to be a part of a loving community.

This is what the Bible tells us about how God designed life to operate. Recently scientists have been providing reinforcement regarding the principles of happiness. They measure such things as peoples’ perceptions of their personal happiness, as well as the effects of attitudes on health. They’re finding that people who are actively involved in a community of faith, taking time to step back and reflect and to worship tend to feel better about their lives and live longer — stuff like that. There’s plenty of evidence that people who practice forgiveness, and who regularly invest themselves in their larger community with acts of service, live healthier, happier lives.

So the keys to happiness aren’t really rocket science or brain surgery. You don’t really need the latest self-help book to show you the secrets. It’s all been there in the Bible for thousands of years.

So, why, then is happiness so elusive? Why is there so much loneliness, conflict, violence; so many feelings of emptiness, despair? At the risk of over simplification, I turn now to the choir to provide an answer for us to this question, courtesy of a song by the Beatles:
(The choir stands and, with a strum of a guitar, quickly belts out these lyrics:)

The best things in life are free.
But you can give it to the birds and bees
I need money, (that’s what I want.)
That’s what I want. (That’s what I want.)
That’s what I want, (That’s what I want.)

(From henceforth in this sermon, choir members will chime in with questions and comments, duly noted.)

Yes, my friends we’re talking about money. Jesus said, “No slave can serve two masters; 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” (pause) what?

Wealth!

I can’t hear you.

(Louder.) Wealth!

Is it really money itself that is the problem, Jeff?

No, money in itself is fine. Money can be used for wonderful good things that God wants done in this world. The problem is in the love of money — the way that money so easily can become our god, promising to give us a fake kind of happiness, that makes it so dangerous. “Oh, you want happiness, do you? You don’t need to follow God’s design, focusing on all those things God has told you makes for a happy life. All you need is more money, because once you have it you can go out and purchase what every your little heart desires. And that will make you happy.

Jeff, is that why people spend so much money on lottery cards?

You bet it is; they’re looking for the short cut to happiness, but it’s a
lie.

The love of money has a way of taking over whole societies so that it becomes harder and harder for people to live life the way God designed it.

Is there any hope?

Yes, there’s always hope, as this morning’s parable shows us. Jesus tells us about this manager who had spent his whole life working for this rich man. This manager, as we see, was a pretty clever guy. Imaginative, creative. No telling what this guy might accomplish for God given the opportunity. But instead of doing great things for God, he’s been keeping the books of the rich man.

Why’s he do that, Jeff?

He did that because that’s what the world told him he was supposed to
do. Make money. And the rich man paid him a nice a salary, which allowed
him to live in a nice house, drive a nice car, fast speed internet, cable t.v.., lot of of nice stuff.

Was he happy, Jeff?

No, not really. But he settles for being comfortable instead of happy. He thought
that being comfortable and being happy were the same thing, because that’s what society had told him, and he accepted the lie.

Hasn’t he been living according to God’s design?

No sir! He’s been using the gifts God gave him to maintain a corrupt system that keeps piling heavy burdens on people. He hasn’t been lightening the load of the
little people. He hasn’t been using his gifts to make the world a better, more humane place. The only thing his life has been about has been making the rich man richer. He’s helped the rich man stay rich by keeping the poor people poor.

If he’s so miserable, how come he never just quit this life?

Well, you could say he’s an addict — he’s addicted to money and all the stuff
money can get a person. Does alcohol make an alcoholic happy?

No, sir!

But the alcoholic keeps drinking, right, because getting drunk momentarily gives him a momentary escape. But he doesn’t know how to give it up.

(A Reader comes to the podium.)
Reader: The stock market crashed and I lost a bundle — really took a hit. I vowed then and there that I was going to change my life.

Hallelujah!

Reader: I recognized I needed a more spiritual view of life. I needed to give up being so obsessed with the material comforts and getting ahead, and that I needed to develop an appreciation for the things money can’t by: love, kindness, friendship, peace of mind. In general I needed to start loving people more and things less.

Praise the Lord!

Reader: But then, fortunately, the stock market went back up again.

Too bad!!!

One day, however, the man’s career as the rich man’s manager really did
take a tumble.

How’d that happen?

Who knows for sure? Maybe, being quietly miserable, his unconscious mind lead him to do that which his conscious mind didn’t have the nerve to do, to mess up so bad at his job that the bossman who have no choice but to fire his butt. And so the bossman tells him to issue a final report, clean out his desk, and hit the streets.

At first the man figures this is the worse day of his life. But, before long he discovers, to his great surprise, that it is, in fact the best day of his life.

Why’s that, Jeff?

Because he starts putting those gifts God gave him to work doing the kinds of
things God wants done in this world instead of just in order to turn a profit for the rich man.

What’s God want done in this world?

Lot’s of stuff, but one thing for sure, God wants us to lighten the burdens of the poor and hungry — to build a kinder, more love-friendly world, where people value people and use things, and not the other way around.

And so the manager starts cooking the books — but it probably wasn’t really “cooking the books,” since the books had probably already been cooked in the rich man’s favor — what he was really doing was correcting the books — making the books right for once.

And all kinds of wonderful things starts happening. The man gets invited into peoples’ homes for the first time in his life, and find’s himself with friends, something he hadn’t had much of before. He eases the burden of many poor folk who were being crushed under the rich man’s oppression. And there’s even some suggestion in the story that he made some inroads into the rich man himself. The rich man got a taste for having the little people appreciate him rather than hate him, and maybe he realizes that’s better that being filthy rich after all.

But, Jeff, don’t we want our kids to grow up to get the highest paying jobs possible?

You want them to be happy, or you want them to be rich? You want them to
make a difference in this world, or you want them to do their part to make the rich richer?

Forty years ago a poll was taken asking incoming college Freshman what
their goal was in coming to college. Do you know what was the most common
answer?

To drink as much beer as possible?

No. It was to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life.” Fast forward to the present. Do you know what is the most common answer given to this same question by today’s incoming freshmen?

To learn how to make the world a better place?

Unfortunately, not. The typical incoming Freshmen are there in college because they “want to be better off financially.” And the problem with that, my friends, is that first of all, they will have less of a chance at finding true happiness with their eyes set on money, and secondly, they are withholding their God-given gifts from a world that so desperately needs them to put
their gifts to use creating loving, caring communities.

After he told this story, Jesus said, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” In other words the God given creativity and brainpower in human beings, what Jesus is here calling “shrewdness”, are more likely to be found discovering clever new ways to turn a profit than they are doing God’s will on earth.

We need to get a hold of our young people before they choose the direction of their lives. We’ve got to tell them about the lie the world is peddling about money bringing happiness.

Jeff, are you saying that a Christian young person shouldn’t go into business?

No, we need Christians out there in the business places, reminding the folks in the business world that the bottom line isn’t simply the profit margin — that there are larger values at stake.

In this morning’s newspaper I came across this headline: “More profit and less nursing at many nursing homes.” In other words, with millions and millions of people in our country needing nursing care, there is a whole lot of money at stake. What’s been happening is that mega-corporations have been buying up nursing homes, cutting nursing and recreation staff in order to make a bigger profit margin, all at the expense of quality care. So we need faithful business people in those corporate conference rooms saying, “Wait a minute. Would you want your mother sitting in her feces because the staff is so shorthanded there’s no one to help her?!”

No sir!

We need shrewd Christian business people in corporate settings using their creativity to find ways of making corporations more humane, and less cutthroat — a place of more friendship and cooperation among employees and less backstabbing.

We need shrewd Christian business people asking questions regarding the environmental impact of their businesses, keeping in mind the kind of world we will be leaving behind for our children and our children’s children.

But Jeff, we worry that if our kids don’t grow up to play the game the way the world tells them, they’ll be out of a job someday, starving.

“O ye of little faith, have you no faith?!” That was Jesus speaking, not me. But the point is, where is our faith anyway? One of the ways that we are tempted to make money our god is by getting sucked into the belief that there is no God of grace and power who is with us to help us in our times of trouble, and so we’re all on our own, so we’d better hoard all the money we can get our hands on, because neither God nor the friends and neighbors our God gives us can be trusted to come to our assistance.

I often think about what Doris Bradley’s mom, Lee Roza told me shortly before she died. I asked her what had been the happiest years of over ninety year life. She was quite clear regarding her answer: The happiest year were during the Great Depression, when nobody in her neighborhood had much money, and her husband and many other husbands were often without work, and people had no choice but to live simply, enjoying simple pleasures, and people were compelled to rely on their neighbors a great deal more than they do today, and since there was no TV or internet, tehy spent a great deal more time simply being with one another, sitting out on the front porch (remember those?), because it was cooler there when it got hot, and there was no air conditioning inside to retreat into.

These were the happiest years of Lee’s life, but these days we live in dread of an economic depression, because we’ve bought the lie.

Our daughter Kate is in Tanzania in East Africa, spending her Fall semester learning the language and studying the wildlife, but mostly immersing herself in the culture there. We’re proud of her. We’re not sure how she’s going to make a living off what she’s learning, but we know she’s seeing so much that will profoundly changer her forever in wonderful ways.

A big part of the program are the home stays, where for two weeks at a time she lives with a family — four different families of various economic levels, but all of them not as well off financially as we are. Kate has sent us a couple of emails when she got the chance in which she reflects on her experience. There is some major culture shock. Yes, Toto, we’re not in Jersey any more.

In certain ways, the communities she is experiencing resemble what Lee Roza described living back during the depression. The houses are smaller and more crowded. The concepts we take for granted regarding personal space don’t seem to concern folks there much, and this has taken some getting used to for Kate.

Kate showed her ipod to one of the little girls she was living with, that little computerized device by which a person can listen to endless recorded music through earphones. The girl’s reaction was revealing: she couldn’t understand the attraction of the ipod: “But your friends can’t enjoy your music when you’re listing to it!”

It is clear to Kate that she is experiencing a depth of neighborhood community unlike anything she has experienced back here. People enjoy sharing what they have with their neighbors. They love welcoming guests like Kate into their home. People aren’t hidden away from one another surrounded by all the gadgets money can buy.

Alas, however, the folks in Tanzania are fascinated by the products being generated and promoted from west. Maybe one day before too long they may succeed in building their economy to be like that of the United States, so that they, too, will no longer need their next door neighbors, and they’ll have instant internet and satelite TV in every home, and they can be just as happy as Americans are.

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