Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What is Money For (April 26, 2009)

Money is hard thing for people of conscience to talk about. If we value economic diversity in our midst, how can we talk together when money is distributed unequally among people? We are afraid of being judged for being rich, we are afraid of being judged if we are poor. But our church has covenanted to be a place where we provide a forum for liberal religious expression in an atmosphere which encourages spiritual growth and ethical living. And money is a fact of our lives - the tool our culture uses to account for the trade of goods and services. We cannot truly understand ourselves to have examined the ethicality of our lives without thinking and talking about it.

Money is a part of the fabric of our society. In its most basic form, it helps us trade of a dozen eggs for a jar of jam. But it has become something very abstract. I’ve heard a dozen radio interviewers trying to explain how mortgages are bundled and about credit default swaps, and I feel like we have wandered very far away from eggs and jam. Our sense of money has become ungrounded in this culture. So it is up to us as part of our inquiry into living an ethical life that we must each individually figure out what money is for.

Everyone makes choices about how they will spend their money. Some are made at major crossroads- like what rent you will pay for your new apartment, or what your car payment will be, or whether or not to have children. Other choices are made on a daily basis- can I afford the free range eggs? Do I need a new sweater? Any time we take out our wallet or our checkbook, we have to ask ourselves questions about what we value most as we choose how we will spend our money.

There’s a funny thing that happens when we realize that choices are being made, and that we have made different choices than our friends or neighbors. We question our choices. Maybe I am afraid that you are judging me for making the choice I made, since you chose differently. It’s easier not to notice or admit to ourselves that choices are being made: we let them just kind of happen. This is part of what got many Americans into the financial bind we are in now. But as a community of seekers, I hope that together we can think about these things. That we can think about our values, and how we put those values into action in our lives. Because whether we are aware of it or not, our money helps us express our values in the community, and indeed helps shape our community, for good or for ill.

Right now, when so many of our family budgets are changing, and our financial futures are uncertain, is a particularly important time to have this conversation. If our income has changed, it changes how we express our values, it changes the choices we make. And so it has the potential to change our self-understanding. For folks whose sense of self has gotten tangled up with who they are as a consumer, (and that’s most of us here in America) this can be a frightening, confusing time. If we are used to working, and are suddenly out of work, or under employed, or taking a cut in pay, we suddenly realize how much of our sense of our self was tied up with the work we do, and the resources we bring home. Our culture tells is in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that “you are what you buy” and “the value of your work is reflected in how much you make.” The influence of these messages may surface only now as the economy is depressed. So it is up to us as a community of faith to remember that we are not workers, we are not consumers, we are not rich or poor, we are much more than that. We are miracles of evolution and biology, we are living souls, unique and precious.

And if our economic health has been shaken, so much more we must strengthen the other layers of our being. Our relationships with one another, our support for our eco-system, our integrity, our compassion, our agency as change makers in this society, our love of beauty, our creativity. This is a moment when we are all learning how much more there is to our selves than that part of us which is bound up with money. It is also time for us to strengthen our core values, knowing that our values, our ethics, our integrity need not be weakened by this weakened economy.
For example: I had gotten into certain habits in the grocery store. I tried to buy paper products made from recycled paper. I tried to buy free-range chicken, and cage-free eggs. But now that we are trying to make our grocery dollars go farther- I recently stood there in the poultry aisle for 20 minutes weighing the ethics of my impending purchase. I made the hard choice that I was going to buy the conventional chicken for $2.50 a pound instead of the free range chicken for $10 a pound. But I also affirmed that I would support local farmers whenever I can, buying eggs laid in Tompkins county, with preference to those laid in my friends back yard by chickens I have met personally. Was that the only choice I could have made? No. I could have given up my yoga classes and still have purchased the free range chicken. I could give up eating meat. My choices is not perfect- I don’t deceive myself that I made the only possible choice. You might have made a different choice. And that might be part of why we are reticent to talk about these things.

By looking at our financial choices, we learn something about what our values really are. While talking with the young folks in our Coming of Age Program about values few weeks ago, we defined values this way:
Is this something that's important to you?
Do you feel good about this being important to you?
Would you feel good if people you respect knew that this was important to you?
Have you ever done anything that indicates that this is important to you?
Is this something you would stand by even if others made fun of you for it?
Does this fit in with your vision of who you are?

Take a moment right now to list some of your core values. You can do it in your head, or jot it on the back of your order of service.


Now here is what money shows us. My story about agonizing in the poultry aisle shows me a few things about myself and my values: Yoga is important to me, Animal rights are important to me, shopping local is important to me and the environment is important to me. Think of your checkbook register or your bank statement. What appears there? How closely does it match that list of values you just made? Are the values that your checkbook illustrates different?

Our work as people of faith is to create as much coherence and integrity as possible between what we value and how we live. Notice how personal a choice that is. I can’t tell you what your values are, or how to do the complicated calculus of weighing those choices in the grocery store. But sometimes by talking together we get the courage to make tough choices, or we receive new information, or a new perspective that helps us choose. For example, a friend pointed me to the Union of Concerned Scientists list of the 10 most important things we can do to save the planet. They put buying organic produce right there at the top. So we are recommitting to our local CSA farm this year. Not all our purchase this year will be socially conscious, but our friend helped us clarify our values and choose something we think is important to focus our resources on.

But social consciousness is not our only value, is it? Sometimes what we see looking at our checkbook is that certain expenses that don’t appear on our list of values appear there with surprising regularity. Columnist Dayana Yochim writes for the “Motley Fool” series “Fiscal fitness 2009” and confesses:

“I spend $1.62 many mornings just to get my fix from the Subway soda fountain. I do so even knowing that I could save $1.37 a day -- $27.40 a month -- by buying a can out of our 25-cent pop machine at work. It may seem like a wasteful expenditure to most, but a fountain soda -- particularly from a machine calibrated to deliver that perfect mix of carbonation and syrup -- is my guilty pleasure. And I'm not going to give it up anytime soon.”

As Yochim was tracking pork in her family budget she just couldn’t bring himself to cut this item, so instead she budgeted for it, and cut out $30 a month of other things that just didn‘t bring her the same joy as that fountain soda. It reminded me that joy, play, fun, taste are values too. This is important because one of the things that goes wrong when people budget, is that they make a budget so ascetic that it sends them screaming into the mall to assuage their feeling of deprivation. A wise friend once said “My parents raised me to believe I could have it all, they just didn’t tell me I couldn’t have it all at once.” Maybe this month I make a special gift to the food bank, and next month I take my Husband out to dinner. I don’t feel guilty at all when I go see a favorite band play. ‘Supporting Local Music” is a proud member of my list of top 10 values, and I’m willing to give up other things to do it.

Of course there are other was to express our values that don‘t require money. If “good food” is a value, we are lucky to be part of a religious community with some awesome cooks! A potluck here is as good as eating at many restaurants. If protecting the environment is a value, one of the best ways you can help is to fly less and drive less- and that doesn’t cost anything. Remember that saving the environment is not at its core about being able to buy the latest eco-chic product. When we “reduce, reuse, recycle” it is good for the planet and for our checkbook.
Neither our changing economic landscape, nor our changing family budget take away our ability to make a difference in the world: each of us still has gifts to offer. Our story this morning about the magic pomegranate is a beautiful reminder from the Jewish tradition that we each have something special to give, and much as the gifts of all three brothers were needed to save the princess, each of us is called to find and cultivate our gifts. The story reminds us that all of our gifts are needed as we come together to create a community of compassion and integrity.

It calls to mind another story taken from the Christian scriptures:
It begins when Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury, for they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” [Mark 12:41-44]

Whether rich, poor, or somewhere in between, we have the opportunity to contribute the way this widow did, with a felt generosity that will ripple into the way she lives her life. This is why as a community of faith, we are called to see beyond the hard numbers to the heart, the soul of each gift. Said the treasurer of a congregation I worked with years ago: "nobody else knows what goes on in your home and your heart."

The occasion of our stewardship campaign gives us the opportunity to think about money on the level of the soul and heart. This is particularly important in a culture that respects wealth and commerce above all. We must be fundamentally about something different in our sanctuary here. We must value the giver more than the gift. Our principles teach us to honor a diversity of gifts that mirror an economically diverse and inclusive community.

Going back into the story, I like the fact that this translation says the widow gave “her whole living” which invites us to see the wholeness of the gift. It calls to mind the people in this congregation who give hours each week to see our books are balanced. Those who stand by our front door each week making sure all who come to worship are greeted with a friendly smile. I think of the outpouring of generosity for the two families our congregation adopted this winter for the holiday season, and the pies and turkeys we shared over Thanksgiving. I am moved by each volunteer who leads our young children upstairs on a Sunday morning to help them on their own search in this world, and those who drove and cooked and slept on a cement floor so that our teenagers could honor their passing out of childhood in a special way. “Her whole living” reminds me of the people who carry the values of this church out into their jobs, their parenting, their gardening.

No matter how big or small your purse, money is only one of many tools for creating a life of integrity and generosity. But still it is part of the fabric of our society. So let us use it consciously as an expression of our deepest values, let it speak what we intend it to say. Let it speak the wholeness of our living.

No comments: