Monday, September 30, 2013

Keep Your Lives Free

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St.Simon Cyrene on September 1, 2013, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17C):  Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for God has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”  So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”…Do not neglect to do good, and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

          “Keep your lives free from the love of money.”  Wow.  How do I unpack that loaded sentence?  Money is such a headache for me, for most of us.  I am not sure I would call my relationship with money “love,” but then, what would I call it?  What is my relationship with money?  I think that is the question.  And it is a good question for Labor Day, because money and work often go hand in hand.

So, trying to live the Christian Life, what does it have to do with work and money?

Several of us have been gathering once a month to say Morning Prayer together and to read and reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict.  Now right away the mention of this practice has two strikes against it.  First of all, the Rule of St. Benedict was written in the 6th century—1400 years ago.  What can it possibly have to do with modern life?  Second of all, it’s a rule for monastic living, not living in the “real” world.

Yet it is immediately where I thought of turning to answer questions about work and money and daily Christian living.  And I’m not crazy; St. Benedict’s Rule has become very popular as a guide to the practice of following Jesus.  Why?  Well, let me tell you a little about Benedict.

Benedict was born about 40 miles from Rome around 480.  His family was of a noble class.  It is said he went to Rome to study around the year 500.  He walked into a mess and then some.  476 is usually reckoned as the date of the fall of the Roman Empire.  Rome had been sacked, institutions destroyed, the Roman way of life had disintegrated into chaos.  The world seemed out of control.

Benedict responded by fleeing to the hills of southern Italy.  He probably did not start out to create a community, but that is what happened.  It happened because Benedict developed a vision.  He developed a vision for a different way of people living together.  All around him, the world was run by violent competition for money and power.  He says in the prologue to his Rule that he set out to create “a school for the Lord’s service.”  This community would be free from violence and competition and the love of money and power.

Here are many things remarkable about the Rule, but one of them is that Benedict wanted to create a world in which all work was honored equally because it was all done for God and for the community of God’s people.  This was so true for him that he taught his followers to treat if they were precious and sacred vessels used at the Altar.  In Benedict’s world you did not go someplace to find and experience holiness.  Holiness was all around you.  Holiness found you every moment of every day.

I think that is the place from which to start in trying to determine the place of labor or work (and of money) in a Christian’s life.  People experience work in different ways, of course.  Some people love what they do, find it fulfilling, and at least hope that they are contributing to making a better world.  For others work is the dreary, oppressive thing they have to do in order to get a paycheck and survive.  Most of us live somewhere between those two poles.

A brief aside—retired people do not check out at this point.  When I say “work” hear, whatever I spend my days doing.

So how can we have a positive relationship with our work and avoid the love of money?

Benedict would say several things:

v First he would say manage your expectations, which is one of the ways we practice humility, which was the crowning jewel of virtues for him.  We live in a world driven by superlatives—best, brightest, exciting, glamorous—and we are taught not to be happy for anything less.  And the result is, a lot of very unhappy people who either drown their unhappiness in some kind of addiction, or whose unhappiness settles in for the long haul as depression, of which there is an epidemic in our day.  Strive rather, Benedict says (and he learned this from Jesus), for contentment, give thanks for whatever it is you have, and remember and rejoice in just one thing, that you are loved eternally by the master of the universe.
v Second of all he would answer our natural questions to this advice about contentment.  Is it wrong to work hard? To be ambitious?  To want to advance?  Benedict would say no, of course not, if those are the gifts you have been given.  But you must learn to be ambitious with that ambition having nothing to do with your self-worth or your ability to save or justify yourself or to provide some sense of security.  These things are not what work is for. It is what God and the community of God’s people is for.
v Third, he would say that you must believe as a matter of faith that the woman who runs the city and the garbage man who collects your trash are not only equal as human beings, their work is equally valuable.  We love to be able to say about a loved one that they have “a very important job.”  Benedict would say, “There is no such thing as ‘a very important job’ unless you are talking about all jobs.

It all comes down to the word “love.”  “Money can’t buy you love”, sang the Beetles. And they were right.  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” said Jesus, and he was right.

And really, it comes down to the first part of that sentence from Hebrews.  “Keep your lives free…”  Be slaves to nothing, not money, not work, not anything.  Except one thing, be slaves to God, because God is always the One who sets free, whose love is perfect freedom.

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