Back when I began working in the 70’s I was employed as an intern in the research engineering department at a manufacturing company in Buffalo. One day the company received an order for an offset fly wheel from a customer in Sweden for one the many machines this company made. This part happened to be for a mechanical stamping press made in 1910 . . . not exactly a stock item; it was my job to look for a drawing of the part in the engineering archives, which I did, and to produce a template for manufacturing it. Upon looking at the archive drawing I noticed that the draftsman’s initials were ‘H.K.’ I asked my boss who H.K. may have been, and surprisingly he told me that H.K. still worked here and was sitting at the desk across from me. It was in fact Henry Kartus, a very old fellow I was working with. Henry Kartus was the American inventor of the hydraulic shear and held the patent on the device. He had worked at the same company for 50 years and the press that I was looking up was made during the first year that Henry had worked for the company back in 1910. Since Henry had held the patent on his shear design, the company did not want him to retire. If he did, they would have to buy out his patent for a huge amount of money or pay him royalty rights. They were also fearful that Henry’s relatives would inherit the patent if he died. Instead, every year that passed, the company convinced Henry to stay on another year past his retirement . . . which he did.
During the course of that summer I learned a lot from this eighty year old engineer. The greatest gift of wisdom that he instilled me is that you really need to love whatever you do, whatever it is . . . and that money should never be the motivation behind one’s life work. When money becomes our only motivation we will, in essence, give up something of ourselves and we will consequently lose something very important to our spiritual wellbeing.
I came back from lunch one day to find Henry asleep at his desk. I gave him a tap on his shoulder to tell him it was time to go back to work . . . but Henry didn’t wake up. In fact, he had passed away at his desk during his lunch hour.
Jesus tells us throughout the gospels, that one cannot serve God and Mammon (mammon is described in the gospels as wealth) . . . “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
We have been taught that money is at the root of all evil, and yet we all know that without money much of the good in the world would come to a grinding halt; and so we are left with a lot of questions that have few good answers.
In the book of Ecclesiastes we will read the words of the preacher who tells us that all our work is vanity (that is, it is futile) and that after all is done, and our life is over, it was all for no reason at all if it was done for the accumulation of wealth or possessions.
He tells us that we need to face the fact that our net worth and all we have gathered and protected throughout our life will one day become another’s property, to either conserve or squander, and we will have no say in the matter . . . A depressing thought indeed.
But some would ask . . . then what is it all for? Is our life but a fleeting fancy that time will all but forget except for our headstone in the end? Or is there a purpose under heaven for what we hold of value . . . for what we hold sacred? In other words, we need to ask again and again then . . . What is the meaning of life?
The sacred stories tell us that we live at odds within ourselves. We live in a precarious balance between what our physical bodies need and what our spiritual selves require. Jesus would say that we struggle between the flesh and the spirit and that the two are opposed to each other. Jesus would also tell us that the flesh is worthless and that only the spirit is of value, and yet in the real world we find the needs of the flesh often far outweigh the needs of the spirit. So what are we to do?
The author of Ecclesiastes offers us the following advice . . . to seek the wisdom above riches, before honor and in lieu of wealth and suggests that one should endeavor to enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one’s work, which are our gifts from the hand of God.
The human condition craves one thing over all else . . . Peace. Because by living in peace, our security, and the safety of our children is assured for generations. Happiness becomes a goal, and fulfillment, a reward. And yet, reading the news each day, it is apparent that very few in the world actually live in peace and therefore fewer still are truly happy and so only a small fraction of us find reward or true fulfillment in what we do.
To somehow compensate for this void in our lives, our society has invented the concept of consumerism. We have built a society around the concept of consume, consume, consume. Its’ advertising tries to stimulate our sensuous desires, converting luxuries into necessities, which only intensifies our most inner misery. The business world is bent on creating hungers for its products which never really satisfy, and thus it adds to the incredible frustration of our times. But, its advertising! . . . and it’s what we are told will make us happy! But unfortunately it is all part of a deception and one tremendous lie.
In today’s lesson a young man comes to Jesus and tells him “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me”. Now we don’t know for sure what the inheritance is but, we can assume it is not readily divisible. It is most likely a house or farm and the one younger brother wants his share of the wealth now . . . which could destroy the inheritance for both, because it will be sold to others, or it will destroy the peaceful loving relationship of the man’s family. Jesus, who sees into the heart of all of us, sees only greed in this man. And he addresses his reply, not just to the man, but to us as well. “For a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of the things which he possesses”. In other words, you are not defined in God’s eyes by what you have. But no matter what Jesus could offer in the way of an equitable solution, it would seem that neither brother would be happy with the outcome.
Freud examined the issue of whether money could buy happiness, and, what he came up with was that happiness for anyone would be in the fulfillment of early childhood wishes. But if you think about it, wealth is not a childhood wish, therefore, no amount of money can buy happiness. Children crave peace, love and security from their parents and consequently, we as grown adults continue to crave peace, love and security from those around us. When we don’t get what we desire or when we are disappointed with our lot in life, we turn to other ways in which to fill the void in our lives. For believers, it is God to whom we turn, but for the majority of us, it is money.
For some of us, the pursuit of money can become an addiction. And like any addiction, once we cross the finish line, we find to our frustration that it is only the chase that gets us high. That’s how as in recent days multimillionaires can be caught stealing money from those who can least afford it and common criminals can prey on the very weakest among us.
What many people attach to money is a statement about themselves. They think people judge them by it. For many women, an expensive purse and jewelry is the opening sign in terms of status, or maybe it’s their shoes. For men it may be a certain kind of car or business title . . . this is acceptance. It’s a kind of code to indicate ‘You’re okay’ : ‘I’m okay’.
This ‘You’re okay’ sentiment falls into the categorical need for love and belonging. Country clubs are indicators of this need, as are luxury automobiles and Caribbean condominiums and so also, and unfortunately, can be the Church . . . but only if we let it.
Some time ago on television there was a story about a man who quit his job because he simply could not cope with the stress of working any longer. In the pursuit of the American dream he had become not only rich, but hyper-stressed and emotionally ill. He and his wife would argue all the time. His children avoided the two of them and he finally realized that his life was on a collision course with a heart attack, a divorce or a nervous breakdown . . . so he quit. His family thought he was nuts at first, but then his family began to regain what they had lost as they began to come together again. The man began making guitars by hand, something he had loved to do in his youth, and other people began buying the guitars because they weren’t something mass produced. And his family life, though poorer, was restored . . . in peace. The man had traded personal consumption for personal production.
In other words, he found that part of the answer to the secret of life is that it is important to actually DO something, not just buy something. How much sense of accomplishment is derived from doing something one’s self rather than buying something from a store? When our children start at school the first thing we have them do is to produce something – whether playing a game or making something with their hands. It creates a feeling of accomplishment. We should accept no less from our ‘adult’ selves.
The world says “Money is a commodity and a useful commodity. It can be used to buy things. And then once you have enough of that commodity . . . then you can use money to buy freedom.” That is the normal thinking in our society. That is the goal. But the Bible shows us that this is a lie. Wealth does not create freedom. Wealth is a prison because it controls you and your time. And the one commodity you can’t get back in this life is time. Jesus shows us that the focus of life should be on how we spend our time — in the most productive manner and in the most meaningful ways, by loving God and by loving or neighbors as ourselves and in personal accomplishment.
Peace is a gift and is free to all who ask, even to those who live in war torn countries. In our church service, the liturgy offers to us the ‘Peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of God and in his son, Jesus Christ our Lord’ . . . and when we accept this peace, beyond our comprehension, we receive God’s blessing and forgiveness of our sins. This is where True Peace is to be found, without payment and without cost, and to all who ask. Like the miracle of the five loaves and two fish, peace comes as manna from heaven to everyone who is hungry for it. It has little or nothing to do with wealth and everything to do with love, with happiness and with the fulfillment of our life.
The spiritual self requires peace, happiness and fulfillment as much as the physical body requires air, and food and water. Our other self, our flesh if you will, craves acceptance, abundance and security in order to mask the needs of the spirit. These two selves are in a continual battle to overcome the other. It is the wisdom of age that gives us the ability to keep our lives in balance by controlling that conflict.
My friend Henry knew this to be true because he died doing something he loved to do. He was at peace and he was happy because he knew the purpose of his life was fulfilled . . . even as all the while the people around him were desperately trying to gain from Henry’s life’s work, they in the end, lost everything. Eventually the company was sold to a multi-conglomerate corporation and then a few years later it was forced into bankruptcy, receivership and finally closed. Nearly a thousand workers eventually lost their jobs, many of whose families never recovered, all because of a certain vanity called greed.
Jesus came to tell us that there is a better way to live. You need not be wealthy to experience the peace of God in your life . . . you need only accept and believe in the Word of God which passeth all understanding . . . and you will be saved. Amen