Posted by: dacalu | 13 November 2018

Market Values

This fall, I worked with St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on their stewardship (pledge drive) campaign. We followed the New Consecration Sunday Program. I shared this talk on market values and community values at a leadership dinner.

 

Matthew 19:16-26

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

Talk

My message is pretty simple: we find our greatest good in community. Giving makes us better as individuals and as a group. Money helps us give, when we remember that money was made for people and not people for money.

Giving money to the church helps. As a spiritual practice, it encourages gratitude, mindful spending, and trust in God. But giving money is only the beginning. We give to the church so that we can use as a church. We decide together what our priorities are. We decide together who we are as a community.

That is a very counter-cultural. It is often scary. But, we find our greatest good in community, when we choose mutual faith, hope, and love.

Next Sunday, I will talk to the congregation about our relationship, commitment and community. I will remind people of the faith, hope, and love of St. Stephen’s. Tonight, I want to share a few thoughts on why that is so important.

American culture surrounds us. Often, that is a good thing. I’m a big fan of constitutional democracy.

Sometimes, it can be a bad thing. Right now, we are very divided.

And sometimes, it can be a little of both. I want to talk about market values, the norms that come with our economic system.

Neoclassical economics begins with the assumption that we are all perfectly rational, rather selfish, independent actors. This frequently gets simplified to “rational actors” or, recently, Homo economicus. Starting there, we can make some very strong arguments for free markets.

I must begin by saying that I favor capitalism and the power of markets. I count them among the greatest innovations of the modern world. We have used them to increase freedom, productivity, and the standard of living across the board. When I critique market values, I am not saying they are evil; I am only saying that markets were made for people and not people for markets.

Sometimes, they lead us astray.

Research over the past 20 years has challenged neoclassical assumptions. We are predictably irrational, differently selfish, and far less independent than many thought. If you want to know more, I can recommend What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel and Predictably Irrational by Dan Arielly.

For our purposes, I’ll talk about a bottle of wine. Have you ever brought a bottle as a host gift for a party?

Is a bottle of wine a good gift? Perhaps the wine you chose does not pair well with the dinner. Perhaps your host doesn’t like red, or doesn’t even like wine. Perhaps your host or a guest is in recovery.

Neoclassical economic deals poorly with gifts. Theory suggests that the host would be better off with a $20 bill. But, how many of you will be willing to arrive at a dinner party with a twenty for the host?

Maximizing economic utility is not always our primary goal. In this case, social connection more important. Wine (usually) works better than a twenty. I know this, and I don’t even drink wine.

This leads to a broader problem that I call the dismal calculus. The wonderful thing about a $20 bill is that it is more flexible than a $20 bottle of wine. Wine is occasionally a good investment, but most of the time it is easier to buy wine with money than it is to get money for wine. That makes $20 more valuable than a $20 bottle.

This has an interesting effect on our thinking. Money provides a temptation. We start to hoard our buying power. We keep it to ourselves. With concrete goods, it’s fairly easy to say, “I have enough.” If you have two toasters, it’s easy to lend one to a neighbor. With money, more always sounds better.

We are very bad at judging how much money we need and how much will make us happy. That makes us bad at both giving and saving.

Returning to the church (or any community), why give a bottle of wine to the church now, when I can just keep it in my garage and give when it’s needed? Why not preserve my own power by giving for the family potluck, but not for the charity auction? Better yet, why not keep the money in bank and buy wine later?

Money encourages us to put off commitment.

Economists praise this type of thinking, but it can get in the way of holding things in common.

Most problematically, just talking about money has been shown to make us behave more selfishly and more independently. It is as though the ability to count our wealth, makes us more self-conscious about keeping it and more fearful of losing it.

This is one of the main psychological reasons that New Consecration Sunday hits so heavily on stewardship, giving, and spiritual discipline and discourages talk of budgets, need, and fairness.

The way we talk about resources shapes the way we think about them. The way we think about them shapes the way we behave.

Our culture reminds us of money all the time. Especially over the past 40 years, market values have crept into every aspect of our public life politics, the academy, and even the church. We speak of buying votes, of students as consumers, and bishops as CEOs. Those are not irrational comparisons; sometimes they are necessary tools. But speaking that way changes the way we think and the way we behave.

We need spaces that operate with spiritual values, family values, gift values, even when using money. So, it is my job to remind you that the church is in the world, but not of the world. Money was made for people, not people for money.

Jesus speaks of commitment and community, of what it means to belong and to flourish, of what it means to be together – in faith, hope, and love. Jesus speaks of grace and joy, of love and friendship, of all the things we really want for themselves.

We are a negligible corporation, but we are a precious fellowship.

We are a negligible investor, but we are a treasure beyond price.

Thank you for the concrete, counter-cultural work of loving God and neighbor.

Thank you for keeping your eyes on the prize.

 

Concluding Prayer

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Responses

  1. […] Stewardship Sunday, when pledges are made for the coming year.  Here is the sermon I shared. (My talk from the Monday before covers the same ground in light of […]


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