Money Can’t Buy Me Love

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I need your help. You see, I’ve got a problem. I don’t think I’m the only one, but sometimes it’s hard to tell because we don’t often talk about this. My problem is money. It’s not that I don’t have enough. It’s just that I often think, and believe, and act like I don’t have enough — enough money, enough time, enough stuff.

More than that, I live in a culture that regularly tells me that I don’t have enough. Television commercials, billboards, and the internet all not only tell me that I’m insufficient, incomplete, and not quite right on my own, but they also promise me that if I only buy the product they’re pushing — be it a tube of toothpaste, new laptop, or better car — then I’ll be complete. Our culture unequivocally equates consumption with satisfaction, possessions with happiness, and material wealth with the good life.

And here’s my problem: all too often I believe it. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not true. More than that, I know it’s a downright lie. And I take as evidence not only the multiple biblical prescriptions warning about greed, but also all the studies that measure national happiness where the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, ranks in the bottom ten percent with regard to reported happiness. Further, in my own life I know that I have a lot more money and stuff now than I did ten years ago and yet am no more happy than I was then. (Don’t worry, I’m usually a very happy person, just no more now that I have more stuff than when I finished graduate school a decade ago.) So I know that as a rule happiness doesn’t make a person happy, and yet deep down I still secretly believe that I’ll be the exception to that rule.

It’s kind of like I have two sound tracks running in my head. My stated beliefs are represented by the Beatles, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” You remember:
I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright
I’ll get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alright
‘Cause I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.

At the same time, Pink Floyd’s “Money” (it helps if you can remember the tune) probably catches the spirit of my actual life more than I’d like to admit
Money, get away / Get a good job with more pay /And your O.K.
Money, it’s a gas / Grab that cash with both hands / And make a stash.

Which is what scares me about this Sunday’s parable about the rich fool…and simultaneously makes me hopeful. What’s scary, of course, is that I identify a little too closely with the rich guy. After all, he’s not a cheat, or a thief, or even particularly greedy. He’s just worked hard and made a lot of money, kind of like most of us dream about. His mistake, in the end, doesn’t have to do with the wealth; rather, he goes astray by believing that his wealth can secure his future, can make him independent — from others, from need, from God. And I catch myself dreaming that, too: “If I just had a little more in the bank, or if the mortgage were paid off, or if the cash for the kids’ college education was already saved, or (fill in the blank),…everything would be okay.” The allure of money is that it creates the illusion of independence. It promises us that we can transcend the everyday vulnerabilities and needs that remind us that we’re mortal, created beings ultimately and always dependent on others and, most especially, on God.

And here’s where I get hopeful. I honestly don’t think I’m all that alone with this struggle. And this week, I’ll hear in church a reading that describes my plight. It’s so darn hard to have a conversation about money because most of us have pretty much bought into the cultural assumption that equates money with personal worth, so we don’t talk about it lest we discover we’re not worth all that much. But wouldn’t it be great if in church — surrounded by people I know and trust — we might actually have a conversation about all this stuff? Can you imagine? A frank conversation so that we can discover that we’re not alone, we can hear and learn from some of the shared wisdom of the community, and we can find some support in resisting the false promises — actually a false gospel — our culture makes about money?

So what I need from you on Sunday, Working Preacher, isn’t a moralistic sermon about the evils of money or the perils of wealth. What I need is an invitation. I need you to set the table by laying out some of the issues. You can throw in a little advice if you want to, but what I really need is for you to create a space where I can gather with like-minded people for conversation and support. That won’t all happen in the sermon, of course, but it could definitely start there.

This kind of sermon will take some courage, I know. A number of preachers have admitted to me that they feel reticent to preach on money for fear of seeming self-serving given that their salary depends on the generosity of their hearers. So say that, for heaven’s sake! Admit your nervousness and invite the congregation to pitch in. That’s what we’re there for. No one really likes talking about money, until we get started, that is, and suddenly realize that we’ve been aching for this kind of frank conversation for ages.

So buck up, Working Preacher, and consider preaching a sermon on money that doesn’t once ask congregation members for even a dime but instead gives them the chance to talk openly and honestly about our struggle to be faithful stewards rather than rich fools. In the end, the Beatles’ were right: money can’t buy us love…or dignity, self worth, hope, or acceptance. What we need is for you to help us not just remember that, but also to live it.

Thanks for this and for all that you do.
In Christ,