When I was a kid, the adults in my life were very fond of telling me how grateful I ought to be because things were so much harder back when they were kids. I’m sure most of us can remember being told by our elders just how tough times were when they were back in the day. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and just about every adult I knew must have grown up poor. Why if I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “When I was a kid we were so poor that…..” well I’d have a whole lot of nickels.
Today, when I hear the words, “We were so poor that…” I brace myself for an outrageous claim like…. We were so poor that we couldn’t afford Kraft Dinner. Kraft Dinner, you were lucky, we were so poor that we couldn’t afford dinner, all we had was a cup of cold tea without milk or sugar. Cup of Tea, we were so poor that we only had filthy cracked teacups. Filthy cracked teacups, that’s nothing we were so poor that we couldn’t afford teacups, we used to have to drink our tea out of a rolled up newspaper. That’s nothing we were so poor that all we could we couldn’t afford newspapers so we had to suck our tea from a damp cloth.
Someone always chimes in with, “Well we might have been poor, but you know we were happy in those days. That’s right money can’t buy happiness. We used to live in a tiny house, with holes in the roof. “House? You were the lucky ones we were so poor that we had to live in one room, all 126 of us, with no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of falling! Ha! You were lucky to have a room! We used to have to live in a corridor! Ohhh we were so poor we used to dream of living in a corridor! A corridor would have been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We were woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us!!! Rubbish tip, you were lucky, we were so poor that we lived in a hole in the ground covered by a piece of tarp, but it was a palace to us…especially after we were evicted from our hole in the ground and we had to go live in a lake. Lake, you were lucky to have a lake, there were a 160 of us living in a small cardboard box in the middle of the road. Cardboard, we were so poor we lived for three months in a brown paper back in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down in the mines for 14 hours a day, week in week out. We had to get up out of that cardboard box at three o’clock in the morning and lick the road clean with our tongues. In case you didn’t recognize it, that was my interpretation of a classic Monty Python sketch, simply called the “We were so poor sketch”. (watch the video below)
The truth is, that when I was a kid, money came and went. When I look back on it, I suppose we were sometimes poor. Sometimes we had money and sometimes we didn’t. My parents were very good and stretching a dollar. To this day, I remember when we first moved out to Vancouver and money was really tight. We had to do everything we could to stretch the few dollars that we had. I remember picking blackberries that summer; buckets and buckets of blackberries. from which my mother made jars and jars of blackberry jam. It was probably the best blackberry jam I have ever tasted. But if the truth be told, I have never eaten blackberry jam since that first year in Vancouver all those years ago. You see we ate so much blackberry jam that I got sick of it.
Every morning there was blackberry jam for breakfast, and then in the lunches we took to school, there would be blackberry jam sandwiches. Some days, I would get lucky and I’d be able to persuade a classmate to trade their sandwiches for mine. But soon they too got sick of blackberry sandwiches. I can still remember my mother telling my brother and I how lucky we were because when she was a kid the war had only just ended and they were still rationing sugar, so they didn’t have any jam, and no butter either, why they were lucky if they got dry bread and drippings.
Thanksgiving is a time for counting blessings. Sometimes, when we look back into the past we see hard times, or lean times, and we tend to wax poetic about how great life was even though we didn’t have much money. We can become down right poetic about the good old days when we were younger and poorer and our lack of funds actually left us happier than we sometimes are now that we have moved up the ladder and have the more that we once dreamed of. There is a real danger in romanticizing poverty, when all too many people who are in poverty have no hope of ever escaping it. Moving up the ladder out of poverty is much more difficult today than it was a generation ago.
The truth is that for most of us, the hard times that we remember, were just that hard-times; and even when money was tight, we still expected that the future would be bright. We might have had to walk miles and miles to school, up hills, and down dales, backwards in the snow; but we were going to school. We may have had to eat blackberries day after day, but at least we were eating.
We are the wealthy ones on this planet. We live lives that are beyond the wildest dreams of 90 percent of the people who share this planet with us. We are richly blessed. We are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most of the generations who celebrated Thanksgivings before us. We have much to be thankful for! Yet, when I remember the poverty of the majority of the people on this planet, all too often I begin to feel not gratitude, but guilt.
It’s difficult to sing God’s praise for all the wealth and beauty that I enjoy, when so many people have so little wealth and an almost no beauty in their lives. Yet hear we sit, wealthy, privileged, Canadians, surrounded by so much beauty and one thing I know for sure, is that we must sing our alleluias for the beauty of creation, the joy of life, and they magnitude of our blessings. Gratitude is the only hopeful response to all our wealth. Until we learn to sing our own alleluias for our wealth, guilt will give way to fear and fear to greed.
We have all experienced those pangs of guilt that come with the knowledge of our wealth and our neighbours’ poverty. Most of us have become accustomed to living with the guilt. Some of us deny the guilt, while others simply suppress it. All too many of us live in fear of becoming impoverished.
I mean, what happens when the poor rise up and say they are not going to take it any more. Well they might just come a knocking at our doors and then there won’t be enough to go around and pretty soon the pile of money that I have will begin to dwindle.
We have all known the fear of what might happen if we lost everything. We’ve all been taught that we have earn as much as we can and save as much as we can or we’ll be doomed to an impoverished life, dependent upon the government for handouts. Our guilt and fears about wealth cause us to entangle our very security up with wealth. In order to feel secure we need money. How much is enough? Well you never know, so prudence becomes greed as we amass more and more, so that we don’t have to be afraid. But imagine for a moment what might happen if we were to focus more on our gratitude than on our guilt or our fears. What might we become if we remembered to sing alleluias for our wealth?
Joan Chittister tells a wonderful story about how one might go about proclaiming an alleluia of money. Sister Joan was attending an international conference in Asia on the status of women. Most of the participants were women she describes as “well-funded activist types or official observers. They were all there to professionally analyze various women’s issues around the world, especially of the needs of women in developing countries. They were busy discussing all sorts of issues that kept women everywhere in some kind of bondage to a money-driven world. At the gathering, these professional women called for more education for girls, more equality through government legislation, more birth control training, better health-care programs, and most importantly more participation of women at all levels of the political process. It was a good conference and every one was very sincere. But it was what happened on the margins of the conference that moved Sister Joan.
As the conference was drawing to a close, a leader of one of the small group workshops, passed a piece of paper around and asked that everyone write their e-mail address on the sheet so that they could all stay in contact and support one another in their work. One of the participants; a woman named Rose, was a Kenyan pastor of a Presbyterian church in Africa. When the sheet of paper came to her, she simply filled in her name and passed it on. The woman next to Rose passed the paper back to her and pointed out that she had neglected to put her email address on the form. Rose answered quietly: “I don’t have email where I am. It is too expensive for us. And when I can use it, it is too slow to be reliable.”
When Sister Joan and her colleague were getting into a cab to leave, her colleague said that she couldn’t leave without first seeing Rose. She asked Sister Joan to wait and rushed back into the hotel saying that she had promised to give something to Rose. Later as they were waiting to check in for their flight, Sister Joan asked her colleague, what she had given to Rose. Her friend answered that she had given Rose her credit card. “Your credit card?” Sister Joan gasped.
“Why in heaven’s name would you give Rose your credit card?”
Her friend answered quietly, “So she can pay for her email every month.”
“The answer was a clear one. An alleluia for wealth has little or nothing to do with money at all. It has something to do with the way we deal with money, with what we do with it; with the manner in which we do it, with the reasons for which we do it. That women’s conference would, in the long run, be very good for a lot of women. The credit card would make life better for at least one of them immediately. It demonstrated in a great and glaring way the difference between talking about doing great things and doing what you can while you wait to do even more.
Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security. The purpose of wealth is reckless generosity, the kind of generosity that sings of the lavish love of God; the kind of generosity that rekindles hope on dark days, the kind of generosity that reminds us that God dwells in, with, and through us, and that we are Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath. The purpose of wealth is reckless generosity. Our alleluias of gratitude free us from guilt and fear when they are embodied in you and and we become God’s Body, Christ’s hands; and the Spirit’s breath. Reckless generosity creates in holy hearts a freedom of spirit that takes a person on their way rejoicing and scattering possibility as we go.
We need to sing Alleluia’s for our wealth because wealth can be sacred, wealth can be holy. Sister Joan insists that, “the only security that holy wealth, looks for is the fruit of the good business practices that it takes to keep on making enough money to give it away to those who need it more.” “Most of all, holy wealth brings in its wake the kind of simplicity that makes wealth a commodity to be shared rather than a product to be flaunted.”
Sister Joan describes the wealthiest family she knows as a family that lives in a small cul-de-sac on the edge of the city in a modest house. No great wrought iron gates. No Olympic swimming pool in the backyard. No private plane at the airport. Nothing but a lifetime of philanthropy and good works, both private and public, both known and unknown, both great and small. It is the kind of wealth amassed to make the world a better place for all of us. We all have much to learn about giving away what hard work, privilege and inheritance have given us. Sometimes the overwhelming needs of our neighbours makes it difficult for us to know where to begin. But begin we must.
Thanksgiving, when we pause to focus on our gratitude is a great time to begin to sing our alleluia’s for our wealth. Alleluias that have the power to become reckless generosity. So, on Friday, I remembered all those blackberry sandwiches that we ate back when money was tight. Sandwiches that stopped us from believing that we were poor. And I used some of my wealth to buy some jam; jarfuls of jam. A big bag full of all sorts of flavours of jam. Strawberry, raspberry, lemon, grape, and blueberry jam. Not a single jar of blackberry but every other flavour they had on the shelf in the grocery story. And I took that big bag full of jam down to the Food Panty. I know that jam is full of sugar and some say it’s not good for you. I know that they’d probably rather have cash. But there’s nothing quite like toast with jam slathered all over it.
I also know that generosity is about more than placating my on fond memories of what it means to be poor. So, I’ve put a check in the offering plate so someone who actually is poor can buy what they actually need later in the week. But jam is it is just the kind of sweet reckless generosity that Thanksgiving is for.
Looking around me, I know that each of you have the power to be reckless in your generosity.The good news is that we don’t need to worry about tomorrow. There will be plenty as long as each of us has the courage to let our alleluias become reckless generosity.
So let yourselves go. Our wealth has the power to enable us to do more than we are.
If we but trust the Spirit to inspire in us the kind of reckless generosity that transforms us into Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath.
Can I get an Alleluia??? Alleluia!!!
Let us become the recklessly generous people
we were created to be.
For we are:
Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath.
Do not worry about your life.
Do not be afraid for the future.
Let us use our wealth to do
what we can while we wait to do even more.
Let our alleluias become reckless generosity!
Let us be
Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath
now and forever. Amen.
This sermon was inspired by Monty Python’s “We were so poor that…” sketch also known as the Four Yorkshiremen, and Joan Chittister’s book Uncommon Gratitude.