Back to the Garden: for love or money

Text: Luke 4: 14-21 (good news for the poor)

Budgets have been in the news a lot lately. Last Monday was federal election day, and deficits, debt, and taxes were hotly debated in the campaign. Should the federal government move to erase the annual deficits it has been running over the last years, or should the priority be on social and infrastructure investments? Should carbon pricing be part of the solution — both to fund a transition away from fossil-fuel consumption and to motivate the changes required to build an economy that doesn’t contribute to climate disaster — or does artificially increasing the price of carbon wreck the economy?

Then on Thursday, the new Alberta government brought down its first budget since being elected in April, and for the first time in a generation, it is projecting a decrease this year in overall spending. Is this prudent fiscal management or is it short-sighted austerity that will hurt people in the province?

This is also budget season at the church. The Council and its Financial Team are working hard so that they can present up-to-date financial statements and a 2020 budget for the church’s Annual Financial Meeting. This will be held after the Sunday morning service on November 17.

As you may have seen in the “What’s The Buzz” e-newsletter on Thursday, a key consideration is the loss of our main tenant, Weight Watchers, which held its final meeting here eight days ago on October 19. On the positive side is the news that Council is close to signing an agreement with a new tenant for the Lower Hall – 4Point Taekwondo. But even if that agreement is signed, they won’t move in until June of next year. This would mean a seven-month period in which the church’s rental revenues will be less than they have been for the past few years. Can the church handle this seven-month drop, or should we find new ways to increase revenue, cut costs, or both?

Deficit budgeting can be a big deal for churches, provinces, and nations alike – unless, of course, the nation in question is the United States. The U.S. now has a debt of more than 22 trillion dollars, and in 2019, which is the 11th year of a long and robust economic expansion, the U.S. is projected to spend close to $1 trillion more than it gets in revenue. Just to remind ourselves, one trillion is one thousand billion! I guess when you are the largest economy in the world and can print money as needed, the debt and deficit concerns that affect the rest of us don’t apply.

But given that Mill Woods United, Alberta, and Canada are not the United States, how worried should we be about deficits? And more broadly, how should we as church members and citizens try to organize our economic life?

Before I continue, I want to address the question of whether the pulpit is an appropriate place to discuss taxes, debts, and deficits. Some people would say “no.” Others point to the fact that in the four gospels Jesus is always talking about money and economics, both in parables and otherwise. In fact, the Gospels portray Jesus talking about money more than just about anything else.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says “it is the year of God’s favour,” which in Hebrew tradition is a year in which debts are forgiven and slaves are freed. This may be a happy thought for debtors and slaves, but not so much for bankers.

Like the poem of Mary Oliver’s that we heard (“A Dream of Trees”), Jesus is not mild when it comes to tackling crises – in his case, the plight of the poor, the imprisoned, and the enslaved. He boldly proclaims good news for them.

As in the time of Jesus, many of the issues we confront today, from poverty and pollution to war, are connected to the economy. How could wealth be distributed more equitably? How could everyone be assured of adequate education and healthcare? How could all the varied industries that comprise the economy – from resource extraction to tourism, and from home construction to entertainment – thrive without at the same time harming the natural world?

You won’t be surprised that I don’t have answers. But I do perceive that the way our economy functions is not sustainable. At present, all who participate in the world economy — from individual corporations, to economic sectors, to nations — must expand their footprint or die. Capitalism operates through competition, and for the last 300 years this has led to unprecedented innovation and growth on all fronts.

But if a corporation or nation decides to ease up in this game, they are swallowed by competitors. Smartphones provide an example. The Canadian firm Blackberry pioneered the smartphone 15 years ago, and for a while it had a huge percentage of the market and generated big profits. But when bigger companies like Google and Apple decided to offer smartphones, Blackberry found that not staying ahead of them didn’t just mean they would no longer be the market leader. It meant its sales plummeted to the point that it had to exit the market altogether.

“Grow or die” is a powerful motivator; and it has completely transformed every aspect of life during the last 300 years. Unfortunately, it has also helped breed things like colonial wars and habitat destruction.

There are many ways to measure the growth of the last 300 years, and one of the key ones is population. When the global market was first stitched together in the 1600’s, the world had about 500 million people. When my parents were born, there were two billion people. When I was born, it was three billion. Today it is about 7.7 billion. This growth in population means that the economy keeps leaping ahead, even as other problems unfold.

On the other hand, population growth has slowed in all of the richest countries in the last decades. Canada’s population would have declined sharply in the last 30 years except for immigration. But because Canada takes in 300,000 or more newcomers each year, both Canada’s population and its economy continue to grow.

But what happens when all nations have negative birth rates, as some demographers predict will happen in the years ahead? This might sound like a good news for the environment. But in a world in which growth is the central value, it would mean economic crisis. What this suggests to me is that humanity has to somehow find another way to organize itself besides “grow or die.”

While competition is dominant in our society, not all of life is governed by money. Families are a sphere where the monetary bottom line is not everything. Other values like health, spiritual growth, and love are more important. The same thing is true for churches. While our ability to attract numbers and money is key to our sustainability, the central values of a community of faith are the health and well-being of its members and of its neighbourhood, and the spiritual growth it can promote in terms of beauty, truth, and love.

So, while churches may not have the answers to government budget deficits; and while we may not possess economic programs that if implemented by a province or nation would allow happiness to flourish without destroying the environment, we can still play a useful role. Like the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music, we can provide counter-cultural models of communal life.

Any church worth its salt is one that focuses on kindness, compassion, and hospitality. In a world driven by the fires of competition, we provide a zone of non-competitiveness and solidarity. In a society that sees value in terms of dollars and cents, we uphold the inherent value of all living beings and proclaim the sacredness of the earth. In a neighbourhood in which many of us are driven to distraction by our fears of poverty and our desires for endless consumption, we provide a sanctuary where abundance and eternal love are proclaimed as realities already guaranteed to us simply by our existence.

I love how these sacred values are expressed in this community of faith – through outreach projects like The Bread Run and the Clothing Bank; through justice initiatives like GEA and the work of truth and reconciliation; in gatherings where we mourn and celebrate in community; and in services like this one when we reflect on our blessings and our concerns in silence and raise our voices in song in ways that strengthen our wills and express our feelings of fierce love.

A world organized around corporations and nations that either grow or die is both wildly inventive and productive and not sustainable in the long-term.

This leaves me with huge questions: how might communities of faith move from being ones that reflect on love to being catalysts for the conversion of a whole country to a new logic of love? How can we help create movements that might end greed and war and create a world in which both humanity and the rest of the biosphere are sustained in beauty and harmony?

Despite how big these questions are, I plan to ask them again in two weeks when we finish the “Back to the Garden” series. That service will include the dazzling visions of the book of Revelation and a reflection on the turmoil and hope alive in Canada 100 years ago around the time of the first Remembrance Day.

When drafting budgets, we confront surpluses and deficits, assets and debts, and our understandings of how to sustain a church, a province, or a nation in the long-term. So, as we reach out to our neighbours in care, may we remember that they are people like us who are caught in an economic logic that doesn’t provide either sustainability or enough justice and love. May we be encouraged by the vision of Jesus. And may we we work together to make this the year of God’s favour in which debts are forgiven and the oppressed are set free.

May it be so. Amen.

Preamble to worship on October 27, 2019

Welcome to another beautiful day in which every moment is a free gift from Source, Spirit, and Love; and another day in which we have gathered with others in search of spiritual growth.

Today the focus is on some of the most spirited of topics – money, budgets, and debts. Like all spiritual topics, these are hot ones. And while they are often in the news and are often intimately connected to our fears and desires, they are not necessarily front and centre on Sunday mornings.

Are there ways to reflect on economic topics that might both upset and inspire? Be both pointed and open-ended? Be both conservative and radical? I think there are ways to do this, and today as we wade into these waters, I pray that it will be with a spirit of faith, hope and love.

Today is the sixth of seven Sundays inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music of August 1969. Today’s connection might seem tangential, but I hope it will be stronger when we finish the series in two weeks on November 10. That will be a service that not only returns us to the Tree of Life that we left behind in the Garden of Eden in a reading from Genesis on September 1, but also one that marks the centennial of the first Remembrance Day mandated by King George V for November 11, 1919.

Today’s service can also serve as a springboard to tomorrow evening’s discussion on “What is God” that the Future Steps group is leading. As recommended by this group, today’s reflection is not only based on a reading from the Bible, but also on another source, today by a poem by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver. And as in other services this fall, the lyrics to the hymn of response have been slightly restated to reflect a more spiritual and less traditional image of the Divine. “My Soul Cries Out” is the first hymn to which I ever made such adjustments. This was for the wedding ceremony for me and Kim at SSUC three years ago. And speaking of SSUC, This Is Us today is a report back from those of from Mill Woods United who attended the Ever Wonder Conference at Southminster-Steinhauer United earlier this month.

All of these elements stand on their own. But I hope they may also inspire more of us to consider coming to a time of discussion and sharing tomorrow at 7 pm, right here in the sanctuary.