This is the message that I gave on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 21 September 2003, at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY. The Scriptures for that Sunday were Proverbs 31: 10 – 31; James 3: 13 – 4: 3, 7 – 8; and Mark 9: 30 – 37.
Antique hunting is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon (and notice that I said Saturday afternoon). I think that is why the television series on PBS, “Antiques Roadshow”, is so popular. It ties together the fun of finding undiscovered treasures with the excitement of finding out what it might be worth.
It is interesting watching the series and seeing the expression on people’s faces when the appraiser tells them how much they, the appraiser, thinks the item that has been in the family for countless years will bring at auction. Most of the time, the appraised value is modest but every now and then you get something that brings out the “ooh’s, ah’s and huh’s?”.
I remember seeing the episode where one appraiser told this women that the brass object that she found in the attic of her house was a 16th century Italian bronze helmet gilded with gold and worth conservatively a quarter of a million dollars. She was so shocked that the price had to be repeated. Another family brought in a painting that turned out to be absolutely worthless but which concealed an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. And in what is perhaps the all-time record, the show opened once with the bidding at Sotheby’s where an antique piece of furniture at auction sold for over $600,000.
But just as there are times when dreams come true, there are times when the true face of reality is seen. One gentleman brought in a collection of Civil War era handguns, confident in their value. The only problem was that the guns were very clever fakes and, in fact, worthless as antiques. The damage to the gentleman’s pride surely was much greater that what he felt the guns were worth since the guns had been collateral for a loan.
But the one time that sticks with me through all the wonderful items that have been appraised was the time this couple came to the roadshow with what they claimed was an undiscovered and previously unknown van Gogh. They brought all the books they had used to substantiate their claim in hopes of riches beyond belief. But the appraiser was quick to point out that it was not in the style of van Gogh, it was not something he would have painted, and besides, the signature on the painting was nowhere close to matching the signature van Gogh used. Still, the couple left looking for an appraiser that would tell them what they wanted to hear and not what the painting was worth.
In watching those shows, I have learned a few important things. First, if you own a toy or a doll, do not throw away the box it came in. The value almost doubles if you have the original container. Second, if you own a piece of antique American furniture, do not strip away the age and dust that has accumulated. This patina is what gives the furniture its value. (You can imagine the horror on one woman’s face when she learned that the time and effort she spent in cleaning the piece she brought destroyed approximately 75% of the value of the item. In what she considered a dirty condition, the furniture was worth approximately $100,000. Cleaned and polished, the piece was worth $25,000.) And most importantly, the value that an appraiser gives never approaches the value an item holds when it is a family heirloom and one’s link to their past.
The success of such shows such as the “Antiques Roadshow” come perhaps from the way we as a society value things. There is nothing wrong with placing a value on things; it gives us a sense of worth. But often times the value placed on many things is not in line with its place in society.
We see nothing wrong with giving a professional athlete with a bachelor’s degree a multimillion-dollar salary yet we will not give a public school teacher with the same degree a similar salary. And it is not just teaching where such discrepancies exist; I remember a college graduate that I had worked with whose salary as an entry level chemist was more than double the combined salary of her parents, both with doctorates and professors in college.
Our value for things is way out of line with what we are willing to pay. The past few years have found an increasing demand that our schools turn out qualified graduates; yet we refuse to fund schools equitably or equally so that this can happen.
And while the country was receiving a tax cut that was supposed to benefit all, there was a provision in the law that took away the one tax loophole that benefited the poorest wage earners in this country. Included in the legislation was a change in the rules that make it harder for those with lower incomes to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit to claim this, their one true tax loophole. And, to add insult to injury, the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Tom deLay stated that no corrections to this oversight would be made unless further tax cuts benefiting upper income salaries were included.
And this last week, we have listened to the uproar created by the awarding of a 150 million-dollar compensation package for the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. No matter that the package was probably legal or that there was nothing questionable about its value, it begs the question of what kind of work someone can do to justify such a payment. And, it begs the question of what one can do with all that money?
Let us not debate the amount of money one should receive for working; let us debate that what one receives should be a fair amount and should enable them to leave without hardship or difficulty.
It should never be about the money. We are entitled to earn whatever we can. Even our own John Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to earn all that they could. But they were to do it in such a way that did not cause suffering for the workers. When we see the discrepancies between the salaries of many CEOs and the average wages and salaries of the employees of those companies, we have to feel that Wesley was speaking about 250 years ahead of his time.
And it must be remembered that while Wesley was saying it was perfectly all right to earn as much as you could, he was also encouraging people to save as much as they could and to give as much as they could.
It is not about the money. It is about the values we hold and the importance we place on things. For we are a society in which people learn it is the things we have that counts. In a biweekly newsletter that I get, it was noted that
People treat their daily planners the way monks and nuns used to treat their prayer books. They keep them close at all times. The clasp them with missionary zeal as they head from meeting to meeting…. Like medieval displays of conspicuous piety, the planner announces to the world that you are one whose life and time are worth something…. The parallels between religious books of hours and our contemporary ones reflect our respective sets of values. While the intricate Celtic knots of the Books of Kells invited us to contemplate the interrelationship between the world of time and the world of eternity, the various interactive sections of the modern planner show only the interweaving of the various clock-bound schedules that make up the fabric of our contemporary lives…. Yet not of this points beyond our horizontal realm to the vertical realm in which we live. (Gary Eberle, in Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning (Shambhala Publications, 2002), quoted in Context, September 15, 2003.)
We are a society that places more emphasis on getting things because others have them; we are a society that defines our worth in terms of our possessions rather than who we are. It is a society where not having is deemed the worst possible sin imaginable. And it is a society in which we shake our heads when we read about some student who was killed because they had a pair of $150.00 basketball shoes or a $300.00 leather jacket.
Even if such reports are hyperbole, we are a consumer driven society where what we have defines us more that who we are. It is a society that insists we be the first to have something or to have something that no one else wants. We are society that allows the value of things to define us, rather have us define the value of things.
All of this is about envy, the desire to have what some one else has. And, as James points out, when we desire what others have, conflicts will arise. And envy is the one sin, if you will, that we get the most upset about. Envy, according to Joseph Epstein, is one of the last words in the English language that has the power to scandalize. It is a feeling that we all have had, for we are always in a position to envy something that someone else has, be it something physical or, even, something spiritual. But it seems to me that we live in a society where envy is a driving force; we are encouraged to develop this feeling and to take action.
That is what James warns about. He suggests that conflicts arise because of the envy we have for the things of other people. He suggests that our desires for things come not from our own sense of righteousness and good but rather from other base instincts. I am not sure but one can only assume that he was thinking of Cain and Able and the troubles between the two because one brother felt that the other was receiving favoritism from God. Our ability to receive things comes not from competing with others but rather because of desire to be a part of God.
Against this, we have the reading from Proverbs for today. These could have easily been the words of a braggart, exclaiming how wonderful his wife is and claiming all the credit for himself. But they are the words of someone who is acknowledging the true value and worth of his companion. At a time when women were considered property and an extension of the husband, this woman owned her own business and helped in providing for her family and others.
Rather than hoarding what she had earned, she had taken what she had been given and expanded its value by giving to others. Among those who shared in the value she had created was her husband whose own status among the town elders increased.
The Gospel reading for today is also a quiet statement about how we value things. While speaking to the disciples about what it will take to get into heaven, Jesus picks up a child and sets the child in his lap. Nothing is said but it is one act that shakes up the value system of society.
Society at that time placed children at the level of the dogs. Children were to be seen but not heard, Like the women of the time, they had no rights. But here was Jesus giving attention to a child. It was a simple statement that said God’s kingdom had a different set of values.
We should not be a society that ignores or belittles the poor or oppressed. We should not be a society that places more credibility in one’s ability to acquire large amounts of wealth or material things. In November of 1965, Millard Fuller found that his wife was leaving him. He was so absorbed in the acquisition of a million dollars a year that he failed to see that he was losing his wife and family.
In attempt to regain his family, they went to Florida but first stopped off to see some friends in Albany, GA. Albany, GA was the location of Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia community. There, Clarence Jordan counseled and advised him, saying, “What the poor need is not charity but capital, not caseworkers but coworkers. And what the rich need is a wise, honorable, and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance.” (Page 48 of Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs)
Millard Fuller took this advice and counsel and applied his knowledge and business expertise to the work of the Koinonia community. You may not have heard of his work but from his work came the Habitat for Humanity ministry. It is that ministry that I hope will be one of the ministry efforts that we as a congregation will support. And we can support it in a very simple manner.
We all have a birthday and I think it is time that we celebrate our birthdays. So, I am hoping that each Sunday, normally at the beginning of the service, we will recognize those individuals having a birthday during the coming week and encourage them to place a dime for every year of their age in this piggy bank. It may not be a grandiose sum but it will gain in value as the year progresses. And others will benefit from our celebration.
We are challenged, just as Fuller was, to look at how we value things. If we put our efforts into helping others we will find that our lives turn out better. We are challenged to find ways not to withhold what we have gained but rather to share what we have. We are challenged today to find ways to use our talents in such a way that others benefit.
There are many hidden treasures in the world. But the ones that have the greatest value are the ones we use so that others may benefit. The value that we place on things will be determined by what we do with what we have.