Sabbath and the economy – By Dave Holmes

Read all the sermons in this Sabbath series:

Scripture Matthew 6:19

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Today we continue our series on Sabbath.  We started by talking about Sabbath as something we need and yearn for in this hyper-connected, busy, unhappy culture.  “The whole wide world is waiting…”

We talked about Sabbath as a day to practice “heaven,” – not a “pretend tomorrow” but rather a heavenly here, a heavenly now, a heavenly us.  What of heaven is already with us?  What kind of heaven are we free to enter into right now?  What would be a perfect day?

Last week Greg talked about the importance of saying “no.”  Without “no,” there is no rest and no focus.  To what do you need to say “no” in order really to rest?   To what do you need to say “no” in order to say yes to your true self and your true calling?

Today I’d like to talk about Sabbath and the economy.

Typically, Sabbath is a day in which we step out of the money economy – no work, no shopping, no spending, no business.  What’s the significance of that?

Why is it important?

In the Scripture this morning from the sermon on the mount, Jesus starts out by talking about treasure in heaven, as opposed to treasure on earth.  Does that make sense to you?   It’s maybe a bit like the price tags thing.  There is treasure in life that isn’t “stuff.”  There’s something more important in life than wealth. Look for that!  And be careful, because where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  Whatever you value in life, captures your heart and soul.  Make sense?

Then Jesus talks about our eyes, about how we look at the world.  If your eye is healthy – if you look at the world in a healthy way – your whole body will be full of light.  But if you look at the world in an unhealthy way, your whole body will be full of darkness.  The attitude we bring to life can either lift us up or poison the whole project.  How we see the world, the story by which we understand life, the glasses through which we look, make the difference between ISIS and the Dalai Lama.  Still making sense?

And then Jesus talks about loyalty.  You can’t serve two masters, especially when they are working towards different ends.  And then comes the kicker:  you can’t serve God and Mammon – or God and wealth – or God and The Economy.   He sets up wealth, or the economy, as if it were an idol, a false God, demanding our loyalty and service, pulling us away from the true God.  And you know what?  I think he has a point.

When I visited New York years ago, I was kind of astonished to see the big statue of the bull there in Wall Street.  That is essentially the same image as the idol the Israelites worshipped in the desert – the golden calf.  There it is in Wall Street, still demanding worship.  Does the latest word from the Stock Exchange shape more lives than the weekly lection from the Bible?

You know, I always thought that the economy was supposed to serve our well-being, and the well-being of the earth.  But there are some very significant signs lately that make me think that things have turned around – that we and the earth are being made to serve the economy, that The Economy has somehow become a god, demanding our loyalty and service.

Two weeks ago I talked about advertising.  Countless ads every day pass through our consciousness.  And by and large, all these ads have one message:  you aren’t good enough.  What you have is inadequate, what you look like is inadequate, you aren’t happy enough, healthy enough, sexy enough.  But we can help!  Buy what we are selling, and things will be better.

Of course, things don’t get better.  Not in the longer term, anyway.   Because if we are ever allowed to be happy, we’ll stop buying stuff.  A cornerstone of the consumer economy is our unhappiness, our desire for more.  To keep The Economy happy, we are being kept unhappy.  Who is serving whom?

We are living today in a world that is warming dangerously, and that is in the midst of a mass extinction on the level of the one that killed off all the dinosaurs.  Many of us worry about this a lot, and particularly for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we want to turn things around, leave the planet in a fit state for future generations.

So there’s a lot of talk about reducing carbon emissions, doing things sustainably, “green” alternatives.  Here’s the painful irony, though:  in almost every case, if you have two products, one of which is environmentally sustainable and the other of which isn’t, which is more expensive?  It’s the green one, isn’t it?  Organic costs more than pesticides.   Solar costs more than coal. Grass-fed costs more than feedlot.  Right?  We should talk about why that is.  We should talk about why the cost to the earth, and to our health, and to future generations, why the cost of pollution and degradation is NOT included in the price we pay for certain products.  But the fact is, it’s cheaper to ruin the earth than to preserve it.

Price, in our economy, is a powerful incentive.  Like water running downhill, the economy follows the lowest price.   Our tendency, then, is to sacrifice our health, and the health of our planet, and the health of future generations to the economic demands of this moment.  The economy doesn’t serve our interests!  It has become a god, demanding sacrifice.

Last example.  How do we measure the health of an economy?  For the past several decades, we have used an instrument that was developed in the second world war as a rough-and-ready measurement tool – Gross Domestic Product or GDP.  When the GDP rises from year to year, we say the economy is growing and therefore it is healthy.  When GDP falls year by year, or quarter by quarter, we say the economy is shrinking or in recession.  “Growth” or “recession” has huge consequences in terms of jobs, consumer confidence, government policy, and so forth.  With me so far?

GDP is essentially a measure of all the money that changes hands.  That’s an oversimplification, but essentially that’s the idea.  That means that it gives us a pretty basic idea of what is going on, with two important drawbacks:  it measures only the money economy, and it has a  very hard time distinguishing between helpful and harmful uses of money.  So when the Exxon Valdez breaks up off the coast of Alaska, or a well blows out in the Gulf of Mexico, it means a lot of money changes hands!  There are lawsuits, cleanups, medical bills, media circuses.  These things can actually turn out to be economic boosters.  On the other hand, if a woman chooses to stay home to raise a family, and grows a garden in her backyard, provides a safe nurturing place for neighborhood children to play, makes meals at home for her family, perhaps volunteers at church and in the community – this woman will actually be considered a drain on the economy, because less money is changing hands.

Economically speaking, the way we measure success violates some pretty core values.  If, as some business gurus suggest, “you get what you measure,” then we will likely get more money and less community.  Or put another way, we will sacrifice human community in order to enhance the money economy.

The economy, as currently structured, is no longer serving human interests.  Not our happiness, not our community, not our health, not our planet, not our future.  It happened gradually, so most of us didn’t really notice it.  Instead of the economy serving the interests of human beings, we human beings now seem to serve the interests of the economy.   We have become consumers.

One of the characteristics of the Sabbath is that we step away from the money economy.  We don’t work, and we don’t make others work – we don’t shop, we don’t spend money, we don’t do business.  It used to be that we had a societal agreement about this, so most stores and businesses were closed on Sundays.  Not anymore.  Now we’re like the Jews always have been – we have to swim upstream to practice Sabbath.

So what do we do?  For some of us, it’s hard to figure out what to do on a Sabbath if we’re not working or spending.  We get bored if we don’t have a project to do, or if we’re not paying for entertainment or going out.  For some in my original Sabbath project, a no-work, no-money, no-electronics Sabbath was actually a jarring and nearly impossible thing.

But the big discovery, made by so many, for a no-work, no-money Sabbath can be summed up in one word:  gratitude. 

When we stopped working, and stopped spending, and put aside the ads that made us dissatisfied, we discovered that we are actually living in the midst of abundance.  There’s treasure here, heavenly treasure – a heavenly here, now, us.  It was and is revolutionary to look at the full half of the glass – at the beauty that surrounds us, the value of the people in our lives, the privilege of whatever health we have, the enjoyment of moments unpressured by lists and tasks and obligations.  Sabbath is a reminder that there is a whole world that exists apart from the economic life that has captured so much of our time and attention.  It reminds us that there is an alternative – a life in which tremendously valuable things and experiences may be enjoyed without price or payment.  On Sabbath, we move from the priced to the priceless, from treasure on earth to treasure in heaven — and our natural response is gratitude.   It turns out that gratitude makes quite a difference.

I never ever watched much Dr. Phil, and never missed it.  But I remember watching a part of one episode.  The woman Dr. Phil was speaking with was bitter, angry, betrayed by life.  I can’t remember any of the details.  Dr. Phil’s prescription for her was to list, every day, 50 things for which she was thankful.  Every day, a different 50.  “50?” the woman cried out incredulously.  “50.”  Dr. Phil replied.  To her credit, the woman gave it a shot.  At first it was very hard.  But she discovered that if she looked for little things, she could fill up the 50 way quicker.

When she returned to talk again to Dr. Phil a month later, she was really a different woman.  Relaxed, warm, open.   “I filled page after notebook page with good things,” she said.  “At first I did it grudgingly, but then I realized:  all these good things are in my life every day.  And the bad things, if I listed them, wouldn’t even fill one page.  And I asked myself: Why on earth am I spending all my time on the bad stuff, and ignoring all the good stuff?”   And day by day, gratitude replaced her anger and bitterness.  And her whole life changed.  Her eye became healthy, and her whole body was filled with light.  The sun came out.

Sabbath is a practice of gratitude.

Of course, the Sabbath day, or afternoon, or hour, ends, and it’s back to the six-day normal life.  But gradually we can hope Sabbath will give us whole eyes, and hearts that appreciate all in this world and in life which is priceless.

  • Is it too much to ask, I wonder, to build an economy that puts the right price tags on things?
  • Is it too much to ask for an economy that recognizes some things are priceless, and leaves them priceless?  Like a provincial park?
  • Is it too much to ask for an economy that leads us in the direction of the future we actually want?  — rather than a future that leaves us up at night, worrying about our children and grandchildren, and what kind of a mess we’re leaving behind us?
  • Is it too much to ask, for an economy that provides meaningful work for all of us, encourages human community, and leads us towards happiness instead of away from it?

Sabbath is many things.  It is a weekly break from being a cog in the economic machine.  It’s a weekly time of gratitude and abundance.  But it’s also an attitude to bring back to the six days of normal life.  It’s a cry for “Sabbath economics” – economics that serve God, rather than economics that become god.


%d bloggers like this: