Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaires

The Rev. John Drymon
St. Paul’s, Batesville

Reading about the current “Occupy” movements, which began in lower Manhattan over a month ago and which has now spread to cities all over the world, I came across an interesting take on American socio-economics and culture from John Steinbeck. “Socialism never took root in America,” Steinbeck said, “because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

I don’t want to weigh in, this morning, on the various arguments in favor of either socialism or capitalism. (Such would be a very dangerous proposition, especially these days). I do, however, think there is something more resonant now than ever about Steinbeck’s suggestion that some of us see ourselves as merely “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”. There is, I believe, a particularly thorny problem faced especially by young women and men in my generation, namely the issue of “success.” As a senior in college, it was a bit jarring to hear my peers bandy about phrases like “achieving financial independence.” It wasn’t jarring because I hadn’t put any thought to achieving financial independence, or even because it sounds like something out of a bad advertisement for a credit counseling service. No, it’s jarring because these peers are the same people who a few years earlier could not have cared less about having a big house or a nice car, and they certainly didn’t need the admiration of wealthy and powerful people. Some time between the awkwardness of high school and the insecurity of the senior year of college, we toyed with idealism, but we lost it somehow when thinking about college loans and the job market and the housing-market and so-called success; in short “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth.”

What is success? Today’s gospel reading gives us a clue about what the world thinks success is:

“[They] make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”

Or how about this:

“They have their suits well-tailored and their cars tricked out. They love to sit at the head of the conference table in board meetings and in their skybox at the Jets game, and to be greeted with insincere warmth and deference at the bank, and to have people call them sir.”

So much in today’s society is succeeding in convincing people my age that this is what it’s all about. Many very well intended people looking out for the welfare of America’s youth, from career counselors to parents, have inadvertently contributed to a generation’s obsession with success as the world defines it.

A disclaimer is in order before I go any further. None of this is meant to rebuke people who have achieved a great deal of worldly success. I don’t think that is what Jesus had in mind, and it’s certainly not what I mean to do. It is meant rather as a warning, both to those who have achieved such worldly success and to those whose career still lies somewhere in the future. Do not fall in love with all the trappings of power and wealth, and do not let your worldly success define you. Know that you have been given a gift from God, a gift not enjoyed by many, as Voltaire once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” (As a side note, somebody once had to point out to me that that sentiment was actually to be attributed to Voltaire. I always thought it was Peter Parker’s uncle in Spiderman).

Jesus does not rebuke the Pharisees and scribes because power and influence are inherently bad. Indeed, for all their faults, the Pharisees were learned men who sat on the metaphorical seat of Moses. They had some well-deserved authority and some well-deserved respect. But many of them were hypocrites who were too much in love with their power and who lusted after respect. They let there power and wealth and influence rule them, and this is what we must be wary of.

All Saints Day being this Tuesday, I thought it appropriate to find an example of a Christian who was able to juggle both worldly success and a radical commitment to God. Countless saints from the Church’s history have used their wealth and/or power to live out the commands of the Gospel, but one saint in particular speaks to me, as it were, due to his willingness to give up his power, his wealth, and even his life in order to live in accordance with the dictates of conscience and his Christian faith. This man, Thomas More, was called the “greatest character in English history” by G.K. Chesterton, and though for reasons that will soon become evident, his feast day doesn’t make it onto the Anglican calendar of observances, I believe him to be the greatest hero of the English Reformation.

More contemplated a possible vocation to the monastic life, even to the point of living the life of a Carthusian monk for a number of years. After much discernment, though, More decided that his skills might go best to serve God’s purposes if he were to enter life in the courts of law and in the public square. In his thirty-three year career, More worked his way up from being a modest but effective barrister to progressively more powerful positions in the realm. He was an undersherriff of London, a diplomat to the Holy Roman Empire, undertreasurer of England, personal secretary to King Henry VIII, Speaker of the House of Commons, High Steward of both Oxford and Cambridge, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and finally Lord High Chancellor, which made him the most powerful man in England, save the King himself.

And as More grew powerful and wealthy he only grew more humble and giving. His wife and four children often arrived at the dinner table to see that they had been joined by a number of the poorest residents of Chelsea parish. They rarely dined with the wealthy and never with the nobility. More hired a house in the parish providing food and housing for the poor, the old, and the infirm and gave his own legal services free of charge to widows and orphans. As for his personal lifestyle, according to his friend the Dutch humanist and theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam, More drank naught but cold water and only wore fine clothes when required by his office. “How many a man is proud of the woolen cloak on his back,” he once said “not remembering that it was on a sheep’s back before it was on his.” In this respect, More stands as a powerful example of a life defined by self-sacrificial giving.

But More is known more for his death, and the events leading up to it than he is for his sacrifices in life. More grew progressively suspicious of the king’s actions as he quarreled with Pope Clement VII. After Henry declared himself Supreme Governor of the Church of England, More resigned his position consigning himself to abject poverty. On making the decision to resign he wrote the following to his wife:

Then may we yet with bags and wallets, go a-begging together and hoping that for pity some good folk will give us their charity, at every man’s door to sing Salve Regina, and so still keep company and be merry together.

Though he had once been wealthy, More realized that it was not his possessions which gave him joy, but God, whose grace and love could be seen in the charity of others, quite literally at everyone’s door.

Some time later, More snubbed Henry by refusing to attend his wedding to Anne Boleyn, and More was called to appear before a commission. He refused to swear the oath at this commission, as by so swearing he would have tacitly consented to the king being head of the Church. More was sent to the Tower of London where he awaited his execution by beheading. And even at the hour of his death, he was sustained and consoled by God’s love. “Our Lord be thanked,” he wrote to his daughter Meg, “I am in good health of body and quiet of mind: and of worldly things I no more desire than I have. I beseech Him make you all merry in the hope of heaven.”

Naturally, Thomas More serves as an example for people in various situations and states of life. Christians with families, Christian statesmen and lawyers, and Christians facing crises of conscience can all learn something from More. So can all of us who struggle with the world’s definition of success, who see ourselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” I think that the answer has everything to do with how we start to think about vocation. For far too many of us, so-called success is the all-encompassing goal and if God is even brought into the equation it is at the end, as a passing concern. That is, we often try to justify our choices to ourselves, with a lot of hand-waving about how surely God would be fine with it. For example, one’s decision-making process might go something like this: “I want to be happy and the way I’m going to be happy is if people see me and say, now there’s a real together kind of guy. If I make a lot of money, people will think I’m a really together guy, so I should be an investment banker. God wants me to be happy, so this is alright.” Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of the sort of thought process people go through when thinking about the future. However, I think that many of us fall victim to similar, though more subconscious, flaws in our reasoning about vocation.

More gives us an alternative method. His equation, as it were, begins with God. The process of discernment begins with an identification of that which is important in life, being in communion with God, being at peace with our neighbor, living out the gospel in all that we undertake, and so forth. It is then that we can begin to understand who we are, what our gifts, our χαρίσματα as St. Paul called them, are, and how to live a life in accordance with all of this. It is at the confluence of Christian values, giftedness, and understanding that More was able to determine what it is he was called to at any given moment, and it is here that we too must find our calling.

For More, worldly success was coincidental in some sense. He didn’t enter the legal profession or politics because wealth, fame, respect and power went along with it. He entered these careers because he saw that he could be an effective minister through them. His primary concern was to do God’s will in his life, and the money and power merely went along with that life. When he lost all of these superfluities, the money and power, he wasn’t dejected. Rather he was joyful that he was doing what he took to be God’s will. This is a very difficult worldview to adopt, but I think it’s a manifestly Christian worldview.

The good news for all of us is that none of us are ever finished discerning God’s will for us, whether we’re 21 or 101. God continually calls us to new and exciting ministries, be it in the church proper, at work, in school, or in our families.

This is where the church has a great opportunity, and yes, a great responsibility. The Church is in a position to show that being a slave to conscience and the love of our risen Lord is preferable to being a slave to wealth and comfort and public opinion. In short, the Church is in a position to be a witness to the fact that, as Christ himself said “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Year A, Proper 26
October 30, 2011
Matthew 23:1-12