Sermon from Lent II: Flourishing
Lent II; March 8, 2020
Dan Price is CEO of a credit card processing company named Gravity Payments. In 2015 he decided to try something with his company, something for which he has been both lambasted and praised. He decided to raise the minimum salary of everyone in the company to $70,000 a year. Of the 120 employees, seventy got a raise and thirty of them had their compensation doubled just like that. How did he pay for it? He reduced his own salary from $1.1 million to $70,000. Colleagues scolded him. Rush Limbaugh called him a communist. Two senior staffers quit because they said it was unfair and that junior staffers would slack off.
As it happened, junior staffers did not slack off. They actually get more work done, because they have been able to focus on their jobs, rather than worry about other things. They have had the money to buy homes; they have felt more confident about starting families; two-thirds of them have reported they’ve cut back on their debt significantly and many are debt-free. What has been the impact on Price himself? He takes more modest vacations now than he used to. Oh, and the company has increased its business.
Price is happy about the impact on the people in his organization, but he says he doesn’t feel the experiment was a success, because other companies are not rushing to follow suit. The income disparity between CEOs and workers has continued to grow. When he’s been told he should have kept the huge salary and done good things with it, he said that our society has been relying on billionaire philanthropists for too long and what we really need is more “justice and integrity engineered and designed into our system.”
The two commandments we are concerned with today – “Remember the Sabbath” and “Honor your father and your mother” – are both directed toward a life of flourishing and toward justice. Let’s talk about justice first. When I read to you the entire Commandment about the Sabbath, I hope you noticed something important: I hope you noticed that God commands not only the covenant-keeper to take one day in seven off of work, but everybody in the household gets the day off. You don’t get to take a day off by making your servant do the work for you; everybody is equal. The Commandment to keep Sabbath is a great equalizer: it applies to the one who is trying to have a good relationship with God, and to the children, workers, livestock, and immigrant laborers. You don’t work and you don’t make anybody else work: everyone is equal.
Speculation around the meaning of “Honor your father and your mother,” has centered around the idea that you treat them with respect, simply because they are the ones who gave you life. Whether they were good parents or terrible parents is immaterial; you must treat them seriously. At least, you make sure they are cared for in their old age. And the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian Church extends that attitude to everyone in a position of authority: presidents and pastors, executives and teachers. Whatever you think of them personally and whether you like their decisions or not, the Covenant-keeper treats them with respect. And I noticed something about the Commandment which I (at least) think is worth mentioning: in a culture that was heavily patriarchal, in which people are known by their father’s names and frequently a mother’s name isn’t even remembered, the Commandment says to honor your father and your mother. Both are treated with respect; the Commandment is an equalizer.
Both Commandments are equalizers: fathers and mothers are treated alike; parents and children are treated alike; employers and employees are treated alike; citizens and immigrants are treated alike. No, it isn’t communism; it’s Biblical justice. And both are intended so that the Covenant-keeper will have a life of flourishing. It’s an old cliché, but bears repeating: No one ever sighed on their deathbed, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.” It may happen, but I suspect that it’s rare that someone would look back on their life and regret not having put in more hours at work and given less attention to their family, their friends, and their spiritual life. Yet we always feel the pressure to give more time to the company, to pursue more dollars, to ignore family and friends and God.
The commandments help us resist that pressure and listen to the calling of our hearts to pay attention to what is of lasting importance: that friend who always makes you smile, a nourishing prayer life, the well-being of the ones who gave you life.
I admit I may be stretching it a bit, but I see in this an implication worth mentioning. The pursuit of enough money to live on is essential, and having work that is in itself meaningful is a great blessing. But, basically, the provision of food, shelter, and pleasure is something we share with all animals. It marks no real difference between us and wolves or wildebeests. All animals pursue food, shelter, and pleasure; right? So how do we nurture our humanity?
Go to the Joslyn and sign up for a class in painting, or listen to a docent talk about what makes a work of art particularly good. Don’t worry about how much money it fetches at auction; ask why it’s worth paying attention to. Listen to music and think about why you like it. Read Kooser’s weekly column on poetry. Come to worship when you don’t feel like it and try to open your heart to the presence of God. We are living in a time and place where we are inclined to judge everything by its monetary value: we don’t evaluate a college major by how it will help a person become a more well-rounded human being, but by how much money it is likely to generate.
Resist. Resist our society’s pressure to judge everything by its dollar value, by its contribution to the economic engine, with no regard to its contribution to our basic humanity. I think a major part of what God was trying to do in laying down the fourth and fifth commandments was to help God’s people break out of the cycle of judging people by their productivity – work seven days a week, and when people can’t work any longer (such as father and mother), throw them away – and help them create a society where people could flourish as human beings. The modern pressure to go back to a seven-day work week, where people are judged by their productivity and are otherwise subject to being thrown away, is of the devil.
Resist. As Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). When we serve God, we open ourselves to celebrating our basic humanity; we open ourselves to true flourishing.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 cbc.ca/radio/asithappens Seattle CEO who pays workers at least $70K US says it’s paying off in spades. March 2, 2020.