Sermon preached at the Holland Park churches, Sunday 9 July 2017
‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’ (Romans 7:15)
I wonder how many of you have tried to give something up. For Lent, perhaps, or to lose weight? Or maybe you‘ve tried to give up smoking? So the words of St Paul will be familiar to you. That feeling when you accidentally cram yet another biscuit into your mouth while absent-mindedly chatting to a friend, then you realise you weren’t supposed to be eating it?
This sense of dislocation, of being divided against yourself, is what St Paul means. You may also have felt like this when you’ve lost control of your body – when it develops a mind of its own when you’re pregnant, or when your legs or your memory refuse to play ball as you get older.
Thanks to neuroscience, we have fancier words than sin and the law to describe it these days. Try this, St Paul: in the orbitofrontal cortex, a decision-making area of the brain, the brain’s circuits for habitual and goal-directed action compete for control. Usually, habit wins: neurochemicals called endocannabinoids act as a sort of brake on the goal-directed circuit to allow for habit to take over. Makes sense? This jargon is describing the rather mechanical process your brain indulges in to try to conserve energy. To do so, it uses tried-and-tested short-cuts, the neural pathways called heuristics, to keep you operating as efficiently as possible.
That’s why habits are so terribly hard to break. And today I want to talk to you about your habits, and specifically about habits to do with money. I want to offer you some ideas about how you might both audit and improve your money habits. Why? Because where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Charles Duhigg wrote a useful book about habits that breaks them down into three steps: Cue, Routine, Reward. You enter the kitchen, make a cup of tea, then sit down to savour that first sip. You are quite literally on auto-pilot when you do this most of the time. So if you want to give up taking sugar in your tea, you have to disrupt one of these steps, to shock your brain out of autopilot so that you can take back the controls. So perhaps you plug your kettle into the wrong socket, or you hide the sugar bowl in a cupboard, or you move all the mugs. Any such move buys you time to make an active choice rather than succumb to your habit.
But why is this doubly hard when it comes to money? The wonderful theologian Richard Beck suspects it is because consumerism is designed to feast on your neuroticism. Do you remember the Dr Seuss book about the Sneetches? There are Star-Belly Sneetches and Plain-Belly Sneetches. One day, an entrepreneur comes to town with a machine. The plain-bellies give him cash, and he puts a star on their bellies. Then he charges the outraged star-bellies to have their stars removed; then the newly starred to have theirs removed, then the original stars to be replaced, and so forth and so on, until he leaves them in disarray, a very rich man.
They did a similar study on vervet monkeys. The famous experiments carried out by the UCLA scientists McGuire and Raleigh found that high-ranking male vervets had nearly twice as much serotonin in their blood as those ranking lower in the social hierarchy. If an alpha male was displaced by a challenger, his seratonin levels would plummet, until he was able to re-assert his status in the troop. And this is what happens when you buy the latest ‘thing.’ When your social group signal their approval, you get a burst of serotonin, and this becomes addictive because if you don’t keep ‘on top’ you will quite literally feel depressed. No wonder teenage anxiety is sky-rocketing in an age of 24×7 social media.
This yearning is what drives consumerism, with seductive advertising designed to suggest that as long as you keep on buying the latest thing, you’ll always be socially on top. Many theologians have written about these ‘technologies of desire’ that fuel consumerism. They want us to stop desiring things, because it’s naughty. I think that’s a rather tall order, and, taking a motif from the martial arts, I prefer the idea that an opponent is best defeated if you use their own force against them. So I was delighted when I discovered, through Richard Harries, the work of the 17th Century theologian Thomas Traherne. He thinks desire might actually be the proper starting point for Christians. Traherne argues that, because God is so prone to give, ‘it is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable… the noble inclination whereby man thirsteth after riches and dominion, is his highest virtue, when rightly guided’. So is our insatiability just a noble spiritual good gone wrong?
Rowan Williams has this to say about our restless search for completion through ‘things’: he wants us to grow up. He reckons that it’s childish to imagine that we’re on the verge of completion, and that the latest gadget, accessory or experience will fill that last neat hole and make us – finally – happy. Growing up requires us to stop desiring satisfaction, which is the end of desire, and to come to terms with the incurable character of our desire. Nothing on earth should satisfy us. We are designed to be restless until we find our rest in God, so we should embrace this yearning in our character, and find peace in our yearning not for stuff but for God.
So if we are hard-wired to yearn, and need to school ourselves away from things and towards grace, are there some easy ways we can start this journey? I think we can smuggle grace in, along with things, until it takes a firmer hold in our lives. And we can do that by shining a spotlight on our money habits.
Money is how we vote daily for the kind of economy we want, and I bet you’re already pretty fabulous at spending for the Kingdom. You probably already buy fair-trade and ethically sourced goods. You probably make good use of local shops, markets and charity shops, and reuse and recycle wherever you can. But here’s my question. If I asked you during the Peace instead of shaking hands to exchange bank statements, would you feel proud about what you were handing over? If not, what’s on there that shames you?
Here’s mine. I’ve used a highlighter pen. Some of it is good; but some of it needs improvement. Can you work on yours every month, gradually turning the reds to ambers and the ambers to greens? And maybe you could appoint a bank-statement buddy to hold you to account about it.
It’ll be a right pain. You’ll feel inconvenienced and overcharged. But we’ve learned about the ‘fair-trade premium’ and we gladly pay extra for that. So how about a grace premium, so you can delight in being gracefully overcharged and gracefully inconvenienced? Could each sacrifice become an offering and a prayer for a more Kingdom-shaped marketplace? Let’s all start with our very next transaction. Will it be a vote for the Kingdom, or will you subside back into those very comfortable ways that St Paul warns us about? It may seem daunting, setting off on this journey with God. But our Gospel today reassures us: ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matt 11:29)