Text: Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”)
My late father was not what anyone would call a wealthy man. He did, after all, spend his entire career as a United Church minister! But in the later years of his life, when he and my mother gathered with their children and grandchildren around a dinner table, he was apt to remark on how blessed he felt. Although my father didn’t have a lot of money, he felt rich in family, joy, and love.
Being grateful for everyday blessings like this reminds me of two different kinds of wealth. There is the money wealth tracked by economists and there is the spiritual wealth we find in family and friends.
When the Psalmist writes that he lacks nothing because God is his shepherd, I believe he is writing about spiritual wealth. By putting his trust in God, the writer of the 23rd Psalm feels safe and content in the face of both good fortune and bad.
This is not to say that material wealth is unimportant. When the basic necessities of food and shelter are not present, it is difficult to focus on matters of the heart. Every society tries to provide for the material well-being of its members. And given the challenges of economics and public policy, I am not surprised that economic matters so often dominate news headlines.
Last week, a provincial budget was published in Alberta to mixed reviews; a federal NDP manifesto to tackle climate change was almost universally panned; and the release of the so-called Panama Papers continued to generate anger over how the world’s richest people shield their income from taxation.
Beyond these headlines, there are ongoing anxieties about the economy. The price of oil remains low, Alberta is in recession, and so we worry about job losses and fiscal deficits. We may wonder if future governments will be able to fund healthcare and if our grandchildren will be poorer than us.
One of the many things that has astonished me over the course of my lifetime is the rising level of wealth. The size of new houses gives an example. Before World War II, an average Canadian single-family dwelling was less than 1,000 sq. feet. By 1970 it was near 2,000 sq. feet. Today, many new houses are over 3,000 sq. feet. During this same period, the size of the average family has shrunk.
On a world scale, many countries that 40 years ago were sunk in desperate poverty have achieved rapid levels of growth, and hundreds of millions of people have risen from subsistence to a middle class lifestyle. While large areas of poverty and misery remain, I am encouraged by the trend.
Then there are the technological changes of recent generations. One or two TV channels have become hundreds. A typical cell phone contains more computer power and networking wizardry than existed in the whole world in 1950. Transportation networks bring food of dazzling variety from all corners of the world to our doorsteps during all seasons of the year.
At a material level, we are far richer than when I was a child. And yet much anxiety remains. For one, endless growth, which is necessary for the economy, brings both blessings and curses.
Climate change provides an example. The Leap Manifesto, which was debated here in Edmonton last weekend by the federal NDP, puts forward policies that would help Canada do its small bit to stop climate change.
The Manifesto has been widely attacked as unrealistic. But does this mean that climate disaster cannot be prevented? We know that most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels must never be mined if the atmosphere and oceans are to be saved. But given how world markets require unending growth, there seems to be no realistic way to stop this. And so in the midst of rising material wealth and power, many problems and fears remain.
Can the Psalmist help in the face of such problems? If we lose our job, can we really continue to not want anything? If world population continues to soar and resource extraction continues to wreck the world’s atmosphere and oceans, can we really fear no evil? In the face of social change, with attendant conflict and violence, can we really trust that only goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives and that we will dwell in God’s house forever?
The Psalmist would answer “yes” to all those questions. The trust he exhibits is not based on material wealth, physical safety, or social progress. It flows, I think, from remembering his sacred values – things like beauty, truth, and love. One of the reasons we come to church is to remember these values and to reflect on how we might live in the light of them.
Here, we try to remember how God’s Grace can wake us up to beauty, truth, and love regardless of our material circumstances. This grace explains how we can be grasped by faith and hope even in the midst of economic turmoil, environmental destruction, or sickness.
Even when we are sick, sometimes we experience a moment of eternal love that is drenched in mystery and beauty. Even when we are in pain, sometimes we can remember that it is from God’s Love we have come and it is to God’s Love that we return. Even when we are worried about the economy or the environment, sometimes we can remember that each moment is a precious gift from a Source that is beyond our comprehension.
I am not opposed to the struggle for justice and equality. Far from it. I applaud those who expose billionaires who evade taxes. I hope steps are taken that will stop this corruption and lessen inequality.
I am thrilled at the technological and cultural innovations that enrich our lives and bring new powers to us even if they sometimes overwhelm us.
I appreciate the efforts of climate scientists and social activists to find ways to stop the pollution of the world’s atmosphere and oceans despite how daunting that goal might seem. I hope against hope that they will lead us to new social arrangements that are not based on cancer-like economic growth.
But even if such efforts fail, I will try to remember the words of the Psalmist and the truths of our tradition: God’s grace is here for us. Any moment can become one of mystery, beauty and love. And at the end of life’s struggles, our small concerns and anxieties disappear into the Great Spirit of Love that lies behind the entire cosmos and all of our days.
Even in the worst moments, I try to remember that God is my shepherd and that I lack nothing.
And for this Easter truth, I say again, “Thanks be to God.”