Well, it’s good to be back. Joan and I enjoyed a weekend at the farm, and are now refreshed. Many thanks to Amanda Gainey and Ned Steele who rose to the occasion in my absence last Sunday. If I had a major award to share, I would share it with them. Joan received her first Covid vaccination yesterday, so things are looking up in the Gulley household. When we were married 37 years ago we promised to care for one another in sickness and in health, never imagining that would include a pandemic. Nor did Joan realize she was marrying a hypochondriac, so you just never know.
I remember this young couple who asked me to marry them maybe 25 years ago or thereabouts. They were in their mid-20s and had met one another in college and wanted to marry. So I sat down with them to discuss my conducting the ceremony and the man asked what I thought about premarital contracts. I thought it was an odd question. Neither of them had any money, nor had children from previous marriages whose financial interests they needed to safeguard. But the man wanted his fiancé to sign a premarital contract saying if he got rich while they were married, she wouldn’t demand any money in the event of a divorce. I said if there were such a contract, I wouldn’t conduct the wedding, that it was not only selfish, but set the wrong tone for a lifelong relationship. “You’re not even married,” I told the man, “and you’re already planning an escape route. I don’t think so.”
So they found someone else to marry them and I lost touch with them, except to later learn the marriage hadn’t lasted, for the very reasons you would suspect, that the husband made an error so many people make—he forgot that in good relationships, people are more important than things.
We’ve been talking about good relationships. So far we’ve said good relationships are positive, optimistic, and aspirational. We’ve observed that in good relationships people are free to be their authentic selves. We’ve said good relationships are rooted in consideration and thoughtfulness for the beloved. And the last time we were together, we learned that in good relationships people grow together, so they don’t grow apart. That is, as one person is maturing ethically and relationally, so is the other. Today, I want to add that in good relationships, people are more important than things.
This goes without saying. But living as we do in a wealth driven culture, when our success, happiness, and worth are too often measured by our financial wherewithal, it behooves us to remind ourselves that people are always more important than things.
This means our relationships should value mutuality and generosity over accumulation and acquisition. In some cultures, this priority is more customary than it is in America, which is revealed in our attitudes about community, which we tend to resist, and individualism, which we tend to applaud.
For instance, when I was growing up, the worst thing you could call someone was a communist. Communists, I was taught, didn’t believe in God, didn’t believe in freedom, and didn’t care about people. The communists lived in China and the Soviet Union, two countries that weren’t exactly pillars of justice, virtue, and human dignity, so it was easy to believe bad things about communism. When I grew older, I read that the premise of true communism was, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” As a follower of Jesus, I thought it would be wonderful if everyone gave what they could and had what they needed, but was told such a system would never work due to human selfishness. I was told human efforts needed to be rewarded by wealth, that people wouldn’t share and work and support the common good unless they were paid to do so, which is why capitalism worked so well. I was further taught that unbridled, unlimited capitalism would solve all our problems, ensure global prosperity, increase our happiness, and guarantee our freedom.
But lately I’ve noticed that capitalism isn’t working all that well for lots of people. I’ve noticed that leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, can’t even agree to establish a minimum wage thereby subjecting tens of millions of Americans, many of them children, to lives of mean and cruel poverty. We have made an error so many people make—we have forgotten that in good nations, just as in good relationships, people are more important than things.
What I find most interesting, is that while we reject the principles of mutuality in our economic system, we welcome mutuality in our personal relationships. We realize that in good relationships, each person offers and gives what they can, and receives what they need. When that happens in our personal relationships, we celebrate that and call that a healthy relationship. Yet somehow when we aspire to that same standard in our communities, we are branded as communists or socialists and dismissed as dangerous and naïve.
I’m not denying that money and stuff aren’t important. But to make them the measure of our worth and success, to use them as the yardstick by which our humanity is measured is both tragic and sad. Because people are always more important than things.
You know how I know this. Because I have been to the funerals of people who cared mostly about money, and I have been to the funerals of people who cared mostly about people, and I have seen very few tears shed for folks who cared mostly about money. As your pastor, I want people to cry at your funeral. I want your friends and your family to grieve your absence. I want stories told of your generosity, of your willingness to help. I want your death to create a gaping hole in our world that will only be filled as others love and give as you loved and gave. I want, when you die, and even before, for others to know without a doubt that in your world, people were more important than things.