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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Accumulation Addiction
September 16, 2010

The suntan was still glowing – a beach week at the end of the summer had left her looking like the very poster child for “Great Vacations U.S.A.” Yet when I ran into her this week, while her outer sheen shouted out, “I’ve been on vacation and it’s made me a new person!” inside she was a seething cauldron of anxiety.  She had long forgotten the vacation already. Why? Because she’s a Presbyterian pastor, and she was doing hard labor in the salt-mines known as Fall Program Kickoff.

This week the lectionary takes us to one of the thorniest of Jesus’ parables, where he commends a shyster for being smart enough to make sure people owe him favors when he loses his job. (Luke 16:1-13) The lesson he’s driving toward is one of the Bible’s most well-known sayings; in the familiar King James, he says “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

Modern translators typically turn “mammon” into “money” or “wealth,” and the teaching then ties nicely into the parable about the shrewd money manager. That is not a wrong translation, but “mammon” is about more than dollars. It is about accumulation.

Last week I spoke in this column about acclaim addiction. This week I confess my struggle with accumulation addiction. It certainly manifests itself in our anxiety-ridden preparation of annual budgets, especially if our organization has endowment funds. In one church I once knew well, the endowment committee had a long tradition of adhering to an unwritten rule, “Hang on to the money at all costs.” There is no need to “follow the money” if the money never moves! Under such draconian strictures, the endowment did grow, for which the church was grateful. But it almost took an act of God to free up even the interest income of those funds when an urgent mission need arose. It was in fact far easier to change the church’s bylaws than it was to access endowment income. I suspect that this story is not so very rare in Presbyterian congregations.

Like my well-tanned pastor, my biggest struggles with accumulation addiction have nothing directly to do with dollars, or even with things. As a pastor beginning a new programming year, I find myself drawn almost irresistibly to the lure of doing more and better than last year. The suntanned pastor arrived home to confront expectations that this Fall would be her congregation’s biggest and best Fall kickoff ever. We are addicted to an upward spiral of each year surpassing the last as we do more, faster, and better. Are we serving God or “Accumulation?”

It has been wearing my friend to tatters and it wears me out just hearing her out. Then I realize that I am as guilty as the rest of trying always to outdo my last performance. This is no way to serve God.

In Matthew 11, Jesus invites us to join our necks to his yoke, slow down, and live again. He works at a steady, sane pace, and when we yoke ourselves to him, we’ve no choice but to take on his cadence. In the language of The Message, Jesus asks us to “learn the unforced rhythms of grace” by walking in his way, at his tempo, with his agenda.

I can testify that the best antidote to accumulation addiction is to bind myself to Jesus. Join him on his pathway, learn his priorities and live them. It is a remarkably freeing thing; his yoke indeed is easy, his burden light. When do we need more to hear this reminder than during the raging rapids of Fall program launches and budget crunches?

Eyes on the Prize,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Presbytery

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