The Value of Gold

Psalm 19 and Philippians 4:1-9
© Stacey Steck

“O shame on us who rest content, while lust and greed for gain in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain, and bitter lips in deep despair cry, ‘Christ has died in vain.” That’s the second verse of my second favorite hymn in our hymnal. It’s called O Holy City, Seen of John, and it’s a hymn that calls the faithful not to wait until the coming of the New Jerusalem to do something about the misery in which so much of the world finds itself. It was written in 1909, as the reference to tenements might suggest, by Walter Russell Bowie who was a young Episcopalian priest. It comes from a time in which the demographic landscape of the United States was changing from predominantly rural to urban. In fact, the 1920 census marked the confirmation of this trend as more than half of the residents of the country then lived in cities. And in the midst of that transformation were unscrupulous people trying to profit from all that transition and dislocation and disorientation. Rather than see to it that people in flux were settled, and comforted, and assisted, as a reasonable Christian nation’s response to human suffering might suggest, the cities being built were no kind of New Jerusalem, but more like a New Rome, whose citizens were subject to the whims of tyrannical forces beyond their control. And behind it all, behind nearly every situation of human suffering is always the gold, the cold hard cash, or as the hymn so elegantly puts it, “lust and greed for gain.”

Estimates of all the gold that has ever been mined in the course of human history put the total at only about 187,200 tons. And if you could put that total amount of gold which has ever been mined into a container, that container would be a cube with sides measuring about 21 meters, for a total volume of 9621 cubic meters, or for those like myself challenged by the metric system, approximately 340,000 cubic feet, which is really not that much larger than the volume of this sanctuary. And 90% of all that gold has been mined since the California Gold Rush of the 1880s. Imagine that. The brutality of the conquest of the Aztecs, and the Mayans, and the South Africans and so many other peoples to dig up a quantity of minerals that would fill basically just the space around the pulpit here. Thousands of people enslaved and murdered for a shiny metal, or as the hymn so elegantly puts it, “lust and greed for gain.”

The price of gold is currently about $1,300 an ounce, not too far down from its highest yearly average ever in 2012 of $1,664 per ounce, so it’s pretty valuable, and you can feel free to take off your rings and necklaces as the offering plate goes by. Even in ancient Israel people knew how valuable gold was. It’s everywhere in the Bible, 548 references to it by one count. Most of those references are to things in the tabernacle and the temple, but there was also that unfortunate episode with a certain golden calf, and some gold mice and some gold tumors, and there was all that gold they plundered from their enemies, and the gold that was taken from them by their enemies. I mean, it’s a wonder there’s any space in the Bible to talk about God. Maybe they got the two things confused! After all, there’s only one letter difference, right? Even as religious people, we’re obsessed with the stuff, or, as the hymn so elegantly puts it, “lust and greed for gain.”

And yet, gold’s value is ultimately relative, isn’t it? Or at least it should be. “More to be desired are they -- your laws, decrees, precepts, commandments, and ordinances -- than gold,” the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 19. In Psalm 119, it says, “The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces, and “Truly I love your commandments more than gold, more than fine gold.” Those must be some pretty valuable laws! Those laws of course were the ones handed down by God to Moses, the ten on the tablets and all the rest, the good news of how to live together justly, and kindly, and mercifully, God’s description for how human life should be in that promised land full of milk and honey. That law is the law of Shalom, that peace of God that passes all understanding. Maybe, just maybe, there is something more to life than “lust and greed for gain.”

I suspect that if the Apostle Paul had had gold on his mind, he too might have urged the Philippians to trade their gold for the good stuff, for “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,” or excellent or worthy of praise. Those are the things that make the world go round, if we let them. “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,” he says, “and the God of peace will be with you.” It’s the same stuff as the law, really. God has always called the covenant people to the truth, to honor, to justice, to purity. That’s the content of the law given so long ago. When we seek out those things, rather than bits of shiny dust, we fulfill that same law, the one that was given not so that we’d have another set of rules to follow, and not even so God would have a way to measure our faithfulness, but so that we could find life in all its fullness. That everyone could find it.

Last I checked, none of us had made an attempt on Fort Knox, or anybody’s jewelry. We are all fine, upstanding citizens, just like probably everyone that Walter Russell Bowie knew in his parish. And so maybe that’s why he started off that verse letting us off the hook just a little, but not much. Remember how that verse starts: “O shame on us who rest content, while lust and greed for gain in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain, and bitter lips in deep despair cry, ‘Christ has died in vain.’ ” It may not be that we ourselves wring gold from human pain, but we will merit whatever shame comes our way if the best we ever do is rest content while indirectly benefitting from the “lust and greed for gain” that others more actively pursue. If we are not, individually and as a church, seeking Paul’s whatevers of truth, honor, justice, and purity, then indeed we might as well be putting a microphone up to the lips of those who say “Christ has died in vain.”

Despite the truth of that verse, however, I don’t actually believe in shame. I don't think it’s the great motivator we sometime think it is. But we use it all the time. It’s our favorite form of behavior modification for children and dogs and it’s our choice of discourse in politics. But it doesn’t work. Shame just makes people want to hide their faces and their deeds rather than change their minds and their ways. But shame isn’t on Paul’s noble list of “whatevers.” Shame doesn’t inspire. Shame is like gold. Neither of them really get us what we want.

So, if shame can’t motivate us to bring an end to the “lust and greed for gain,” in our own hearts, or anybody else’s, what can? Here’s what I’d like to think. I’d like to think that we could be inspired by that image of a community at peace that the law, which is more desirable than gold, and sweeter than honey, has to offer. Walter Russell Bowie didn’t end the hymn at that second verse, of course. And he offers that image in the fourth verse: “O holy city, seen of John, where Christ, the Lamb, doth reign, within whose foursquare walls shall come no night, nor need, nor pain, and where the tears are wiped from eyes that shall not weep again.” Those inspirational words come from the book of Revelation. The point of his hymn however, and the point of God’s law in the first place, is that the poor and the suffering and the marginalized shouldn’t have to wait until the very end of time to be fed and healed and comforted. That’s within our power to do now, if we choose to love the law more than gold.

The world’s poverty and suffering, and even the poverty and suffering in our own back yard, is a complicated thing. There are no easy answers. There is no formula. But the complexity of the problem just cannot be an excuse for us to give up hope than we can, and must, do whatever we can. If the problem seems overwhelming, and it certainly does to me, maybe in part that’s because we often view it from the perspective of “What can I do? Poor little old me!” instead of “What can we do together? We rock!” The law is not mine to keep. It’s ours to keep. We’re in it together. And so it’s that sense of togetherness, and the image of what God’s world really could be that should motivate us when Consecration Sunday comes around. Not shame. Just an invitation to bring a little shalom into the world by doing together what none of us can do alone. What’s the value of gold? Priceless, if it’s truly working for the peace that passes understanding. Amen.