Living with Affluenza (Sermon)

This is an adapted version of my sermon from this morning. The gospel text was Luke 12:13-21.

Alcoholics Anonymous began in 1939 as a support group designed to help people trying to quit drinking. At the core of AA are twelve steps that each member is expected to follow. These twelve steps include things like this:

  • Admitting that you cannot control your addiction or compulsion.
  • Recognizing a higher power that can give you strength.
  • Examining past errors with the help of a sponsor, and making amends for these errors.
  • Learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior.
  • Helping others who suffer from the same addiction or compulsion.

AA is not perfect, but it has helped millions of people over the decades. There are many people out there today, perhaps in this room, who haven’t touched a drink in years because of the work of Alcoholics Anonymous.

This doesn’t mean that alcohol is bad in itself. On the contrary, alcohol is a gift from God, a gift that can be used for celebration and joy. But like many things, it is a gift that can become a curse in some situations, a gift that can become poison for those who have the disease of alcoholism.

To be honest, I’ve often thought that AA feels rather Lutheran. Following the Twelve Steps, you must admit that you are in thrall to something negative that is stronger than you, and by yourself you can’t succeed against it. You must recognize a higher power who can provide salvation from your addiction. In our case that higher power is God the Father of Jesus Christ. You must recognize that you’ll never be fully free in this life, but can rely on your higher power to provide strength for each day. And you must nurture relationships with other people, with sponsors who offer help to you, and with others you can help. You have a responsibility to offer the help you’ve received to others. All of this sounds to me almost exactly like our life in Christ, set free from sin, always receiving that freedom anew because we always need it, and sent to share that good news with the world. The Twelve Steps tell us that we are broken and needy, but that there is nonetheless hope and salvation, through God and through doing God’s work with and for other people. That sounds like grace to me! I’ve often wondered if the church could do well to see itself as a “Sinners Anonymous” community.

And in fact, the Twelve Step program has been adapted for use by many other communities of people who struggle. There is Gamblers Anonymous. Narcotics Anonymous. Overeaters Anonymous. Sex Addicts Anonymous. Nicotine Anonymous. And many more. All gifts from God to help people with various addictions.

But there is at least one addiction out there for which I couldn’t find a Twelve Step program: the disease of affluenza. Affluenza is a disease that is rampant in our culture. The word affluenza comes from the words “affluence” and “influenza.” It’s defined as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” It’s often said that affluenza affects only the exceedingly wealthy, and leads them to find little joy because of constantly seeking more. But I’m not convinced that it’s only the 1% who experience it. I think this addiction to wanting more money, more possessions, a bigger house, a better car, the newest iPhone, affects people of all walks of life in our country, including many, perhaps most, of us in this room.

Affluenza is marked by a feeling that we don’t have enough. A feeling that we need more. A feeling that the grass is greener on the other side. A feeling that we have to cling to what money and things we do have, because there isn’t enough to go around. Affluenza tells someone who earns $30,000 a year that he needs $40,000, and someone who earns $40,000 that she needs $50,000, and so on and so forth. Affluenza tells us to keep up with the Joneses. Affluenza tells us that Christmas isn’t what it used to be, even while we spend more and more money for things that nobody really needs. Affluenza hinders our ability to be content, our ability to trust, and our ability to be generous. Affluenza makes it hard to believe that God provides, hard to believe that God will continue to provide, hard to believe that God really wants me to do the things Jesus talked about, like giving what you have to the poor. In fact, affluenza can trick those of us who are not poor into believing that we are, even while surrounded by things we’ve bought and continue to buy. Things and things and things.

In the weeks and months following the funeral of a beloved parent, affluenza can lead brothers and sisters down very nasty paths when discussing the inheritance. Relationships can be destroyed. Marriages can be ruined. All because of money. Well, no, not because of money. Money is a gift from God, much like alcohol. But like alcohol, money can become a demon in the mind and hands of someone afflicted by affluenza.

It’s kind of like greed. It’s kind of like fear. It’s kind of like feeling stuck, with no options. And it’s not a moral failure. Just like alcoholism is now recognized as a disease that some people have through no fault of their own, I believe affluenza is also an illness that comes from without. But like alcoholism, it’s a disease that we can fight, that we can treat, if we recognize it.

I believe our culture as a whole is infected with affluenza, and perhaps that’s why there’s no Twelve Step program to help with it. So where can we turn? That’s a really good question. I believe I know the answer in broad terms, but not in specifics. I believe that Christ can provide healing from affluenza, but I don’t know how to go about getting that healing.

Jesus told a parable about a man who was severely afflicted: all he cared about was where to put all his stuff. God tells the man he is foolish. But there’s no happy ending for him here.

What if some of us recognize in ourselves the symptoms of affluenza? What do we do, what can we do about it? There’s no hope for us, no good news, no healing in this gospel reading. So where do we find it?

I … don’t … know. But I have a guess as to how to start. One thing I’ve noticed about the man in the parable is that he never talks to anyone but himself. When faced with the problem of what to do with all his crops, he asks only himself what to do. And then he dreams of talking to his own soul, saying, “Soul, once you get those new barns, you can eat, drink, and be merry!” He doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of others.

Maybe that’s the key to starting to deal with the problem. Talking to others. So maybe that’s why I don’t know. Perhaps I can’t know by myself. If you have affluenza, perhaps you can’t heal yourself, and perhaps God won’t heal you just through solitary prayer. Perhaps we need to talk about it with others. Perhaps that’s part of the church’s role in the world today, to be a safe place where we can talk about our problems, even touchy problems like those surrounding money, and receive support from one another. Perhaps. I don’t know. But I am interested in talking about it. So, quite seriously, let me know if you’d like to talk about this more. I want to start a conversation. Comment on this post, or email me. Or stop in and talk (if you’re local). I’d love to start a group discussion about this — let me know if you’d be interested in that.

I don’t have an answer to this. You might not either. But together, maybe we do. Let’s talk.

Featured image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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