Sunday Sermon – 7 July 2019

I know the Price, but what is the Value?

From time to time I am asked, as others who lead occasional services are asked, “How do you decide upon the subject for the address, or sermon?” I can’t say how others respond, but I don’t find it an easy question to answer. That is because there are so many answers. Sometimes a thought seems to arrive out of the blue; sometimes I have read a book or a passage from a book and want to share my thoughts about it; sometimes the idea arrives out of an occasion – anniversary, Christmas, a birth or a death, for example; sometimes thoughts have been rumbling round for quite a while before bursting forth; sometimes…. but I could go on for ever, so I will come to the point. Though a general answer may be difficult, I know exactly what started me off this time. It was a newspaper cutting, yellowed and crumpled, which I unearthed at the back of my desk drawer. I must have cut it out from a paper or magazine ages ago and stuffed it in the drawer. Then forgotten about it. I can’t remember doing it, and I have no idea what prompted the action. I don’t even know which paper it came from, or on what date.

But there it was. I empathised with the sentiments expressed on the discoloured scrap of newsprint. So I typed my sermon title carefully at the top of the page “I Know the Price, but what is the value?” Now I will share the contents of the cutting with you – but not quite yet. If I read it out now you might all stop paying attention, so I will hang on to it for a little while. But I will tell you what is written up it……. eventually.

Arguably the most familiar quotation on the topic of price and value is Oscar Wilde’s description of a cynic: a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. An obsession with price isn’t reserved to the cynic. We have all come across the bore of either sex who insists on informing you of the high price of each of his or her highly expensive possessions. For them, price determines value. Such a person often seeks to be admired, envied even, because their goods have high figure price labels. “I paid – quoting a substantial figure – for this”, they say, implying that value can only be obtained at a price, and they are willing and able to pay it.

That might be dismissed as a pretty harmless conceit. So it is if it remains as a piece of self-indulgence which doesn’t hurt others, and may indeed give the rest of us private amusement. But more often than not, a further step is taken, whereby it is assumed that perceived value of possessions is equated with moral superiority. Wealth and goodness are thereby depicted as being hand in hand, really one and the same. That is why Jesus used the analogy of a camel squeezing though the eye of a needle, maybe a little exaggeratedly, when assessing the chances of a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven. It is why Jesus spoke warmly of the widow donating her mite, but coolly of the rich man ostentatiously flaunting his wealth. And, I trust, why the verse from the Victorian hymn “All things bright and beautiful” has been quietly dropped. The one which ordains that the “…rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” with each group understanding they should accept the judgement God has made about their status in life. Failure to separate price and value may lead to difficulty if self-regard overlooks the importance of humility.

There are plenty of examples where a very high price-tag is reflective of very high value in every sense. For instance, art galleries and museums are full of fine examples. A painting, a sculpture, a piece of exquisite craftsmanship may command huge sums. This may be in part because of rarity, or uniqueness, as well as for beauty and design. The work of art may be said to be priceless. Priceless, because it contains something of the soul and the vision of its creator; if lost it could not be replaced. It may be copied, reproduced by others, but it cannot be created again as a unique work. Its value lies in that originality of thought which produced something unique, an exquisite thought or design, that made others gasp with joy, and behold with wonder. Though cost may determine the barter price, value is much more than that.

In front of me, on the wall of my room as I write these words, is a water-colour. It was painted by a local artist and depicts a scene on the moors at the edge of Sheffield, not far from where I live. I value the picture and enjoy looking at the lonely landscape and the cloud formation. If it went into a shop for sale it might fetch just a few pounds, or quite possibly not. Equally possibly, it would be passed by for months. Pleasant and pleasing though it is, it is by no means a work of genius, a masterpiece. Yet it has great value, to me at least. It is irreplaceable. It was a surprise present given to me several years ago by colleagues with whom I had worked as chair of a committee over a decade or more. It was a kindly, unexpected gesture by kindly companions. Hence its value. It represents companionship, love and affection. I look at it and recall faces, some no longer living, with whom I had laughed, sometimes argued, who had been as loyal to me as I hope I was to them. More valuable than gold, yea than much fine gold.

Frequently value, as distinct from cost, has, amongst its components, the best of human character. Love, affection, dedication, sacrifice, blood, sweat, tears, joy, exhilaration.

These are qualities without price, for they are not for sale. They have a value greater than expensive consumer items lining the shelves of the super-market or department store.

You remember the Old Testament story I read earlier in the service, of David and his longing to drink from the water from the well of Bethlehem? In the end David adjudged the value of the water when it was brought to him too great for him, and could not drink it. It became a sacrifice to be made to the Lord. The value lay in the fact the men had risked their very lives to bring it, simply to please him.

Earlier this week I took a coach journey. On the way back, a summer day, we paused for a short time at the head of Monsall Dale, looking at the valley spread out below. I am sure you are all familiar with that splendid view. How would you cost it? To pose the question evokes bewilderment or hilarity. Then, how would you value it? As a priceless jewel, elixir for a jaded spirit, a place in which to think upon eternity? What ever the personal response, it is surely to think of value in a different way than in monetary terms. Peace, serenity and beauty defy pricing.

Not least to be valued is freedom. We worship free from constraint, though that was not ever the case. Laws protect us, our rulers are elected, our judges are independent as is our press. The value of freedom is much unappreciated, unless or until it is denied.

There is a familiar line in a prayer, couched in archaic English construction, which goes, “Teach me to love what Thou dost love” I construe that to mean, “Let me learn what to value, what may not be costed”.

All right, I’ll tell you about this cutting now. It refers to a statement by the late Robert Kennedy, a member of the American Kennedy clan, whose brother was President, assassinated in Dallas in November 1963 when evil darkened a sunny day. Robert himself was to meet an equally tragic, violent end. Here, in this quote, Robert is responding to economists who saw human achievement in purely material terms.

He said,

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes our life worthwhile”.

Of course that passage is not a comprehensive list of what makes life worthwhile, we might all add a bit here and a section there, but it makes, elegantly and movingly in my opinion, the central point; that to know the price is not a guide to true value.

Now you know what spurred me to talk about this today.

C. J. Rosling 21 May 2004

Hucklow 23 May 2004

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