Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore or the speaker for that day.
In the world of community organizing, we say that there are two kinds of power – organized money and organized people. The work of organizations like ACTION, which our church has helped found here in Tulsa, is to organize people.…mostly because we don’t have any money. Or, at least not enough money to compete with the monied power interests that we see in operation every day. So instead we turn to the teachings of our faith which inspire us to consider things beyond the financial, as this passage does.
It doesn’t mean we don’t have to talk about money, because we do. Member dues, grants, fundraising –this is all part of the work of organizing people. And it is just as uncomfortable to talk about there as it is to talk about here. I hate talking about money, especially in the pulpit. I wish that we could just be an organization, doing good work in the world, about the mission of social justice and equity and spreading love without spending a dime. But I haven’t found a way to make that work yet. So, here we are, needing to sit with Jesus’ challenging words, trying to make sense of our complicated relationship with money. Couldn’t we talk about something more comfortable – especially in church? Like, how about sex?
The Bible includes approximately 500 verses on both prayer and faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money! And money is the subject of roughly 40 percent of Jesus’ parables. And here we are in the United States, perhaps the world’s leader in consumption and religion, ironically founded on Puritanism which was deeply suspicious of possessions and worldly indulgence. Somewhere in our history we have developed a disconnect.
Maybe this is what Jesus warns us about, for money was no less a driver of life in his time. He saw it fuel things like aqueducts and roads, and he saw it destroy the lives of people around him, who toiled relentlessly to barely survive. He saw money as a great spiritual lesson, taught his disciples using the example of a widow giving in the temple, and as a great spiritual danger, turning over tables in that same temple and driving people out with a whip, in the great exception to his drive for non-violent practice.
We are the same. We see money do great things. We see it also as a source for immense evil. We can lift up Bernie Madoff, who bilked millions of people of their retirements for his own personal greed, or Bill Gates, who is on track to be both the world’s first trillionaire and a major benefactor of efforts to end hunger and combat disease. We shape our moral lives together around money…healthcare is about costs, ultimately, and I often make arguments against LGBTQ discrimination or even the death penalty in economic terms. Globalization, perhaps the most dominant shaper of culture and crisis in centuries, is driven by economics which try to keep people trapped behind the artificial borders that we allow money to pass seamlessly through.
We have, it is clear, a paradoxical relationship to money and I have no intention of making a claim this morning on what the Bible, or our tradition, or even Jesus tells us to do with our checkbooks. Your relationship with money is just that – your relationship. Our stories are so different, so convoluted, so complex and unique that it is impossible – and irresponsible – to make blanket statements about your finances.
So, instead I want to tell you what I think that Jesus wants me to do with my soul.
If you pull a dollar out of your pocket right now, you will see emblazoned across the top, the phrase, “In God We Trust.” This became the nation’s motto in 1956 as a replacement to the unofficial motto of “E pluribus unum – out of many, one.” But “In God We Trust” first appeared on coins in 1864, before being legally required to be on paper currency by a joint resolution of Congress in 1957. But if we were to really ask ourselves in what do we trust as a nation – what would our answer be?
I know that the polite thing is to keep sex, money & politics out of the pulpit. In part, perhaps, as a way of marking our territory, relegating those “profane, earthly” things to Monday-Saturday, like a dog marking its territory, so that we can escape the discussion of such stuff with a kind of moral hygiene. We can keep our money over there and our God over here…or, at least, we think we can.
Let us note that the scripture does not say you “should not” serve two masters – it says you cannot. And it doesn’t say, therefore make a choice – one or the other. But that’s what we do. We set up a false dichotomy that is not being presented. You cannot serve two masters, Matthew’s Jesus suggests, because there aren’t two masters. There is only God. And money. And one of them ain’t God. If you need a hint, it’s the one not named “God.”
The Biblical model includes many clear ways to shape our economic lives around justice – gleaning for the poor, no usury, the forgiveness of debts every seven years in the Hebrew laws, the admonition to “give to everyone who asks” or the really scary “sell all you have and give it to the poor.” That’s all in scripture plus much more. And the extra-biblical reports just as clearly indicate the ways people made loopholes that allowed one to be superficially observant, but culturally unchanged. Well, let’s sell our fields to Gentiles who don’t have to observe such things and then we’re off the hook…let’s charge interest only on “the other”, however we might define that…let’s read this portion metaphorically, but the other stuff, that only asks sacrifice of other people, that we read literally.
We act like we can compartmentalize this, like we can keep money and God in their corners, or act like we’re holy and untainted. We can decry climate change while we climb into our SUV, or denounce this practice or that, while our 401K reaps the benefit of that quarterly profit. That’s the sharp edge of Jesus’ words here – there’s not an artificial choice to make, but a realization that we are asked to seek balance, that we must worship God AND use money for they are both part of our lives. So we must question our balance often, with grace AND truth, for we need both.
In his book, The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests a series of ethical questions that we should ask of all of our economic systems. Does it enhance human dignity? Does it allow everyone to participate in the material blessings of this created world? Does it protect the vulnerable and help those in need escape the trap of need? And does it know it’s own limits – does it recognize that its values are not the only values, that there is more to life that striving after wealth, that the market is not the only mechanism of distribution, and that an economic system is not a means to an end?
Of course, the only way that these questions are any good is if they are continually asked, for the relationship between God and money is not a finish line, but a constant encounter. Wealth, wisdom would teach us, must always be a subordinate good, subject to something else. If we develop that kind of awareness, and if we practice our finances being subject to our values, then our money can be our proxy, stepping in for us when we cannot be there – like a candle that you light at a Catholic altar to stand in your place in witness with the Blessed Mother. This is what our taxes and our tithes ought to be – a stand in for us – a reflection of what we really do trust in.
This passage is not a treatise on the evils of money, nor is it a directive to taking up the life of a monk. It is a lesson on the right place of money and stuff in our lives. It is wisdom on the balance necessary in all of our lives. It is about the acceptance of our created-ness, how we have dignity beyond the limits of our ability to control or insure, and how we love best when we learn that we are not in control, that we are as much subject to the world as in charge of it. AND it is about power. It is about how we gain power, use power, wrestle with power and are subject to power…
That’s what I think that Jesus means as he tells us about birds and flowers. They don’t hoard things or possess them, but rather use them, and are therefore free from the trap that is our culture of acquisition – and the lie that acquiring things will reduce your anxiety. It doesn’t. It only increases it. Food and clothing are important. God knows that we need them. But our true life, our being, is not found there. I often look at my dog, lying peacefully on the floor, not a care in the world. Some days I think she hasn’t got a clue, and other days I think that she’s got it figured out better than I do. For in my rush to solve the world’s problems, to right all injustice and to defeat the evil that I see so clearly in others and so faintly in myself, I often forget to just take a walk, or a good, long drink, or to revel in the simple joy of play. I sometimes forget my balance.
Our lives, the Gospel asserts, are most fulfilled in the creation of the kin-dom, that is, when all people have dignity, when everyone has a seat at the table, when hierarchy is upended, when all people are treated as beloved by God–then indeed there will be peace and true prosperity and enough for everyone. But please take note of how different a vision that is than the one we get sold all the time – by politics, by ideology, by marketing, even by religion.
This morning I want to hear that different voice, calling to me from the ages, asking me to think differently, to act differently, to be the change I wish to see in the world. I want to have a better relationship to money, to understand it not as something disconnected or opposed to God, but part of the choices I make and therefore subject to the same turning down the holy road or veering off it. I want to understand this more deeply so that I might use the resources I have to really carry the values I hold, to empower a world I at least think I’m trying to help bring into existence. Then, on the days I feel that imbalance in my own heart, when I struggle with the ways of the world and the ways of the holy, I will meet that anxiety with the perspective of poetry. It’s a good balm to a lot of wounds. And one of my favorite physicians is Mary Oliver who writes this in her poem, The Summer Day:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?