November 12, 2012

Money Matters


Text: Mark 12:43: “Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.’”

We do joke about it, but the fact is that speaking plainly about money somehow became regarded as inappropriate in the church. I grew up in a tradition that disposed of the distasteful business of money every week with a single sentence, usually one spoken very quickly by the minister at the end of the announcements. “Remember the words of our Lord Jesus, how he said: it is more blessed to give than to receive.” The good people of the Episcopal church were so worried about what their ministers might say about money during the service that these sentences were actually spelled out in the old Book of Common Prayer, just to make sure that nothing too uncomfortable was said. “Remember the words of our Lord Jesus, how he said: it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

But here—here it is something else altogether. Here I do not shy away from using all manner of means to make sure you get the point that money matters. Sure, it matters to us. But it had better also matter to you, at least if you are interested in the good health of your eternal soul.

I have now been ordained long enough to have received no small number of quiet, well-meaning critiques of my very frank requests for money. The critique generally takes one of two or three forms. “The church is always asking for money,” someone will say. “You should speak of more noble things.” Or this: “We give to so many other causes; we’re already doing our part.”

I am not going to address each of these protests, although I believe that in what follows there is an answer to each of them. Instead I propose to take an especially careful look at that first and most frequent complaint: The church is always talking about money. It’s too dreary. It’s too dismal.

Talk about something else. Talk about the beauty of God’s handiwork, or the immense gift of unmerited grace. Talk about how we should pray, or what it really means to be forgiving in this unforgiving culture of ours.

Or talk about some meaty theological topic. We’re up to it, you know. Talk about the doctrine of double predestination, or the changes throughout history in our understanding the persons of the Christian Trinity. Talk about anything. Just don’t talk —at least don’t talk so much—about money.

And if you’ve ever felt that way, well, I suppose I’d have to say in truth that I have, too, from time to time.

Except there is a basic problem with this kind of pleading. Because ultimately all of the teaching we do in this place on the meaning of the Christian faith and life gets brought back to this set of writings, this library of books, this Bible. And it gets drawn back to the teachings of the man Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth, the man who for us lived the example of a life ultimately open to God.

And here’s the problem. Jesus talks a lot about money. Money matters a lot to Jesus.

Not politics. Not theology. Not even sex. But money—there’s a lot about money in what Jesus teaches.

Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourner’s community in Washington (and, I am proud to say, a fellow native of Michigan), used to go around the country preaching a sermon entitled “The American Bible.” He would bring into the pulpit a New Testament from which he had carefully cut out with an X-acto knife every word, every phase, spoken by Jesus or by his followers on the subject of money.

That was the American Bible; it was a bible that was supposed to keep a polite silence about money. I probably don’t need to tell you that when Jim held up that Bible for inspection, what you saw was book that had been utterly shredded, more censored than a press release from the Department of Homeland Security.

So if the church is always talking about money, it is for the simple and unavoidable reason that Jesus is always talking about money. And not just money. Your money.

We get an examples of that teachings in the gospel reading we have heard this morning. We all know the story; it’s the old story about the Widow’s Mite. But there is another story, just before this one, that makes a kind of bookend with this.

In both stories, Jesus is in Jerusalem, at the very epicenter of his Jewish faith. And in both stories he has only just come into Jerusalem, hailed by those who have acclaimed him as the son of David. The buzz is around about Jesus; he’s at the peak of his popularity.

And in both stories he is dealing with the fact of money in the Temple. But in the story just before this one, he was chasing people out of the temple for running currency-exchange shops and selling animals for sacrifice. In the first case he’s condemning it, while in another he’s commending it. In one case it’s anger; in the other it’s admiration.

What are we to make of this?

We can start by cancelling out some elements on both sides of the equation to get rid of extraneous variables. Jesus is not saying that money is inherently bad. He’s not even saying that the idea of the temple having an association with money is bad. He’s not questioning whether the temple, the house of God, the point of interaction between the holy and the faithful, should be a place where money enters in.

He’s not condemning the money; he’s condemning the injustice that the money is making possible. He’s condemning the idea that we can live out our gratitude to God simply by spending enough money to make the smallest publicly acceptable sacrifice.

Jesus’s anger is pointed against a society that is trying to sell the idea that the kind of sacrifice God wants can be found on a price list. It can’t. Because the whole direction of the transaction is wrong. It creates an external standard of what makes for an acceptable gift. That’s what the doves are getting sold for.

And his anger is pointed against a society that insists that only a certain kind of gift is acceptable to God. That’s what the moneychangers are for—they’re there for the Gentiles, the people outside the chosen circle, forced to change their Roman money into money the Temple insisted on.

What Jesus knows about God, what Jesus would teach us about God, is that God is pleased by our offering when it comes not to satisfy some external standard, but from within ourselves. God is pleased by our offering not when it is in the right kind of money, not when it’s in the right size of the bill, but when it comes from a thankful heart.

This is what Jesus sees, and admires, this is what God loves, in that poor widow. She doesn’t even bother dealing in the economy of doves. Her gift has no regard for the external standard, whatever it is. It comes from within; it comes from a grateful awareness of God’s love for her.

My friends in the economics department would be confounded by this. Because there is no rational link between what she can afford to give and what she chooses to give. At least not a “rational” link in the sense of a prudential, utility-maximizing relationship between all of her worldly needs and her meager assets.

It’s not that she doesn’t care about that; it’s not that she wants to be hungry, that she wants to be poor. She doesn’t. She is hungry, and she is poor—and yet, more than any of that, she is thankful. Thankful for the gift of life, thankful for the knowledge of love, thankful for the graciousness of God towards her—a graciousness she may be able to see more clearly than you precisely because she is hungry and poor.

And so her gift may seem small to the world, and it may seem extravagant to those who know her circumstances. But to her it is the only possible gift. Because it is a gift of gratitude.

So there is the line that connects these two dots. Money matters, but not because you can buy God’s favor with it; you’ve already got that, and it can’t be taken away from you. Money matters, but not because you can calculate yourself just a little bit above the average gift of the people sitting around you—because all that they have, and all that you have, has all come ultimately from the same source anyway.

No, money matters only to the extent that through it you can do what God is eagerly and tenderly encouraging you to do—to look around you, maybe for the first time ever, and simply try to take in how unbelievably blessed you are, and have been, and then to respond to that with a gratitude that comes from deep within your heart. Because it is deep within your heart that God has a home in you, always.

And when you allow yourself to see, not with the eyes of your checkbook or of your tax accountant, not with the eyes of your short-term impulse buying or your long-term retirement plans, but with the eyes of your heart—well, then, the money really won’t matter so much. What will really matter is finding a way to express joy of that gratitude.

Should we speak of more noble things than money? Is there anything more noble than a grateful heart in action?

So why the church? And why this church? Aren’t there other, more needy causes—even other, more needy churches?

I would not deny it. But for all of us here, that is little more than a cheap dodge. Because that act of grateful giving is owed first to the source of all that we have received anyway—to God, the giver of all gifts. And for us, in this moment, this is where we come to explore more deeply our call to be in relationship both with God and with God’s people.

I have now been here as the priest of this parish for more more than three years. And I can testify to you with great and growing confidence that this church is doing real work, good work, important work, for us and for many, many more people of faith than either you or I will ever know.

This church stands in the midst of a secular society as a witness to the claim that no search for truth can claim to be whole unless it admits that at least part of the truth of the human condition is that we are not merely physical, not merely intellectual, not merely emotional, but spiritual beings.

If we simply insist on living here in the joy that a grateful faith makes happen, we shall either bring people in out of curiosity or confound them out of frustration—but either way the disturbing, unsettling work of God will continue to be done, even in this place.

We stand for a faith that is animated by gratitude, and not by judgment.  We hold to a Christianity that is guided by compassion and tempered by humility, not one that is seduced by power and maintained by exclusivism. We follow a teacher who sought the lost, who ate and laughed with sinners, and who lived the lesson that the greatest of all must be the servant of all.

And we will not surrender to anyone our claim that being made in the image and likeness of a loving God means that no one, no matter how they are made, does not have within them that sacred imprint which makes them worthy of dignity, the lasting mark of the hand of God that can never be taken away.

In short, my friends, we have so, so much to be thankful for, each one of us.  We have, each one of us, been blessed beyond our knowing by a God who will not let go of us and desires only that we live our lives as those who know at least a little of how much they have to be grateful for.

We are part of a great, even an urgent mission in this moment of the timeless hope of the Christian faith. And because of this place we have each other from whom to draw strength, and encouragement, and help.

Over and against all that, I ask you—what does your money really matter?