Text: Luke 6:17-31
Research says that many of us would be more comfortable talking about our sex lives than our money. If that is true, the title of this sermon, “A Money Conversation,” is causing some anxiety right about now. The real truth may be that we don’t mind talking about money in the abstract, but when we talk about “our” money we get itchy. Are you feeling itchy?
With that acknowledgement, I am wondering this morning why is it that we have such a hard time, especially churches like ours, talking openly about money? Why do we tend to treat the topic of money as a dirty secret—as something that is off-limits and too personal for communal conversation? If you think about it, this reluctance to talk about money in the context of our faith is rather odd given that Jesus had so much to say about it. The truth is that Jesus’ references to money are second in number only to his teachings about the kingdom of God. Allow me to run down the short list.
- The story of the money changers in the temple
- The rich young ruler
- Jesus’ teaching that one must abandon wealth to follow him
- Jesus’ instruction to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”
- The widow’s mite
- That clear image of, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”
- The parable of “storing up your treasure”
- The parable of the talents
- The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector
- That familiar passage that begins, “Consider the lilies”
- Or the one that says, “No one can serve two masters – you cannot serve God and money”
I have given you these facts before but they are worth repeating. There are roughly 2,350 verses in the Bible about money and possessions; and about one-third (16 of 38) of the parables deal with money and possessions. And Jesus says twice as much about money than he does prayer and faith combined. As I noted earlier, only the kingdom of God gets more attention. It is important, as we begin this conversation, to remind ourselves that money was not a topic that Jesus shied away from or one that he didn’t consider important. To the contrary, Jesus and other biblical writers go to extraordinary lengths to bring to our awareness that there is a significant connection between our spiritual lives and our attitudes and actions toward money. As people of faith, it is important to know what the Bible says about our relationship with money.
This week with the lectionary lunch group I posed the question, “Why do you think it is so hard to talk about money? Especially in the church?” Quickly, someone noted that for some churches it’s not hard. Most in the group acknowledged, that for some preachers and churches, money is their only focus. And that is true. We’ve all heard the TV evangelists proclaiming and promoting a prosperity gospel—a gospel that teaches us that if we are “living right” then God will financially reward us. Which leaves a big question for those of us who feel we struggle month after month to make ends meet. For some of us, our past church experiences have so skewed our understanding of our relationship to money and our faith that we literally want to withdraw when we bring up the topic. Yes, many of us have been led down the road of shame and guilt and even fear when it comes to the church’s teachings on money and faith. After all, the single most affirmation the church has had to offer on this topic is that, “money is the root of all evil.” We live in a dichotomy where our society glorifies money—tells us that our very worth is determined by our financial status—while our religious establishments vilify money. This leaves us hanging between feeling bad because we don’t have enough money or bad because we do have enough money when others around us have so little. For this reason, it is past time that we find a different way to enter the conversation about the connection between our spiritual lives and money.
This morning I want to propose a different way, but first, let’s look at where we at Pullen are currently in our conversation about money. We have been for some time in a difficult conversation about our church budget. We vote today on a budget that has been reduced numerous times in order to meet our pledging threshold for this year. As I am sure you are aware, this is not the first year that we have had difficulty pledging our budget and therefore fully funding our dreams and hopes. As we look at 2011 and 2012 it will be no different. The reality is that we are in a serious global financial recession. Pullen is not alone in facing this reality. But there is another truth I want to name. To our credit we are a church that aspires to having a deep and wide impact in our community and world. As such, we have faced and will continue to face hard questions about how to allocate our resources to our hopes and visions for our mission and ministry in the lives of people far and near. We will continue to have to make hard financial choices. This has been true throughout our history. That is our reality.
This morning, as I propose a different way to have a money conversation, the first premise I want to put out about money is that it is neither good nor bad. Money is neutral. The presence or absence of money is not in and of itself an indication of our spiritual well-being or commitment. 2010 is a hard year for us financially. That doesn’t mean we are less committed to our dreams and hopes. It doesn’t speak to our value in the world. It doesn’t mean we are unsuccessful in being a faithful church.
The second premise I want to suggest is that money is a means. It allows us to make choices about how to fulfill the call we discern from God about who we want to be as a church. We talk often about what is required of us—to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God—I want us to view our money as a means to living into that vision.
My last premise is that we are an affluent church. Even in a bad year, we have more than most. This does not mean that we have unlimited resources. But it does mean that we cannot approach a conversation about what this church can accomplish through its money from a deprivation mentality. By all standards, we are rich.
Going back to the lectionary lunch group, a participant asked what I found to be a helpful and perceptive question. He asked, “Is there a consistent attitude about money that Jesus revealed in his teachings?” And then he posited a follow-up question: “Can the kingdom of God even be defined by a political economy?” To the first question: yes, I believe that Jesus, in his teachings about money and possessions, did reveal a consistent attitude. Jesus taught that we are to put our faith in God and not in our money. That does not mean that we can abdicate our responsibility to be good stewards of our resources. To put our faith in God means that we align what we spend and how we spend to our understanding of what God is asking of us. When we allow money to have power over us we lose our focus on God and our relationship with one another. Jesus taught us that greed, not money, is one of the most powerful seductive evils that we face. What does greed look like for Pullen? I wonder if greed for Pullen is when we become fearful of not having enough, that we protect what we do have and our ideas of how we are supposed to be at all cost, and we lose sight of who God is calling us to be in the world in this moment.
As to that second question, “Can the kingdom be defined by a political economy?” you may be surprised to hear that my answer is YES. Not in the sense that having or not having wealth will ultimately determine our worth as people of faith. For me, however, this question goes to the heart of how our church engages in a conversation about money. The question is how we share with others what we do have. Increasingly, our society is divided by the haves and the have not’s. The rich continue to get richer and the poor, poorer. That is not what I understand the kingdom to be about. The picture of the kingdom is one where there is enough for all.
Having said that, I am clear about one thing: if there is to be enough for all, then all must participate in sharing with others that which has been entrusted to them. We are a church of some 720 members. At best, for 2010, we have 260 pledging units. Maybe, our money conversation needs to help us understand why some in our community don’t feel as though they can make a financial commitment to the mission and ministry of their church. I ask this question with compassion and seriousness. It doesn’t matter how much one pledges. Some of you may think that is not true. But it is. It does matter that everyone is committed to giving and to staying engaged in the conversation about our priorities and how we spend our money.
The last question I asked the lectionary group was this, “What is the hopeful word in this conversation about money?” All were clear—money is simply our tool to make things happen that we value. Money is a powerful symbol and representation of who we say we are, what we value, and how we do God’s work. And we, at Pullen, are blessed to have enough. So I wonder, regardless of how much we have (whether it is a budget of $850,000, or 1 million, or 2 million), what does how we spend money say about what we value here at Pullen? That is a conversation worthy of our time and energy.