The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, according to our scriptures (1 Timothy 6:10). I wonder if you can remember a time when money has been the cause of evil in your life: when money has caused a problem for you.
There are so many different kinds of money problems. There are personal money problems; we may experience a conflict between our income and our needs, or our income and our wants. There are relational money problems; differing amounts of money, differing approaches to money can cause tension with family and friends. Money can divide us politically, as we argue about how it should be taxed and spent by our government. Our wealth also divides us socially, and is used to reinforce racial divisions, granting or denying us access to neighborhoods, to schools, to careers. And there’s at least one other sort of money problem. According to Jesus, money can cause problems in our relationship with God.
In the parable Jesus tells today, two people go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. Both are at odds with God because of money. One is a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman Government. Like Zachhaeus, whose story we heard last week, this person has taken advantage of others, charging them more than what is owed. Through avarice and greed, this person has divided themselves from both God and neighbor.
The other person is a Pharisee, someone who carefully follows the guidance of Torah. This one observes righteous practices, such as fasting and giving away a tenth of their income. Knowing this, we might assume that they are at peace with God and beloved in their community. However, the scripture story is quick to destroy that idea. Apparently this person stands apart from everyone else, and prays what can only be called an obnoxious prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people!” For this person, generosity has led to self-satisfaction and contempt for others. They are also divided from both God and neighbor.
Every year in this season we reflect on issues of money. In part, that’s because we ask you to consider making a giving commitment to the church. But that’s not the whole story. Jesus talks about money all the time – more than just about anything else. According to Jesus, money is one of the biggest barriers that we face when trying to get close to God. We have to talk about money in church, if we’re going to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus.
Everyone’s relationship with money is different, depending on our background, our experiences, and our current bank balance. But most of us struggle somehow in this area. We are plagued by pride or shame, privilege or want, jealousy, or some confusing combination of these feelings. Few of us may have reached the extremes of greed or self-satisfaction illustrated by Jesus’ parable. Still, we may find ourselves fairly mixed-up about what a faithful way might be to spend, to save, and to share what we have.
I must confess to you that this is something I continue to struggle with. Living in Concord, I am oddly aware of all the things that my family doesn’t have: fancy vacations; unlimited extracurricular activities, high fashion, club memberships, constantly new electronics. This environment encourages me to view my own means as quite moderate. It teaches me to protect my income for the use of myself, my children, my retirement. On the other hand, I have only to pay closer attention to the world around me, even right here in this geographic area, to remember that my family’s means are not only sufficient, but extravagant. Just the fact that we don’t need to worry about money (as long as we plan a little) is an extraordinary privilege. Add to that a beautiful neighborhood, an extraordinary school system, the ability to afford daycare, access to good produce; connection to the arts… I could go on and on.
For many years now I have shared my own giving habits with you. I am fortunate to be able to continue dedicating ten percent of my income towards this church. It has become a habit, something that our family’s finances are structured around. Some of you have heard the story of how this happened: how my spouse’s giving spurred me on to greater generosity. I admit to still struggling over how to prioritize my other giving: how much it should be, and where it should it go. Pray for me, as we make the transition out of daycare bills this year, as I continue to discern how God is calling us to be stewards of what comes into our hands.
No matter where we are on the spectrum of wealth, and no matter where we are in our practice of generosity towards others, our practices about money belong in our prayer life. There are so many conflicting messages within and around us concerning money, that only with God’s help can we make some peace in our divided hearts.
But once we open ourselves to God’s help, then the Spirit really starts to move. For the amazing thing about money is that it not only causes problems and divides us from one another; it can connect us, too. Think of what money makes possible, when it is used for good. Money can buy food and fuel social transformation. Money can support the arts and make reparations for injustice. Money can connect us to people right next door or around the world in common cause. And when we give with peaceful and humble hearts, money can also connect us with God, who fills us with power and purpose and joy.
And I have to say: it is a joy for me to use the money that has come into my care to help fuel this congregation, and to witness you doing the same. To hear the stories of those who need this place, and whose lives have changed because of their encounters here with God and with all of you, because of your generosity. In music, care, service, prayer, personal growth, deep sharing: this community binds up hearts, and reaches out to facilitate connections far beyond our walls.
Beloved, how is your relationship with money, right now? Is it a source of stress, or pride, or shame, or all of the above, or something else entirely? How do the ways that you use your money separate you from and connect you with God and your neighbor? Jesus invites us to pray on these things with humility; to seek ever greater alignment of our conscience and our practice, for our own sake, and for the sake of others.
Those two people in the parable came to the temple with their money problems; and we come here, to church; because at least some part of us longs to worship God, instead of wealth. The good news is that God offers abundant grace to all of us: the penniless, and the over-privileged; the generous, and the grudging; the self-satisfied, and those who are ashamed. God offers us grace, and invites us to try again, and again. Each day the next breath, the next choice, a bit more freedom, peace, and gratitude. May it be so for each of us. Amen.