“Religion, Politics, and Money.”
A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
August 4, 2019
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania
Heavenly Father, we remember before you those who suffer
want and anxiety from lack of work. Guide the people of this
land so to use our public and private wealth that all may find
suitable and fulfilling employment, and receive just payment
for their labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I remember hearing as a young person in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina that “there are three things one ought to never discuss in polite company: religion, politics, and money.” Later, I came to realize that those were the very three things that people in the mountains enjoyed discussing most. Of course, the context there was one of extended family or close community. In such a case, I am not sure that it could be accurately described as “polite company.”
So, there, the cat is out of the bag. Today, I want to reflect with you about money. In particular, I want to ask for your patience as we explore, together, what it might be that God would like to communicate with us through Sacred Scripture and Tradition. We will then conclude by asking how we can apply whatever that message is–in a way that makes God’s love real, present, and effective in the various worlds in which we live, move, and have our being.
I am often surprised by strange notions we hear when the worlds of faith and finance collide. The first is that “true followers of Jesus” are not concerned with money at all. Whenever I hear the ways in which this is played out, I am tempted to wonder what planet these people are on. To give one example, I remember hearing someone say that “money is the root of all evil.” That person had not read the First Letter to Timothy clearly. The actual text is that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” It does not say anything at all about the morality of money–in itself. It points out that the “love” of money is a kind of addiction. And those who are addicted to money will never really be satisfied. They will never have enough money! As with any addiction, the acquisition of money satisfies only temporarily. Jesus warns us about this: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
There is also an unimaginable fear—the money could be lost of taken away. And that thought impels the money addict to protect their lucre by any and all means necessary. If ever they come to feel that their wealth is threatened, violence is not an unimaginable option. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. They never overcame the fear that the banks could fail and that they would lose their money and would be forced to make do without it. We used to hear about people from that generation who were so fearful of bank collapse that they hid their money in odd places in their homes. This was often discovered by their families who, after their death, cleaned the house.
Our Lord spoke about this in subtle and not so subtle ways. He spoke about a kind of naiveté which Christians can have, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” But he also told us that “You can not serve God and money.”
It does not make sense to pretend that money does not matter or that we can live without it. Every person has basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter. Those needs are essential and non-negotiable. Somehow, we have to provide for those needs.
There was a crisis in the very early Church. Some people had become convinced that since Jesus was going to return almost immediately, there was no point in worrying about doing anything as mundane as working for a living. In fact, they thought that work might be a distraction!
Saint Paul dealt with them very directly. He told the Community at Thessaloniki not to enable this irrational behavior, “if they will not work, they shall not eat.” Now the important thing to note here is that they were capable of working, that they could have worked if they chose to do so. There is the suggestion that these people were taking advantage of the generosity of others. Like that beautiful song from Jesus Christ Superstar said, “they had too much heaven on their minds.” This passage must never be taken out of context, as some have, to suggest that we should not care for the needs of others. Saint Paul went on to suggest that, for whatever reason, the return of the Lord has been delayed. So, while hoping for the fullness of God’s reign at some point in the future, we must all work tirelessly to make it a reality in the here and now.
The second surprising idea is that everyone is called to Apostolic poverty! Nothing could be further from the truth. The advice which Jesus gave to the rich young man, was advice to the rich young man! Jesus recognized that for him, wealth was a distraction which kept him from answering his own calling. So, Jesus told him to sell what he had, to give to the poor, and to then come follow. Sadly, this passage has been used to make most others feel that they are second-class Christians. Those who are called to poverty, chastity, and obedience should say yes. But not everyone is called to these vows. If one is not called to the Religious Life, then one should have a different approach to money.
What attitudes should “regular” or “every day” Christians have? The first thing that occurs to me is the famous “attitude of gratitude.” We should be thankful and grateful that our needs are met. At the same time, we must acknowledge that oftentimes this is a result of “privilege.”
Most of us came from a background in which we were more likely than not to live a comfortable life. We are natives of this country. We came from families which were able to provide for our basic needs and for our health care.
Until the recent past, most of us received an education or professional training which prepared us for a successful career–without having to incur an insurmountable and enslaving debt. We fit into the culture in such a way that we were given opportunities for growth, advancement, and promotion. We are able to negotiate the various “systems” to obtain what we need.
In most cases, those basic opportunities were provided for us because of who we are, and not because of anything we have personally done. Very few of us received great inherited wealth. Most of us have had to work to make a living—and at various points in our lives, may have had to work in jobs which we did not enjoy and may even have found demeaning and exploitative. But we were able to earn a living and to have our basic needs be met. That is not true of everyone! And so, we truly should be thankful that we did not know abject poverty, were not homeless, and were in generally good health.
A more helpful attitude is to view money as a tool rather than as an end-in-itself. I remember encountering what I think is a very healthy attitude towards wealth and possessions not long after I entered the monastery. The monks used a fascinating expression about things which others might think “belonged to them.” They said that they held the item “ad usam.”
This literally meant that they claimed to have the “use” of the item but did not “own it.” I came to understand that what they were saying was that they had the use of the item–it did not have control or ownership of them. There was an understanding that they should only hold onto the item so long as it really was useful. If at some point they no longer needed it, they should pass it on to someone else who could make better use of it. They did not want to permit any “thing” to become useless clutter, a distraction, or a stumbling block. If they did discover someone else who needed it more than they did—or who could make better use of it than they could–they had an obligation to either share it—or else to see if there was not some way that they could use it to help provide for the obvious need of the other person.
The Christian understanding is that we are stewards rather than owners. We use things over which we have control to provide for our needs, the needs of those for whom we are responsible, and for anyone else who is in need. Thus, we are called to practice stewardship! We are called to be good stewards.
The third idea is that we must recognize the various levels in which we find ourselves. St Bart’s, in Manhattan, used to speak of three primary communities: the city, the nation, and the world. They recognized a need to be light, salt, and yeast in each of those three places. I think that this kind of view challenges us to recognize that we are invited to use money responsibly on all these levels. I suspect that most of us contribute to Church, and/or to various charities. We also pay taxes which are used for various things locally, on a state level, and nationally. Through our elected representatives we have a say in how those funds will be allocated.
What do we do to provide for the needs of the members of our own parish family? What about poverty and need in Easton and in the Delaware and Lehigh River Valleys? What about Pennsylvania? What about the United States of America? What about the Americas? What about the world? We play a role in allocating funds and in determining policy in each of these communities. How do our values and priorities as People of Faith impact those decisions?
Can we choose to ignore things which disrupt our world? Can we ignore prejudice, poverty, injustice, violence and oppression? Can we ignore earthquakes and floods and heat and cold? These things create confusion, chaos, and uncertainty. Can we hide our talents or bury them in the ground? Can we turn a blind eye to those in need? Not if we are followers of the Jesus who made it clear that whatever we do the “least of these,” we do to Him.
The final idea is that there is some magical formula, percentage, or proportion which applies to everyone. This is not true! Each of us has a unique context and situation-in-life. The ideal that we find in that model Christian community depicted in the Acts of the Apostles is that everyone was so generous with what they had that the needs of all were provided for. Some people have more–they are in a position to share more. Some people have less—they are able to share less. But each of us can give something. Each of us can make a difference. While we can all give of our time and talents. We can all also give of our money.
My Grandmother Storie was an amazing, and often quite unconventional person. She lived on a fixed income and other people would probably have considered her to have been poor. She was amazingly generous! Anyone who was hungry would have been received with joy at her table (and the food was delicious). Later in life, after a time of prayer, she made the decision to stop giving her tithe to her Church. She saw that so many people there were giving and that the Church was able to do all the things that they needed to do. She came to feel that she was called to share her tithe with several of her grandchildren who lacked essential things. For years, while I was in college and in seminary, she sent me her tithe each month. This made a huge difference in my life! I am not in any way suggesting that is what any of you should do. But that is what Mammaw felt that God had called her to do. I was powerfully helped, supported, and upheld by her loving and generous giving.
Jesus talks about families fighting over money and possessions in the passage from the Gospel According to Saint Luke which we heard today. This is so common that I can’t think of more than a few families of which this has not been true. How sad! As a result, families are torn apart. Relationships are destroyed. And, in the end, no one is happy! It only leads to anger, resentment, and alienation. Surely this is not what those who left the wealth ever wanted or intended!
What challenging words Our Lord speaks, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Dear Ones, may we learn ways to use our treasures wisely, and in doing so to become truly rich toward God and toward others. Whether or not we are in “polite company,” let us not be afraid to discuss ways to better use our personal and collective resources to make a positive difference—in our families, in our parish family, in our community, in our country, and in our world.