keeping money quiet

Homily for September 18, 2016

When David Parker was 15, his father gathered his family together in the kitchen and placed a gym bag on the kitchen table. He then emptied the contents of the bag, dumping onto the table about $10,000 in one dollar bills. Parker recalled “I thought my dad had robbed a bank!”

His father hadn’t robbed a bank, but he had certainly cleaned out the local Wells Fargo Branch’s supply of $1 dollar bills. You see, had done this as an exercise to share with his family – including his teenage son – exactly how much he made. Now $10,000 is a lot of money. And it certainly looked like a lot to David, until his father started to divide it out. He set aside a stack for taxes, and then their giving to the church (This was in the New York times, so they mentioned taxes first). But then once they got into things like mortgage and food, David really began to see where the money went.

The article was Why You Should Tell your Kids What You Make, and it argued that teaching children a healthy approach to dealing with money should involve more transparency that what we think is proper. Talk about a counter-cultural idea. But one point it made was that the less we share with our families and children about money, the more it remains a source of mystery to them, and the more power it will have over us all.

The problem is that when money remains a mystery, its power over us remains hidden as well. We may think it’s inappropriate to tell our children things like what we make or what our house is worth so that they won’t get obsessed with the issues of status and wealth that we adults have such a good handle on. But it’s worth mentioning that any teenager with an internet connection knows how to get on Zillow can figure out what his house is worth, what is friend’s house is worth, or his teacher’s house, or his priest’s house. Pretending that money doesn’t have power is not the answer.

Money is supposed to tell us what things are objectively worth, how to value things in our lives. But when money remains a source of mystery, and speaking of it stays taboo, it actually warps our sense of value. When money stays in the secret place it becomes interwoven with all the darker spirits within us: ego, shame, fear, pride and jealousy. When we shine a light on it, it loses its power.

I know what you might be thinking. Didn’t we just hear the annual money sermon last week? Well, yes. But Jesus didn’t limit himself to one comment about money a year, so neither should we. I mentioned last week that Jesus spoke of money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God. And he didn’t do it because he had a budget to meet. He did it because he knew that faith and finances were deeply connected to one another. Even in 1st century Palestine.

Just look at the readings for today. The prophet Amos says, Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring ruin to he poor of the land, saying…We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” This is not about some ambiguous sense of people being greedy or unfaithful. The ephah was a unit of measurement and the shekel was the basic unit of currency. This is about cold, hard cash.

We see here that money cannot provide the objective value it promises. We see a remarkable flexibility in market value that allows for the buying and selling of human life. We see in this a terrible distortion of value, the seduction of wealth, the reduction of human beings to commodities. This is what trust in money gets us.

And then we have the passage in Luke, in which the steward, about to lose his job, holds a fire sale with his master’s assets, selling wheat and oil for 50 or 80 cents on the dollar. And for this, he is actually rewarded. Huh? This, too is a passage about money. At least it starts out that way.

This passage isn’t about how the steward makes his living; it’s about what he does with what he has. “He who is faithful in little is faithful in much.” The crafty steward uses the only worldly assets he has – in this case, his master’s goods – and uses it to nurture the relationships that will sustain him when those goods are gone.

Essentially, he is switching masters. Think of this as a defection. Jesus says, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

You cannot serve God and wealth. Jesus says this repeatedly throughout the gospels. You cannot serve god and wealth. So perhaps the first question we have to ask is, are we wealthy? Am I wealthy?

Most of us, including me, would be hesitant to say that we are. Bills are always due, student loan debt and retirement expenses are serious realities. And we assume that wealth refers to the super rich, the somewhat rich, or simply the richer-than-us.

But historically, Charles Lane reminds us that “sometime in the 1950’s Western Society achieved a standard that has never existed in the world.” I wonder if when St. Andrew’s was established in 1891 if anyone could have envisioned how much the world would change in the following 125 years. How we would hit this mark of incredible prosperity in the midcentury, to see wealth grow so much. The fact is that we in the western world have a kind of standard of living that remains incomprehensible to much of the rest of the world. And yet, we don’t feel wealthy.

And as a result, we so often try to do the impossible. We try to serve both God and wealth. You see, when we don’t speak forthrightly about money, we let wealth trick us into believing that without it, we are nothing. And when money remains a great mystery, wealth convinces us that we don’t have enough. So we pursue it, and we put our trust in it. We place our trust for our worldly needs, our security, in our wealth, and we place our trust in God for our spiritual needs. Two masters.

In the eyes of the world this is unassailable logic, but it leaves us as a house divided. We serve two masters. Jesus tells us that this won’t work.

Charles Lane writes very beautifully that the reason that the new testament speaks so frankly and so often about possessions and wealth can be summed up in four words:

“Jesus wants your heart. Jesus wants nothing more than to be in relationship with you and to have your heart turned towards him. Money and possessions are threats because they turn one’s heart away from Jesus. When wealth becomes the object of one’s trust, then wealth has taken the place of Jesus Christ, who is the only worthy object of a believer’s trust.” Ask, Thank, Tell

We see in the book of Amos what happens when a society goes mad for money, what happens when trust in God is cast aside and the value of a person becomes subjective and malleable. The movers and shakers of that world do anything they can to gain, to take, to get and stay wealthy. But the crafty steward goes in the opposite direction. He takes the only thing he has (his master’s money) and he unloads it in order to have relationships that will sustain him.

The crafty steward shows us that a faithful life involves a whole lot of unloading, a lot more letting go, a lot more giving away. The steward ends this story as a man without great means, but he is now a man with friends, who has shown great generosity to the people of God. For this, the master rewards him because this is the Kingdom of God.

The collect for today is a fitting prayer for all the things before us: these powerful readings, the faithful work of our stewardship ministry, and of course the witness of St. Andrew’s over the past 125 years and the hope for the next century or so. We so often measure our time in terms of what we have built, how we have grown. And that is a fine thing. Perhaps, though we can also see our place in the kingdom of God through the things, over the years, that we have given away. How we have learned to place our faith not in our jobs, our status, our wealth or our temple, all of which will pass away, but in the things of this life that are truly eternal.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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About bernardowens

I am an Episcopal priest who serves St. Andrew's Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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