Summit Presbyterian Church
May 17, 2008
Luke 12: 22-34
"Our Hearts and Our Treasure"
This is the third - and last, for now- sermon in a series on money. On the first Sunday, our text was the first commandment: the call to worship God alone, and it's warning against idolatry. I preached that we're called to be grateful for the material blessings of this world - both God's creation and the stuff we make from it - without crossing the line into idolatry, into trusting money (and what it can buy) to give our lives meaning and value. That sermon was a bit on the abstract side. Last Sunday, our scripture was life among the early believers in the book of Acts, where all who had land and possessions sold them and shared the proceeds, so none were in need. I preached that God is calling us to work towards such a world. That was a macroeconomic sermon, looking at the big picture. This Sunday the rubber hits the road. I'm going to talk about us and our money: the money in our wallets and bank accounts and coming (we hope) in the next paycheck. As disciples of Christ, what should we do with it?
My first suggestion, of course, is "give it to Summit." We'll put it to good use! We have a youth program to run and a building to heat and a preacher to pay. (I know that last item gives me a little credibility problem when asking for money). But you know and I know the answer is not that simple. We also have to save for retirement and car repairs, go to the dentist, buy school supplies, pay the mortgage. We have family members who need help, toys of various kinds for children and grown-ups, a trip to the beach, our morning coffee, the cell phone bill and other good causes asking for support. How do we manage, and choose, among all these different demands and enticements?
I'm going to, first, describe how most of us do choose - not how we should. Most of us, when we're being vigilant, our getting and spending tends to be what I'd call semi-conscious: we look at price tags, record deposits and count change without understanding how all those transactions add up or fit together. Other times, we spend as though we're sleepwalking, waking up to wonder where in the world did it all go. I know there are exceptions and I admire you. But I think most of us don't have an accurate, reality-based understanding of how much we spend each month or year on food and clothing, movies and phones, gas and pet care. Few of us could say with precision how much we're worth financially. We may know the parameters: our gross annual salary, monthly rent, child support, the money in a savings account. But we don't necessarily stay within them or know the details. I say this with confidence, first, from personal experience: on months when I've carefully tracked my earning and spending I've always been shocked! (Who knew I could have bought a Manhattan co-op with all the money I spent on orders of General Tso's Chicken?) But I look at friends and acquaintances and see I'm not unique. I read the statistics on credit card debt and bankruptcies and know I'm one among millions.
In the New York Times Magazine today there's an article called, "My Personal Credit Crisis." (It's been on the internet since Wednesday. I didn't write my sermon this morning). It's written by a financial reporter for the Times, and in it he recounts his personal journey to financial ruin by way of sub-prime mortgages and credit card debt. By his own admission, he's the last one that should have gotten caught up in the madness: As a Times reporter, he covered financial crises around the world. He wrote stories on the rise in what he calls the go-go mortgages. But, as he put it, the money was there and he was in love. Newly divorced and remarried, he and his wife bought a half-million dollar house with a loan that would never have been approved under the old rules, as over half his income went to alimony and child support and his wife was unemployed. He chronicles how they were soon broke, then amassed huge credit card debts, then headed for foreclosure. Stunned, even this financial expert had trouble explaining how the train wreck happened. But a wreck it was, and reading his story one can sense how excitement and anxiety about a new marriage -- and a wish to continue living an upper-middle class suburban life - led to it. His story is unusual for the depth and speed into which they got into trouble. His story is unusual in that he wasn't duped by lenders -- he knew exactly what a "liar's mortgage" was. His story is unusual in that the sales from his new book might help them recover. But his story was typical when it came to decision-making around money. He wasn't guided by reason or an informed weighing of the options. He wasn't guided by his stated values. His spending wasn't calculated, tracked or even understood. It was driven by deep and primal feelings: Anxiety. Being in love. Anxiety.
We all know something about that, especially the anxiety. Around money, it may be the anxiety about retirement or getting ill that makes us feel we can never save enough. Anxiety combined with love that wants the "best" for our children, even when we can't afford it. Anxiety about losing a job or health insurance - a reality-based worry for all of us. Anxiety about any number of things that lead us to go shopping as a way to self-soothe. The anxiety that leads us to put off paying our bills or opening our bank statements. Our anxiety doesn't necessarily get us into debt. It can also lead to a supersized retirement fund or denial of our wealth. But when we're anxious, it's hard to look at the truth of how we live and what we spend. It's hard to discern what God is calling us to do with our money because we're too frightened to listen.
Jesus knew nothing of sub-prime mortgages, credit cards, the thousands of temptations to spend that we face each day, or the complex financial instruments of our mature capitalist economy. But he understood anxiety, including the anxiety that fuels greed. So he tells the crowd a parable. A rich man had land that produced abundantly. It produced so abundantly he ran out of storage space. So he built bigger barns in order keep all the grain for himself. Then he planned to relax - to eat, drink and be merry. That may not seem like such an evil or foolish plan, but Jesus says that night his life was demanded of him. The grain was no longer his. And because he had been so busy storing up treasure for himself he hadn't been rich towards God. Jesus doesn't say exactly what he meant by that but we can guess: the man didn't share with neighbors. He didn't give his workers a raise. He didn't contribute to earthquake relief or give to the synagoguge. So therefore, Jesus, says, do not worry about your life, about what you will eat or what you will wear. Consider the ravens and the lilies who neither toil nor spin, but even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. God takes care of them; will God not also take care of you?
But what does it mean to consider the lilies, to trust in God's providence? I don't think it means that that we kick back and let God take care of everything, waiting for money to fall from the sky. We can consider what we'll eat and wear. We have to work and plan for how we'll take care of our children, our parents, ourselves. But it does mean letting go of the worry that makes us want to hedge against every possible disaster, storing up all we can for ourselves. It mean trusting that if the economy goes even further south, God will be with us and we'll find a way somehow. It also doesn't mean: stop worrying, put it on the mastercard, it will all work out. God will intercede with the collection agencies. It does mean letting go of the fear that if we take an honest look at our finances we won't be able to bear the shame of past mistakes or present debt. It means letting go of the belief - and the anxiety that comes with it - that our worth can be measured by our salaries, our portfolios, our houses, our possessions. It means trusting in God's love and care for us no matter what we've done, no matter what's happened to us, now matter how much wealth we have or don't have.
When we trust God, when we let go of our anxiety and take an honest, clear-headed look at our financial lives, we open up room. Room for healing and change or maybe even starting over. Room to share more with others. Room to live more simply, so we can sustain human life on this earth and care for creation. Room to direct our money, our hearts, our actions, and our prayers all to the same place: to the worship and glory of God. To the building of a just and peaceful world, where we can worry less because there's more security and care in our common life. We're called to be rich towards God in all ways: in our words and our actions, with our hearts and our minds, our whole lives -- and also, yes, with our money. May God give us the peace, and the courage, to do so.