Sermon preached October 11, 2009
Texts: Mark 10:17-31; Hebrews 4:12
There is a bit of a Beatles renaissance these days. Late last month the entire Beatles catalog was re-released in a re-mastered version. A video-game version of Beatles songs was also released the same day – and all things Beatles seem to be selling well. A collector’s box set of mono recordings sold out and cannot currently be purchased.
There is a great deal to capture one’s attention with this musical group, and even the topic of money can incorporate Beatles’ music and Beatles lore. How is it that the same group that could sing in a famous song, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love” could also sing in a less famous song, “Money, that’s what I want”? And how is it that the group who could poke fun at rich Britain’s – in a concert in England John once invited the audience to participate, the folks in the cheap seats could clap their hands while those in the front rows were invited to rattle their jewelry – would end up breaking up, in part, over financial disputes? These songs and these stories capture something of our ambivalence toward money. We know that there is more to life than the pursuit of money. We would like our lives to be more than our earning statements. We don’t want our net worth and self-worth to be confused. At the same time, most of us would appreciate just a little bit more money than we have. We can imagine life being just a little easier if we earned just a bit more. I think I can imagine that!
And that’s not so bad. I went to the Friend’s of the Library book sale this summer and picked up a couple of books, one by a philosopher whose work I have appreciated over the years, Jacob Needleman. The Needleman book I found was entitled, Money and the Meaning of Life. I have not read the entire book, but perused it preparing for this sermon. Needleman writes: There [are] very few, surprisingly or even shockingly few, problems of life that could not be solved with a finite amount of money, a distinct, specific dollar amount…. Used rightly, money allows us to live, eat, drink, protect ourselves, help our families and friends, maintain our health, accomplish certain aims (112, 116).
But money has its limits, according to Needleman. Money can solve almost any problem, but the solution never lasts…. Used wrongly, money prevents relationship, prevents exchange between certain elements of the whole life…. Money is good at solving problems; it is bad at opening questions. Like technology, money is used wrongly when it converts inner questions that should be lived into problems to be solved (112, 116, 117). While that is a little abstract, Needleman’s basic point is that money is good when kept in proper perspective, but not when it is not. Our lives become skewed when our relationship with money is unbalanced.
That same point is made in our gospel reading for today, a difficult story, about Jesus telling a rich man to sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow him. He follows this up with these words, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God…. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Somehow, wealth gets in the way of participation in God’s dream for the world, and it is only by the power of God’s grace and love that those who are caught up in wealth can get free.
The story by itself gives money a rather bad name. But then there is this fascinating ending. Peter tells Jesus that they have left everything to follow him, and Jesus assures Peter that they will receive a hundredfold what they gave up. Cryptic, but it provides a sense that Jesus is not against money, against daily needs being met, only against an unbalanced relationship with money, with wealth.
Now we could all just dismiss this story as inapplicable to our lives. Wealthy, who of us is wealthy? We hear stories of people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, and compared to them, who of us is wealthy? We don’t need to worry about being caught up in wealth, do we? Yet compared to most of the rest of the world, we are a wealthy people. Many of us spend for a cup of coffee the daily wages of many workers throughout the world. The danger of an unbalanced relationship with money is very real for us, for all of us.
If we let this story be word of God for us, that is a word used by God’s Spirit to help us examine our lives, this story can be “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword… able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). This story about the rich man shines a light into our lives, if we let it, a light that seeks to illumine our relationship with money, asking whether it is balanced or unbalanced, whether we are using it or it is using us.
Jesus was concerned about an unbalanced relationship with money. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was also deeply concerned about that issue. You know, this seems to be a perennial human problem. The human relationship with money is always in danger of becoming unbalanced, it seems. Wesley was not one to condemn money. In his sermon on “The Use of Money,” Wesley wrote that money was of “unspeakable service to all civilized nations, in all the common affairs of life.” In that sermon, Wesley laid out his three principles for the appropriate use of money: gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. We gain all we can, though not at the expense of our well-being or the well-being of our neighbor, because money “is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the hands of [God’s] children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked.” We save all we can because superfluous spending can become a danger in its own right. We should have a sense of the distinction between needs and wants. Wesley saw this as a spiritual discipline of a kind, a way we stay in touch with God and with ourselves. Finally, Wesley contended we should give all we can. In giving to others, we channel God’s grace and love to others, and experience that grace and love more deeply ourselves. Failure to do that endangers our souls, Wesley believed (Rebekah Miles, “Works of Mercy as Spiritual Formation” in The Wesleyan Tradition, 98).
Throughout his life, Wesley was concerned that we are always in danger of falling into an unbalanced relationship with money. He was particularly concerned about Methodists who were taking his invitation to hard work and thrift seriously. Some who had been poor were now finding themselves better off, and Wesley noticed that while many were earning all they could, and saving well, giving often dropped off. That was of deep concern to him.
Now I could use what I have laid out here to talk about church giving, and our stewardship campaign is just around the corner. I am not going to do that except to say that I agree about the dangers of an unbalanced relationship with money, and that one part of a healthy relationship with money is to give it in ways that make a difference in the world, and that the church is one place where your money can make a difference.
But I want to focus elsewhere this morning, take this message about money in an even more controversial direction. Hold on. This Christian message about money is not just personal, but also social. I think that one place where our unbalanced relationship to money is evidenced is in a prevalent attitude in our society that views almost any form of taxation as some kind of theft. This is simply theologically and biblically unsound. Now I would not argue that all taxes are good, nor would I argue against the idea that some taxes are excessive and should be replaced or gotten rid of. At the same time, I think we would do well to see taxation, at its best, as one opportunity we have to help one another. Taxes can be too high, stifling creativity in the economy, but taxes can also be too low when a slight increase in taxes could bring great benefit to many. If you want to discuss this more, come to Soul Kitchen at 10:45.
One area I think we have really missed the mark in our state is in the elimination of the program General Assistance Medical Care. This program, designed to help the poorest of our citizens, will be completely eliminated March 1, 2010. The people who benefit from this program make less than $7,800 per year and many suffer from chemical dependency or mental illness. Without medical care, some will go without psychotropic drugs. I have written extensively about this issue in the newsletter and don’t want to reiterate what I have already written. In a society as wealthy as ours, the poorest among us should not suffer this way. If a lack of generosity, an unbalanced relationship with money, does damage to the individual soul, as both Jesus and Wesley seem to believe, then maybe a lack of generosity in our common life does damage to the soul of our society.
I am on the board of Life House, an agency that seeks to shelter homeless youth, and provide them resources to stabilize their lives. At the last board meeting I heard a story I want to share in concluding this morning. In September there was an event highlighting the problem of homelessness, a sleep-out at St. Scholastica. A number of church youth groups participate, and some of the youth from Life House were also there. Among the young people from Life House was a young man who earlier in the day found a dollar bill. Most of us would not be delighted by this, but he was, because he rarely had a dollar in his pocket, and if he ever got one, it seemed to get spent quickly. He held on to this dollar though, and some of the Life House staff were lovingly teasing him about that. What was he going to do with that dollar? During the evening, the young man attended a presentation about homelessness among youth and toward the end people were invited to make a donation. The young man who rarely had a dollar decided to donate it, to help someone who might need help.
Maybe that story, too, can be a penetrating word of God for our lives as we struggle to keep our relationship with money balanced. Amen.