A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, June 17, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Matthew 6:19-24 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-5
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Many of you (maybe all of you) know that I bought a new car nine days ago. On a Friday afternoon, I went for a test drive of the car I had decided I was going to buy, provided I fit in it okay. I did, so I bought it.
Friday night, I slept horribly. I had trouble falling asleep. I tossed and turned during the night. I had dreams about the car and the purchase. And by the time I gave up on sleeping at around 6:00 (I realize that’s the normal time for many of you to get up, but it’s early for me), I had convinced myself that I got ripped off, that the purchase was a bad choice, and that I had made a horrible mistake.
I spent a good bit of Saturday and Sunday reminding myself that it’s only a car and all it cost was money and that I will almost certainly be replacing it before I retire, perhaps long before I retire. And, yes, it’s a screamingly loud orange that part of me finds a little silly, but I have already found that helpful. I managed to find it quite quickly in a parking lot.
I bring this up because today’s sermon is the next installment in our 12-part, monthly sermon series on stewardship. We’ve looked at our stewardship of Sabbath, our stewardship of our relationship with each other, our stewardship of the earth, our stewardship of covenant, and our stewardship of faith formation. In many ways, all of these examinations have been looking at our stewardship of relationships – our relationships: with God, with each other, with the earth and our environment, with and in covenant, and with ourselves and each other in the context of growing in faith.
Today, we turn to money. You knew it was bound to happen in this series. But today I don’t want to talk about our stewardship of money. It’s not just the money. Today, I want to focus on our relationship with money and how we are stewards of that relationship.
My supposition is that my reaction a week ago Friday night was not about second-guessing my stewardship of money in the purchase of my car. My reaction came out of my relationship with money and how I’m stewarding that relationship.
So, what is your relationship with money?
In preparation for today’s sermon, I surfed around the web and took a couple online tests to help determine my relationship with money. According to the test I found most interesting to take, I “sometimes make spur-of-the-moment purchases, but usually [my] decisions are more considered. It looks like [I am] able to strike a good balance, although [I] need to be sure [I] don’t let [my] impulses take over too often!”
“The Big Money Test” (that’s what this test is called) also looked at the two principle methods people employ to cope with stressful situations – ‘vigilance’ and ‘avoidance’ – since money issues can be stressful. ‘Vigilance’ means seeking out more information to manage the threat or uncertainty of a situation. ‘Avoidance’ means avoiding facing a situation, effectively putting it out of your mind. Apparently being too vigilant or too avoidant is bad, just as being insufficiently vigilant or avoidant is bad. I tested out in the middle of both of these scales.
But, more interesting to me than these results, are the questions that got asked. Here’s a sample:
- Do you find yourself worrying about the spending, using, or giving of money all the time?
- Are you inhibited about talking to others about money, particularly about income?
- To you buy things you don’t really need because they are great bargains?
- Do you hold onto, or hoard your money?
- Are you constantly puzzled about where your money goes or why there is none left at the end of each month?
- Do you use money to control or manipulate others?
- Do you spend large portions of your free time shopping?
- Do you buy things when you feel anxious, bored, upset, depressed, or angry?
- Does shopping make you feel good in a way nothing else does?
- Do you have a fear of losing money, or of being taken advantage of financially?
Ding, ding, ding!!! We have a winner! That last question – that’s the one the kept me from sleeping that Friday night.
All these questions point to how we feel about money, how we use money – and ultimately to our relationship with money. And so I thought about how I would describe my relationship with money.
We can describe other relationships in our lives. Today’s Father’s Day. We could all describe our childhood relationships with our fathers – even if that description is, “My relationship with my father was non-existent.” But what about our relationship with money?
“Money and I have been going steady for years now. I think it’s time I popped with question and asked money to marry me.”
“Money and I have a love-hate relationship – I love having it around and it hates hanging out with me.”
The fact is, I had a hard time putting into words a description of my relationship with money. I know what I want it to be. I want to say that I view money as a tool, a convenience that allows me to get cell phone service without needed to ship a goat and two bushel baskets of wheat to the phone company. But the reality is that money is more than that to me. Money is status, a measure of worth to me. Money gives me a sense of security and a belief in the possibility of retirement.
And I’m not sure Jesus appreciates either of those.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.… No one 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.” Or as the King James Version translates it, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
Jesus is clear on where he stands in the economy of his day – and I think that makes it clear as to where he stands in the economy of our day. Jesus stands with the poor. And Jesus is clear that his disciples are those who voluntarily join the ranks of the poor.
In today’s reading, he identifies the world’s great idol as Mammon, “by which he meant money, or property in general, as a power no longer under human control and no longer in the service of human needs. The chief manifestation of the [false] god Mammon is accumulated wealth.
“Thus, when a rich man asked Jesus the way to eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow him (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus’ ruthlessness here is overwhelming; he refused even to use the occasion of the man’s conversion as a way to fund his own band. Nor did he plead with the man to change his attitude toward his wealth and practice better stewardship of the ‘largess bestowed upon him by God,’ as our preachers like to put it. Instead, he demanded complete divestiture of the rich man’s wealth.”
Jesus goes on to say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle and for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. “The ‘eye of the needle’ is not [a] ‘city gate’ in Jerusalem; that is a figment of medieval exegesis. It is the eye of a sewing needle, and it is easier for a camel to squeeze through this tiny hole than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:25). In short, it is impossible. The rich must cease to be rich [to enter the kingdom of God].
“The parable of the rich man and Lazarus indicates the reason. The rich man ‘feasted sumptuously every day,’ as most of us do, while poor Lazarus was lucky to beat the dogs to the garbage. When Lazarus dies we discover him safe in the bosom of Abraham, whereas the rich man cries out in torment from hell (Luke 16:19-31). This account, at every stage of its development, is not the original pie-in-the-sky argument whereby the poor are lulled into acquiescence with the hope of a heavenly reversal. On the contrary, it demonstrates the impossibility of salvation for those who promote [or benefit from] a situation which causes inequities and [for] those who gorge themselves on the illicit fruits of their injustice.”
As best we can tell from the Gospels, Jesus didn’t allow any of his disciples to hold on to accumulated wealth. John 13:29 implies they held everything in common. And the book of Acts clearly tells us that this was the practice of the early church. Now this economic plan makes perfect sense if you’re expecting the world to end any day now – which the first Christians expected. “They merely liquidated assets and lived off the proceeds until the Jerusalem church was destitute.” That’s why Paul had the fundraising section in his letter to the church in Corinth that we heard today.
Eventually this belief in the imminent end faded, and the worship of the idol Mammon increased within the church. “By the time 1 Timothy … was written, the wealthy were being courted, coddled, and coaxed to be generous with a wealth they were no longer required to renounce.” And the faithful have been faced with the question of which master they will serve – God or Mammon – ever since.
“Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” Jesus said, “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
As with all the relationships we’ve looked at in this series so far, as disciples of Jesus, we are stewards of our relationship with money. It’s not just the money itself that we’re stewards of. We are also stewards of how we relate to it.
And perhaps our stewardship of this relationship comes down to our answer to this question: Are we relating to money as the false god Mammon, or are we relating to it as a tool to further the realm of God?
We know what the answer’s supposed to be. Let’s live into that correct answer.
 See, for instance, Mark 10:17-30; Luke 6:20-26, 12:13-14,15, 16-20, 22-31, 32-34, 16:19ff.
 See, for instance, Mark 10:17-30; Luke 1:53, 12:21.
 Walter Wink, “Unmasking the Powers,” Sojourners Magazine, October 1978; republished at http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj7810&article=781009&mode=sermon_prep&week=C_Proper_21#PTWProper21C (16 June 2012).