A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 1, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Deuteronomy 15:1-11 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In the weeks since Easter Sunday, we’ve been talking about the uprising that began with the resurrection.  While I can’t tell you exactly what the resurrection was, I know this:  The resurrection resulted in the uprising of a movement.  The disciples of Jesus changed from followers to leaders and they gathered new followers, people who wanted to be part of this uprising that offered a path that was different from the roads the Empire of Rome was so famous for.  This uprising forged a new path, a new road they made by walking it.

We are inheritors of this uprising and, like those first members of the uprising, we make our road by walking it.  This path was and is different from the ways of the Empire.  This road we make by walking is marked by it being a fellowship of scared and scarred people who find courage and healing in community.  This road we make by walking is marked by a discipleship where we are both leaders and followers, teachers and students.  This road we make by walking is marked by worship that brought everyone from every background into a state of equality.  This road we make by walking is marked by partnerships that can even make enemies into friends.  This road we make by walking is marked by the strange relationship we end up having with money – the subject of today’s sermon.

I invite you to think about how your relationship with money began and how it was formed.  Think about your experiences, what you were taught, how you felt and feel about money.

My introduction to money was with an allowance.  Each week, my parents gave me some money that I was free to do with as I chose.  It wasn’t a lot and there weren’t a lot of opportunities to spend it, but it was mine.  I was encouraged to think about what would happen if I spent it now rather than letting it accumulate.  I think, perhaps, my parents were trying to teach me that sometimes I have to wait to buy something.

I was encouraged to save and I opened a savings account at an early age – I don’t remember how young I was, but I know I was in grade school.  I remember arguing with my parents when I was in junior high that the inflation rate was so much higher than the interest rate I was earning, the real value of my savings was actually decreasing so they should be okay with me withdrawing it to buy a walkie-talkie to match Danny Kennealy’s.  Yes, I was a little mathematician when I was in seventh grade.

The other important lesson my father gave me, and this one was very direct, was about credit cards.  He co-signed for my first credit card, a MasterCharge (back before VISA).  He told me to pay off the full balance the first month, pay off most of the balance the second month so they can charge me a little interest on the unpaid balance and will think I’m going to make them money, then pay off the full balance the third month and each month thereafter.  “And,” he said as he signed the application for the card, “I never want to hear from them.  Ever.”  He didn’t.  And except for a few times when I had some major expenses like a car repair, I’ve never charged more than I could pay off that month.

Other lessons came later.  My parents never did the three jars lesson that is on the cover to the bulletin.  The idea is to teach not just savings, but sharing as well.  Had they participated in this activity, I would have been encouraged to divide my allowance (and birthday money) among the three jars, one for spending now, one for saving, and one for giving away.  My parents never talked about how they decided how much money to give to the church or how they decided what other organizations they would support.  I never really started thinking about giving until I was ordained and I needed to raise the money to pay my own salary when I was working for a Council of Churches as a chaplain.

And I didn’t really start thinking about the power of compound interest until I was several years into my professional life and an older colleague was encouraging me to start saving for retirement while I was in my 20s.  A side effect of this lesson in particular, and the other lessons as well, is that I was taught that my safety lies in my savings.  My safety is in my savings.  It may say “in God we trust” on the money, but that’s not the lesson the economy really teaches.

These overt foundational stories formed my relationship with money.  But there are other lessons learned as well, covert lessons, lessons the culture taught without teaching.  One of them is the money is power.  Sometime called the “Gold Rule” (and not to be confused with the Golden Rule), the Gold Rule say, “The one with the gold rules.”  Another rule is, “the bottom line is the bottom line.”  Profits are more important than how other people or the environment are treated.  “What’s mine is mine and I’m going to keep it” is another rule, or at least a mantra of the Empire’s economy.  Some people go so far as to chant, “What’s yours is mine and I’m going to take it.”  These are the rules that allow, even encourage corporations to pay slave wages in foreign countries, to dump their toxic waste in countries that don’t have good environmental protections (or to break the environmental laws in this country).

The uprising had a very different relationship with money.  “When the uprising first began in Jerusalem, people started bringing all their possessions to the apostles.  Since they knew it wasn’t God’s will for some … to have luxuries while other lacked necessities, those with surplus began to share freely with those in need.  … All things [were held] in common.  As you might expect, that created some problems.  Some old prejudices sprang up between Jews and Greeks, and some people began playing games, pretending to be more generous than they really were.  In spite of the problems, holding all things in common was a beautiful thing.”[1]

As the expected return of Jesus didn’t happen, the “all things in common rule” was followed by fewer and fewer communities of the uprising.  The one thing that didn’t change was the realization that the systems of this world run on one economy and the Commonwealth of God runs on another.  The economy of the Commonwealth of God doesn’t teach that money brings power, privilege, and superiority; it teaches that money brings responsibility for neighbors.  The economy of the Commonwealth of God doesn’t teach that what’s mine is mine, but that what’s mine is God’s.  And if what’s mine is God’s than it’s not mine really at all.  It’s God’s and I’m only the steward of it.  Stewardship is everything we do after we say, “I choose to follow Jesus.”  How we use our time, our potential, our possessions, our privilege, our power, and our money is all a matter of stewardship – because all of it is God’s, not ours.

And the uprising had (and still has) a radical idea:  Stop working for money and start working for Christ.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be paid for your work, but that the payment isn’t the primary purpose of your work.  The primary purpose of your work is to follow Jesus.  So that means that your profession needs to be one that decreases harm to the environment and our fellow human beings.  The notion that we work for Jesus and not for money is why the original members of the uprising weren’t allowed to be soldiers.[2]

Brian McLaren says that the early Christians used the jam-jar method of budgeting.  What is needed to meet the basic needs of the family?  That goes in the spending jar.  What’s left is divided between the saving jar (like an ant storing food for winter) and the giving jar.  The money in the giving jar is the money that would be presented in the offering that I described in my sermon two weeks ago.[3]  This money was used for the work of compassion, justice, restoration, and peace.  It supported the leaders of the uprising and it supported the vulnerable in the uprising – the sick, the widows, the orphans, the elderly, those who had lost their homes and land and work.  “That’s what stewardship is, really, love in action.”[4]

“Paul always reminds us,” McLaren writes, “that nothing has any value without love.  That explains why money is so deceptive.  It deceives people about what has true value.  You cannot serve two masters, Jesus taught.  If you love God, you will hate money, because it always gets in the way of loving God.  If you love money, you will hate God, because God always gets in the way of loving money.”[5]

This attitude about stewardship is, I think, one of the most radical things about the uprising that started with the resurrection.  If it’s not one of the most radical, it is one of the most challenging for me personally.

Some of the lessons I was taught are in keeping with the uprising’s idea of stewardship.  The importance of delaying purchases, the importance of meeting needs before wants, the importance of living within my means, the importance of giving a portion of my income away – these don’t conflict with the uprising of stewardship.  But those other lessons – my safety is in my savings; the one with the gold rules; the bottom line is the bottom line; what mine is mine and I’m going to keep it – those go against the uprising of stewardship.  And they are the lessons I still need to excise from my brain and heart.

Preparing this sermon reminded me of a sermon series I did several years ago on God’s Economy.  I think it may be one of the most important sermon series I have ever preached.  Or maybe it’s the one I most need to hear.  Maybe I’ll dig it out and preach it again next Lent or Easter.

For now, I invite you to reflect in silence on anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention, or reflect on one of these:

Reflect on a time when you got mixed up about what really has value.

How do you respond to the idea of dividing your income into three parts—to spend, to save, and to give away?

Reflect on the tension between loving God and loving money.  See if any insights come to you.  Ask God to help you be a wise steward or manager of the resources that are entrusted to you.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 38. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] See, for instance, Scot McKnight, “The Early Church and Military Service,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/07/08/the-early-church-and-military-service/ (posted 8 July 2013; accessed 30 April 2016).

[3] Jeffrey Spencer, “The Uprising of Worship,” Jeff’s Jottings, https://jeffsjottings.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/the-uprising-of-worship/ (posted 17 April 2016).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

[5] Ibid.