A young minister arrived at his first parish right out of seminary. It was a small, thriving congregation in rural Kentucky. Full of zeal to proclaim God’s truth, he preached his first sermon on the evils of smoking. After he had greeted the stony faces at the church door following the service, one of the elders pulled him aside and said, “Son, do you know what that stuff growing in the fields around here is? It’s tobacco. That’s what pays your salary.” The next Sunday he took another tack and preached a rousing sermon denouncing the evils of drinking. He got the same response from his congregation. The elder pulled him aside and said, “Son, don’t you notice those big buildings you drive by every day where half this congregation works? What do you think they make in all those distilleries around here? Holy water? You’re living in Bourbon County!” Well, the poor minister was starting to wonder what vices he could preach against. So the next Sunday he preached against the evils of gambling. Same cold reaction. Same elder pulled him aside after the service. “Son,” he said, “you see those horses out there in the field? We don’t raise them for pony rides. Those are thoroughbreds. Haven’t you ever heard of the Kentucky Derby?” The next Sunday, it was obvious the young minister had learned his lesson. After the service the congregation was beaming. People told him they agreed with every word he said. He had given them a rousing sermon against the evils of nude sunbathing in the Seychelles Islands of the Indian Ocean.
I used to be a pastor in Kentucky, and I remembered that story every once in a while when I got my paycheck. Sometimes I wondered where the money came from. How much of it could be traced back to companies and financial dealings I’d rather not be associated with? I really wanted to be pure and spotless, a true disciple among that chosen race, that royal priesthood whom Jesus has called apart from the world to holy and perfect. So as a way of keeping my spiritual focus, every three months I took a day-long spiritual retreat to a Trappist monastery. I’d go to get away from it all, to spend quality time with the Master. But even there, among the brothers who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, sitting on the registration desk were full color brochures selling the line of products the monks manufacture to support their ministry. The biggest seller? Fudge. Whiskey infused bourbon fudge.
You can’t get away from money or the impurities of the world, and wherever you encounter it, there’s something ambiguous about it. The gospels reflect that ambiguity. In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich,” yet he eats with Zacchaeus the tax collector who got rich by taking advantage of the poor. After meeting with Jesus, Zacchaeus repaid everyone he had defrauded and gave away half his fortune to the poor, but that meant he kept the other half which meant he was still pretty well off. When Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to proclaim the kingdom, he told them to take nothing with them that would encumber them on their way, but Jesus blessed those who had the means to provide for him and the disciples along the way. Jesus proclaimed, “blessed are the poor,” yet he praised the woman who spent a lavish sum of money to anoint him with precious perfume. And in the parable we read this morning, he commends the dishonest steward for cooking the books. Of all the things God gives us to do the work of the Kingdom, there’s nothing more freighted with ambiguity and uncertainty, nothing that carries such potential for both good and for ill as money.
When you read through the gospels, you’ll notice that Jesus has a lot to say about money – a lot more to say than he does about sex. I think he says so much about money because he knew it would be such a big concern for his disciples. For one thing, so much of our sense of self-worth is connected with our money. How much money we have determines if we dine on beans or steak. It determines whether we live in cramped, inadequate housing or a spacious home in a nice community. It determines what kind of car we drive and the education our kids receive. We know those material things shouldn’t be connected with our sense of worth, but it’s hard not to make the connection.
After my father-in-law died in an automobile accident several years ago, I was talking with the family lawyer about the insurance settlement. He explained that it was going to take a while to settle because we had to prove the value of my father-in-law’s life. Showing my naiveté in these matters, I expressed my shock. “What do you mean by the value of his life? How can you put a value on a life?” He explained that we had to put a cost on the loss of his law practice and the value of his care for my mother-in-law who had Alzheimer’s disease. From the insurance company’s perspective, I understand what has to be done. But you can see why we get so uncomfortable when we talk about money in church. It’s not long before it gets tied up with our sense of worth.
There’s a legend that says when certain barbarian tribes of Europe were converted to Christianity, they submitted to baptism, but when they were immersed in the water, they kept their swords raised in the air. They were willing to give over most of their lives to Jesus, but they were warriors who lived by the sword, and they didn’t want the Prince of Peace to lay claim to their swords, their livelihood. Sometimes we’re like that with our wallets. We don’t mind giving Jesus our prayers, our time, our worship, but we depend on our money for survival, so we don’t risk subjecting it to him.
We’re conflicted, and we look to Jesus to deliver us from the unsavory things that we often associate with money. Bernard Madoff’s greed for money led him to deceive hundreds of people who lost their life savings to his dishonesty. Floods of money from special interests threaten to corrupt our democracy. We can’t win the war on drugs because so many people, from Afghanistan to York, are making fortunes off illegal drugs. There are too many stories about movie stars and sports heroes whose decency is eroded by too much money and the fame and power that come with it. 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and it makes us squeamish to think that Jesus would have anything to do with something as corrupting as money.
But Jesus didn’t come to make us pure by removing us from the world. Rather, in Christ we’re changed into people who are fresh and new so we can live in the world for him. It’s like he gives us a new set of eyes so we can see how to use the things of this world – like money – to save the world, and to save ourselves.
That’s what the manager in the parable did. He was about to be fired for squandering his boss’s property. Anyone who knows anything about personnel management would have fired the guy on the spot, but the boss told him first to settle up his accounts. The manager was shrewd. He marked down the bills his boss’s debtors owed so he could get on their good side and they’d provide for him when he was out on the street. Instead of condemning his dishonesty, Jesus commended the manager as an example for us. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” he said, “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
In this world, in this life, money has power. So Jesus tells us to make the best of it and use wealth to further the kingdom, to take what can be dangerous to our spiritual welfare and use it to prepare for that time when money won’t matter.
One way we do that is by using the money we have to make possible acts of love and mercy and healing that proclaim the reign of Christ. When we give to the church or to hospitals, seminaries, or relief organizations, we harness the power of money and put it in the service of forces for good. I admire this church’s trustees, how they bring their knowledge of money management to the task of making sure every dollar we give to the church is squeezed as tightly as possible through sound investments, good money management, and careful budgeting to make sure that the wealth we give is working as hard as it can for Jesus.
But giving our money isn’t just about making the world a better place. Giving away our money changes us. How we use our money is a spiritual practice. If you want to know what someone’s values really are, look at how they spend their money. We can talk all we want to about what’s important to us, but how we use our money is the real proof of what we believe. And that’s where money can be our spiritual friend. If God truly is the most important thing in your life, then the first thing you’re going to do with your money is to give it away just like God gives to you.
One big objection to giving generously is, “Well, I’ve got all these expenses. I can’t afford to give generously.” What does that say about your values and your priorities? Once you start to give generously, you’ll see how God can reshape your priorities so maybe you don’t need as much as you thought you did. It doesn’t matter how much you earn. In fact, Americans with lower incomes give a higher percentage of their income than those who are wealthy.
Sure, the church and charities need the money you give. Over the next few weeks, you’ll see how much Eastminster Church needs. Those needs are real. But the even bigger need is our need to give. We are made in the image of God, and God gives. In our giving, we follow God. Our giving shapes us in generosity and in gratitude. The real blessing of money isn’t what it buys us, but how we can use it to have a part in the work of Jesus, and to practice being generous, just as he is so gracious to us.