A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St Paul’s Bantam on March 11, 2012.

What about money?

For the last two weeks I’ve had much more to say about politics than I usually do and I will again this morning but then I really hope to drop the subject until the elections are over.  But the readings from the Bible keep giving me a place to start and I hope I can put some of our current events under the searchlight of the Bible to see them in a different perspective than the morning paper and the TV news.

Now, there are preachers out there who talk about politics all the time and take stands on political issues.  That’s not my vocation. But there are also preachers whose sermons are irrelevant, who have nothing to say about anything that matters. And I don’t want to be one of them either.  What I’ve been saying is that the Bible is full of politics. Jesus was crucified on political charges. They said he was a threat to the establishment and he was. So what would Jesus have said about our world, our country today?

The Republican primaries have been largely about sex and money.  The Bible also has a lot to say about sex and money, but not the same things the politicians say and I think we should notice that.  The gospel today, it seems to me, puts the spotlight on money. So let’s focus on that. We can deal with sex any time.

Jesus went into the temple and he found the money changers at work and he trashed their offices and threw them out. He took a controversial position.  He didn’t just preach about money, though he often did that too, but he also acted out what he believed.  Ask yourself which side Jesus would be on in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Given what the money changers have done to our society, to mortgages and to employment, which side would Jesus be on?

Now the money changers were there in the temple courtyard for good religious reasons. They weren’t right inside the temple but outside in a kind of courtyard where they were needed. The Ten Commandments forbid the making of images and the Roman money had the emperor’s image on it.  So if you wanted to make an offering in the Temple you couldn’t use Roman money and the money changers were there to provide you with temple coins free of images. They provided a public service that was useful to religious people. So what was the problem? What was Jesus up to?

If you look in the commentaries, you find a lot about “the cleansing of the temple.” They tell us that Jesus came to clear away the old and usher in the new. Well, yes, but what about the money?  The commentaries aren’t interested in that.

There was another day, you may remember, when Jesus was sitting in the temple and a poor widow came in with two mites, the smallest coins, and placed them in the alms box.  And Jesus commended her. So it wasn’t just money in the temple as if all money corrupts and none of it should be in God’s house; no, not at all.  I think the point is about putting money at the center, making money God.

Suppose you were coming to church to worship God, to recenter, refocus, your life, and they stopped you at the door to change the bills in your wallet for the Vestry-approved church money with no pictures of Lincoln or Washington, and they charge a small fee, of course, for this convenience, and suddenly your thoughts are all about that and whether they gave you the right change or cheated you and you come on in throughly distracted and in no mood to recenter your prayers.

Money can do that to us.  It can grab our attention, distract us from things that matter. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” You cannot worship God and money. So who do you serve?  What is your priority? Which is first in your life? Money is not God.  That’s point one: money is not God, it is not to be worshiped, not to control our lives.

And money is not ours.  Money is a symbol of other things. It has no value in itself.  You can’t eat it or wear it. Actually you can, in a way; clothing can be a kind of display of wealth. We can convert our money into expensive clothes and cars and houses to show off our wealth. We can have possessions or money as a symbol of our possessions but the word “possession” itself is bad theology.

The Bible tells us that God created the world and everything in it and put the man and the woman in the garden as stewards to take care of what God had made. Stewards, not possessors. When Bill Gates hires a staff to take care of his house they aren’t supposed to call their friends in to see their possessions. They’re caretakers, not owners.  That’s us: caretakers, stewards. I don’t own my garden even in the eyes of the bank.  I’m a mortgage payer, not an owner. But I didn’t make the soil or the sun or rain. I can try to improve the soil and channel the rain.  But I’m a steward, a caretaker, not a possessor.

Do you remember that sentence that is often said at the Offertory: “All things come of thee, O Lord, And of thine own have we given thee”? Remember that?  Of thine own – not mine own –  have we given thee. All that we have is on loan, in temporary custody. We are stewards, not possessors. When we make a pledge to the church, we call that stewardship. It’s a recognition that whatever we have is God’s gift. We’re paying interest on a loan; acknowledging a debt; returning thanks for a gift we could never earn or deserve.

Point two is stewardship. Point One: Money is not God.  Point Two: we are God’s stewards.  Point three: money is dangerous.

Money distorts our judgment. Money is distorting our economy.  One of the candidates was asked the other day why he gave less than 2% of his money to charity and he said he had a lot of expenses for his family. So do we all. But he dresses well, eats well, lives well, has a big house in a wealthy suburb. So that raises a serious question for me about his real priorities. It’s a good principle to write the first check of the week to the church and live on what’s left. Pay the rent first and live on what’s left.  Don’t we trust God to provide? Not to indulge us but to provide.

I remember calling on an elderly lady years ago who lived with her sister and traveled to Europe every year. We aren’t rich, she told me, but we have enough. It was that word “enough” that got my attention.  It means something different in Greenwich than it means in Bantam. I could use some new shirts and I think it would be cool to have an iPad, but I don’t need them.  I have enough.  It’s all about priorities and our priorities as Americans are very different from those of a Syrian student caught in the crossfire or a Mexican farmer trying to support a family who knows there are better jobs across the border or a peasant somewhere in Africa with children to feed who sees the land drying up and his crops failing. But we get used to a certain standard of living, feel entitled, and lose perspective.

What would be “enough” for a slum-dweller in Mumbai, India?  What is “enough” for a superstar athlete or a Wall Street hedge fund manager?

What did we do to be born in America? My grandparents might have taken credit for coming here but I can’t.  It wasn’t my choice to be a secure and comfortable American nor the African peasant’s choice to live on the edge of an expanding desert, nor the Syrian student’s choice to live in a brutal dictatorship.

We take things for granted; we have enough.  But money not only distorts our judgment it also distorts our economy. You’ve seen the statistics: all that about the 1% and the rest. Why is that? Nobody thinks high unemployment is a good thing.  Some say if we tax the wealthy they won’t invest in jobs.  Some say if we don’t tax the wealthy, we won’t be able to invest in the schools and infrastructure that create jobs.  So what works?  What’s best for my neighbor? That’s the only real question and we have to decide it between now and November.

But, again, money distorts our judgment and money can be used intentionally to distort our judgment. When the wealthy can buy the airwaves and control what we see and hear, it’s hard to make sound judgments, hard to get at the truth. One candidate’s Super Pac raised 30 million dollars last year and over a third of it came from just ten contributors. Another candidate’s super pac raised over ten million from one donor.  60% of the money spent by the super pacs has come from five people. It’s not the 1%, it’s a tenth of a tenth of one percent who can control what we see and hear. Money can be used to influence, to control and that’s dangerous to our freedom.

Three points: 1) Money is not God.  2) All possessions come from God and we are stewards. 3) Money in human hands is dangerous.

Jesus came into the temple and saw people buying and selling controlling and being controlled by money and he was outraged. What would he think of us?

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