Sermon: Weighing Worth: The Spirituality of Money (audio & text )

READINGS

From The Generosity Path by Mark Ewert

“You have to make a lot of choices in life; at a certain point, you have to decide what is really important and then really get behind it. It is beyond, it would be nice; it is more like, What is the holdup? Why aren’t you doing something? That voice has gotten louder and louder over time.”

“Your Gifts” by Rebecca Parker

Your gifts

whatever you discover them to be

can be used to bless or curse the world,

The mind’s power,

            The strength of the hands,

                        The reach of the heart,

the gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting.

Any of these can draw down the prison door

            hoard bread

            abandon the poor,

            obscure what is holy

            comply with injustice

                        or withhold love.

You must answer this questions:

What will you do with your gifts?

Choose to bless the world.

SERMON

            How’s it going for you? Could you use a few bucks, some dead presidents in your wallet? You know what I mean: some bread, a little cabbage, a few clams. We could all use a little moolah, dough, scratch, some of that lucre.

            Does anybody have any doubt what I’m talking about? Yeah, money. O, money, money, money, you make me crazy. How many of us have sung that song? The income and the outgo, getting and spending, here one day, gone the next.

            I could go on, but you get the picture. Part of why all these tropes about money hang around in our culture, I think, is that so many of us are uncomfortable talking about it in the cold, sober light of day.

            Instead, a blend of shame and romance prevails, and when we finally sit down to the “serious talk” about where money comes from and how we use it, our eyes glaze over. Oh, so complicated, we say, or maybe just boring.

There are many practical reasons for attending to our use of money. The decisions we make, after all, can go a long way determining if we achieve what we want in life.

But there are spiritual ones as well. What money means to us and how we use it speak to what we truly care about, what matters in our lives. And stumbling along in fear, denial, fantasy, or shame over money only keeps us from the kind of peace and joy that come from living truly, from bringing our values to life. Not for nothing does the Bible say, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

            But please don’t take this as another wagging finger. It’s the rare person who doesn’t struggle and fret over money: not just how much we have but what we do with it. It’s a struggle that I remain in myself, and, like most of us, it goes back to my childhood.

When I was growing up, money was one of the things that we never talked about. My father had a good job and was proud of being “the provider,” and part of that was keeping money talk to himself. We never really talked much about what things cost, how my parents made spending decisions, or what they were doing to plan for the future.

That meant that when the time came for me to launch into the working world I didn’t have much idea about how to manage money but instead sort of stumbled along as best I could. My wife, Debbie, on the other hand, grew up in a household where money was frequently discussed, but among parents who, while successful, had childhoods that were shaped by their families’ struggles in the Depression.

So, in building a household it took us some time to negotiate spending and saving practices. And we were tested, especially in the early years, getting by on my humble salary as a beginning newspaper reporter while Debbie was at home caring for infant daughters. In time, though, things got better as Debbie returned to work part-time and my salary edged higher.

As we moved out of what felt like a hand-to-mouth existence we had the space to begin thinking about putting money aside and devoting at least some to causes greater than ourselves.

At the time, we were relatively new members of a tiny Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Charleston, West Virginia. Annual budget drives were haphazard things where church leaders made general announcements about the congregation’s needs and waited to see what came in. The response, as you can imagine, was: not much.

One year one of our members decided that wasn’t good enough, and she persuaded the leadership that members should be visited and asked to give.

I vividly remember her visit to our home. Elaine was her name, and her pitch was clear: there were maybe 50 households in our fellowship, she said, and we depended on each other. Debbie and I both held leadership positions at the time, and, while Elaine thanked us for the time we gave, she said for the congregation to endure it depended on all of us giving money, too, and not just a token but an amount that was significant to us.

It was for me the beginning of a dawning awareness. We grow up in a busy world with so much we take for granted, so much we can avail ourselves of, from the streets we drive on to families that we depend on. It’s not until adulthood, often, that we get any sense that we have the power to shape that world.

Our choices help determine what prospers and what fails, what endures and what dies away. Yes, the world is big and our resources are small, but they’re not nothing.

Money is a funny thing. At the simplest level, it’s nothing especially complicated: just a medium of exchange – a way of getting things we want from others in exchange for giving things we have.

We can do this by bartering, but that can get complicated. Money makes it easier. Because it’s not just things that have value. We ourselves are money-makers. We can create value by offering others our toil or our talent. Indeed, for most of us, that’s where the lion’s share of our money comes from.

But, of course, just like the things we want, our toil and talent are not inexhaustible resources. They are the expending of our own life energy, something that is not only finite, as our lives are finite, but also deeply precious to us. It is our time on earth, the use to which we put our muscles, our brains, our passions, our love.

What was it that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote about Alexander Hamilton, that he wrote like he was “running out of time”? We are all running out of time. The question before us is how we will spend it and the money it makes for us.

Knowing this, we could hardly be blamed for hunkering down and holding tight to as much money as we can. But as any financial advisor will tell you, that’s also the best way to reduce its value.

 Stuff your mattress with greenbacks, and inflation will gobble them up in time. For, money has no absolute value. It has meaning only in the marketplace.

Now, of course, it’s also true that we don’t want to use it all. There are many sober investments that we can and should make to ensure that some of our money lasts and even grows. We want a cushion against hard times, and things like funds for retirement, children’s college accounts and something to pass on to the future. But still, the fact remains that spend we must. But how?

Well, here things get interesting, don’t they? There’s something intoxicating about money in our pocket, and our consumerist economy knows that in fact feeds on it. An extraordinary amount of energy is spent every day tempting and titillating us in the most creative ways. And, let’s face it, we as a society respond with gusto in our spending.

Is that a bad thing? Well, in principle, no. Why not enjoy some of the pleasures and comforts that come with a vibrant economy? The challenge is setting limits because, after all, our funds have limits. Money spent on pleasure is money taken away from more pedestrian but practical needs as well as all the work underway to bring about a better world.

And even more, devotion to pleasure can easily take us down a road to pure selfishness and such grief as addiction and crippling debt, not to speak of environmental destruction and ultimately the breakdown of community.

But let’s be clear that for all the talk of the root of all evil, the problem here is not money itself. Money, remember, is neutral, merely a medium of exchange. The problem is what we choose to make money mean.

            If our money is our precious life energy acting in the world, then it is an extension of our being: our passion, our love, our strength, our hope at work. Squander it and we waste the very power we have to give our lives meaning, to have made a difference, to have mattered at all in our brief stay in this life.

How, then, shall we use it, this vessel of our life energy?

            Use it to change the world. Use it to bring into being that which couldn’t be without you, that scintilla of possibility that you might blow into flame. The choice is ours each time we open our wallets or pull out our credit cards. We are sending our life energy into the world. We can’t entirely foresee what effect we will have, but we might just help bring a new world into being.

            I’ve thought of that first canvass visit that I received in West Virginia many times, of how it invited me to see that I might have a hand in shaping the world. And in that tiny fellowship, it was never clearer how important my small part might be, and how it is incumbent on each of us to nurture visions of hope into being.

             Mark Ewert, who you heard me quote earlier and once was a consultant to this congregation, speaks of this as cultivating a practice of generosity. This is different than occasionally responding to appeals from organizations that you support. It is making giving a foundation stone to your financial life. What it means, he says, “is holding the intention to be giving in any way that you can.”

In practice, he says, it “requires you to open your heart and hands in a way that activates your belief in enough, or at least helps you act as if you believe there is enough for you.”

            This is hard for many of us, he says, since “nearly everyone has an underlying belief in scarcity or adequacy, regardless of their wealth or poverty.” But a practice of giving opens us to the network of social support that sustains the world and helps us see how we, too, are supported.

            So, the inner voice that prompts to give us is no longer, as he quotes one interviewee, “it would be nice,” but instead something more like “what is the holdup, what aren’t you doing something?”

            We open our annual budget drive, friends, hoping that the voice you will hear inside in response to our request for your financial commitment will sound something like that, that you might help us build what Mark Ewert calls “a community of generosity,” one that uses its energies and resources to leverage change far greater than we could accomplish individually.

            It is a matter of viewing our financial resources as one of the many gifts we have to bring to the world, gifts that, as Rebecca Parker remarks, can be used for good or ill, a blessing or a curse.

            May it be our part to use our gifts to bless the world.