By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis —
You may have heard about how the popular personal finance expert Suzy Orman begins each of her conversations with a new client. She asks them to think back over their upbringing and youth, their early adult years, and to describe to her their memories about money. She invites people to tell a money story from these years. I might tell a story about learning the value of a few small coins after I had taken some from my mother’s purse at age 5. And then lied to my dad about it! What story would you tell about money in your childhood? Do you remember seeing it or holding some before you knew what it was? Perhaps there was strained money talk between your parents, grandparents. Was there arguing about how it was spent or earned or saved, or was it never discussed at all? What memories about money might shape how you think and feel about money today? If you were raised during or right after the Great Depression in this country, your experience of money would be very different than someone born in the 1980s.
If you were raised in a faith community, what did you learn about money in Sunday school or from your church leaders? What did you think God thought about money? How did your parents and church leaders talk about money? Was it an encouraging message? Or did the pastor or priest harangue folks about giving, giving, giving?! Did large donors to the church get treated differently than the people who gave less?
We each bring different experiences about money into the life of a congregation. And each generation represented in this congregation brings different ideas and attitudes about money, based on when they were born and which generation they identify with. The World War II generation, and those born during World War II, have quite a different perspective on money. They often have stayed with one company or business, eventually paid off their home mortgage and may seldom carry a credit card debt. There is my generation, the Baby Boomers. We have different ideas about savings and debt and compensation. There is my own kids’ generation, duly named the Millennials and born from the mid-1980s up until about 2000. A generation often mired in school debt, with early access to credit cards, and sometimes unable to find adequate work or to buy a home of their own. Perhaps not raised in the church, this generation may have no history or practical knowledge of what it means to support the work of the congregation financially. And oh, yes, how about those kids born in this 21st century? They are not very old yet, don’t hold jobs or credit cards, but their experience of money is already very different. Watching parents pay with debit and credit cards, or the flash of a smart phone, they may not even know what paper money or coins look like! This is getting complicated. Is it any wonder we get all tangled up when talking about money and dealing with finances in the church?
It’s Foundation Sunday, a long-standing tradition in this particular congregation. Not a bad time to do some reflection on money, stewardship and generosity. It’s a day to welcome the annual gift, which comes from a portion of the interest earned on the balance of the church endowment funds that are held in trust. Funds accumulated over the years from gifts received. Gifts from Falcon Heights Church members and friends who affirmed the founding vision of this church, and were hopeful and trusting about the evolving ministries of this congregation. Gifts given out of a deep desire that the giver’s own positive experiences about God’s power and the blessedness of community could be extended to others, long after he or she had left this earth. Legacy gifts, given to signal what was most important to the givers. Gifts that were a sharing of treasure, which give us an idea of where their hearts were at the time of the giving. This is a good Sunday to think about what we each treasure and how this connects with our spiritual well-being.
“Where your treasure is, there you heart will be also,” said Jesus. I love the fact that Jesus often talked about money, because it reminds me that Jesus was always practical about the life of faith. He knew where to touch people, where they were most needy, bringing comfort to the discomforted. He also knew where to nudge or poke people where they were most stuck, bringing discomfort to the comfortable. People in his time would often store their treasure in the purchase of extravagant and costly garments; women’s headdresses might be woven with coins. Not unlike today, with our homes, cars and clothing, you could tell who was of a certain means. We “store” our treasure in all kinds of places besides banks. Jesus not only called people out on not giving to the poor, a supreme value and mandate in their Jewish religious tradition. He also knew that how we “store” our treasure has a lot to do with our spiritual health. Not whether or not you get into the afterlife, but our spiritual well-being in this life. How attached am I to my possessions, to my stuff?
Perhaps you have heard the story of his interaction with a young rich man. This man approaches Jesus and asks about eternal, abundant life – Jesus, how can I live most fully, most abundantly, both now and in the life to come? Jesus patiently walks him through the basics of their Jewish faith: are you loving God with your whole heart, mind, body and soul? Are you following the Ten Commandments? Are you acting with love toward your neighbor? Yes, yes, says the young man. Well, says Jesus, and you can imagine him eyeing this young man very closely then—had news of this inquirer’s wealth reached Jesus, or perhaps it was obvious in his dress? Well, first, sell all you have and give it to the poor….and you will have treasure in heaven….then come and follow me. But “when the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:23). What was the extreme loss this young man was grieving? He didn’t want to let go of something that he treasured. But something grieved him in the holding on. What did he recognize in that moment, with his hands and his heart full of attachment to his possessions?
The apostle Paul later wrote to the church at Corinth, as he implored them to give generously to help people in need in faraway Jerusalem: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” It’s a wonderfully ambiguous phrase in Greek: God loves a cheerful giver. It also can also be translated: a cheerful giver loves God. Jesus knew that the rich young man’s love of God and giving away of his possessions were intimately related.
Give away your possessions and “you will have treasure in heaven,” said Jesus. Is this about accumulating brownie points with God, which add up to a certain amount, the scales are tipped and we have access through the pearly gates when we die? I do not think so. But what? It may help to remember that Jesus was constantly reminding people that not only is there an unseen world all around and within us, but the Kingdom of God, God’s reign here on earth, is somewhat obscure. He knew we have a “default mode” where we tend to think that what we see, feel, taste, touch, measure is the totality of the real world. Like a default setting on our consciousness (see commentary by Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, February 25, 2009, on Working Preacher.org <https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=25>).
Jesus was always about confronting and shifting our attention, altering our perceptions.
Jews in his time were not preoccupied with the afterlife, certainly not in the manner that we Christians became myopically focused on heaven and hell beginning with European medieval times. When we hear Jesus talk about “heaven” we need to pay attention. He is referencing the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, God’s reign of peace, justice, mercy and compassion here on earth and within each of us. Generosity with our money, addressing the needs of the poor, is about something much more basic than heavenly brownie points. It enables us to put our “treasure” – what is most important to us – in God’s hands. We make our relationships, our bodies, our families, our possessions, our money, all that we treasure, available for the work of God’s reign among us.
Since you and I live in a money economy, where almost every day we are making some kind of transaction that involves our accumulated money treasure, we have many opportunities to engage this spiritual practice. And it’s a balance, isn’t it? We each have responsibilities and obligations related to our money. Few of us can give it all away. Somehow we must be fed and sheltered, and do that for our dependents. But Jesus would say, where is your treasure? Where is your heart this week? As we reach for the plastic credit or debt card this week, write a check, perhaps look over our investment portfolio, finger some dollar bills, rattle some change in our pockets, and make the exchange to purchase some additional something…where will our treasure be?
Thanks be to God for those who have gone before us in this congregation and who have generously shared of their treasure through the Foundation Trust fund. As the Apostle Paul declared: “…the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints (the church), but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” Amen.