This is a sermon for the eighth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Matthew 6:22-34.
“You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Are we feeling uncomfortable yet? I don’t know about you, but there’s little more guaranteed to stir in me feelings of guilt and confusion, than the question of whether I’ve entirely got my priorities right about money.
There are a number of reasons why, of course. In our society it’s not really polite to talk about money; who has it, who doesn’t, and what we do with it. Instead we read one another’s clothes and postcodes and cars as a subtle and complex code for economic status.
And we’ve had a long tradition of Christian suspicion of wealth. Jesus told at least one person to give everything he had to the poor; and I suspect that many of us worry that if we really listened to what he was saying, he might say something similar to us.
And, more than that, we know that if we’re in this church on Sunday morning, fed, clothed and going about our business, by world standards that makes us filthy rich. When people overseas die for lack of clean water or food that would cost very little by our standards….
Well, it’s no wonder that this is an uncomfortable subject, is it?
I don’t want to take us all on a guilt trip this morning. But what can we do with this that’s a bit more constructive rather than anxiety-inducing?
It struck me, as I considered this question, that really we’re talking about an issue of boundaries.
Think of it this way; we know about physical boundaries; whether it’s a polite picket fence or a moat stocked with alligators, a boundary lets you know where things belong and who is responsible for what. But move away from that sort of concrete geographical marker and we’re much less clear. Try to add in God – just what is my responsibility in this life, and what is God’s responsibility, anyway? – and we can get ourselves into a world of pain very quickly.
And I think that’s what Jesus is trying to address here. It’s our responsibility to use what we’ve been given wisely, to live the way God created us to be. It’s God’s responsibility to make sure that we have what we need. If we forget that last bit, we can tie ourselves up in knots as we try desperately to control things that, actually, are outside our control. And we end up chasing money as if that were our purpose in life, instead of recognising that our job is to worship God and walk in his ways, and the money is there to help us do that. It’s meant to be our servant, not our master.
I actually think it’s one of the weaknesses of our church tradition that we don’t talk about money very much. Wanting to avoid manipulating or being inappropriate in asking for money for the church, we very seldom dare take on the question of what a Christian approach to structuring one’s finances might look like. And then we’re surprised when people lack confidence in relating this area of life to our faith.
But I think we can talk about whether we’ve got this relationship the wrong way around; whether money is really an effective tool in our hands, or is driving us unhelpfully.
I’d suggest that, like most things, we can look for the symptoms: is there any anxiety about money, either making it or spending it? Does money bind us unhelpfully? I’m not talking there about being unable to upgrade to a mansion, but whether something to do with money gets in the way of living lives which are loving, joyful, and peaceful? Is money – or the things we do to earn or manage money – an issue in our relationships? Do we know when to stop working, and when to say no, to make room for other more important things?
There might be other things in play too. One of the reasons I tend to get anxious about money, I realise, is that I was never really taught about managing money. I’ve had to teach myself, as an adult, about things like superannuation and mortgages and investments and all the rest of it. I still rely on my husband to do any internet banking! And my own ignorance and lack of confidence can mean that worries about money bother me more than they would if I felt I knew what I was doing and had everything properly sorted. So maybe, for some of us, part of the answer actually lies in being confident that we know how to use our money properly, rather than being at the mercy of systems we don’t understand.
Or it might be that anxiety about money is really masking another, deeper need. Someone who is in poor health might end up with a distorted attachment to money, because they’re fearful of what might happen and their ability to have basic physical needs met, for example.
Those are questions worth taking seriously. Maybe, as we head towards the beginning of Lent, taking an inventory of our anxieties, in general, might be a useful way to prepare to let God be at work in them.
Of course, sometimes we simply aren’t aware of our own weaknesses. One exercise I’ve seen suggested is that of keeping a record, for a while, of everything you spend money on, and how much it costs. Not with a view to beating yourself up about it, but just with a view to being conscious of the patterns of your own behaviour; patterns we often don’t recognise when they’ve become part of the fabric of everyday life. I did that for a while as a student, and it was an insight into just how much chocolate I really ate! A little here and a little there never seemed like much, until I was confronted with a grand total and had to admit that it wasn’t healthy.
My chocolate addiction remains unresolved. But at least now I am aware of it, and I have a plan to do something about it. Right after I manage to get enough sleep…
You take my point. None of us is perfect and I certainly don’t want to come across here as presenting myself as any better than anyone else. All of us can struggle with keeping things in their appropriate place in our lives.
But here’s the thing. If we can keep money where it belongs in our lives – as a tool, rather than something that drives us – then it won’t get in the way of what really matters; our relationship with God and our relationships with our loved ones. It helps us to be the best we can be, approaching life with confidence and joy, knowing that we’re doing our job in this partnership, and God is doing God’s job. And that really is something priceless.