God's Open House

Sunday, November 4, 2018

“Money Talks: MINE!”

I was at a church, a little church, for worship service one Sunday. Have you ever been in a small group of singers with just a few strong singers, and so you sing, but only as long as you can be sure no one can hear you? That is, if we can hide our voices behind that strong voice? Well this was a particularly fine-tuned crowd. We were singing that old classic, “Take My Life” —you know, “Take My Life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee.” And things were going pretty smoothly until we got to the third verse. You remember that verse? “Take my silver, and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” And this one person on the other side of the congregation sneezed or coughed or dropped something, and she must have been a good singer, because when she stopped singing, the volume of the congregation dropped about 30 decibels in an instant. And I remember thinking, “Huh.” We’re all right to sing about devotion to God, giving our hands, our voices, our moments, our days. But were are deeply uncomfortable talking about money.

It’s for a lot of reasons. We’ve been taught that it’s tacky or inappropriate. We don’t want to make someone feel embarrassed or for someone else to make us feel embarrassed. We also often have an idealistic view of how money affects us. We would like to imagine that we all do things for our high-minded ideals, and we’re a little bit embarrassed to say that money is a motive. We might even think that this is the Christian way. Jesus said that you cannot serve God and money, so it’s best if at all possible, to pretend like it doesn’t exist.

But money does exist. And Jesus spent a lot of time talking about it. And like it or not it has an effect on, in some way or another, just about everything about our lives. Where you live, where you work, what you do for fun, what level of education you have, what you eat, and let’s face it, all of these things have an effect on who you know and spend time with, are all greatly affected by money: how much of it you have, and how you choose to use it. We have to make decisions involving money multiple times a day, and some of these decisions are incredibly consequential for our lives. How many days can you go without making a purchase? How many weeks? Are you putting off an intimidating financial decision right now? How many things would you do differently if you didn’t have to worry about money?

Money is incredibly important in our lives. So why do we avoid talking about it in church? Jesus didn’t. Jesus talked about money all the time. Money is a major theme in the Bible. Do we not think that God should have a say in how we use money and possessions? Or are we afraid that we might not like what God has to say about how we use money and possessions?

For the next three weeks, we’re going to go through a series called “Money Talks.” The goal of this series is to sketch out in broad strokes God’s vision for how we should use and relate to money and possessions. We don’t always look at it this way, but the decisions you make around money are spiritual decisions. They don’t just affect your bank account but also your soul. And so if we’re willing to trust that God has a say in our hearts, our hands, our hours, and our days, then we need to talk about our silver and gold. We won’t be able to cover everything about money in 3 weeks. What we talk about will be incredibly basic. So we’ll come back to it now and again and continue to build on what we’ve started today. Our first big broad stroke about money and possessions in the Bible is this: Money and possessions are gifts from God.

Our passage for today from the book of Ezekiel deals with Pharaoh. Pharaoh is a recurring character in the Bible. There are many Pharaohs over the course of Israel’s history, but Pharaoh never has a name. It’s always Pharaoh, never Ramses. Even leaders of God’s people can become Pharaoh. Solomon’s son Rehoboam is compared to Pharaoh, conscripting poor Israelites to build up his own wealth. Herod is like Pharaoh, so afraid of losing power that he sends his men to kill little children. Because Pharaoh represents an idea or a way of looking at the world. Pharaoh is defined by acquisitiveness and anxiety. Pharaoh thinks the created world belongs to him, and despite an abundance of wealth, Pharaoh is always trying to get more, and always afraid of not having enough. In Exodus, Pharaoh is the richest man in the whole land, he commands armies, builds pyramids, is easily one of the most powerful people in the world. And yet he is afraid of the Hebrews. He is afraid of losing some of what he has, and his response is to take more. He forces them into slavery, he takes the wealth of their labor and tries to destroy their future. Because he has forgotten the source of his gifts, he lives in constant fear and anxiety, and he never feels like he has enough.

And our passage for today, from Ezekiel, sums up Pharaoh’s thought. “The Nile is my own, I made it for myself” (Ezekiel 29:3). But really, he’s got it backwards. The Nile made Pharaoh, and the Nile itself was brought into being through its Creator.[1] He believes that he has created his own wealth, and he is constantly seeking to acquire more at the expense of everyone else.

This is a dangerous belief, because you can’t forget that they are gifts without in some way distorting the gifts themselves. We can let ourselves believe that our material possessions determine our value to society. We can let ourselves believe that our material possessions guarantee us a life and happiness. We can begin to believe that it is our natural right to have more and more and more, and leave ourselves with mounds of stuff, a house that turns turns on lights and makes coffee when we tell it to, but mounds of emptiness inside. Pharaoh is incredibly powerful but terrified of his own slaves. Because he thinks his wealth is his own creation, he is afraid of losing it. This is what happens when we forget the giver. This is what happens when we forget that we have received what we have as gifts from God. We become so wrapped up in the acquisition and protection of our material possessions that we dwell in constant anxiety.

In contrast with Pharaoh’s view, in which everything you can grab is yours because you grabbed it, is the Biblical view: Money and possessions are gifts from God. God is the ultimate source of all of our gifts. This theme runs throughout the Bible. In Psalm 24 it says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world and those who live in it.” We frequently hear of those in the Bible who have been blessed by God, with flocks, with fields, and even with family. But they are always referred to as blessings. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but were continually in awareness of how dependent on God they were. In Genesis, humanity is given all of creation to be stewards of it, a reminder that we are responsible to God for what we do with what we’ve been given. The materials at your disposal are not your creation. They are God’s blessings. God’s gifts.

And the appropriate respond to gifts is gratitude. It is not pride. It is not greed for more. It is thankfulness to the one who gave them to you. This is the difference between the sacred and the profane. This attitude abounds in Scripture. Psalm 100, “Know that the Lord is God, it is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people the sheep of his pasture.”

Gratitude does not lend itself to acquisitiveness or anxiety. People who practice gratitude are happier and more joyful than those who don’t. Social science has been increasingly directing us to this conclusion for years. In contrast, gratitude leads to satisfaction. In the words of Richard Beck, “gratitude sanctifies the world.”[2] When we handle our resources, our money, our possessions, our time, our lives, as gifts, they become holy and treasured things. This is the opposite of Pharaoh’s view of the world. If you approach material possessions as gifts, they become holy, because they are treasured blessings of the holy Creator. Instead of being anxious about how to make sure we don’t lose them, or scheme about how we might get more, we are filled with satisfaction and joy, and encouraged to pass that joy on to others.

Pharaoh doesn’t know this. He is too caught up in the rat race. He is too busy chasing down what he thinks is his, all the way to the bottom of the Red Sea. What Pharaoh doesn’t know is that all we have is a gift, and that in the face of God’s overwhelming generosity, we have no better option than thankfulness. What Pharaoh doesn’t know eventually killed him. May it not do the same to us.


[1] Brueggemann, Walter. Money and Possessions: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, p. 2. I am heavily indebted to Brueggemann’s book, a part of the Interpretation Series, in which Brueggemann investigates, with a keen eye, scripture’s view of  

[2] http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2016/11/thanksgiving-is-liturgy-of-christian.html