Your Money or Your Life
“Your Money or Your Life” Luke 19:1-10
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ 9Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Humanity came to seek out and to save the lost.’
Today is the beginning of Stewardship Season at OCBC. How many of you just tuned out? How many of you have ever heard someone say: “The church is always talking about money, always asking for money.” How many of you have ever said that yourself? When I say “stewardship” and you hear money, it’s like the minister who was giving a children’s sermon and asked the children: “What is small and furry with a big bushy tail?” The children were silent. “It eats nuts and stores them away for the winter,” the minister said. Still the children were silent. “It also lives in trees,” the minister hinted. Finally one little child said “I know you want us to say is that it’s Jesus but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.” I know you want us to think “stewardship” but it sure sounds like money to me.
Stewardship is not just about money; it is also about how we spend our time, energy, and talents on God’s work in the world. But today I am going to talk about money, because instead of talking about money all the time, I think the fact is that the church talks about money too little. Jesus talked about money all the time. The only topic he talked about more than money was the commonwealth or reign of God. And Jesus didn’t talk about money as those who promote a “prosperity gospel” do, saying that if you are faithful to God you will be rewarded with lots of money and worldly goods. It was just the opposite with Jesus. He challenged people to look honestly at their relationship with money, to admit the power it had in their lives, and to make choices about how they related to money that were guided by faith in God’s economy.
There is a culture of secrecy around money in most churches. We rarely talk about how we make decisions about how much money we will give to God’s work in the world. We hardly ever talk about our income with one another or how we work out our family budget or what our true feelings are about money. How much people give to the church is usually a secret known only to the collector or treasurer. As a preacher, when I even broach the subject of money I am often met with uneasiness, defensiveness, or outright anger and hostility. It is a touchy subject. Money, or lack of it, has a lot of power in our lives. Which is exactly why we need to talk about it in church, to think theologically about the tenuous place of money in our lives, to bring all of our thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and issues with money into the light of the gospel.
So, yes, stewardship isn’t just about money, but it is an important dimension of stewardship that we often tiptoe around.
To stimulate our thinking about money, I’d like to invite you to take out a piece of money. A dollar bill or a coin. If you don’t have one with you, then I’ve got some to pass around. Free money. Take at look at the bit of money you are holding in your hand. What comes to mind? What does it bring up? What is your autobiography of money? How did you learn about money in your family, your church, and your culture? What has your relationship with money been like in your life? Does money serve you, your needs, desires, and goals in life or do you serve money’s demands, or something in-between? What feelings get stirred up for you when you think about money? Anxiety? Fear? Excitement? Fury? Are you neutral?
Now think of this: “If money was a person, had a personality, how would you describe it? Mysterious, powerful, elusive, demanding? Most of us have had relationships with money all our lives, but don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on its place in our life. Do you think of money as a resource or something that determines the perimeters of your life? When the church considers its ministry do we begin with “I don’t think we can afford it,” or do we say, “What might God be calling us to do and how do we fund it?” How much power does money have in our lives? And how might we be more faithful in our relationship to money?
I think an important part of stewardship is for the church to create safe places where we can explore in a non-judgmental and non-shaming way our relationship with money in light of the gospel. Jesus knew that money was not neutral, but that it has power in our lives. If you turn that piece of money over, you might find the words “In God We Trust,” which is a reminder to us to put our trust in God, not money.
The gospel lesson we heard today sheds light on our reflection on money. Luke tells a story that those of us who grew up in the church learn as little children. Probably those of you who didn’t grow up in the church have even heard of Zacchaeus or heard the song about the “wee little man” who climbed up a tree to get a better view of Jesus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and pretty much everyone hated tax collectors. As Frederick Buechner cays of Zacchaeus “He's a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job…” (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, p. 180.) Zacchaeus was just doing his job –collecting taxes for Rome- and everyone despised him for it. I once heard a sermon here at OCBC where the preacher said that Jesus having lunch with the sinners and tax collectors would be like Jesus having lunch with the Meter Maids and Tow Truck Drivers in Cambridge. The tax collectors worked for Rome, and many felt that they had sold out their Jewish community by working for The Man, The Empire.
Zacchaeus happened to be a little on the short side, so when Jesus came to town, their was no way for this short man to see over the crowd enough to get a good look at Jesus. So he creates his own solution by climbing up in a tree. Now just because people hate you, doesn’t mean that you are invisible. It’s probably just he opposite. Everyone knew who Zacchaeus was, knew about how he collected taxes, took more than the law required and skimmed his pay off the top. People resented him. His name had probably come up in conversation around Jesus, and so that is probably why Jesus could call him by name.
So Zacchaeus got up in the tree to get a good look at Jesus, but instead, what he got was a good look at himself. He saw how over time money had come to define him, to give him security, power over others. He saw to his surprise that money was causing him to lose his soul.
Perhaps you heard Story Corps on NPR’s Morning Edition this past Friday. Robert Griffo told the story of how his life was impacted by the Stock Market Crash on Black Monday in October 1987. Griffo had worked for an Investment Firm on Wall Street for 11 years. He said he was making a lot of money. But Griffo said “I lost myself on Wall Street.” He recalled how he used to step over homeless people and say to them: “You need to get a job.” Then the Market crashed and his whole world fell apart. Desperately afraid that he would lose his job, he was using heroin and cocaine. He said he lost his job, his children, and his wife. Griffo found himself living in a cardboard box on the street. He went to a bridge in Manhattan with the intention to jump off, but there was always some hope that things would get better that kept him from jumping. One day, some men from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting came to get him on the street. They said that some of Griffo’s street companions had come to them and said “You’ve gotta come get this kid off the street, he doesn’t belong there.” Griffo slowly began to put his life back together. Today he works for a Suicide Hot Line. He says, “I’ve lost an awful lot. But today I say I’m rich- and someday I’ll have money again. As far as I’m concerned I won the lottery, I got my life back.”
When Jesus stopped beneath the tree, looked up at Zacchaeus, called up to him to come down and take him home for lunch, Zacchaeus couldn’t get down fast enough. And before he knew what he was saying, he was talking about money, about his history with money, about the power of money over him, about his plans to have an entirely different relationship with money; he was talking about money in front of God and everybody. No secrets. He could give money away and in so doing, money’s powerful hold over him was broken. He was a new man with a new start. As far as he was concerned he had won the lottery, he had gotten his life back.
I heard a Native American Episcopal priest named Howard Anderson talking about three different kinds of giving. He says there is Grudge Giving, where you give grudgingly, with a spirit of irritation. There is Duty giving, where you give because you know it is the right thing to do, the “duty” part of being Christian. Then there is Thanks Giving, where you spontaneously give out of a deep sense of gratitude, which is the kind of giving Zacchaeus did. Zacchaeus was so surprised by the unsolicited attention and kindness Jesus gave him that day that he spontaneously offered to change his whole relationship to money. Jesus didn’t say a word about money, didn’t bring it up, he just invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house for lunch. But suddenly Zacchaeus had conjured up a new budget that didn’t involve short changing anyone and had generosity at its core. Zacchaeus’ spontaneous response to Jesus’ attention was to suddenly see the value of justice in regard to God’s economy, and to discover generosity as a way of giving thanks to God and of serving the community where he lived. Thanks giving.
So, getting back to the piece of money in your hand. You might want to do something with it to challenge its power. Ball it up, throw it in the air, and stomp on it. For heavens sake, you might even want to give it away to remind you that it is not the ultimate power in your life.
And so it is the beginning of stewardship time at OCBC. We’re going to invite you to think about giving your time and talents to God’s work in the world, in this church and in the other places where you do your ministry. And we’re also going to talk about money, as twitchy as that makes us. Most importantly, please know that we will ask you to give money to the church’s ministry not because OCBC needs it- although God knows we do- but because we need to give money away in order to break the powerful hold it has over us. We are invited to engage in Thanks giving, because as far as God is concerned we’ve won the lottery, we’ve gotten our lives back. AMEN.