Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Journey to Hope ... Money

“Does Money Have You? Or Do You Have Money?”
Mark 11:15-19

This season of Lent we have been on a journey to hope. We’ve been looking for hope in the midst of suffering. The promise is that we will find that hope in Jesus, no matter what the suffering. We’ve looked for hope and found it with traveling companions, by knowing who we are in Christ, by turning Church into a verb as we serve others.

This week we are looking at the place in lives where most suffering comes from our relationship with money. You’ll notice I didn’t say money is where our suffering comes from. Money doesn’t create suffering, too much or too little of it. Our relationship with money can create suffering. I’ve talked many times about money in my five years at Homestead. I talked about how we can use our money in godly ways, about how to return a portion of what God has given us, and about how money isn’t the thing we need for joy in life. But today I just want to talk about how to have hope in the midst of the suffering we can create through our relationship with money.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus addresses that relationship a few different times. Let’s take a look.

First is the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:17-22). Here is a man who wanted to know how to have eternal life. The question he was really asking is the same question we have: In what should I have hope? Jesus told him in what to put his hope when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. But the rich young ruler couldn’t do it. Scripture says “he had many possessions.” His wealth didn’t create a suffering for him. It was his relationship with money that was his problem. His possessions controlled him and controlled his response to God. Perhaps the scripture would have been more accurate if it had read “his many possessions had him.” We leave the Rich Young Ruler in the story unable to take the hope Jesus Christ laid before him.

In contrast to the Rich Young Ruler, we meet the Widow in the Temple (Mark 12:41-44). She had a completely different relationship with money. To start with, she had very little of it. But what she did have didn’t control her life. She was willing to give it all up in the temple. She so trusted in the God she worshipped, that she gave up all that she had for God that day. She found her hope not in money or things but in God. Jesus stood on the sidelines of the temple witnessing it all. As he did, he carefully pointed out to the disciples where this widow found her hope. She did not find her hope in having things, but in the freedom found in a life grounded in God.

And then there’s the question about taxes (Mark 12:13-17). That is a timely question, yes? Religious leaders are sent to Jesus to ask a question meant to trip him up. “Should we pay taxes?” was their question. The question comes from a broken relationship with money for the religious leaders. In the same way most of us are longing for Jesus to tell us something different than he does. We want Jesus to say to us: “No, you don’t have to pay taxes. Opt out of those silly taxes for religious reasons.” Think of the money we would have to do the things we want if we didn’t have to pay taxes! But what Jesus says is something altogether different. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus is encouraging us to a healthy relationship with money, a balanced and appropriate relationship. Not a relationship with money where we are trying to get away with things. Instead, a relationship with money where we pay our taxes, and live within our means, and have enough to give to God, too.

Then there’s today’s story of the Cleansing of the Temple. Like the other stories, Mark is trying to teach us about our relationship with money. So whether or not this incident actually happened as it is written is an irrelevant question. (That is a question scholars debate over. Some believe it would have been impossible for Jesus to create the described scene in the temple, citing things like the size of the temple – 12 football fields, the fact that the temple was the economic center for Jews from all over the world and money changing was expected, and that there were probably 400,000 Jews there for Passover. How could Jesus create such a scene as one person on such a large canvas like the temple at Passover?) Whatever you believe about whether or not this story actually happened, the writer of the Gospel wants us to know something about our relationship to money, something he felt Jesus was teaching all along. Jesus teaches that we can get so lost in our lives. We can get distracted by the way money controls us. We can be under the influence of what money provides and doesn’t provide. When money controls our lives, it’s difficult to find hope and it’s easy to turn something pure and holy, like the temple, into a place of greed. In righteous anger, Jesus turns the tables in the temple. Look at the scene: buying and selling animals for sacrifice in the temple, exchanging money to purchase other things. It was a flea market atmosphere right there in the temple. What are we to make of this? Jesus is angry for religious reasons, for the diluting of the sacredness of the temple, but also for the diluting of the sacredness of our relationship with money and things and possessions. Mark is emphasizing Jesus’ teaching that our relationship with money can get in the way of our relationship with God.

It occurs to me that much of our human suffering comes from the control we allow money to have over our lives. We set up a financial situation that controls us. The house payment is so much a month, and the car payment adds to that, and we have to eat, put gas in the car, and pay for braces. Then there are the medications, the dentist, and the insurance payments. Anyone of those things on their own is not a big deal. But add them all together and we have a budget, a particular amount of money we need to make, a level of expenses that need to be funded. And giving money that kind of control in our lives does not bring hope. It leads to feelings of being trapped. It leads to a sense of being controlled by something. It leads to decisions we would not otherwise make.

I know this personally. My friends and I always joke about getting our “No thank you, bishop” money together. “No thank you, bishop” money is the amount of money that we would need to have tucked away so that when the bishop got ready to appoint us to a particular place we did not feel we could go, we could, with financial security, say “No thank you, bishop.” But here’s the thing about that reality. Each year that passes, the amount needed grows. Each financial commitment made makes it more difficult to say “No thank you, bishop.” And before you know it, you find myself backed into a corner. We feel trapped into not making decisions we don’t want to make. All to keep financial security. And in that, you hear the control money has over us. (By the way, I have yet to want to say “No thank you, bishop.”)

Listen to how a high school friend of mine who exchanged messages on facebook with me, described the control money has over us:
It’s sad how it seems like money actually does buy happiness but that’s only on the outside. I wasn’t truly happy until I asked Jesus to come into my life. When people have to show off their big house or nice car etc...whether they can afford it or not… just shows an emptiness they have in some part of their life.
Each financial decision we make is a decision to have money have more or less control over us. Sometimes we make those financial decisions from a place of full awareness. We got cable back a few weeks ago. In full awareness, we made a decision about our money and how we would spend it. For good or not, that’s the decision we made, in full awareness of what financial obligations we were making.

Sometimes we make those financial decisions because we are backed into a corner. For instance, take last summer when our car stopped working, our good car we hoped to get a few more years from. We were four hours from home, and we were backed into corner to make a decision, especially since our little car only has 3 working seatbelts and there are four of us. We were backed into a corner.

Sometimes we make those financial decisions from a place of greed, and that’s what has Jesus mad this day in the temple. Here he is, on his way to the sacrifice of his very life. For him, things are in laser clear focus. And then he comes to what should be a holy place, the temple, and all he sees around him is greed and corruption. He sees people being controlled by money and things. It must have both saddened him and made him angry. Out of those emotions, out of his love for us, out of his desire to give us hope, he sends those money changers out of the temple. He sends those selling animals for sacrifice out of the temple. He cleanses the temple so that his sacrifice might carry the hope that the people need.

Jesus wants us to know that hope in the midst of suffering doesn’t come from possessions or money or things or financial security. Hope comes from refusing to let money control of our lives. Hope comes from living into Jesus’ priorities. Hope comes not from having a lot but living with what we have. Hope comes not from getting what we want, but giving what others need. It is possible, in the midst of a life like that of the widow, to have hope, not because we have a lot of money or things, but simple because we have Jesus, and Jesus has us!

So, does money have you? Or do you have money?

And who or what has your soul?

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