In the same sermon Jesus offers The Lord’s Prayer, which we reverently offer as a holistic reminder of our identity each week, he says this:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Our decisions around money begin forming at an early age. A lot of life does, more than we might admit. So I think it’s interesting for us all to consider what we learned about finances from our families of origin. It wasn’t until I began filling out the FAFSA worksheet for student loans in HS that I paid much attention to my family’s income. We were fairly well-off, but didn’t live extravagantly by any means (I wore hand-me-downs and home-sewn clothes, and we NEVER ordered drinks at a restaurant--the few times we would eat out); but we had a large house, a beautiful acreage, lots of animals- none of that comes without solid income and hard work, I now know.
So this one day, I’m at the computer plugging in numbers for the FAFSA, my dad sitting next to me, and he says something pretty shocking. He and my mom chose to give away roughly 20% of their income each year to ministries and non-profits. 20%! That’s way above the 10% tithe I learned about in the bible! But as I look back at my family’s values, it makes sense. A life of faith was always the highest value in our household- not eating out, not expensive clothes, not the newest shoes. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” To this day, I’m pretty blown away by my parents' convictions around giving; although I strive for similar generosity, I definitely am still not giving 20% away.
Here’s the truth we all must face: Money and other material objects drive SO much of our life decisions-and our values. We also don’t talk about it with each other to the degree it matters to our wellbeing. Talking about what’s enough (and ensuring equitable resources in our communities) and what’s too much (how the weight of hoarding resources is actually bad for our health) just doesn’t happen in ordinary conversation. When’s the last time you shared with someone the percentage of your income you give away each year? When’s the last time any of us attempted to figure that out? The way we use money matters not only to our physical and emotional wellbeing, but to our spirits. Rev. Molly Baskette & psychologist Ellen O’Donnell in their book “Bless this Mess.” say it well: “Money is a deeply spiritual issue, because it has so much power over our feelings and relationships.”
Jesus knows it matters to be clear about the grip of finances and material possessions on our lives; he’s acutely aware of our physical needs, because he had them too, and he wants us all to have “enough,” but not at the expense of losing our wellbeing by having “too much.” In Jesus’ sermon on the mount today, he’s teaching something totally counter-cultural. He’s explaining the paradox of generosity.
Here it is: we humans are not created for hoarding more than we need. That kind of excess actually becomes real spiritual baggage. We have to worry about someone stealing it, or whatever our modern day moths and rust might be. When we hold onto more than we need, we acquire more headaches, more guilt, more trouble.
Jesus offers an alternative to this suffocating way of living in excess- and it’s brilliantly counterintuitive. Give more away and you’ll have more spiritual treasure. The paradox of generosity. I want to acknowledge that some folks find themselves on the other end of the inequality divide in this country- struggling to make ends meet as income trends don't keep up with cost of living. It’s also true in 21st Century America, most of us can spend less and give more away. How? By doing a simple reflection of our everyday practices around money. So let’s do it! Guided by wisdom from Molly & Ellen, we reflect on three basic units of financial health: How we spend, save, and share our money.
First SPEND: Molly & Ellen suggest, “It’s easy to confuse our wants and our needs. It’s easy to buy into the myth of personal financial scarcity when the buzz of advertising reinforces what we don’t yet have. We measure our success by how well we are doing in comparison with (how we imagine) our immediate neighbors. Even our biology works against us: the dopamine hit of retail therapy provides instant gratification, unlike the slow, lasting soul-satisfaction of giving that same $75 to a refugee camp or local shelter.” p. 117
I have no interest in telling you exactly how you ought to spend your money; I can tell you that reflecting on the values your money reveals is worth it. I’ve learned, for example, that eating out can occasionally be a great use of our resources (maybe even buying a drink), because it meets a basic need and allows local service industries to flourish. That’s a value I now hold. I’m curious what examples you might add to this conversation about “spending your values?” Maybe that means supporting local and ethically-managed businesses; maybe your value is caring for the environment, so you frequent Hospice Thrift Store (there’s a shameless plug); maybe for you it means spending on behalf of bringing people together for an event. Whatever your values may be, let’s keep this conversation going.
So what about SAVING: This matters too, right? “How much is enough,” is what Molly & Ellen titled their chapter on finances. It’s a great question. How much do we, the Munger family of four looking toward college, retirement, future unknowns, choose to save? And in what ways ought we save responsibly for the future? These are hard questions with no easy answers, so I’d like to focus on the ethics of our decision-making more than the dollar amount. In the same sermon on the mount we hear today, Jesus also offers this reminder: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”—Matthew 6:34 What I hear in this brilliant sermon from Jesus is a call to release fear from our decision-making. Are we squirreling away every penny we’ve earned for some future catastrophe- in fear of what COULD BE? Are we afraid to give money away, even when our needs are being met, because worry consumes us? Are we saving too much that it’s become a burden to manage and a conflict in family relationships? If fear is driving your decision to save money, perhaps it’s time to revisit the values that guide your saving plan. Jesus wants us to be set free from fear, living into the abundant mindset of faith.
The best for last: what about SHARING: My third-grade SS class, under the direction of my mother, sponsored a child through a ministry program called Compassion International. In my teen years, my sister and I chose to share sponsorship of a young girl from South America through Compassion, because it was a compelling premise: we send money directly to local churches serving the holistic needs of an impoverished community. Like making sure they have a school to attend, shoes on their feet, food for strength, birthday and Christmas gifts for dignity; best of all, they prioritise relationships- ensuring kids who are sponsored get a chance to correspond often with their sponsor families.
I’ve been a sponsor for several kids over the course of 20 years now. Wanna know how I acquired a third sponsor kid in addition to the two I already had? I married AJ! Yes, that was part of my attraction to him- he’s the kind of guy who sponsors a kid? I’m in! So if you’re single, just sayin. Here’s what I’ve gained from 20 years of sponsorship: It’s one of the best ways to refocus my values. Do I really need this new pair of shoes, or could Tiger, my 16 year-old sponsor kid from Thailand benefit more? My values become more obvious with real people’s lives in the balance. I can tell you what settles my soul more than a new pair of shoes- sharing with others.
A large national survey that became the impetus for a book entitled “The Paradox of Generosity” by Christian Smith & Hilary Davidson, “reveals a direct correlation between generosity and joy. Regularly giving of our time, money, and effort makes us less anxious, less afraid, and downright happier.” Do we need more reason than that to believe the paradox of generosity is real?
There is no magic formula for how you and I best spend, save, and share- but you’ll feel the paradox of generosity when it happens. You’ll know deep within that it’s worth investing wisely, storing up spiritual treasures that outweigh material wealth every time. Investing our personal resources for the spiritual good of ourselves, our families, our church, and our world matters. One intentional decision at a time creates a world in which our hearts are truly reflected in our use of money.
Thank you for being the kind of generous community that inspires me to keep reflecting on my own financial values; heck, maybe one day I’ll even reach that 20% giving I learned long ago from my parents. May the paradox of generosity be within each of us in this season of giving. Amen!
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.