Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Matthew 6:19-21, 24 and Deuteronomy 7:6-8.[otw_shortcode_content_toggle title="Click here for a transcript" opened="closed" icon_type="general foundicon-plus"]
Lies we Live (or Die) By
You cannot serve God and Mammon. Jesus used the word Mammon to identify the power, the false spiritual power that money can be in our lives. By recognizing and naming Mammon, as a false spiritual power opposed to God, Jesus was acting on our behalf, defending us from the lies that Mammon spews. The big lie Mammon speaks is that we are fundamentally insecure. Our lives are precarious and everything, including us, could soon fall apart. When we’re vulnerable Mammon whispers that money could make us secure, and successful, and beautiful, and loved, and happy, and powerful. These are lies we live by. And when we’re self-assured and strong, Mammon warns us that we’ve miscalculated our needs, accumulating more for ourselves will make us more secure, successful, beautiful, loved, happy, and powerful. These are lies we die by. Mammon’s lies about insecurity are supported by a dominant American value: materialism. Even if we avoid materialism and live simply, Mammon’s lies can still ring in our ears stirring up worry and anxiety.[SLIDE #2] Now Jesus, living among poor people in first century Palestine, saw this so clearly that he exposed the lies and said: You cannot serve God and Mammon. This was Jesus’ one-liner economic analysis. And it is still true. Jesus of course was biased. He was inviting people to choose God, to serve God, and to reject Mammon to be freed from the bullying and entrapment and slavery of serving Mammon, who deceives poor people just as much as rich people. The God Jesus served has a better, deeper, truer message for humanity. God did not say that we’re all insecure, but rather like a mother bear: You are a holy people. I chose you out of all the people on earth. You belong to me. You are my treasured possession. And God repeats that message, especially in times when we are tempted to believe the lies.
I don’t know what everyone here is facing today financially or otherwise, but according to scripture we are not drifting through life; we belong to God. Our circumstances are not random; God is choosing us right here, right now, today. We are not alone; God has a people and we are God’s people. We are not insignificant beings; we are God’s treasured possession. Every last one of us. We do not belong to Mammon; Jesus sets us free from Mammon’s lies.
In Matthew 6 Jesus speaks pretty directly about money three times. It’s a lesson in kingdom economics. First, Jesus assumes that people have a regular practice of providing for the needs of the poor: giving alms. When you give alms…don’t make a big show of it. Jesus doesn’t say if you give alms, but when you give.
Here’s what one CMC household shared about living generously. In recent years, since we have eliminated a mortgage, we have attempted to give more than 10 percent of our annual income. During the last decade our giving has been in the 15-20% range. In 2016, owing to an unusual one-time circumstance (a business we had invested in was sold), we were able to contribute 50 percent of our adjusted gross income to charity.
Our primary motivation for giving is that we care about the well-being of others, both those we might know personally and those who might live a half world away. Almost all of our giving goes to the Mennonite Church or agencies and not-for-profit organizations connected to the church. We think it’s unfortunate that so many people view giving as a “should” rather than an opportunity. Money is such a private subject, and anyone who preaches stewardship is suspected of having ulterior motives. Sometimes it almost seems like the opposite is true. The happiest people we know are also the most generous, and our lives seem most blessed when we give the most.
What do we treasure?
So Jesus teaches kingdom economics through giving to others–meeting needs of the poor. A second time Jesus mentions money in Matthew chapter 6 he’s talking about priorities–don’t store up treasures on earth where moth and dust consume and thieves break in and steal; store up treasures in heaven. I can see giving to the poor, but this part of Jesus’ lesson in kingdom economics is utterly impractical. If we get paid this week and don’t save anything we won’t be able to pay our bills later in the month. Now, we get that we don’t want to live like Rich Fools who build bigger barns hoarding wealth for ourselves when others are in need, but how do we live in our capitalist society without saving? Let’s consider Jesus’ own life.[SLIDE #3] Jesus did not accumulate financial savings. Jesus doesn’t even seem to have his wallet along. He’s dependent on others. On the other hand, there was a treasurer among the Twelve and it wasn’t the tax-collector Matthew; it was Judas–who was not exactly ideal for the job. And there were these women who supported Jesus from their wealth. At least as a group Jesus and his disciples were saving and spending and giving. When I consider Jesus’ life and his teaching about storing up treasure in heaven I realize that like the God who spoke to Israel, Jesus regards people as a treasured possession. Jesus invested his life in people. Sometimes Jesus’ investment seems wasteful–fishermen, women, tax-collectors, unclean people, Judas? Even if it wasn’t a waste, at the very least, Jesus’ investment in people was very expensive. Think of his suffering and death. Jesus treasured people. His investment in people was risky. After he died he hadn’t written anything down! He just said remember what I said, teach everyone in the world and I will be with you always. Jesus’ eternal investment was with human beings, people on earth where moth and dust and thieves and Mammon can distort the message, but I think we got a lot of it pretty clearly and it’s a matter of living it.
Everyone Welcome Mission Project
(Hadley Jenner’s Voice in italics)
HHJ-Hey, Jennifer, I wanted to announce that as part of our Everyone Welcome Campaign, we decided on a Mission Project that would consist of funds dedicated to some entity beyond ourselves. The Outreach Commission discussed options and made a recommendation to Council who has approved a major contribution to NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center to assist their staffing up to better serve their ministry in the community.
JDS-Haven’t we already given some of the Everyone Welcome Campaign money beyond ourselves?
HHJ-Yes, we gave $15,000….
JDS–Why are we announcing this today…in the middle of the sermon?
HHJ-Well, we figured this being your last sermon before sabbatical we could provide an example of living generously as a congregation.
JDS-Thanks for that. Actually, it fits with what I was saying about Jesus investing in people, seeing people like God sees people–as treasures. The immigrant people NewBridges serves are sometimes ignored, or threatened, so CMC is treasuring these neighbors by investing in their lives.
HHJ-And the timing is great. Here’s what Alicia Horst, Executive Director of NewBridges says: “Over the last few months it has become obvious that our work needs to include even more focus on the pressing immigration questions from our newcomer communities. The last Board meeting in April included discussion about the need to hire an additional person who can become accredited to practice immigration law. (I am currently the only person in the office with this accreditation). However, we also recognized that we were not in a current financial position to add a new position. Your generosity is allowing us to take much quicker action than we expected. Please communicate our sincere and deep gratitude to the Outreach Committee, the CMC Church Council and to the wonderful CMC congregation for your support and vision of welcoming all from a place of abundance, joy, and justice.
JDS-So one way CMC is practicing kingdom economics is by investing in people, some of God’s treasures who are making a home in this community. How much are we donating to NewBridges to staff up and be able to provide more legal assistance?
HHJ–$25,000. [Applause. Hadley sits down.] [SLIDE #4]Thanks, Hadley. And thank you CMC. When you pledged to support Everyone Welcome we were upgrading our facility and we were also committed to kingdom economics. You gave generously and now we as a congregation are making an investment in people in a timely way, just as the NewBridges board is ready to increase their staff.
The third time Jesus mentions money in Matthew 6 he says: You cannot serve God and Mammon. Remember, I said the lie Mammon tells us is that we are insecure. Keep that in mind as we talk just a bit about financial savings. Every Christian book or program on faith and finances–whether conservative, progressive, traditional or radical–that I’ve ever experienced concludes that saving money is important. Saving is not the most important economic activity or the highest value for Christians, but it’s part of good stewardship and living generously.
Many of these books and programs recommend that individual households in North America aim to save enough money for 3-6 months of expenses, in case of job loss, or suddenly needing to replace a furnace during the winter months, or replace a car after an accident, or uninsured medical expenses. But most people do not have 3-6 months of easily liquidated savings. And so Mammon’s lie–that we are fundamentally insecure is pretty easy to believe. Most Americans, and most American Christians, are one emergency away from a financial tailspin. But what if we did not have to establish a 3-6 month emergency savings account on our own? What if small groups of Christians could support each other?
Let’s say our household goal was to build up an emergency fund of $10,000. By saving $100 per month it would take about 8 years to save $10,000. But even saving $200 per month it would take more than 4 years. And four years is a long time to have Mammon’s lie about insecurity ringing in our ears. What if we built an emergency fund in community, rather than in isolation? Here’s an idea. It’s a just something to think about.
Small Group Shared Emergency Savings
Imagine 5 CMC households who need to establish an Emergency Savings Fund. Setting out individually to save $10,000 for an emergency fund may take 5 years or more depending on what happens along the way. But what if these households worked together, each contributing $2000 annually for emergency savings for 3 years.[SLIDE #5] In year one the fund would already have $10,000 available for an emergency. In 3 years the small group of five families would have an emergency cushion of $30,000. With this much in reserve and sharing some of the risks, these same households could prioritize debt reduction, and generous giving, while still having an emergency fund. It would be complicated because we would have to decide together what constitutes an emergency and how to replenish the funds when they are drawn down. But wouldn’t the process of making those decisions require us to invest in people and relationships the way Jesus and his first disciples did?
Here’s another idea from CMCers who are committed to both giving and saving: Recently, we had overnight guests, friends from college days who share our giving values. We were struck by advice they give to their children and students: “Live at 80 percent of your income. Give 10% away and save 10%. Start when you are young, and you’ll never be poor. When you have saved all that you need for yourself, increase the percentage of giving every year.”[SLIDE #6] The folks who shared this were quick to say that race and class privilege affects these kinds of equations. And even being born into certain privileges and being good stewards, still can’t prevent financial crisis or provide ultimate security. But we’re trying to fend off Mammon’s lies by listening to Jesus and to elders who are living generously, so we can make wise choices about our faith and finances where we can.
I’ve had more thoughtful comments from CMCers about this worship series than any other I’ve been a part of. We still have a couple of weeks focused on Living Generously, but there is no way we will address all the important nuanced financial and faith issues that are the stuff of our lives. So, to correct what I said earlier and to leave us with a few words from scripture I want to say this: In Matthew 6 Jesus doesn’t address money three times. In the middle of the chapter, in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus brings up the most complex and problematic economic reality of his day–debt. Forgive us our debt and we forgive our debtors. Perhaps if we talk with God about the complex and distressing financial matters in our world, then maybe we can talk with each other and begin to practice what Jesus taught and lived. It may seem foolish or risky to test Jesus’ Kingdom Economics while living in a 21st US economy. But there’s one more word in chapter 6 ends: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or wear. Look at the birds…aren’t you even more valuable? Consider the flowers… Perhaps Jesus in his teaching and example of simplicity was again protecting from Mammon’s lies, soothing our anxiety like a good mother, and assuring us that seeking first the kingdom will be abundance that defies economic measures. Our Mothering God has said: You are a holy people. I chose you. You belong to me. You are my treasured possession.[/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]
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