"Our Money Story: Release"
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Our Money Story: Release”
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 18, 2020
Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.
2 And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the LORD's remission has been proclaimed.
3 Of a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you.
4 There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy,
5 if only you will obey the LORD your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.
6 When the LORD your God has blessed you, as he promised you, you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.
7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.
8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.
9 Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, "The seventh year, the year of remission, is near," and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.
10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.
11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."
16 Then someone came to him and said, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?"
17 And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments."
18 He said to him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness;
19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
20 The young man said to him, "I have kept all these; what do I still lack?"
21 Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
There were so many stairs. Carla climbed and climbed and climbed. She was the first in line, leading the way for her employees in this team-building exercise. When she finally reached the top of the zip line tower, she felt a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment. But she knew there was one more step. And it was a doozy.
Carla got into the harness and listened to the safety instructions. She asked questions and double-checked all the harness straps. And then she stepped to the edge of the platform and looked down.
And that was pretty much the end of it. She held on to a beam on the platform and couldn’t let go. She stepped back and let some other people go first. She breathed deeply. She tried to talk herself into it. But finally, she took off the harness and headed back down all those steps.
Letting go, releasing, is hard. We hold on to those things that make us feel safe, secure, powerful, and in control. Sometimes we hold on to people, or places, or things. Sometimes we hold on to ideas, doctrines, or mantras. And sometimes, we hold on to money.
Last week, we remembered those stories of God’s provision that allow us to trust God. Today, we’re going to be talking about money stories that explore what it means to trust God enough to release our hold on money so it can release its hold on us.
The story of the rich young man in Matthew’s gospel stands at the center of a cluster of stories that illustrate the characteristics of God’s economy and illuminate some of its tensions. First, Jesus welcomes and blesses children, asserting that the kingdom of God belongs to “such as these,” to those who are dependent and without resources. Following the story of the rich young man, the disciples have some interesting questions about wealth and salvation and reward. Jesus then tells a parable about the owner of a vineyard who hired workers for different numbers of hours – some starting early in the day and others right at the end of the shift. And everyone got paid the same, which seemed unfair to those who had worked longer.
These stories reveal God’s generosity in contrast with our human desire for power and control. The disciples want to control the flow of children coming to Jesus for a blessing. The rich man thinks he has the power to purchase his own salvation. The disciples want to know if their sacrifice will pay off. And the workers in the vineyard want control of the economic system so that it rewards those who deserve it.
Throughout these stories, the language of possession emerges again and again. Words like belong, have, keep, lack, and possessions are contrasted with words like sell, give, let go, and receive. What this indicates is that Jesus is working to transform the economic paradigm that his listeners are operating in, to shift their understanding of what it means to have and to give, to keep and let go. Things can belong to people who couldn’t possibly hope to earn them. Those who have it all can’t possess the kingdom of God. Those who work longer and harder aren’t rewarded any more than those who put in a little effort at the last minute.
In order for us to participate in God’s economic reality, the reign of God on earth, or what the rich young man called “eternal life,” we need to release some things from our money stories. We need to release the notion that our money or possessions will save us. We need to release economic strategies that we think will provide us with security. We need to release our ideas about what is good and fair.
The rich young man in Matthew’s gospel comes to Jesus wanting to know what “good thing” he must do to obtain eternal life. Jesus asserts that “only God is good,” and then later tells that parable in which God is cast as the owner of a vineyard. The final sentence of the parable has the owner asking, “are you envious because I am good?” The landowner’s, and therefore God’s, goodness is defined by radical, even ridiculous, generosity. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, goodness is not defined by piety or virtue, appearance, or achievement. Jesus says, “How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.” Goodness is a matter of the heart, and it is demonstrated by its fruits. The rich young man can’t do a good thing. He must bring good things, create good things, bear out good things. Goodness in Matthew’s gospel is always directly connected to giving, not doing or even being.
The rich young man does all the right things. He follows all the commandments he’s supposed to follow. He’s probably generous and kind and an upstanding citizen. But he needs to release the idea that goodness, eternal life, or perfection are things he can achieve or possess. The way Jesus releases him is with the extremist idea of selling everything he owns and giving it to the poor.
Preachers and theologians have done all kinds of theological gymnastics to get ourselves out of this one. But we are really just trying to hold on to the ledge of the zip line tower. When Jesus invites this man to be “perfect,” he is inviting him to let go and enjoy the ride. This word, “perfect,” which Jesus uses earlier in Matthew’s gospel, telling his followers that they must be “perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” means complete, mature, having accomplished its intended purpose. It’s related to the word telos, which means end. Jesus is saying, “If you really want to complete the intended purpose of your life, if you really want to live a whole and complete existence, this is what you should do.” The idea of an eternal life after death is not what Jesus or this man are talking about. 1st century Judaism didn’t have any such notion. They are both talking about life, now and always, life in its fullness and abundance, life in God’s reign and God’s presence. And to experience that, this man had to release his dependency on wealth, from being possessed by his possessions.
And that’s why I won’t let us off the hook by trying to explain how Jesus’ invitation really doesn’t apply to us. I think we have to recognize that each thing we possess and each dollar in our bank account provides us with safety and security that we could be letting go of. I think we have to walk around with that, that it is part of our money story. And it should make us at least a little sad. It’s no fun to walk back down the steps of the zip line tower.
I also won’t let us off the hook because this story, like all money stories, is about more than one individual. In rejecting Jesus’s invitation to follow him, to live a life that was full and complete and purposeful, to live a life with eternal meaning, this man didn’t just deprive himself. He’s not the only one who missed out. Sure, the poor people who needed his money didn’t get his money. But money stories are always about more than money. His life had value in the Jesus movement. His community needed to see someone live this kind of dedicated, purposeful life. His money was part of a larger economic system in need of transformation, and instead of instigating that transformation, he walked away, choosing not to follow Jesus.
These stories show us that God’s provision is not for us individually. Our money stories are never only about our individual, personal relationship with God and money. Our money stories always connect with our neighbors, as Walter Bruggeman says, to the “practice of money in the public, political economy.” Releasing our grip on money, and money’s grip on us, has implications not only for our personal lives and relationships but for all the social, political, and economic systems in which we participate.
These stories make us cringe because they sound anti-capitalist, which makes them anti-American. We can’t relieve debts every seven years. We can’t even relieve student debt once in a generation. We can’t relieve medical debt. Forget about consumer debt or mortgages.
We can’t sell everything and give it to the poor. That would make us poor. That would completely invert our existence. The goal of capitalism is accumulation, more attractively described as growth. The goal is more, not less.
These stories sound socialist, communist even! How are we supposed to live in a capitalist society and still live out a Christian practice of money?
I’m not an economist, so I won’t weigh in on economic theory. But I would contend that no human system of government can perfectly (meaning completely, holistically, and with full devotion) implement God’s economy. But that doesn’t mean we just walk away. We have to hold the tension, live imperfectly. We can’t dismiss Jesus’s invitation to release, even when we’re not ready to let go yet. We can’t walk back down the stairs and give up. We may just have to stay on top of the tower, praying, working out our salvation with fear and trembling, checking our harnesses and watching other people jump. We may have to keep asking questions, lean out from the edge from time to time.
Not everyone who climbed the zip line tower with Carla that day jumped off confidently and courageously. In fact, most of them did not. Some held on to the tower and leaned out several times before letting go. There was lots of whimpering, and waiting, and pacing. Almost everyone screamed as they flew towards the ground. Letting go is terrifying.
But every single person who released their grip on the tower committed fully to hanging on for dear life to the rope attached to the zip line. They placed their trust in that single rope to keep them from falling to their doom. Their devotion to the zip line had to be perfect. There was no other option.
And every single person who placed their trust in that zip line said it was a great experience. They started out screaming but ended up laughing. They felt pressured into letting go but found an experience of freedom like no other.
When it comes to money, we can’t let go a little bit. We have to accept the free fall that comes with trusting everything to God. For some of us, that may look like literally selling everything we have and giving it to the poor. For all of us, it involves wrestling with that suggestion and living in the tension of it rather than rationalizing it away. It also means being attentive to how our release impacts our neighbors, how letting go of money, and the status, safety, and security that comes with it, is a public, political activity, not just a matter of personal piety.
We have climbed to the top of the tower here at 1st on 4th. We’ve led the way for others, and we are in an exciting and terrifying moment. We are here together, supporting and maybe even goading one another on. We are asking good questions and leaning out in faith. There have been times when we have jumped off the ledge, clinging to the rope of God’s provision and experiencing the free-fall of trusting God completely. And because of those experiences, we know we can do it again.
This is a church that believes in giving itself away for the life of the world. And that is because many of our faithful members, now and in the past, have believed in that and shown us what it looks like. So if you’re not ready to jump quite yet, that’s okay. Hang in there. You can watch others go first. You can ask more questions. You can check out the harness and the rope. You can wait until you’re good and ready. But don’t walk away. Don’t head back down the steps. Because the ride we are invited to take is exhilarating. It’s life-giving, for us, for our community, and for the world. “Come, follow me,” says Jesus. And he’s always the first to jump. Amen.