Sermon: "First Things First" (God and Money Part 2), August 27, 2017

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
— Matthew 6:24-34 (New Revised Standard Version)

            This is our second part in our short three part series on God and money. The relationship between money and our lives. The relationship between money and the way of Jesus. The word we often use in the church to describe this relationship is stewardship. We don’t ultimately own anything in our lives. All things belong to God. So we are stewards of these things. From the natural resources of the earth, to the human resources employed in office buildings and factories. And yes, even our financial resources. As we learned in the first part of our sermon, last week, God is the ground of all being, God is the source of all things. God’s character is infinitely generous. So in the act of giving, in the act of giving away, we’re actually giving what belongs to God back to God. And in doing so, we come to know God more deeply. And God uses these things to make us more like Jesus.

            Back in a previous congregation I served, we were discussing doing a stewardship campaign. Encouraging people to take up the spiritual discipline of generosity. Everyone thought it was a great and worthy idea. But one member urged caution. “We have to make sure this is done as lightly, as carefully and as gently as possible,” she said. “Money is one of those topics that makes people nervous. Talking about giving might offend someone.” I’ve even heard someone say that talk about money at church doesn’t belong. Because it’s a “worldly” not a spiritual topic. Talking about stewardship—how we use our money and what we use it for—can make us a little nervous. To say the least. You’ve gotta take it slow. Gently ease people in to it.

            For us, talking about money is like walking on eggshells. We’ve gotta be very careful. But like in so many other places in the Bible Jesus. According to today’s passage Jesus’ preference is less about tiptoeing over or around our eggshells. His strategy seems to be to stomp them into oblivion.

He begins today’s scripture passage with a hard saying. There’s nothing gentle about how Jesus handles money here. He doesn’t mince words: “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says. “No one can serve two masters. For a slave will either hate one master, and love the other other one. Or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You can’t serve God and wealth,” he says. “You can’t serve God and wealth.” Jesus sets these two things in direct opposition. Your loyalty belongs to money, Jesus says—making it, accumulating it, spending it—or your loyalty belongs to God. It can be one. It can be the other. But it can’t be both. “Your gotta serve somebody.”

Now, we probably don’t think of ourselves as serving money per se. We make money. We have money. We spend money. We give money. We owe money. But we don’t serve it. We’re children of the modern world. Generally, we see servitude as something get out from under. We see freedom as being free to serve no one but ourselves. But in the Biblical world, everyone serves someone, something. Slaves serve masters. Masters serve Kings, and the kings serve the Gods. It’s not a matter of whether you’re a servant or not. It’s a matter of who you serve. And Jesus is telling us that money can command the same allegiance, the same divine draw, the same commitment, that religion devotion can. That God can.

And what we devote our lives to has an impact on how we live them. And the outcome of our experiences. In churches, many churches, the deepest conflicts seem to emerge out of how money’s spent. Money—too much, or usually too little—is the main source of tension in a lot of families. It can strain the relationship between spouses, and even end up breaking families apart. Some of us have done things for money that we’ve lived to regret—whether rich or poor. Jesus is right. Money has a kind of power. A holy power all of its own. Like a magnetic force it can draw us to itself, drawing us away from the things and people who matter the most. In the Bible, we’d call that an idol—a false god. Because the promises of wealth are usually the same ones made about faith. That in obtaining wealth, and all the things that come along with it—status, stuff, security—one day we’ll feel authentically happy, satisfied. We’ll experience fullness of life and peace. And we’ll sacrifice just about anything to get it. As that great other great theologian of rock and roll Bruce Springsteen once wrote: “poor man wanna be rich/rich man wanna be king/and the king ain’t satisfied/til he rules ev’rything.” No matter how much we have it’s rarely enough. Jesus is right.

So as much as we might like to think otherwise. As much as we like to think of ourselves as in control More often than not, we don’t control money. Money controls us. So according to Jesus, this is a topic worth examining, worth talking about plenty. We’d probably be foolish, if not downright irresponsible not to talk about money. Because, according to Jesus, money is something hugely powerful. So alluring, so seductive, that it has the power to draw us away from God. And the lives God wants for us.

            Now, we live in a world that, even more so than Jesus’ world, runs on money. Money is completely unavoidable. We can’t even really run off the grid in the Kootenays or Cortez island if we want, because there’s no place in our globalized world that money can’t touch. We have to make money to survive, whether we like it or not. It’s just a fact of life. So for us, the choice isn’t to avoid money altogether. But for us in a world where money is so prevalent, the question Jesus asks us is about what we put first in our lives. Remember, the question isn’t about serving or not serving. The question is about who or what we’re serving with what we do, and what we have. The question is about priority. It’s about what comes first.[i]

            After warning the disciples that they can’t serve God and wealth, Jesus speaks of the birds of the air. They neither sow, nor do they reap. And the lilies of the field—they neither toil nor spin. Unlike humans, they stress little over how they’re going to make a living. Yet, even without worry, their lives are provided for them by God. Now, Jesus isn’t suggesting we simply lay back and wait for life to flow to us. We’ve gotta work, we’ve gotta eat, we’ve got to take care of eachother and our families. But he’s saying that some things are first in the order of importance, namely God. God, God’s way, and God’s kingdom, God’s life for us.

When we put secondary things first, even important things like money, that’s when we get tripped up. When we put things that aren’t God, like money, at the center of our lives and let them dictate our decision. That’s when things get twisted. That’s when people get hurt. That’s when we experience spiritual death. “Therefore,” Jesus says. “Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” Questions like this shouldn’t run our lives, Jesus says. Instead, he says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness and all these things will come to you as well.” If we begin by asking ourselves what God’s will is, and what God’s way for our lives is first. When we start with the kingdom—the way the world would be if God were in charge, the world God desires and is actively moving us towards. If we do this, then, Jesus says, our fears of not having enough, our fears of not being enough, our almost religious desire for more, all these things’ll be put behind us. They’ll be put in their place. Rather than the other way around.

            And this is why we as a community of faith are putting such an emphasis on giving. It’s why our new mission statement includes the word “invest.” Because when we set aside a portion of our givings first, before anything else. When we set aside our wealth and the things we have first as a practice of generosity. In doing so, we’re redirecting our hearts, we’re redirecting our lives away from the service of money to the service of God. We’re consecrating our money to the service of God. And God’s kingdom. And when we do that, we believe that God will use our giving to break the power of money over our lives. And heal its destructive wounds. In giving, we’re trusting Jesus, we’re putting first things firth. We’re trusting him with our future. That in following in the footsteps he’s laid for us,  Trust me with everything, Jesus says. Even your bank account. And fullness of life will follow.

Money may be a difficult topic for us to bring up. One we might be tempted to avoid at all costs. But Jesus shows us just how essential it is to break the silence. When Jesus tells us we can’t serve God and money, he’s exposing our misplaced priorities. He’s showing us what we truly worship. He’s showing us what really drives our lives. But he’s also breaking our chains, and correcting our vision. Fullness of life won’t come with the pursuit of wealth. Whether it’s money, or stuff. Or even security. No, fullness of life, eternal life, life that never runs out. Life as it’s always meant to be will only be found in seeking God’s will for our lives. In trusting God’s way for us. This is Jesus’ invitation to start putting first things first, including wealth. Because Jesus puts everything, including money, in place. So God can use it, and use us, for our great good, and God’s greater glory. Full, abundant life for us. And the world God loves.

So, friends. Have faith. Don’t begin your life with questions about what you’ll eat, what you’ll drink, what you’ll wear. Or what you’ll drive. Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. Put first things first. And when you do that, everything else you need will follow. By the grace of God.

And for this, thanks be to God. AMEN.

[i] I owe Anthony B. Robinson for this insight and this phrasing "first things first" from his book Stewardship for Vital Congregations