God’s Economics (part 2): Perspective and Generosity

This week we’re returning to a sermon series on “God’s economics.” Last week we took a pause to bless the animals. Gosh it was nice to have that blessing last week. It’s good to have a little fun in church, especially these days, and to remember that God blesses all creation. In a way, blessing creation is a reflection on God’s economics as well. But this week, we’re back to the formal discussion.

Two weeks ago I preached about two characteristics of God’s economics: abundance and equity. Where we struggle with scarcity, with anxiety that there will never be enough, God provides abundantly. And God invites us to work for more equity, so that regardless of the color of your skin, or the profession of your parents, all might know God’s abundant blessings in this life.

This week, I want to look at two more facets of God’s economics. These two are pretty intimately linked. This morning I want to talk about economic perspective and the practice of generosity.

Perpective

Jesus’ parable from Matthew describes a group of tenants who have lost all perspective. As was true with the parable I spoke about two weeks ago, this is a story that is often interpreted as being about Jewish/Christian relationships. There’s an element of the religious in the story. Jesus means the religious authorities to question their place, and they do after he tells the tale. But again, as I did two weeks ago, I’m going to lay aside the question of Jewish relations today. I want to look at Jesus’ economic message.

After his strange story, Jesus asks his followers, “when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The tenants who have conspired to steal fruit, killed his messengers, and his son, what will the landowner do to them? Jesus followers respond quickly: He’ll knock out the thieves, the murderers, and he’ll lease the vineyard to someone else.

As I said, this is a story about tenants who have lost all perspective. The story makes no sense on a literal level. How could a group of tenants think they could get away with this scheme? Remember, this is a parable. It’s a story with a message. The message is about perspective. They’ve lost perspective.

One of the best explanations of sin that I know comes from the Confessions of St. Augustine. Augustine talked about sin as dis-ordered love. Sin arises when we get our loves out of order.

I want to argue that the tenants in this story have sinned, they’ve lost perspective, they’ve gotten things out of order. They’ve put their love of wealth above their relationship with the landowner. They have a disordered relationship with wealth, and this disorder drives the drama of the parable.

Now, it’s pretty clear, no matter how you read the parable, the landowner in the story represents God. The stakes just got higher. Remember that first commandment to Moses and the people Israel: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The people have made an idol of wealth, they’ve set wealth up as the ultimate test. There’s an economics to this story.

This week, as we heard more and more about the man who committed acts of domestic terrorism in Las Vegas, I was stunned by one question. I heard the question again and again, from the news, in casual conversation. One question kept coming up: “Why would he commit such terrorism, wasn’t he wealthy?” Wasn’t he wealthy?

Do you hear the implicit assumption in that question? How could you be unhappy if you’re wealthy? Friends, that assumption is just plain wrong. I’ve known some wealthy people who are miserable. We say “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” But do we believe it? Really? Truly? It sure didn’t seem so this week.

Another word on Las Vegas, if you’ll permit me. The killer who took the lives of all those people a week ago tonight raised again the question about gun control in this country. We have a disordered relationship with wealth, and we have a disordered relationship with guns in this country. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Burger once remarked that the Second Amendment has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat that word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” Strong words from Justice Burger.

I choose that word “disorder” specifically. Our constitution does contain a qualified right to “keep and bear arms.” But before the Bill of Rights, in the Declaration of Independence, our founders spoke about “certain inalienable rights.” Among them were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those rights come first. The right to life comes before the right to keep and bear arms. It has to. But we’ve been behaving as if that were not the case. How many people have to die before we’ll have a serious conversation about sensible gun control in this country? We have our priorities out of order. It’s a disorder. And people are dying.

In Jesus story, the tenants resort to violence. Their lack of perspective on wealth drives them to murder. Sin tends to compound. Human beings are not meant to put wealth first. We’re not meant to serve mammon. When we do, when we lose perspective we can end up in strange and awful places.   

Generosity

One of the best ways I know to keep perspective, to let go of the idol of wealth, is to practice generosity. Now there are a couple of problems that occur when a pastor preaches generosity. I want to head one of them off at the pass. I won’t promise you that practicing generosity will be some kind of magic. I won’t ask you to put ten dollars in an envelope and send it to the church, and tell you you’ll receive it back ten fold. Some so-called pastors run pyramid schemes and call them churches. We’re not that kind of church.

I will tell you practicing generosity can change your relationship with money, not magically, but like any spiritual practice. Generosity is inner work. Generosity is soul work. A practice of generosity can help shift your perspective and lower your anxiety.

When I meet with couples for pre-marital counseling, one of the pieces of homework I give them in our sessions is to do a “pie chart budget.” I tell them that money is a factor in the overwhelming majority of divorces. Conversation about money is essential to a healthy marriage. So I ask them to prepare a budget, and to make a visual representation of that budget. I don’t ask for figures, but I do ask to see percentages. I especially ask them to show me, as a part of their homework, what percentage of their money they plan to give away, and what percentage of their money they plan to save. I emphasize this part of the homework: “Talk together about WHY you are saving, for WHAT. And talk about WHERE you want to give your money,” I say. How many of those couples, when they come back with their homework, do you think have giving and savings on their pie chart? (I’d say only about two in ten).

When we get talking about money, we tend to talk about it from the perspective of scarcity. How are we going to have enough to make ends meet? How are we going to pay the rent, the mortgage, pay off the student loans? How can internet service be that expensive? I tell these couples don’t start there.

Too often we treat generosity as a “last fruit.” We give $20 here or there. We say, “I can spare that bit of money.” The Bible asks God’s people to give away their “first fruits.” Have a practice of generosity that auto-debits on the first of the month, just like your rent. Give away a percentage of your income, if you can. Give so that you notice. And do it first, make it a priority.

My grandmother’s generation used to say that before you did anything else, you set aside ten percent for your tithe, and ten percent in savings. Too few of us are saving. I’d encourage you to have a practice of savings, and to talk with your spouse or partner about why you’re saving, for what you are saving. Why are we saving tends to be a pretty hopeful conversation. You talk about education, your dream house, retirement.

But generosity is even more of a perspective shift. Talk about where you want to give this money you are prioritizing. What causes or organizations would you like to support? Where do you want your work to be a blessing? Think about this: if you give away a calculable portion of your income, you can think of your workday a little differently. If you had a long work week, if you put in more than your forty hours, how many of those hours did you work so that you could help feed someone, help wash someone’s clothes, help support a scholarship for a minority student?

Many of you have heard me quote my former rector in Washington, The Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, when talking about money. You’ll probably here me say this again this season: “Money is a powerful tool. If you can give away some of your money, you have power over the tool. If you can’t give away some of your money, it has power over you.” I hope you have a practice of generosity. I hope you value the work that Holy Communion is doing enough that you want to give some of your money here, and I hope you are giving money to more organizations and causes beyond Holy Communion. Generosity helps us to remember that all that we have comes from God. Practicing generosity helps shift our perspective toward money.

You should have received a pledge letter from the church this week in the mail. The theme for this years pledge drive is an oldy, but a goody:

“All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.”

Those words come from the book of Chronicles. We say them as we bring up the gifts at church. We raise the collection plates, and the bread and wine, and we remember. All we have comes from God. We give back what belongs to God. We keep perspective by remembering that all way have comes from God. We keep perspective by practicing generosity, giving back so that God’s work may continue in our world. 

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