Twenty Bucks

Sermon for Sunday, September 22, 2019 || Proper 20C || Luke 16:1-13

In today’s Gospel lesson, the dishonest manager tries to buy his way into relationships with people who could benefit him once he’s dismissed from his master’s service. It’s a strange story, but as I reflect on it, I keep coming back to one fundamental question. What is money? And a second question derives from the first: how does our view of money influence our relationships? These are bigger questions than a ten-minute sermon can address, but I hope I can at least give you some food for thought. Before I get going, does anyone have a twenty dollar bill I can borrow?

*Gets the bill and holds it up*

What is this? Is it money? Or is it just a chemically-treated piece of green paper? If I tear this in half, will each half be worth ten dollars? No. 

Here are two true statements. True: I can trade this piece of paper for goods and services here in the United States and in other countries as well. Also true: In a post-apocalyptic dystopian future, this piece of paper won’t mean anything. We’ll be trading water purification tablets as currency.

So what is this? What is money? Think about money like this: money is a promise. I can trade this piece of paper at Target because the government of the United States has endorsed this paper as its currency. Now, I can’t go to the Treasury Department in Washington D.C. and exchange this for twenty dollars worth of gold. The economy hasn’t worked like that in over a hundred years. But the government backs this paper nonetheless. There’s the treasury secretary’s signature right there! 

Money is a promise, and promises are built on relationships: relationships between governments and people, between companies and shareholders, between creditors and debtors. If a company defrauds its investors, then the relationship crumbles beneath the weight of the broken promise. Indeed, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin make me leery because I can’t find the relationship upon which the promises of the block-chain are built.

I’m getting a little off topic. Let’s get back to the point. Money is a promise, and promises are built on relationships. And relationships around money exist at all levels of society from governments and Wall Street to church or school budgets to our own families. The ways we relate to money individually, as couples, and as communities show us our priorities. I’d like to spend the rest of this sermon sharing with you how Leah’s and my relationship grew stronger when we finally began addressing money as a couple.

Nearly two years ago, Leah convinced me to attend the Financial Peace University classes we had here at St. Mark’s. I was reticent because my personal relationship with money had always been a bit blasé. I was a saver at heart, so I rarely spent money unless I really had to. I had enough money to maintain my rather frugal lifestyle, and I wasn’t all that interested in examining my finances all that closely.

But that’s where I made my first mistake. I had left it to Leah to deal with the money in our relationship because she was more interested in it than I was. I knew generally that we were doing okay, but she invited me to be a more active participant. Leah convinced me to attend the class because it would give us shared language around which to discuss money.

During the class, we decided together on a goal to get out of debt by the end of the year. We each had student loans that we had been paying minimums on for years and years, and we had a good chunk of Leah’s van to pay off. If we tightened our household budget we could do it. With the shared goal in mind, we began budgeting on a monthly basis. At the end of each month, we set up the next month’s budget. We gave every dollar coming in that month a job: some went to giving; some to debt; some to gas, groceries, and household; some to kids activities. With each month’s budget, we sat down and talked about our finances. The meetings became a norm, and now, a year after we paid off Leah’s van, we’re still doing our monthly budgets. They have become part of our routine.

Talking about how we are allocating our money each month might not, at first blush, seem like we’re talking about our relationship. But we are, because where we put our money shows us our collective priorities. By talking through those priorities every month, our relationship has grown stronger. Before we went through this process, we never talked about money, which means we were missing a huge opportunity to discuss our future. 

I no longer think of money as pieces of paper or numbers in a bank account, the only purpose of which is to accumulate more pieces of paper and higher numbers. I think of money as a language that we use in our relationships to communicate our priorities. Jesus says something similar when he says you cannot serve two masters. He’s inviting us to prioritize. You cannot serve both God and money, so whom will you serve? The God of love, who is made known in life-giving relationships. Or the accumulation of dollars, which totally misses the relational aspect of money.

I invite you to begin thinking about money in this relational way. Notice how your relationship with money communicates your priorities, whether you’re conscious of those priorities or not. If you’re not conscious, begin budgeting and you’re priorities will come into focus really quickly. And you’ll realize you spend a lot of money in restaurants. And if that’s truly your priority – if good food enjoyed out several times a week is really where you want your money to go, then so be it. But if the money spent eating out is preventing you from realizing other priorities, then shuffle the budget to reflect how you want to live. And while you budget, pray for a discerning heart to recognize how God yearns for you to live.

We’ll finish with a quick example. I’m going to budget this twenty dollar bill to reflect Leah and my current priorities: two bucks to God’s mission at St. Mark’s right off the bat as our tithe; three bucks to our Roth IRAs because we’re saving 15% of our income for retirement. That’s five. What do we do with the other fifteen? A dollar for the kids’ college funds. Four bucks for gas and groceries. Four more for household expenses, clothes, kids’ activities, gifts, vacation savings, and spending money. Oh, two more for insurance and other boring stuff like that. That’s sixteen dollars total. We have four left, but we’ve planned our giving, saving, and spending for the month. What is our next priority? Time to dream together with those last four dollars. We live in church-owned housing, but perhaps we want to save for a down payment one day so we can buy a house. We put the rest in that collective dream.

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