Friday, September 13, 2013
Money: Tool of Happiness
Preliminary draft for a sermon on Sabbath, September 14, 2013
At Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
There was a little box on the front page of Tuesday's Seattle Times:
1 percent's share of household income: [Need data]
1 percent's increase in household income 2012 over 2011: [Need data]
The top of the economic pyramid here in the U.S. Is doing pretty good. If they have trouble knowing what to do with their money, Porsche is ready to help them out.
On Thursday a Seattle Times article carried this title: $845,000 Porsche hybrid gets better gas mileage than Prius.
Porsche’s $845,000 918 Spyder hybrid, unveiled at the International Auto Show in Frankfurt, can reach 62 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds and gets the equivalent of about 72 miles per gallon, based on European fuel-economy data. That tops the 50 mpg of the basic Prius hybrid.
Apparently, if you have enough money, you can pretend you care about the environment by spending most of a million dollars on a car that gets better gas mileage than a Prius. It also just happens to be able to reach 62 miles an hour in 2.8 seconds.
At the other end of the spectrum there is Hawo Abdi Farah. She came to Seattle 17 years ago from Somalia. She works as hard as she can and saves all she can so she can send money back to her family in Somalia. Her best efforts allow her to send between 100 and 200 dollars a month. Somalis all around the world are doing the same thing. Working hard. Scrimping and saving and sending money back home. Their money is absolutely essential for life to continue in Somalia.
Oxfam estimates these “remittances” total $1.3 billion a year. That's more than Somalia receives from foreign aid and foreign direct investment combined.
The newspaper reporter asked Farah what her relatives back in Somalia do with the money she sends
them. Farah's answer: “Food. They spend it on food. That's all”
Money is central to our lives.
Everything we do is intertwined with money. Our cars, our houses, our food, our clothes . . . Our romances and vacations . . . Our wars and lawsuits . . . . Everything. Every aspect of our lives is inseparable from money.
If our religion does not speak about money, it's irrelevant. If our spiritual practices fail to connect with our personal finances and our views of economics, then our kids may rightly judge our religion to be merely a quaint decoration, a nostalgic relic.
Money is life. If religion is going to engage life, our lives, inevitably it will speak of money and shape our actual practice of money management.
Of course, thinking about money quickly gets complicated. In the political realm, this complexity leaps into any conversation around the income disparity highlighted by the facts I mentioned about the income of the One Percent. Is this disparity a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a sign that the system is working or the system is broken? Is it an important fact or is it merely trivia? What does justice look like when you examine the play of intelligence, diligence, luck, families of origin, and tax code?
Get three people in a room to talk about it and you'll hear at least four opinions. Including the Bible in the conversation does not make it simpler. Reflecting the reality of real-life economics, the Bible's teachings about money are profoundly complicated. Is wealth a mark of ruthless, Darwinian triumph or a sign of the blessing of God? Is poverty a call for compassion or a mark of irresponsibility?
Did you catch the contrast in our scripture readings? The first passage, the one from Deuteronomy, celebrates prosperity. All through the book of the Bible, we read different versions of “Obey God and he will make you prosperous.” “Do the right thing and God will give you bountiful harvests and large flocks and herds. Life will be good.” The second passage, the one from James, imagines wealthy people as parasites and predators. Rich people get that way through deceit and violence. They are rich because of their skill in impoverishing others.
In Deuteronomy wealth is what God desires for his people. In James wealth is suspect. Its potential for seduction is far more prominent than its potential for good.
For today's sermon, I'm going to focus on the positive view of money and wealth presented in Deuteronomy. We'll deal with the cautions about wealth found in Amos and James another time.
Let's look again at the passage from Deuteronomy that was read earlier in our service: (Use one of the Bible's in the pew or call up one on your phone or tablet. I'm using the New Living Translation.)
You must set aside a tithe of your crops--one-tenth of all the crops you harvest each year. Bring this tithe to the designated place of worship--the place the LORD your God chooses for his name to be honored--and eat it there in his presence. Deuteronomy 14.
The Jewish people were expected to regard ten percent of their harvest as sacred. It belonged to God. They were not free to do with it just whatever they wanted. It could only be used for purposes specifically delineated by God.
The tithe belonged to God. What did that mean? What would God do with bushels of wheat, baskets of apples and jars of wine? According to this passage, God intended to use “his share” of the harvest as the foundation for a festival, a party for his children. The Jews were to take their tithe, the sacred ten percent of their harvest, to the special holy place and there they were to feast in the presence of God and in company with God's people.
Most of what they produced—ninety percent, in fact—was theirs to manage according to the ordinary demands and ambitions of life. They were responsible to make sure they produced enough food to supply daily meals through the entire year. They were free to produce surplus and sell it at market. It would make sense to turn some of their harvest into silver. If they were smart and hard-working and blessed with good luck, they could build wealth that included a larger house, increased acreage, servants, nice clothes.
The image of a successful, prosperous farmer lies behind the call in this passage for the practice of tithing—that is the devotion of ten percent of their harvest, ten percent of their increase or harvest to God.
The notion of tithe presumes financial success. God wants his people to do well. He expects that the normal human experience will be comfortable prosperity.
With that expectation in the background, God called for those Jewish farmers to devote ten percent of their harvest to God. Which raises the obvious question: What is God going to do with all that grain and produce?
The first purpose mentioned in this passage is a sacred party. The Jewish people were to take their tithe, go to the sacred place and eat their tithe together in a grand festival.
The passage goes on to broaden the purpose of the tithe.
At the end of every third year, bring the entire tithe of that year's harvest and store it in the nearest town. Give it to the Levites, who will receive no allotment of land among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all your work.
Here we see that God's portion of the harvest, the tithe, is to be given to “the Levites.” I like that! The Levites were the clergy. They were specifically excluded from land ownership which in that society was the foundation of wealth. Since they were excluded from commerce, the society was to provide an alternative source of support for them. This much makes sense in the usual religious way. The clergy are specially linked to worship and other religious practices, so it makes sense that they would participate in the sacred money of the tithe.
The Adventist Church has built a very specific doctrine of tithing on this concept. When people give to the “Tithe Fund” in our denomination, their donation supports the work of the clergy.
In this passage, the appropriate use of God's portion is broader than just the support of the clergy class. Tithe is also to be given to
the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all your work.
One of the most emphatic teachings of the Bible regarding money is this: we ought to recognize Somali immigrants as part of the people we are to provide for from God's portion. And Mexicans and Eritreans and Russians. Deuteronomy declares that foreigners are to be served from the Tithe that is God's portion.
Widows—people who is Moses society would have had a status like single working moms in our society—were to be served from God's portion.
Orphans—kids whose parents for whatever reason were unable to provide for them—orphans were to be served from God's portion.
It seems to me that we could summarize the ideas in this passage this way: the highest purpose of money is to build a happy, equitable community. A bountiful harvest is a call for a bountiful feast. A feast that is shared in the presence of God. Wealth should express itself in community festivity. And our feasts should include the outsiders and the losers and those with bad luck and those with disabilities.
To put it another way: a bountiful harvest, i.e. wealth, confers a heightened obligation.
This passage and the repeated affirmation of hard work and wealth all through the book of Deuteronomy implies special honor is due to those responsible for the harvest. The bountiful harvest is evidence of God's blessing, God's favor. God is pleased with those who provide the feast.
In Deuteronomy, there is a wonderful, blended vision of wealth as a basis for honor and obligation.
Those who are successful are partners with God. The feast depends on the skill and diligence that produce the harvest. God depends on us to grow the food, to do the harvest, to preserve what is produced. God blesses us with physical strength, intelligence, social skills, drive and initiative. We did not create those things. They are gifts.
We cultivate our awareness of how utterly dependent we are on the gifts by practicing tithing—devoting ten percent of our income to God.
Did you produce your wealth by working hard? Good. Did you create the mental strength which you have employed in your pursuit success? How much credit do you deserve for choosing to be born in Seattle instead of in Haiti? Did you earn an MBA or an MD or a PhD? Good. That is to be commended. You deserve honor for that achievement. But if you get a big head about it, we can justly ask what teachers encouraged you along the way? How much tax money has gone into building the university where you studied? None of us is self-made.
Practicing tithing is a concrete, spiritual practice that connects us with the wisdom of interdependence.
Recently a young friend who is a teacher posted something on Facebook about the median incomes of people ten years out of college. What degrees gave the most bang for the buck? At the top of the list: petroleum mining engineers. Near the bottom of the list: counselors, social workers, ministers.
I read the comments responding to the initial article. They quickly degenerated into snarky attacks. “Petroleum engineers don't care about the environment or about people.” “Counselors don't understand that the cars they drive to work run on gasoline made available through the work of the petroleum engineers.” “Petroleum engineers are smart. Psychologists are wouldn't recognize a solution to an equation if they saw one.” “Petroleum engineers will produce the children who will need the services of the counselors to counteract the lousy parenting skills of the engineers.”
It was a stupid fight.
Engineering, manufacturing, finance create the wealth in our society that allows people to specialize in counseling, theology or music. The producers of wealth deserve respect for the foundational role they play in making a good society. On the other hand, would anyone want to live in a society that was flush with money and stuff and had no musicians, no art, no articulate preachers or writers? In a good society money moves around and links people with all sorts of gifts and skills and aptitudes. Money makes us all richer, not just by putting dollars in our pockets but by enabling this rich cultural development.
Understanding the power of money to enable this kind of goodness is a profound spiritual insight. One of the most powerful spiritual disciplines that supports this understanding is the practice of tithing—devoting ten percent of our income to God. When we tithe, we are deliberately using our money to cultivate our spiritual life.
Adventists have taken this ten percent principle and developed a particular doctrine around it. Some Christians have criticized Adventists for being so strict. They imagine themselves as more evolved. They are not legalistic, Old Testament believers. They are “New Testament Christians.”
I laugh when I hear this. It is true the New Testament does not explicitly teach the obligation to devote ten percent of our income to God. Instead, it tells us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor.
I have never met a critic of tithing who has come even close to this NT teaching.
I once knew a baronness who was rich. Compared to me, she was very rich. She explained to me the reason she did not practice tithing: “For ordinary, middle class people, tithe is a small amount of money. So they can afford to give it. But for me ten percent would be a lot of money. So I can't afford to do it.”
I realized then that I was richer than she was. Her income might have ten or a hundred times my income. But she had barely enough money. In fact, as I got to know her, I learned she was constantly worried about the fact that she was barely getting by. On the other hand, I was so rich I could give away 20 percent of my income and not worry about my financial survival.
One of the curious side effects of tithing is it's reflexive effect on those who practice it. When you devote ten percent (or twenty or thirty percent) of your income to God, over time you develop a deep sense of adequacy and wealth.
This week I made my monthly contribution to the church. I didn't agonize over how much to give. Since we are rich, we can do more than ten percent. Or maybe I should say the other way around. The fact that we give more than ten percent is proof that we are rich.
Part of our religion is giving. We teach people to give ten percent, because it is the only amount ever mentioned in the Bible besides selling everything. We give because we have been blessed. Then we are blessed because we give. Our handling of money becomes a rich spiritual practice and a source of pure joy.
This is part of what our religion teaches us about money.
If we are serious about cultivating spiritual life, we will give habitually. Occasional, spontaneous giving is okay. I'm sure it does good. But it has very little of the transformative power of regular, habitual, systematic giving.
We all understand that part of ordinary life is regularly paying utility bills, buying groceries, paying our mortgage or rent. If we are students or the parents of students, we pay tuition. These payments are an indispensable part of our life in a civil society.
Regular giving is similarly an indispensable part of fully participating in a spiritual society. As a church we welcome visitors. There is no expectation that people need to buy space in a pew or that any particular person buy the privilege of experiencing worship. All are welcome here. On the other hand, until you are practicing habitual giving, your spirituality will remain stunted. Since money flows through every aspect of our life, a fully developed spirituality necessarily includes the practice, the habit, of giving. Tithing is most form of giving with longest tradition in Jewish and Christian history.
Those who have practiced it nearly universally speak of its benefit. It is a practice that will provide a theoretical and experiential foundation for wise thinking about money. It makes us happy partners with God.