Whenever I start thinking about money, I start hearing lots of voices.
I hear my Grandmother Kinney’s voice. She grew up in the coal mining town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania during the Depression. She never overcame her fear of not having enough.
I hear my father’s voice. He is a big saver and nearly every car he’s ever owned was purchased with cash.
I hear my mother’s voice. I think she’d be a little appalled that I was telling you these personal details about my family’s relationship with money. Money is not something one discusses in polite company.
I hear Suze Orman’s voice as she tells her audience over and over again to have a six-month emergency fund saved.
On the other hand, I hear Carrie Bradshaw’s voice, too, making $400 high heels seem like a reasonable investment.
I hear the voices of my husband, my friends, priests, stewardship directors, financial advisors, pundits, celebrities-and I am a total sucker for the voices of marketers. Yes, that $12 bottle of shampoo does make my hair shinier than a $3 bottle! Yes, that $70 pencil skirt would make me look just like a character on Mad Men! Yes, a roomba would make housekeeping easier! Yes, a right hand diamond ring would symbolize that I respect myself! (You can relax, I did not buy myself the ring or the roomba.)
We all have voices that run through our head when we think about our own relationship with money. Whether we are tight fisted, extremely responsible, don’t know how to balance a checkbook, or compulsively shop-those behaviors have come from those voices and how we interpret them. We can’t escape the voices, but we don’t have to be enslaved by them.
The widow in our story today seems to have found away to move past the voices of anxiety and fear in order to hear the voice of God.
I have to be honest; this story makes me very uncomfortable. The widow’s actions are antithetical to everything I’ve been taught about money. I want her to put those two coins in her savings account! I want her to accrue interest! I want her to have security for her future! I want the scribes to get off their high horses and take her under their wing.
But my attitudes about money stem from the very modern idea that my money is mine. All those voices I hear-whether they advocate responsible saving or wasteful spending-assume the money is mine to spend.
The widow teaches us a different way. The widow comes from a long tradition of assuming all that we have actually belongs to God. The widow assumes that whatever money she has is just a gift from God, passing through her life for a little while. The widow comes from a long tradition of thanking God by returning to God a portion of what he has given.
In the Old Testament, believers are asked to sacrifice to God the fruits of their agricultural lives-grain, pigeons, cattle. This must have made deep sense to them. Agricultural life is so dependent on outside circumstances-rain and sun and insects and soil-that raising healthy crops must really have felt like partnering with the divine. Without soaking rains or bright sun, all of their labor would have been for naught. They understood that their labor was connected to the earth, which was created by God.
Michael Pollan and others who think about food and health and ethics are happy to remind us that we Americans are far, far, far removed from that agricultural life. Many of our children have never seen a farm. I did not know that brussel sprouts grew on that funny stalk until last year! Any of us who have read Food, Inc. or The Omnivore’s Dilemma know how disconnected we are to the very ground that sustains us.
The thing is, no matter how our income is generated, all of us can trace back the source of our income to Creation. Mine is a pretty short line. I get my income my ministering to human beings, who were created by God. Even though very few of are directly connected to nature in our work, all of us owe our very existence, and the existence of our jobs, homes, spouses, friends, children and yes, even iPods, to God. In fact, we owe our own existence to God.
We acknowledge this during the Rite I service, in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, when we say:
And here we present and offer to thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee. (BCP 336)
One of my seminary professors, The Rev. Dr. Edward Kryder, taught us to leave the monetary offering on the altar when we celebrated the Eucharist, because when the collection of your money is brought up to the altar, it’s not just cold hard cash. That money is a symbolic representation of our very selves-our souls and bodies. When we put money into the offering plate, we’re putting the time and energy and passion we spent making the money. We put our faith and our values and our belief in the plate. If we just needed to raise money to keep the heat on, we would not collect the money in the middle of a Eucharist.
The church needs money, yes, but we as people also have a spiritual need to give. We need to be reminded that we are not alone. We need to be reminded that we were created and that our life is pure gift. We need to be reminded that every dime that crosses our threshold is the direct result of the incredible decision of God to create this planet and all the abundance it has to offer us.
The theologian Paul Tillich describes God as the “Ground of our Being.” I love this image, because it evokes a picture of God literally holding us up-of undergirding all that we are and all that we do. Experiencing God as the “Ground of our Being” can be incredibly liberating. I don’t know about you, but I find it all too easy to fall prey to our culture’s spirit of anxiety. Our culture’s voice says that we aren’t complete persons until we are married with 2.5 kids enrolled in Ivy League schools, a big house in the suburbs, a vacation home at the beach, and at least one Lexus. Our culture’s voice tells us that we should not be satisfied; we should not feel complete until our life is completely saturated by the material things that bring true happiness. Our culture can even punish giving. I have a friend who was audited several times because he gave too MUCH money away to charity! The IRS was sure he was up to no good because he gave away more than they thought was rational.
We all know that our culture’s version of happiness is empty and fleeting. By contrast, when we root ourselves in God as the “Ground of our being”, when we listen to God’s voice, we will hear God telling us that we do not need to be anxious. We do not need to prove anything to anyone. If we listen to God’s voice, we will hear that God loves us and wants to give us what we need. If we listen to God’s voice, we will be able to look at our lives with new eyes, able to see the abundance all around us. Listening to God’s voice gives us such a sense of deep security, that we can open our hands and trust that what we give away does not diminish us.
Listening to the voice of God is what frees us from being enslaved by the other voices in our minds. When we listen to the voice of God, we can understand more clearly which of our voices are destructive, and which of our voices are life giving. When we are making decisions about money, and the voices are swirling all around us, making us anxious, we can take a deep breath and a moment of silence and listen for what God is saying to us.
God is not an afterthought when it comes to our decisions about money. God is the very source -not only of our wealth-but also of our life and breath. We can follow the sound of God’s voice, like sheep follow the sound of a shepherd’s voice-knowing the shepherd will lead safely through even the most difficult places.