When I work with couples preparing for marriage, one of the things we always talk about is… money. In the curriculum I use, there is an exercise called “The Meaning of Money.” Each partner responds to a list of statements on a spectrum from strongly agree to strongly disagree. “I look up to people who have been very financially successful.” “People who have more money have more fun,” etc. Each person tallies their responses in order to understand more about their own orientation toward money. The four possible meanings money has in the exercise are status, security, enjoyment, and control. Typically each person’s profile is some mixture of all four. This exercise is certainly a helpful conversation starter. But I always mention to the couple that something is missing for me in this framework.
What about money as a means by which we share? Being generous with our money expresses and builds trust in God. It is a way of remembering that all we have and all that we are is a gift from our Creator. Generosity strengthens relationships, builds community. It gives us the power to shape the world with our values, to make real a vision of love and justice. Generosity can be a way of resisting oppression and creating a world of greater justice.
In our American culture we are taught that money is private. And yet, however awkward it may be to talk about our finances, I believe that our silence around something so close to our hearts is deeply destructive. Though intellectually we may reject the myth of the American dream—the idea that anyone who tries hard enough can survive and thrive financially—as a society, we still act as though it is true. We hold ourselves and others to impossible expectations of self-sufficiency. We remain silent and isolated rather than asking for help. We feel deeply ashamed to reveal struggles with money. And when we have enough, or more than enough wealth, then our culture teaches us that our happiness and security depends on hoarding it, protecting what is “ours” and piling up more.
Today’s scripture from I Peter offers a radically different vision for our life with money, rooted in our identity as followers of Christ. We are first of all, members of a community, Peter reminds us. We are a spiritual house built with living stones. This household rests on the foundation of a cornerstone that has been rejected by the world. That is, the cornerstone of Jesus, and his way of being. Jesus poured himself out in loving generosity for the crowds that pressed upon him with their needs. He listened to them, taught them and fed them. He welcomed the outcasts, defended the poor, and healed the sick and broken-hearted. He challenged the authority of those who oppressed and exploited the vulnerable. He turned upside down traditional norms around about family, gender, class and culture, and called his followers to belong a new community of equality and sharing.
Jesus’ transformational message and way of being threatened those who held power in his world. They were so afraid of Jesus that they killed him. They thought that they had silenced his voice and broken his body. But the book of Acts reports that early church continued to practice Jesus’ way of life, saying simply and powerfully that they “held all things in common.” As Professor Daniel Deffenbaugh remarks: “The newly baptized Christians [had] in many respects taken on an identity as resident aliens, of a people living ‘outside the house’ of the dominant culture.”
As followers of Christ, we, too, are called to leave the dominant culture’s house and to resist what this structure teaches us about money and possessions. We are called, instead, to dwell in God’s house, to build our lives on the cornerstone of Christ’s generosity. During our campaign this fall, I’ve been reflecting on the connection between our physical church building and the community of living stones is our spiritual home. And that’s where finials come in….
Let me explain.
A finial is a small decorative (and protective) flourish at the apex of a structure. We have one finial on our building that has survived for over a century. It is a stone sculpture of a beehive. See if you can spot it in the drone video that Jack made. We think that originally there were two more of these beehive finials gracing the steeple doorway. We will probably never know for sure why those who imagined this building chose beehives to adorn this sacred space. Except in the Mormon church, the beehive isn’t a particularly common symbol within the Christian tradition. Our enduring stone beehive finial has become deeply meaningful to me; however, as a symbol of who we are and why we are here.
Late this summer, I sat in a campsite drinking coffee, taking in a quiet morning. I became aware of a bee hovering next to me. I sat very still, intent on studying its yellow and black body. I could feel its tiny wings pulsing in the air next to me. It was an unusual moment of communion. This intimate encounter with a bee happened to coincide with my reading of the poem by Jan Sutch Pickard, which served as this morning’s gathering words. This spiritual house is, I realized, like the ancient beehive hermitages, a sanctuary that is both protective and permeable. It is like a wartime shelter repurposed for gardening. The generosity that is the foundation of this spiritual house is both strong as vulnerable. As the poet puts it, this sacred space is like “the curve of a human hand warding off the raging world, stretched as far as a curve can: a little refuge of humanity, resilient, fragile, and more than a gesture, a symbol of shelter—this shape we know in our bones.”
Today we make pledges to our living stones campaign. We promise a portion of our resources to sustain the ministry of First Church in 2018. We promise our support, over three years, for work that is restoring this sacred space. Each year I share with the community what our family’s pledge will be. I certainly don’t find it easy to do this. I freely admit it’s scary to talk so publically about money. I definitely worry that I will say the wrong thing. But I stretch myself to do it anyway because I believe that what I have is not truly my own, but that God, and this community, and the world, has a stake in how I use my resources. I believe in the way of Jesus, which is a way of sharing what we have so that all will have enough. I believe that speaking honestly together about this subject of money can be a balm to our souls and transform our community.
So, here goes. Deep breath.
Most of all, our family seeks to give and share in a way that is intentional and in proportion with our resources. Everyone’s story around money is different; here’s how I think about ours. Privilege has provided us with generational wealth, not just money, but easier access to education, jobs and credit, and a sense of security. We’ve also been careful about making financial choices that allow us to live within our means. So we have more than we need. We stretch ourselves to give away as much as we possibly can, to let go and let God, even when all our cultural conditioning is screaming “hold on!” We make gifts to both First Church, and my spouse Jen’s congregation, University Lutheran Church of Hope. In 2018, we will be pledging $480 a month to each church, which, together, represents approximately 9% of our income. We also try to contribute about 5% of our income to causes beyond the church. Hope Lutheran is doing a capital campaign, too! So we are pledging $6000 to each congregation’s campaign over the next three years.
Friends in Christ, what is your story with money? Are you a student, living on loans? A young adult with your first real job? Are you retired, living on a fixed income? Have you inherited privilege, been gifted with plenty? Are you part of a young family seeking to balance many competing needs? What does following in Jesus’ way of sharing look like in your particular situation? How can you stretch toward placing your trust in our generous God? Together, let us celebrate these living stones, this spiritual house. Let us imagine, and build a community in which there is enough for all. May the cornerstone of Christ, though rejected and silenced by the world, become the foundation of our life together.