Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.The alternative Jesus invites us to consider instead of worry is entering into relationship with God — the God who is infinite and whose love for us and all creation is infinite as well. —
But is IS tax season and money is a subject very prominent in our lives and on our minds. The months of February and March are heavily focused by money. There are tax tips on the radio and television. Individuals and families get organized, pulling out those folders of receipts and documents we have kept for a year and not necessarily in an organized manner. We search through quicken and money manager programs several times looking for contributions or things we purchased for work that can be listed as part of our deductions. We make stacks and use paperclips and rubber bands to keep like items together. Some of us then take our organized mess to someone else who will try to make sense of it all and file taxes on our behalf. Others of us carefully read through all the forms making sure we understand what qualifies and what does not – adding and subtracting and then checking again to be sure our math is correct. —
Once we begin reviewing how we spent our money last year, like it or not, we get a concrete picture of who we are – not who we say we are, not who we think we are, not even who we hope we are. How we spend our money communicates, in black and white, the walk we walk – how we spend our money conveys who we really are. Tax time is a good time to assess how we are living. Tax time is a good time to evaluate whether our actions indeed reflect our words, whether or our walk reflects our hearts, whether or not how we are living reflects our faith and the one we follow.
This kind of talk is counter-cultural. Because we live in a society that tells us day in and out that we are what we drive, we are where we live, we are what we wear, we are what we eat. Our culture tells us to shop and spend big. We are bombarded with advertisements all day long. We receive 30,000 messages EVERYDAY through television, radio, magazines and newspapers, billboards and the internet telling us how we should spend our money. Advertisements tell us we need those shoes, those jeans, we need that prescription medicine, that surgery, that cell phone. In the United States half of all the money we spend is on non-necessary items. Since the 1920’s each generation has spent more than the previous generation on stuff we do not need. And if this trend continues, my great-grandchildren will spend 3/4of the money they earn on non-essentials – on things they do not need. Tax preparation is a good time to calculate how much we spend on things we do not need, how much we spend on non-essentials.
And the kicker is that none of this stuff makes us happier. Stuff does not bring us happiness. Stuff cannot bring us happiness. Stuff will not bring us happiness, because stuff does not bring us closer to God. Purchasing a great new outfit does not bring me closer to God. God does not talk to me on my iphone, God does not send me emails on my laptop. Although I do a lot praying in my car, my vehicle does not bring me closer to God. And although I really like my home, it is through the trees, the flowers, the chickens and garden outside that I connect with God.
In fact THINGS can drive us further from God and God’s will for our lives. Stuff can keep us from feeling God, from seeing God, from hearing God. Jesus begins the passage for today by saying, “No one can serve two masters; You cannot serve God and wealth.” Jesus spoke more about the topic of money than any other topic. Jesus talked about money more than any other topic, indirectly in parables like the lost coin and the Pharisee and the tax collector. And directly like when asked by the rich man, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – Jesus answered give everything to the poor and follow me.
Jesus spoke so frequently about money because people of the first century spent a lot of their time thinking and worrying about money. And the more money and possessions people had, the harder it was for them to get up and follow Jesus. —The same holds true today. It is not possible to think about how you will save up your money for that new thing AND be in communion with God. You can try it if you don’t believe me. Think about something you would really like to have – it can be anything – a new car, a new pair of jeans, golf clubs, health equipment… think about how nice it would be to have that thing – how it would feel and smell, what other people would say about your new thing and how great your life would be with that thing. —But where does God fit into those thoughts? How can God fit into that kind of thinking? There is no room for God.
And then there is debt. When our car breaks down and it costs more than we have in the bank, when our washing machine breaks and cannot be fixed, when it is time to pay the university, when the doctor bill is bigger than insurance will pay, when we really deserve that vacation or that meal out – we put it on the credit card. And we all know that debt adds up quickly and becomes a gray cloud that follows us around wherever we go.
When our budgets are stretched thin because of a car loan or credit card payments or even mortgage payments, paying for those things becomes our focus – takes our energy and causes us to worry. When we are in debt or when we are saving our money for a “thing,” God loses. God loses our time, our energy, our focus. We cannot serve money and God.
In December of last year, David Lee Edwards died penniless and alone in Kentucky. Just 12 years earlier, after losing his job and having the water shut off, David borrowed to pay the water bill and used $7 to buy Powerball tickets. David won $27 million dollars. In an instant, he went from rags to riches. And within a year of winning, he spent $12 million on a home, many cars, vacations, a jet and more. He began using drugs: cocaine, heroin, prescription pills, and crack and became addicted which caused him to lose his home, all his cars and his wife. He came home to Kentucky and soon after he died – alone. Statistics say that roughly 70% of all lottery winners are broke within a few years of receiving their jackpot. We cannot serve wealth and God.
Around the same time last year that David Lee Edwards died, Tom Crist won $40 million dollars in the lottery in Canada. He told no one. Friends and family found out from the news reports months later that he had won and had donated 100% of it to a charity for cancer research in his late wife’s name. Now it may not be fair to compare the two lottery winners. Mr. Crist was not broke and out of work. But Mr. Crist had lost something more precious than a job. Mr. Crist lost his wife, the love of his life to cancer and he knew that even $40 million dollars could not bring her back or replace her love. But he could bring honor to the love he shared with her.
When we are focused on love and honoring love, we are inviting God into our hearts. God and love operate in a very different “economy” than money. Money is finite, once you spend it, it is gone. God and love are infinite and grow exponentially in our hearts and in our lives the more we use it. I remember how much love John-Mark and I felt when Benjamin was born. We were amazed by our feelings for him. And then Elijah was born and later Sarah, miraculously we didn’t have to divide our love between the three children. Our love was not divided 3 ways. Instead we had exponentially more love than we could possibly have imagined. I am sure you have all experienced the same thing; the more love you give away, the more you are capable of having. Love cannot be counted, spent, or stockpiled.
When you live in love, you’ve entered into the realm of abundance. When you live in love – in love with your spouse, in love with your children, in love with your parents, in love with your friends, in love with your neighbor, in love with the trees and sunshine, the critters and birds, the sky and breeze, in love with God—–you have entered the world of possibility, the world of happiness and suddenly, in this world that Jesus calls the “kingdom of God,” not worrying actually becomes an option.
Let me be clear, I stand with you in trying to get my life to reflect the one I follow. I stand with you. I am stretched by Jesus’ words here. I am being pushed by this passage to give up one of my most cherished occupations, worry, in favor of trusting God. I am being pushed by Jesus to consider that my other loyalties are in conflict with my loyalty to God. I am being pushed to look more carefully at how I spent money in 2013 and to find more holy ways to spend my money in 2014. I am being pushed and stretched by Jesus.
If I give up a preoccupation with anxiety, if I turn my focus from the things I don’t have to the things I do have, if I center myself in an economy of love instead of an economy of money, I would have much more time and energy for seeing God, for feeling God, and for hearing God. I would have time to serve God.
It is a struggle to NOT let worry take center stage. It is a daily and sometimes even hourly effort to serve God and not the things of the world. It is a daily effort to be content with what we have and to feel blessed in the abundance of God’s economy. It is a struggle to consume less, to worry less, to simplify our lives, to conserve and to trust God.
Scripture calls us to give a tithe to charity. A tithe is 10% of our take home pay. Some people think of that 10% as God’s portion. For every one dollar I bring home, God gets 10%. I do think that giving 10% of our earnings to charity is a healthy thing to do. It is healthy for our spirits; it is healthy for our communities. I am in favor of tithing. But I think we need to reframe how we think about our money, our salaries, our earnings. —Instead of how much of my money am I going to give to God, we should ask, “How much of God’s money and resources am I going to keep for myself?” When Mr. Crist won $40 million in the lottery, he had the gift of not seeing the winnings as “his money.” Every paycheck we receive, every dollar we find, every monetary gift that we receive should be seen as God’s money. How much will we keep for ourselves. —When we actively practice seeing every penny as God’s, we become more thankful, we become more careful, we become more conservative, and we become more generous.
If we are not living within our means, if we are carrying debt, or if we are stretched too thin – at tax time, we are given the opportunity to make a change. If we strive to follow Jesus of Nazareth but our bank account does not show it – we are given the opportunity to make a change. There are many programs online, books, videos and CD’s about how to make that change – Dave Ramsey’s Peace University is one well tested program and there are many other good ones as well. —No one can serve two masters. We cannot serve wealth and serve God. Seek first the kingdom of God. Jesus is clear – the choice is ours.