Your Money and Your Life

Most of us have probably experienced that potentially awkward moment when the check arrives at a restaurant and no one at the table reaches for it.  This is not so unsettling if you are with a group (just like in Monopoly, eventually someone will be designated the banker and will have to work out the tip).  But at a table for two it can induce a little anxiety.  Especially if you know your wallet is empty and you are not quite sure how far below maximum your credit card is.

Do you begin to think through the details of the arrangements?  Who invited whom?  Isn’t it obvious this is supposed to be her treat?!  He chose this restaurant, he can’t possibly think I’m going to pay for it!

If the check sits there long enough it will become awkward indeed, when we realize that something is required of us that we never expected.

If this has been a date, it is a bad portent, not least because confusion about expectations is not a healthy thing in a relationship.  Of course in our relationship with God we are often confused about the expectations and seldom more so than when the check arrives, so to speak.  That is, when we discover that something is expected of us and it just might include cash!

Today we hear Jesus teaching about expectations that God has of us.  And it is somewhat startling to hear him talk this way.  “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  It feels a little like the check has arrived and Jesus has pushed it over to our side of the table.  Didn’t you know that something was required of you?  Two things, Jesus teaches, are required, two things: your treasure and your soul.  Put it another way: your money and your life.

Many of us do not first come to church because we are looking for something to do with our money and our lives.  Many of us come to church as shoppers, looking to see if there is anything we want.  Or to extend my earlier metaphor, we come to church as potential diners, checking the menu to see if there is anything we want.  What do I feel like for Sunday brunch this week?  And in many ways this is fine.  Jesus was perfectly accustomed to people coming up to him to see if he offered what they needed or wanted.  And if it was OK with Jesus it should be OK with us too, since we, the church, are working for him now.

But isn’t it chilling to hear him remind us that the check does come?  Isn’t it unsettling to be told that if we expect to dine at this particular table, we had better be prepared to pay the price?

This goes against so much of what I want to say about the Gospel.  God’s grace is FREE by definition!  I want to cry out.  Come as you are: fall into the loving arms of Christ and be washed in the soothing rain of his mercy, forgiveness and love.  All of which is true – but it is not the whole truth.

You fool, Jesus says, don’t realize that this very night your soul is required of you?

God wants our money and our lives… which would be entirely unreasonable if it were not based on the assumption that everything we have (our money and our lives) came from God in the first place.

Let’s start with our lives.  Although most of us feel perfectly free to talk about the “soul” there is not exactly universal agreement about what is meant by this term.  And in the typical posturing of our time, the argument is regularly made these days that belief in a human soul is nothing more than superstition, now that science has taught us how the brain works.  But in this parish, we have not been fooled, thank God, by the artificial argument that you can believe in either science or God, but not both.  So we ask about the soul without turning our backs on science.

What is the soul? Will it float out of your body or through your nostrils when you die?  Does it linger in the universe like a radio wave?  Is it waiting in some netherworld to be united at the last judgment to your re-constructed body?  Most definitions are clear that the soul is what makes us distinctly who we are.  Our souls, like our bodies, are gifts from God that carry our spiritual fingerprints, our more mystical DNA.

It is our souls that respond to the awareness of God in the world and in our lives – often before our bodies do – because our souls recognize their authorship in God.  It is our souls that lean toward God if all is well with our souls, or away from God if we have become spiritually unhealthy.  And it seems to be our souls that reach out to the souls of others, sounding the depths of another person’s life and finding that the echoes resonate powerfully in the depths of our own lives, sometimes joining us to a mate.  If our bodies are tissue and fiber and water and electrical impulses and proteins and acids all organized in a magnificent way, then our souls are everything about us that can’t be accounted for with those tissues and fibers and water and electricity and proteins and acids.  

It was the soul of a young man, earlier this week, that caused him – quite beyond his own intentions or willfulness, he reported – to save the lives of children on a school bus dangling over the Mississippi River on the edge of that collapsed bridge.  It is his soul that accounts for the movement of his hands and his feet (which he himself could not account for) as he snatched each child from their dangerous perch and lifted them to safety.  He could not account for his own movements, his own bravery, his own gracefulness. It was his soul - his unique and deep-seated identity as God’s child, created by love for love – that animated the most important day of that young man’s life, and of the children’s whose lives he saved.

In our society, very little corrupts the soul so easily and so often as money, since money and power are intimately linked in American society.  Very little prevents our souls from flourishing so easily as money.  This is a perverse irony since there is very little in this world that drives our ambitions, our actions, our imaginations, our hopes and our dreams, as powerfully as money does.  Who wants to be a millionaire?  Only those who have not yet decided that they want to be a billionaire.  Money – which is perfectly useful in running a society, even Jesus taught this – easily becomes a force in our lives that eclipses God’s purposes for us.  

To point to a distant example, money is powerfully at work in the corrupt society of Zimbabwe, where president Robert Mugabe has amassed enormous fortunes for himself and a coterie of the favored, at the expense of the welfare of everyone else in the nation.  He has quite literally built larger barns to store the cars and the cash and the goods he has amassed.  While his countrymen struggle and starve, he can eat, drink and be merry.  The corruption of Zimbabwe as a society seems, tragically, to find its perfect expression in the soul of its president.

Closer to home, in American society, we have noticed how a very few people are amassing enormous fortunes.  And we read with interested curiosity about the hedge fund managers who draw ever more and more money and goods into their barns (just to choose one category of the ultra rich).  We should be horrified by this trend in America to concentrate great wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  

We might be worried for the souls of those who take so much more than they could ever possibly need, just because they can take it.  But mostly we are fascinated because we are envious.  Who wants to be a billionaire?  We do.  Who doesn’t want to be a billionaire?  If only we could eat, drink, and be merry the way the rich and famous can.  But since we know that we can’t all be hedge fund managers, the fondest hopes of many an American can be summed up in two simple words: Power Ball.  What barns we could build and fill up with things!  Oh how we would eat, drink, and be merry if we won the lottery!

The people who first followed Jesus were not wealthy people.  They had little, and what they had they shared (even if it was only a few loaves and fishes).  And in the New Testament you will find many warnings about wealth: it makes it hard to enter the kingdom of God.  This is not because money is bad, it is because we have given it the power to corrupt our souls.

And so Jesus keeps inviting us back to his table.  He brings us into communion with him so that from time to time we can have this conversation.  From time to time, he can remind us about our souls.  He reminds us who made us and why we were made (that we were made by love for love).  And from time to time as we sit with Jesus, we realize that there is a check on the table.  Jesus is not awkward about this.  He does not let it sit there silently as we try to work out who’s going to pick up the tab.  Looking us straight in the eye, he pushes it over to us.

And we might think, Who is this guy?  And who invited whom here, anyway?  Doesn’t he realize this is all supposed to be his treat?  He can’t possibly imagine that I’m going to pay for this!

This is an awkward moment in our relationship with Jesus.  But does he really need to say anything?  Does he need to explain that long ago he bought our lives with his life, bought our freedom with his death and resurrection?

Does he really need to remind us that we were not actually made to be billionaires and that as hopes and dreams go, the amassing of fortunes is woefully unimaginative?

Does he really need to teach us how caring for all our things so easily gets in the way of caring for one another?

Does he really have to show us that we are creatures of God, made with a soul that bears the unmistakable hallmark of God’s workmanship?

Perhaps he does.  Which is why he has been trying to teach us how to love.  Because he knows that a person in love will do things they might not otherwise do.  A person in love will reach for the check before you can even feign to reach for your wallet.  A person in love will give her money and her life to another.  A person in love sees that something is required of him.  And a person in love is happy to give it.

You and I, my friends, were made by love for love.  We have been given everything by God, the One who made us, including our souls, that make us who we are and that one day God will gather into nearer communion with him.  But for now, God is trying to teach us that something is required of us in this relationship: our money and our lives.  Not because he needs it, but because we are never more like God (who made us to be like him) than when we are giving.

Our awkwardness with God comes not just out of confusion, but from the realization that God is in love with us.  He sent his Son to love us and to teach us to love.  And ever since then he has been wondering if we are also in love with him.  Which sometimes we can’t just say with our lips, we have to practice it and show it forth in our lives.

And the check sits on the table.

Tragedy, by virtue of its scale, has a way underscoring more present and mundane realities of our daily lives.  And the two tragedies I mentioned earlier – one on the Mississippi River and in on ongoing in Zimbabwe – have something to teach us.

On the one hand, there are scores and hundreds of school buses full of children who are in danger in this city, and thousands more throughout our nation, who desperately need someone to help them.  And on the other hand, there is our temptation to build larger barns, and store our luxury cars in them, and surround them with gates, and live like kings.

What if this very night our souls should be required of us?  What if God wanted us to account for who we are, for the gifts of grace that he has poured into our lives?  What if God wanted to account for the love with which he made us?  What has become of that love?

What if we should realize that Jesus has quietly and deliberately pushed the check over to our side of the table?

We could always just get up and leave the table, leaving the check to him.   It’s OK, it has happened before, and he can handle it.

Or we could learn from him and take the check, and reach into our hearts and into our wallets and do our best to give, do our best to love.  And see what happens.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
5 August 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 6, 2007 .