As a Tool of the Sacred
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Have you ever tried to give money away? There are so many ways to do so, but I’m thinking particularly about the people who will secretly ‘play Santa’ around Christmas time by randomly handing a stranger a hundred bucks. I’m thinking about people who pay for the next three people in line behind them at the coffee stand or who slip a twenty under a random door at an apartment building. Random givers fascinate me. I understand the urge to give money to a homeless person on the street or to a charity that has mailed you a letter. Certainly giving gifts to loved ones makes sense. It is the urge to give money to the random stranger that interests me. Have you ever done it?
A few years back in The Sun Magazine there was a story about a young man, Poe Ballantine, who had developed a unique practice of giving money away. (September 2006, “God’s Day” by Poe Ballantine) He created for himself a holiday that included prayer, fasting, repentance, and the like. But it had no consumerism or Hallmark cards. He called it “God’s Day.” One aspect of “God’s Day” involved giving money away. “I always throw money away on God’s Day,” the author wrote, “walk with a twenty-dollar bill into the darkness and leave it somewhere.” Some year’s he will drop it over the fence of a house in disrepair or tuck it into the slates of a bench frequented by winos. Other times he will leave it in a particular book at the library like Charlie and Chocolate Factory. He experienced trouble the year he left it in the path of a particular homeless man, the year he shifted away from the fully random and tried to give to a particular person. The author watched as the homeless man walked past the twenty-dollar bill several times ignoring it. The young man had trouble sleeping that night, knowing the twenty was out there unclaimed.
In the morning he went by and saw it “still there,” he wrote, “bold and flagrant as a whore waving a handkerchief at a train.” He talked himself out of claiming it for himself (Oh, look, $20!). He almost blurted out the story to a neighbor who was complaining about a shortage of cash, but to do so felt wrong according to the rules he’d set up for “God’s Day.” It had to be found, not given. So it sat there half under a stone for four days untouched. He finally gave up a rescued the bill when it started snowing. It was day or two later that he eventually disposed of it in a church’s poor box, bringing the young man’s weeks-long “God’s Day” to an uneasy conclusion.
Why do people give money away like this? Most of us give money away as a form of supporting a relationship. There is often a connection between the giver and the receiver. Even when giving is anonymous, there is some connection: The young man in the story really wanted the twenty dollars to go to that particular homeless man and felt unsatisfied when he ended up giving the money to a church’s poor box where the money might go to help people such as the homeless man. The young man who authored this story has deep ambivalence about money and about faith.
Certainly the vast majority of Americans are ambivalent about money, and mixing money and faith is tricky. Colleague Dan Hotchkiss writes: “Money is a medium through which we act and are acted upon. A spiritual life that does not concern itself with money can have little effect on our daily lives.” (from Ministry and Money, p46) Both money and faith are seen as private. It is considered rude to probe too deeply into the faith or the finances of a friend. And even when there are natural points of connection between money and faith such as a congregation’s annual pledge drive, the conversations that arise are tricky.
For kicks, I went back to another sermon I delivered last year on a private and tricky subject: sex (Sex and Spirit, 5-4-08). I wanted to see if I could find a sentence about sex and spirit in which I could swap in the word “money.” Here is what I found: “[Money], when released of its shackles and allowed to be sacred, is natural, joyful, and beautiful – and indeed can be a path to grace, empowerment, and wholeness.” We keep bumping into the guilty section of our minds that tell us this or that is bad or dirty. Money is no more the root of evil then sex. Each, when viewed through the lens of faith, opens us up to the fullness of life. And yet we are constantly pushed to view both sex and money as things that are tainted, negative, something we must distance ourselves from if we are to live truly spiritual and blessed lives. But really it’s all in the way that we use it. The quote from the biblical letter from Timothy says that the love of money is the root of all evil. As one money-guru wrote, “Money itself isn’t our problem. Money itself isn’t bad of good. It is our interpretation of money, our interaction with it, where the real mischief is and where we find the real opportunity for self-discovery and personal transformation.” (from The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist)
The problem is in the way that we use it. When I get anxious I hold tight to money, squeezing it with miserly fervor. But it isn’t long before I slip into the more normal state for me: denial. When I’m like this I’ll throw it around like I don’t care about it, like I don’t respect it, like I’m trying to get rid of it. Surely a healthy relationship with money is found between these two extremes. At my best I use my money to communicate to the world my values. At my best I use my money to bear witness to my values. At my best I let my faith make demands of my money.
From the first, this was the intent of money. Back when people used shells and stone disks, cattle, salt and feathers to do the work of money, what they were doing was using the tangible things to mark the divine meaning that actually happened in any transaction. Money began as a metaphor of divine valuation. The shells and stone disks did not matter; they merely represented the deeper reality. According to sociologists, early cultures needed these representatives of divine value “to bestow prestige, settle psychic or material debts, or placate enemies and so on.” (from Webster Kitchell Howell’s “Money” in The Abundance of Our Faith, p119) Over time, the tangible metaphors needed to hold common recognizable value across various cultures. And today we have metal coins and cloth bills which are steadily giving way to plastic cards.
What if we still used money with this original intent? As you handed coins and bills over to the cashier to buy a meal or as you swiped your debit card to purchase an outfit, can you imagine it as ‘divine communication’? As an expression of your deep values? Probably not. Most of the time when I use money it is for utterly mundane purposes. I actually tried to think like this over the past few weeks. Whenever I wrote a check to pay a bill or buy groceries, I thought: “divine communication – what am I saying about my values?” I would say to myself, “This is a sacred transaction.” Most of the time, it felt very silly. Our lives are so saturated with money that the use of it has grown meaningless.
Other times I would catch a hint of what I thought I should be finding. The check I write to pay for college classes or ice skating lessons for my children: I know that I am using my money to say something important. I am saying something to the teachers and to my children, and to myself. I am investing my money in my children as a demonstration of my values. When I paid for my membership to NPR or wrote a check toward my pledge to this congregation – it is easy to see that I am using my money to demonstrate my values. But when I actually had that thought in mind as I wrote the check it felt different. So I’m standing in the grocery store check-out about to swipe my card and I think, “This is a sacred transaction.” I have found that it really does sharpen the impact of your choices when you think of money this way.
Poet and Playwright Henrik Ibsen said, “Money may be the husk of many things but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintances, but not friends; servants, but not loyalty; days of joy, but not peace or happiness.” Money is just a tool. What you do with it is the question worth asking. With the current economic troubles in the world, many people are prioritizing their spending. They are thinking about where there money goes more than they were in previous years. People are paying attention. I can only see that as a good thing for people. I believe we will discover this attention to priorities to have a positive impact on the congregation and on each of us individually. We may not end up with more money, but I think we will come through with a clear sense of financial priorities.
If you are new to this congregation or visiting, this may be the point when you zone out. I’ve given you plenty to think about for your own spiritual growth; now I’m going to talk about funding for the congregation. But, then again, perhaps if you are new or visiting it will interest you to hear that the annual stewardship campaign is an integral part of this congregation. Not because we need funding to meet a budget goal. No. This conversation is integral because of the way we are a faith community together. Every aspect of this congregation is in the hands of the members.
Last year I spoke about how different cultures and different faiths manage the work of funding their institutions. I didn’t script that sermon so I only have my memory. I suppose I could have watched the video recording, but I hate watching those. Anyway, my memory is that I spoke about the mandatory 10% religion tax that the German government collects to fund religious institutions. I spoke about the ‘orange aisle’ in the Thailand grocery stores so you would know what you can give to the begging monks in orange that come by your back door each day. I used a version of the quote, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all others,” saying that our pledge drive process is the worst way of funding a religious institution except for all the others. The institutional element of our congregation is the mere framework needed to hold the vibrancy at the heart of our congregation. The best part of this congregation has nothing to do with our financial records and is nowhere to be found on our budget sheets. The best part of our congregation in the care we give each other, the warmth we share. Our Small Group Ministry, our Social Justice work, our fellowship events, our Sunday school teachers, our potlucks, our forums and workshops – these cost us practically nothing in themselves. Yet they are created and supported by the institution that exists only because each year we fund it. And then, all the worship, the music, the Sunday School Curriculum, the staff – these are essential pieces that are exactly what we fund when we create our annual budget.
Budgets are moral documents. Each year this congregation makes choices about what it will fund and what it will not fund. Our budget is a reflection of our values and for the few years that I have been here I must tell you I have been proud of this congregation and of the choices we have made. I know that every year we begin our campaign with moderate to high hopes and a plan for fund our mission a few steps further than we currently are. And every year, so far, we have had to fall back from that plan, reformulate and create a budget that can still meet the needs and expand our mission in some ways. We give ourselves a hard time about that. Yet while it is always a little painful to do that, I tell you I am proud of us. Every year we demonstrate to our staff that we value them. We pay the staff of this congregation a decent wage recognizing the regular cost of living increases. Every year we fund our fair share support to our district and the association, which doesn’t sound exciting – but it is a big deal. And every year we fund the programming goals a little bit more. You should be proud of the budget you help shape each year. In June when it is time to vote on the budget I want you to look at it and say, “We created that. It is a sacred transaction, a divine communication of our values as a people.” Barack Obama, speaking recently about budgets and spending, said a budget is the “intersection of reflection and action” where “your good intention meets your respectful action” and “demonstrates how you are with others.”
I want to share with you a story I heard over the summer. (Rev. Alison Cornish told this story at UULTI 2008) There was a Unitarian Universalist congregation that launched a capital campaign – a major fundraising effort – that asked members to make a pledge that would be paid over several years. There was one member, an older woman, who was in a quandary. She wanted to support her congregation’s efforts, but she had few assets. She was retired, and lived on a small pension. Though her income was small, so were her needs and expenses. Problem was, there just wasn’t much left over for the church. She studied all her expenses, trying to decide what she might be able to do … and then she saw it. Every Friday, for most of her adult life, she had had her hair done at the beauty parlor. Just a trim and set – nothing fancy. It was her small luxury – her gift to herself. But after much thought – and no little anguish – she decided that, for now, she would care for her hair herself, and pledge the money she would have spent each Friday to the church. And so she did, letting her hair grow for the years of the capital campaign. No one had ever seen her with long hair, and they admired her new look when it grew in full and white and silky. The old woman actually enjoyed trying it in different styles, twisting it this way, curling it like that.
At the end of the campaign, she headed straight to her beauty parlor to have her hair cut in its old style again. When her hairdresser saw the woman’s long, beautiful hair, she tried to convince her to keep it – she told the old woman how lovely she looked. “No,” she said, “it was a nice change, but I’m ready to be my old self again. Cut it off.” But the hairdresser had still another idea – did the woman know that she could donate her hair to make a wig for someone going through chemotherapy, someone who had lost her own hair? Would she be willing to donate her long, white hair? The woman caught her breath – she had never thought of her hair as something someone else would want – or as something she could give away. And so she said yes. And after having her hair cut in its usual style, she walked out of the salon, and didn’t return again until her hair was once again long enough to donate for a wig for someone recovering from cancer.
May each of us here discover again and again the ways in which we can offer the sacred gifts that are ours to give. May we see that our money can be a tool of the sacred, communicating our values and our care to the world.
In a world without end
May it be so