(Thanks to Kevin for the inspiration!)

This Sunday's message was about money.  Yep, pretty exhilarating, right?  I mean, who doesn't LOVE to sit through half-an-hour-or-so of hearing someone speak at you about how you should give more, how giving money is an act of worship, how you really will be blessed-in-spite-of-the-recession…blah-blah-blah, right?

We've all sat through these messages before. We've all heard how only 3% of Americans Biblically tithe 10% of their income, and of course that means that you, me, and the person sitting in front of us are not in the holy 3%. But we should be thanked nonetheless, right?  After all, without the 97% of us backslidden, God-hating heathens, pastors wouldn't have such wonderfully shocking statistics.  That counts as some form of giving, right?

In all seriousness, growing up in the church I've sat through an unbearable number of messages about money.  I've heard pastors rail against congregations for not giving enough; I've heard others try to coax money out of their parishioners on the promise of God formulaicly responding to their act of generosity and sacrifice; and I've even seen people intimidated out of their money by, let's say, overly enthusiastic ministers trying to mold their listeners into the holy of God through their pocketbooks.

This Sunday was not like the rest.

When I sat down and looked at the message title, I figured I was in for more of the same.  Knowing my pastor, it was bound to be good-humored, well-thought-out, and compassionate…nonetheless, I was not prepared for what was about to come.

Now normally, when you're preaching on money, the typical approach is to talk about the BENEFIT of giving.  After all, if people already do not give, and given that a lot of people are feeling a financial crunch because of the current economic recession, you have to drop a pretty big carrot to disguise the stick. You know, talk about how God will increase 3, 7 1,000,000 fold what you give–if only you will give.  Dig up the prayer of Jabez and try to give it a slant that people haven't heard before (as if!).  Or find a collection of random passages in Scripture that talk about God's blessing, rifle through them with some colorful anecdotes thrown in for good effect, and hope a decent percentage are cajoled into dropping some coin before the next service begins.  Eat, sleep, repeat. 

This message was nothing like this at all. Instead of talking about money and giving in virtual isolation from anything else related to the spiritual life (which is by FAR the most common approach), my pastor formed his central thesis on a very familiar passage:

"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (Matthew 6:24)

Of course, this is a very familiar passage, and I've heard it used dozens of times to frame a messages about money.  However, my pastor took a slant on this that I do not think I've ever heard used before.Basically, he structured his argument like this:

If we take the meaning of the passage at face value, Jesus is really talking about money. Money, here, then is not understood as simply a foil for "anything that distracts us from God," as if the passage could be reduced to "You cannot serve both God and ____."  Quite to the contrary, Jesus specifically identifies "Money" because, for a variety of reasons, the wealth that we obtain is one of the primary false gods that we craft for ourselves.  Put another way, it is a primary way by which we reject God.  Understood as such, money is not just one amongst a million temptations competing for our affections; rather it is perhaps rivaled only by self-pride as the greatest dangers to the soul. Because of this, my pastor argued, the logical conclusion is that:

"Giving is a discipline by which we prevent Money from becoming our god."

I was literally blown away when I heard these words.  Normally, I'm a fairly unemotional person, especially when it comes to theological discussions.  But when the realization of these words sunk in, something welled up inside of me, like the acknowledgment of a great and profound truth, hidden in the simplest of statements.

So why is this statement so profound and truth-telling?

First of all, I think it is a prophetic witness against the "thieves and salesman" (to borrow a line from Derrik Webb) of today's Christian culture that barter the blessings of God to the highest bidder.  These charlatans promise miracles, magic formulas, and direct lines of credit with God.  To them, money, prosperity, and wealth comprise the domain of God's favor, and they sell themselves as the shepherds and gatekeepers of the holy storehouses.  To them, money is morally neutral; a medium of exchange that, while understood as a direct sign of God's blessing (to be sure), is nonetheless incapable of the personification of evil spoken of by Jesus.  After all, how can money be a god if the possession of it is, in fact, the very sign of God's blessing to the one claiming to follow Christ?

Contrarily, my pastor's words utterly deny the moral neutrality of money. As Richard Foster powerfully notes in The Challenge of the Disciplined Life , "Money is not something that is morally neutral, a resource to be used in good or bad ways depending solely upon our attitude toward it.  Mammon is a power that seeks to dominate us (26)."  In such a perspective, the kind of teaching that compels people to seek money primarily as an "end," or realization of God's blessing, leads people dangerously toward, if not all the way to, idolatry. These shepherds guide the sheep into the country of the evil one, thinking that within his dominion they will find God's favor.  

But even more importantly, my pastor's words resonated with me because couching "giving" within the confines of "discipline" carefully and thoughtfully avoids turning the act of giving into a pursuit that can end with purely selfish gain. Again, in modern Christian culture, the "prosperity" gospel reigns because not only does it promise riches and blessing beyond the wildest imagination, but it promises them within a very aggressive time line.  Give $100, and God will bless you with $1,000 next week, says one huckster.  Give $1,000 and God will enrich you ten-fold next month, says another.  Promise after promise is made, and each is rooted in the belief that 1.) God will be reciprocal to my giving and 2.) God will be reciprocal to my giving NOW.

By understanding giving as a discipline, however, this false formulaic expectation of God is renounced; giving is done not for what God will reciprocate, but rather as an act of sacrifice and self-discipline.  Like the discipline of prayer, is it not pursued so that by becoming a better pray-er I can compel God to answer my prayers more effectively.  To the contrary, as the discipline of prayer is practiced solely for the goal of more closely praying God's will, so too the discipline of giving re-orients our understanding of the treasure that we have and the place that is has within the kingdom of God.

By practicing giving as a discipline, we are removed from the temptation of expecting reciprocity from God. By definition, giving will be a sacrifice, and we will not expect God to magically replenish or increase that which we have "lost" through sacrifice.  But what will happen is that we will be given new eyes to see t
t which God has given to
us. Instead of a self-focused understanding of that which we have, our letting go of "rights" to our treasure refocuses our priorities and the very orientation we have to money is shifted.  No longer a rival god, it becomes a powerful tool through which God's will is enacted in God's kingdom on earth.<Photo 1>