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Sermons: “Filthy Lucre or Golden Opportunity?

Sunday last I spoke on the themes of religion, sex, and politics. I thought this morning that I would speak of yet another taboo, money. Unitarian Universalists do not seem to mind if the minister preaches on sex. Religion in lights doses is generally acceptable. Politics is often dangerous. But money is the bane of the pulpit. Most ministers only dare to preach the annual "Sermon on the Amount" when the congregation begins its pledge drive for the next fiscal year.

I suppose there are several reasons why money seems to be anathema to ministers and their congregations. I think one of the reasons is found in the naiveté by which many ministers approach the subject. Many are idealistic. Christians have struggled for centuries what to do with Jesus' command to the young rich man, "…go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me." (Mark 10:21) Many believe that this is a literal command and few have thought that Jesus may well have had is tongue planted firmly in his cheek when he said it.

While many wonder what to make of this story it is the same minister who must come before his or her congregation and beg for more money to raise the budget or pay for the most recent repair bill. The fact of the matter is that many ministers do not know how to read a budget statement or understand concepts as simple as cash flow.

When I taught church administration at Phillips Theological Seminary, there were very few students who were glad to be in the class. Some waited until their senior year to take the required course. Many thought the work of finance and administration was drudgery and not really what they went into the ministry for. At the same time I have met many lay people who get elected to the church's board of trustees and are disturbed at the amount of time the board spends on finances, personnel, maintenance, and administration. They seldom serve their full term.

Perhaps there has been too much scandal around money and church. Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, but we note that he called Judas to be the treasurer for his little band of apostles. The same Judas would betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.

If you read the book of Acts carefully you will realize that the very first fight in the Christian church was about money. The question was how to distribute alms to the poor. Some of the widows were not certain that they were getting their fair cut. Money is often the reason why churches are still fighting. The New Testament letters of Timothy and Titus stipulate that bishops must not be greedy for money.

Timothy wrote, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains." (I Tim. 6:10) The King James Version uses the term "filthy lucre."

Stories abound of ministers who ran off with the church's money. There are ministers who equate faith with prosperity, or push prayer cloths or religious bric-a-brac in exchange for financial contributions. They offend us mightily. And who can forget the money schemes of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and the people who lost their entire life savings because of them?

Churches trust too much, and we want it that way, but when we discover that the funds have been purloined we are disillusioned. Church books are never audited enough, financial and management practices are often questionable, and there never seems to be enough money. Every time you turn around the church has its hand out for more money. Think of all of those book sales, spaghetti suppers, car washes, and bake sales.

There are some people who, quite frankly, are not sure that their gifts to the church earn enough return. Putting money in the offering plate is not like investing in a mutual fund, where slow but certain growth is a reasonable expectation. We are often not sure what the benefits or rewards are for our contributions to the church. There are a number of people who shudder when they realize that over 50% of all church budgets are designated for salaries. They are not sure what it is that those people do, or why we need them all in the first place.

There are few quantifiable and objective results that are obvious to the average person. These same people might be surprised to know that church professionals and support staff also wonder what good they have done lately and who really appreciates the 50-hour work week they are giving to the congregation. Other people use money as a way to influence the decisions of the church. Some withhold their financial support because they do not like the minister or are angry because the painted the sanctuary antique white instead of cream. They seldom realize that the people who are hurt by withholding a pledge include all of the staff who did not get a raise, or whose benefits were curbed.

Another reason why churches are in denial about money is because money is too close to our real values. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that, "Political Economy is as good a book wherein to read the life of a man and the ascendancy of laws over all private and hostile influences, as any Bible which has come down to us." 1

In other words, you cannot determine a person's character by how often he or she opens the Good Book. Their values are more accurately displayed in their checkbook. What we spend our money on speaks volumes about what we really cherish.

We are uncomfortable talking about money because we often feel - or are made to feel - guilty about the fact that by the world's standards we are wealthy people. There is not a single person in this room, no matter how modest their income, who is not rich in comparison to women and men in third and fourth world countries. Most of us will consume in one week more protein than some people will consume in a year. We are sensitive to the suggestion of classism and we are not certain what to do when the Unitarian Universalist Association exhorts us to economic justice.

The fact of the matter is that the average American family is only three paychecks away from financial insolvency. The greatest stress on most marriages is financial, especially revolving credit debt. American family incomes, adjusted for inflation, are no longer growing. In the 1960's family incomes grew about 3% annually. Since the 1980's they have not grown at all. We are not certain what to do about the paradox of our relative wealth and precarious financial security. And quite frankly, the church has done little to teach us real stewardship or speak honestly about the place of money in our lives.

The church's stewardship campaign is about the church's money and seems remote from our personal finances. We only get the message that we should give more and the church seems out of touch with our financial realities. Robert Wuthnow, one of the best sociologists of religion in America, has persuasively argued that American churches are in economic crises, especially the gap between revenue and expenditures. "Revenues are dropping off," wrote Wuthnow, "especially when giving is adjusted for inflation or is considered in relation to family incomes. Just as this decrease is happening, the need for resources has never been greater. Increasing numbers of disadvantaged people are looking to the churches for help. The churches are being asked to fill the gaps left by cuts in government welfare programs. Staff salaries are squeezed. Old buildings are in disrepair. New congregants are needed." 2

This description not only reveals the struggle of First Unitarian Church of Toledo on Collingwood Boulevard, but most of the other churches on Collingwood Boulevard.

There are two reasons why we are in this predicament, and both reasons are related to one another. The first is that most people are struggling with their own financial needs and do not see how the church is related to them. The church has not taken seriously the stewardship of families and how her families may prosper financially. The average family does not see a relationship between their own financial struggles and the ministry of the church. The second and related issue is the failure of the church to help people connect their money with their values - their hard earned income with the characteristics of life they deem important. There is a spiritual malaise in our congregations because we have disconnected our financial security from our most cherished convictions.

I do not propose in one sermon to solve this problem. I do propose to initiate a conversation that will lead us to a stewardship of our best Unitarian Universalist principles with our financial well being. I propose that we bless money talk, and agree that we will talk about it. It means that we can plan religious education that promotes financial well being in the families of our parish. We can teach people about budgets that reflect their values and their dreams. We can teach people techniques such as debt stacking to work their way out of debt. We can teach people that living means giving and how we can do that and pay for our children's college education. It means that we can talk openly and honestly about our church's financial needs, how to manage our endowment responsibly, and how we can expand the ministry of the church to meet the spiritual needs of future generations.

As a modest beginning let me state that money is not evil. Wealth is not evil. Earning money or gaining wealth is not evil. Indeed, to eliminate money would require the demise of human civilization and a return to the Bronze Age. The fact of the matter is that each of us is a consumer. From the moment we are conceived we consume. Is it even possible to fully calculate how much food and water we consume, the clothes we require, the shelter we demand, the education we esteem, and the health care we necessitate?

Emerson suggested that by our very human constitution we are expensive and we thus need to be rich.3 This is what it means to be a human being, and it requires that we must make money to secure the expensive habit of being alive. If we do not, we are faced with the terrible agony of begging for food, suffering, starvation, and exposure to the elements, and wandering lost without friends. This is the nature of things; indeed, it amounts to one of those natural laws that not one of us can escape.

But the fact of the matter is few people are satisfied with subsistence living. Beans and bread in a lowly tenement building hardly satiates the human hunger for knowledge, modern conveniences, even the arts. I have never met a person living in Section VIII housing who was content to stay there. Everyone dreams of owning their own home. Most people I know who live in school districts that are failing would move quickly to a better suburban school, if they could afford it. Or they would put their children in a private school. I have never known a parent who did not seek for their children the best advantages they could possibly obtain. Loyalty to race, or the city, or the old neighborhood quickly fades with the possibility of economic or educational advantage. I submit to you that all of us are inclined to seek the best for ourselves and our families. It is natural, and I dare submit that it follows some natural law to protect and provide for our young.

If our religious or political ideologies have suggested that the quest for financial security and well being are misguided, wrong, or sinful, I submit that such ideologies violate a realistic understanding of human nature. They will inevitably fail. It is not money - or the quest for money - that disrupts and distorts us. It is the idolatry of money - or the gain of money by corrupt means - that is wrong. Human beings become broken when we worship the golden calf or our stocks and bonds. King Midas was a fool who became greedy and valued everything against the standard of gold, even the life of his daughter. "Lucre" simply means "gain" or "wealth," but it becomes "filthy lucre" when it is achieved by oppression, usury, theft, fraud, or extortion. "Society is barbarous until every industrious man can get his living without dishonest customs," said Mr. Emerson.4

Money provides opportunities for us to better our own condition and enjoy the finer fruits of life. We can make our own place in the world, live within our means, and at the same time contribute to the common good of all persons. We cannot speak about the UU principle affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, if that person cannot sustain his or her family. One of the most devastating problems with poverty is that it limits or denies the poor the opportunity to be generous. Manipulating credit debts hardly enhances our dignity. Cajoling bill collectors is less than noble.

Human existence requires that we consume and that we take. We take from nature's bounty and the work of other persons. We are the recipients of the abundance of generosity of people we have never met or are even conscious of. But we do not have to give. Taking is a necessity, but giving is a choice. I submit that it is in giving that we experience our true freedom as human beings. We can choose what we give our money to and where we invest our time and energy. It is in our giving that we create and define our lives and the values that identify us.

Dr. Karl Menninger said, "Money giving is a symptom of a person's mental health. Generous people are seldom mentally ill." By sharing our substance we give new life that will feed many people for years to come. It may be a library that will feed the mind; or a museum that will feed the imagination; or a church that will feed the soul of people, stirring them to justice and compassion.

William Ellery Channing wrote, "How much may be done in this city to spread knowledge, vigor of thought, the sense of beauty, the pleasures of the imagination and the fine arts, and, above all, the influences of religion, through our whole community! Were the prosperous and educated to learn that, after providing for their families, they cannot better employ their possessions and influence than in forwarding the improvement and elevation of society, how soon would this city be regenerated."5 Money is replete with many opportunities to create a better society. They are golden opportunities that will expand the vision of our fellow citizens, inviting them into a world of thought and beauty.

This is just the beginning of a long conversation. Money touches our self-esteem and our sense of security as families and as a church family. Money has tremendous influence on our personal success and our congregational success.

I hope that in this conversation we will not feel ashamed or embarrassed or fearful. I hope we will not feel arrogant or self-pitying. I hope that we will appreciate the strengths and the limits of money in the life of our religious community. The church is not a business, but it does not have to be stupid in terms of financial management. May we be ever aware that the stewardship of our resources is a mark of maturity and wisdom. For out of the stewardship of our largess our most important values are represented.

1Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Wealth," The Conduct of Life; from The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson; Houghton, Mifflin and Co.; (Boston: 1904) Vol. VI, p. 101.
2 Robert Wuthnow, The Crisis in the Churches: Spiritual Malaise, Fiscal Woe; Oxford University Press (New York: 1997), p. 11.
3 Emerson, p.85.
4 Ibid.
5 William Ellery Channing, "Address on Temperance," Channing's Works; American Unitarian Association, (Boston: 1886), p. 107.

© Dr. Gary Blaine
First Unitarian Church of Toledo
Toledo, Ohio


2002 Stewardship Sermon Award Winner

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.

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