Just after New Year’s, during that season of resolution making and breaking, I stumbled upon a nifty new online tool for keeping track of my finances. For years I’d been using Microsoft’s Money software, then I’d kind of fallen out of the habit of entering all my transactions and I’d moved into a more, umm, intuitive method of keeping track of my expenses. But when Kerry moved in last year it was time to put together a new household budget, and to figure out where our money was coming from and where it was going.
So, I booted up the laptop and launched the old Microsoft Money software, only to discover that Microsoft had discontinued it. Turns out there are now all sorts of online personal finance sites designed to help us keep track of our finances, track spending, create budget and set goals. I looked at a number of them and settled on one called Mint. It’s free, and it’s able to automatically go and fetch all my transactions across all of my accounts and keep track of all of my various asset and debt balances. At the touch of a button it tells me how my spending is changing over time, how my various investments are doing in this economy, and when I will pay off each of my debts at my current rate of repayment.
I really like this new tool. Because it’s all done online, I can access my financial information whenever I’d like, wherever I am. They’ve even got an app for my iPhone so that I can check my spending against various budget items while I’m out and about. Say a friend calls me in the middle of the afternoon to invite me to a movie, I can quickly check and see if I’ve got any money left in my entertainment budget for this month, or if I should take a raincheck and make plans to take in a movie next month when that line item recharges. What I’m saying is that it helps me feel in control of my finances. It restores a sense of mastery over my situation in life.
You’ll remember that about a month ago I was unexpectedly absent from church. I’d been up late the night before and fixed myself an egg sandwich that wasn’t fully cooked. I woke up in the middle of the night, violently sick. So sick, in fact, that I passed out in the bathroom and hit my face against something hard – breaking one of my front teeth in half. I’ve been really unlucky on the dental front for years, and my dentist in Andersonville sees me often enough to know my dental insurance plan by heart. If I could earn miles for every minute I spend in her chair, I’d have two free tickets to wherever I’d like by now. The minute I walked through her door the next morning she bumped two other patients to take care of me.
Afterward, the bill came. Insurance doesn’t want to pay for the new crown since I just got new crowns last year. Now we’re fighting over the fine print in my plan, and my dentist is waiting to get paid. I go to my personal finance page online, and no matter how I look at it, there’s no way to pay these bills without losing ground on some of my other goals and plans for the future. As it turns out, I am not the master of my own fate.
Today is the eighth Sunday since the church’s celebration of Epiphany. We are coming close to the end of a cycle that began, really, last November with the beginning of the church’s year and the season of Advent. We spent those four weeks longing for Christ, the light of the world, to come into the darkness of our lives, of our world. With the festival of Christmas and throughout the twelve days that followed, we marveled at the idea that God’s light comes to the world as God takes on flesh and blood and lives a life like ours, among us.
Then came Epiphany, the dawning realization that God has not come simply to rescue us, or those like enough to us, but for all of us. The light of God comes to us, through us, for all the world. A light for the nations, breaking down every dividing wall we would erect to keep us divided from one another. That is the church’s annual cycle of light, Advent – Christmas – Epiphany, which will conclude next Sunday as we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday.
During these Sundays following Epiphany, we have listened each week to Jesus as he delivers the content of his good news in the Sermon on the Mount. Remember how it all began? After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, Jesus went out into the wilderness and was tempted with alternate visions for his ministry, other gospels of power and prosperity he might preach. But he turns his back on those other messages and returns instead to Galilee, where he calls his disciples and begins to travel the countryside, healing those who gathered around him and announcing that the reign of God had come near.
As the crowds grew in size and excitement, Jesus taught them, beginning his sermon with the list of blessings we have come to know as the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” (Mt. 5:1-6).
Jesus preaches his good news to a crowd filled with the forgotten, abused, exploited and oppressed people of Israel. Living under Roman occupation, these people fostered no illusions that they were the masters of their fate. Jesus continues,
“Blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart… blessed are the peacemakers… blessed are the persecuted…” (Mt. 5:7-10).
Admission into the reign of God begins to come clear. It is not about some heaven, removed from this lifetime, and it is not for those who wield power over others in this lifetime. The reign of God draws near to those who suffer and those who tend to the suffering, here and now. Jesus continues,
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account…” (Mt. 5:11)
The reign of God, the blessings of God, are not waiting for us in the future, they are not evidenced by wealth and prosperity. The blessings of God come to us as we adopt the kinds of backwards and upside-down values of God, which prioritize the weak over the strong, the poor over the rich, the merciful over the mighty, and the peacemakers over the warmongers. The reign of God draws near, in fact is available here and now, to those who reject the logic of this world and allow themselves to be adopted by God’s values.
But to be adopted by God, and to live according to G
od’s values, means not only to reject the world’s logic of self-sufficiency, but to be rejected by it as well. To be adopted into the reign of God means learning to pray like Jesus prayed, “give us this day our daily bread” – not enough bread to ensure all our future needs, but just enough for the day in front of us. To be adopted into the reign of God means deciding to store up treasures in the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus says is seen among the poor and the hungry, the meek and the mourners. We are called to invest in each other, not in ourselves.
In our Wednesday night seminars, the Living the Questions group has been watching a video series on the first century context in which Jesus lived and preached. A few weeks ago we learned about the economic transitions going on throughout the countryside as the Roman Empire took possession of the land. One of these transitions was the monetization of the economy. Where previously small communities would work together to sow the seeds, harvest the crops, and provide for one another’s needs, in the Imperial economy the crops and the wages were determined by the land owner. The community no longer worked together to care for the needs of all, but each worked alone to provide for their own needs and the needs of the family. Communities no longer grew the crops needed to survive, they grew crops for export and were paid a wage they had no hand in determining. They went from an economy of collective effort for mutual benefit to one of individual effort for individual gain. It left everyone except the very richest anxious about their future.
It’s a beautiful vision for life, a world where each of us is cared for and invested in by countless others – where my broken tooth is covered by my neighbor and her children’s education is guaranteed as well. But I worry that choosing to live only on my daily bread will come back to bite me in retirement. Who will take care of me when my preaching days are over? Who will take care of you when your children are grown and out of the house?
Or, as the folks in the Café group have been exploring in their study of Sara Miles’ memoir of faith and feeding, what does it mean to take communion at the Lord’s table? With whom are we truly in communion? Do we approach our charity work as work that we do out of our plenty for the sake of others who lack enough to care for themselves? Or, are we called to a deeper sense of community, communion, in which the needs of our neighbors are as important to us as the needs of our own households. Who is it coming through our doors – neighbors or family members? Visitors or members? Them or us?
There is a choice to be made. Jesus says, “no one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Mt. 6:24). But this isn’t really a decision between God and money, it’s more a decision between God and what money represents – whether that be safety, or self-sufficiency, or something else. Today the choice is laid before us – what do you put your trust in: your single, solitary self; or the community constituted in baptism and fed at the table of God’s plenty? Can you create, all by yourself, a world in which every contingency is accounted for and all your future days are taken care of; or do you require a world in which all of us, together, commit to caring for and loving each other with the kind of deep, unbreakable, enduring love we first felt in God’s mothering arms, in God’s fathering embrace?
If you have to do it alone, then you will always be checking your accounts, always monitoring progress toward future goals, always living life on layaway. If we can decide to do this together, then we may be able to rest just a little bit easier. We may be able to lay down tomorrow’s worries and focus, together, on today’s troubles – which are more than enough for today.
The kingdom of heaven has drawn near. In fact, it is right here, among us, calling us to join in the work of the Creator, to labor alongside each other for the benefit of all. Jesus, the light of the world, is shining a light on all our anxious fears, is inviting us to follow him on a journey, the journey that begins when we let go of life lived only for ourselves and learn to give ourselves away for the sake of each other. It is a journey that leads always, inevitably, to the cross.
But that is the next cycle, beginning on Ash Wednesday, carrying us through the Three Days and to a new life on the other side that fills us with the Holy Spirit and sends us out into the world. For today let’s just give thanks that God has given us each other, and let’s commit ourselves to inviting, engaging and loving each other and the whole world like there’s no tomorrow.