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Matthew 22:15-22
2 Corinthians 9:10-11, from The Message


        There, I said it.

        No fancy tricks, no coming at it sideways, or trying to dress it up; I’ll tell it to you plain: This sermon is going to be, in part, about money.

        Take a moment to check in with yourself, to see how you feel about that, to consider what’s going on with you.

        Are you feeling disappointed? Uncomfortable? Angry? Anxious? Frustrated? Are you wondering why we have to talk about that? Or maybe you think that’s all churches ever talk about. Are you thinking about all the groups that ask you for money, how it’s always something? Or are you shutting down, thinking maybe now would be a good time to make your grocery list?

        Just take a moment to notice and name what and how you’re feeling.

        No judgment. No shame. Just notice. Simply be aware that you do have feelings about money.

        Of course, you do. We all do. How could we not?

        And like most feelings and ideas, our feelings about money get weird only when we don’t deal with them—when we fail to acknowledge them or when we suppress and deny them, when we refuse to talk about them with the people we love, when we let our unacknowledged anxieties about money shape our lives, or when our ways of handling money cause conflict in our marriages.

        Our feelings about money—conscious and unconscious—shape so much of our behavior. Maybe this is why Jesus talked about money and possessions more than just about anything else. He did, you know. Not because having money is bad (it is not), but because our feelings about it sometimes get between us and the life abundant God wants for us. Not because money itself is a problem, but because our feelings about it—anxiety, greed, love, denial, idolatry—and what we do with it can come between us and the welfare of others.

        It’s a funny thing: Jesus talked about money all the time because he loves us and wants us to be freed from our fears and to know the fullness of life. But he never asked for any. Right?

        One of the reasons we get nervous when someone starts talking about money is we think, “Oh. Here it comes. Now they’re going to ask me to give them some.”

        Right? And our hearts shut down a little, as if we are holding onto our wallets a little more tightly.

        But as far as we know Jesus never asked his followers for money. He simply wanted them to be freed from its hold on their hearts, its claim to their joy, its oppressive anxiety. He wanted them—he wants us—to know the gift of trusting God the Giver. He wants us to be free. He wants us to know security. He wants us to have peace. And so he talks about money.

        I have not talked about money much lately. I apologize for that. I could make excuses—there is so much going on in our world; we so dearly need encouragement and hope and all that—but I just really need to say I’m sorry. Because it’s not as if we’re not thinking about it all the time, right? Do I have enough? Will I have enough? What is enough?

        So, yes, this sermon is in part about money. But I’ll make a deal with you: If you can try to not totally shut down, I will not ask you for money today. I will not encourage you to prayerfully consider how much of your treasure to return to God by giving to First Church—not today. I will not ask you to consider increasing your pledge to First Church so that we might continue to love God by loving God’s people—not today. Okay?

        And still, I think it’s worth talking about money and the hold it has on us. And it’s worth talking about who God is and, if we truly believe we are made in God’s image, what that means about who we are.

        It’s worth talking about money because of that front-page article in the Gazette the other day. Did you see it? The one about the 28-year-old carpenter who cashed his 389-dollar-paycheck, put it into one-dollar and two-dollar bills and then went into Northampton’s busiest intersection at 5 o’clock and threw all that money up into the air (and told the newspaper that he was going to do it). 1

        Did you see that? What did you think?

        It would be easy to think that this was just another indication of how goofy life the Happy Valley can be. It would be easy to write this money-throwing guy off as a self-absorbed kook. When he was confronted by a woman in the street who asked him why he didn’t give his $389 to the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, he told her she could pick it up off the street and give it to them.

        He just wanted to be rid of the money. He didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

        “I have a lot of money anxiety,” he said.

        And he seemed to think that throwing $389 up into the air in the middle of the street would help with that. Really?

        As I said, it would be easy to write off this guy as a misguided kook. But the reality is that we are all throwing money around all the time—hoping it will make us feel better. We throw money at our houses and cars. We throw money at vacations and clothes and hobbies. We throw money at retirement funds and savings accounts—and then worry that we haven’t thrown enough. Right? And then there’s the money we have to throw—at bills for everything from food and house repairs to insurance and tuition and taxes.

        Jews living in first-century Palestine had to throw some of their money to their oppressors in Rome. It was an outrage that ate away at them and a controversy that divided them: In paying taxes to Rome, they were financing their own occupation.

         What did Jesus think about this? they wanted to know. (Or, not unlike us sometimes, they cared less about what he thought than what he would say, so they would have something to criticize and act against.) Jesus saw the trap for what it was—and then gave as good as he got. Show me the coin you use to pay the tax, he said.

        And so some guy reached into his pocket a fished out a denarius—the ancient Roman silver coin that was worth about a day’s wage for an unskilled laborer. But a denarius was more than just a coin: its words and imagery made it something of an idol. Along with the image of Caesar’s head was this inscription: Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus. Which is to say: The economic currency Jews had to traffic in proclaimed that the Roman emperor was the son of God—not Israel’s God but the emperor before him. The very money they carried compromised them, as it violated the first two commandments about having no idols before the one God or taking God’s name in vain.

        So get down off your high horse, Jesus told them. Confess your complicity with the system, acknowledge the debts you owe, and then move on to what is real and good and true, to the things that are God’s. The real question is not whether you pay the tax, but to whom you belong. The real issue is not whose image is on your money and what you do with it, but whose image you bear and how you live that out.

        So give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus said. Get that money and that image out of the way—throw it up into the air if you have to—so that you are better able to live into who you were created to be, so that you can joyfully give your very self, your own godly image, to the one who made you and gave you everything.

        Give to God the things that are God’s.

        The things that are God’s. Is there anything that does not come from God’s goodness? Is there anything that is not God’s? Is there any better way to love, any better way to live into our God-given image than to share what we have been given?

        This was Paul’s invitation to the members of the church in Corinth. The image of God is creativity and generosity. The work of God is giving—without  consideration of merit or performance. God sends rain on the just and the unjust, Jesus said, and so God gives good things to all. And that is our image, too. That is also who we are. And yet we who know we are happiest and most fulfilled when we are being true to ourselves sometimes fail to see how our relationship to money gets in the way of our truest, best selves.

        This most generous God, Paul says, gives you something—gives you everything—so that you can be fully yourself: generous and free, happy and fulfilled, partnering with God to love and heal the world. For God’s sake and for yours, for the welfare of those in need and justice for all, Throw your money around.

        When the 28-year-old carpenter threw his money up into the air, it was caught up in the wind of a glorious autumn afternoon. The bills  fluttered and fell, and pedestrians grabbed them from the air or picked them up from the pavement. Perhaps the unusual event brought people a moment’s fleeting joy; maybe some folks took their windfall and got a pumpkin latte or dropped a dollar into the hand of the homeless person sitting on the sidewalk.

        For us, our most generous God wants a deeper, more lasting joy, a fuller, more meaningful life.

        The carpenter threw his money up in the air because it made him anxious. God hopes we will share what we have because we are grateful, because we, like God, are generous.

        Where are you throwing your money? Why? How does it make you feel?