The Sacrament of Money – From the Daily Office – May 9, 2014

From the Book of Exodus:

The Lord said to Moses: Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing-oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 25:1-8 (NRSV) – May 9, 2014.)

Gold silver and bronze barsADDED LATER: Oops!!! I just realized late on May 9 that I had read the lessons for May 10 one day ahead of time. This lesson is actually for the next day . . . . mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! Apologies, faithful readers!

It occurred to me as I read this passage this morning that God is ordering Moses to conduct the first capital campaign.

In 24 years of ordained ministry I have been involved in three major capital campaigns in as many parishes. Each time, the parish leadership turned to professional fundraising consultants to assist them and each consultant told us the same thing: capital campaigns do not impact regular financial stewardship because people give to the operating budget out of income, but they give to the capital campaign out of wealth. In other words, our regular weekly support of our churches comes from our paychecks, but what we give to capital projects we take from savings and investments.

How is it that the Hebrews have all this wealth? These people are wandering around Sinai not carrying enough food to feed themselves — hence the manna and the quail in Exodus 16 — and yet they have gold, silver, bronze, spices, incense, and precious stones? That raises all sorts of issues for me about human priorities and the spirituality of possessions and wealth.

So, too, does Tuesday’s report that the 25 highest-earning hedge fund managers in the United States took home a total of $21.15 billion in compensation last year! That’s an average annual take-home for those investment advisors of $860 million each! That kind of compensation blurs the distinction between “income” and “wealth.” I would argue that this is not “income;” it is, rather, transfer of “wealth.”

In my most recent experience of capital campaigning, our goal was $500,000; we didn’t quite make it – we raised about 76% of the goal in five-year pledges. Because the work we were undertaking could not be postponed, our governing board made the “leap of faith” decision to finance the rest. For us, this was a difficult and painful decision. For any of those 25 hedge fund managers, it would have meant spending less than 6/10 of one percent of their annual compensation.

It has been suggested that money is a sacrament: it is a sign of the work we do, a symbol of our sweat and toil, an indicator of our values. I think I would refine that argument, however, to say that income is a sacrament of these things. Which then raises the question, of what is wealth a sacrament? Our security? Our faith in the future? Our faith in God? And just how sacramental (either as income or wealth) is a transfer of more millions of dollars than most people can even imagine, or an expenditure of less than one percent of our compensation?

I figured it out. 6/10 of one percent of my wife’s and my combined annual income is almost exactly what I spent a couple of days ago on a tankful of gasoline. That purchase was not a gut-wrenching decision; it required no thought at all, no spiritual or emotional investment, no “leap of faith” like the vestry’s decision to go forward with our recent capital improvement project. One of those hedge fund managers could have paid for that project with as little thought or spiritual reflection as I spent pumping gas into my car.

And, I suggest, that lack of thought and reflection about income and wealth permeates our society. A confession: This is the second time in a few months that I’ve read this passage of Exodus. The first was in the context of a bible study group at church. The first time the question of what the Hebrews were doing carting around that sort of wealth as they wandered the desert for forty years never occurred to me. It didn’t occur to me until it was juxtaposed with the report of hedge fund manager compensation and the inordinate wealth transfer it represents. But it should have. I should have, we all should have a spirituality of money, a theology of wealth and income.

And a theology of money, at the very least, should demand that we pause and engage in at least a bit of thought and spiritual reflection on what we do routinely — filling our tanks, buying books for leisure reading or study, letting the bank automatically pay our internet access fees. It requires us to get some perspective, to step back and think about the course we are charting, to consider what our spending says about us, what our saving says about us. What is money as a sacrament saying? What are the gold, silver, bronze, spices, incense, and precious gems we cart around our particular deserts saying about us?

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

This entry was posted in Anglican, Bible, Christianity, Church, Daily Office, Economy, Episcopal, Exodus, Lectionary, Ministry, Religion, Spirituality, Theology, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

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