Money was invented as tool to help facilitate the trade of a dozen eggs for a jar of jam. But it has become something very abstract. You only have to listen to an expert explain how mortgages are bundled and about hedge funds, to see how far we’ve come from eggs and jam. Our sense of money, and the resources it represents, has become ungrounded. So it is up to us ground it. As individuals and as a faith community we need to figure out what money is for.
Everyone makes choices about how they will spend their money, some are big choices like what rent you will pay for your new apartment, or whether to own a car, or to have children. Other choices are made on a daily basis- can I afford the free range eggs? Do I need a new sweater? Folks who are struggling financially have to make impossible choices, like whether to pay rent on time or pay the electric bill or go see the doctor. Folks who make more than a living wage have a lot more freedom in what they will do with their money.
There’s a funny thing that happens when we realize that choices are being made, and that we have made different choices than our friends. We question our choices. Maybe I am afraid that you are judging me for making the choice I made. Maybe we are confounded by the choices our neighbors make. So sometimes we don’t admit to ourselves that choices are being made. A friend told me recently “I had to get unlimited data- I didn’t have a choice” and I thought to myself “that might be the best choice, the only sensible choice, but it is still a choice.” Sometimes we didn’t make the important choices consciously, we let them just kind of happen. Maybe we didn’t realize that we were making the choice to pile up debit so we could eat lunch out. Many Americans didn’t realized that their choice to go to a certain college was a choice to take on loans they might not be able to pay. But as a community of seekers, I hope this can be a place where we can think about these things. That we can think about our values, and how we put those values into action in our lives. Because whether we are aware of it or not, our money helps us express our values in the community, and indeed helps shape our community, for good or for ill.
Back in 2009 when the market crashed, many of our family budgets changed, my family and I started to look again at many of the choices we were making, and realized there were choices where we hadn’t seen choices before. Whenever our income changes, it changes how we express our values, it changes the choices we make. And so it has the potential to change our self-understanding. For folks whose sense of self has gotten tangled up with who they are as a consumer, (and that’s most of us here in America) this can be a frightening, confusing time. If you are used to working, and are suddenly out of work, or under employed, we suddenly realize how much of our sense of our self was tied up with the work we do, and the resources we bring home. We received the messages of our culture that “you are what you buy” or “the value of your work is reflected in how much you make” that we might not even notice. So it is up to us as a community of faith to remember that we are not workers, we are not consumers, we are not rich or poor, we are much more than that. We are miracles of evolution and biology, we are living souls, unique and precious.
This congregation has seen budgets go up and down over the last 200 years. These past few years have been a tight time for our congregation, but you have responded with great thoughtfulness and care. You have given more of yourselves and been very prudent to meet these financial challenges. The core of who you are as a congregation is strong. As individuals, as a congregation, as a nation, whenever our economic health is shaken, we are called to strengthen the other layers of our being. Our relationships with one another, our support for our eco-system, our integrity, our compassion, our agency as change makers in this society, our love of beauty. Whenver money is tight, it is a moment when we have an opportunity to learn how much more to ourselves as individuals than that part of us which is bound up with money, And it is also time for us to strengthen our values, to know that our values, our ethics, our integrity need not be weakened by this weakened economy.
For example: when the recession hit our family, I had gotten into certain habits in the grocery store. I tried to buy paper products made from recycled paper. I tried to buy free-range chicken, and cage-free eggs. But now that we are trying to make our grocery dollars go farther- I must have stood there in the poultry aisle for 20 minutes. I made the hard choice that I was going to buy the conventional chicken for $2.50 a pound instead of the free range chicken for $10 a pound. But I also affirmed that I would support local farmers whenever I can, buying eggs laid in Thompkins county, with preference to those laid in my friends back yard by chickens I have met personally. Was that the only choice I could have made? No. I could have given up my yoga classes and still have purchased the free range chicken. I could give up eating meat. My choices was not perfect- I don’t deceive myself that I made the only possible choice. You might have made a different choice. And that might be part of why we don’t talk about these things.
By looking at our financial choices, we learn something about what our values really are. Part of the Coming of Age program I’ve done with 8th-10th graders over the past 20 years involves values clarification. We found some questions you can ask yourself to help clarify what your values are:
• Is this something that's important to you?My story about agonizing in the poultry aisle shows me a few things about myself and my values: Yoga is important to me, Animal rights are important to me, and the environment is important to me. Take a moment right now to list some of your core values…
• Do you feel good about this being important to you?
• Would you feel good if people you respect knew that this was important to you?
• Have you ever done anything that indicates that this is important to you?
• Is this something you would stand by even if others made fun of you for it?
• Does this fit in with your vision of who you are?
Now think of your checkbook register or your bank statement. What appears there? How closely does it match that list of values? Our work as people of faith is to create as much coherence and integrity as possible between what we value and how we live. Notice how personal those choices are. I can’t tell you what your values are, or how to do the complicated calculus of how to weigh those choices in the grocery store. But sometimes by talking together we get the courage to make tough choices, or new information, or a new perspective that helps us choose. When I was talking to a friend about my own hard choices, she pointed me to the Union of Concerned Scientists list of the 10 most important things we can do to save the planet. They put buying organic produce right there at the top. So my family is recommitting to our CSA this year, knowing that will mean we will have less money to spend on other things, because that is a choice that is possible for us and is in line with our family’s values.
I want to assure you that to be an ethical person doesn’t mean you have to live an ascetic life with no money for things you enjoy. Sometimes what we see looking at our checkbook is that certain expenses that don’t appear on our list of values appear there with surprising regularity. Columnist Dayana Yochim writes for the “Motley Fool” series “Fiscal fitness 2009” and confesses:
“I spend $1.62 many mornings just to get my fix from the Subway soda fountain. I do so even knowing that I could save $1.37 a day -- $27.40 a month -- by buying a can out of our 25-cent pop machine at work. It may seem like a wasteful expenditure to most, but a fountain soda -- particularly from a machine calibrated to deliver that perfect mix of carbonation and syrup -- is my guilty pleasure. And I'm not going to give it up anytime soon.”So instead she budgeted for it, and cut out $30 a month of other things that just didn't bring her the same joy as that fountain soda. It reminded me that joy, play, fun, taste are values too. This is important because one of the things that goes wrong when people budget, is that they make a budget so ascetic that it sends them screaming into the marketplace to assuage their feeling of deprivation. A wise friend once said “My parents raised me to believe I could have it all, they just didn’t tell me I couldn’t have it all at once.” Maybe this month I make a special gift to the food bank, and next month I take my Husband out to dinner. I don’t feel guilty at all when I go see a favorite band play. ‘Supporting Local Music” is a proud member of my list of top 10 values, and I’m willing to give up other things to do it.
Of course there are other ways to express our values that don’t require a lot of money. If “good food” is a value, we are lucky to be part of a religious community with some awesome cooks! A potluck here is as good as eating at many restaurants. One of the top 10 ways you can save the world is to fly less and drive less- and that doesn’t cost anything. We remember that saving the environment is not at its core about being able to buy the latest eco-chic product. When we “reduce, reuse, recycle” it is good for the planet and for our checkbook.
No matter what our financial circumstances, each of us can make a difference in the world. Our story this morning about the magic pomegranate is a beautiful story from the Jewish tradition about how we each have something special to give, and much as the gifts of all three brothers were needed to save the princess, each of us is called to find and cultivate our gifts, and all of our gifts are needed as we come together to create a community of compassion and integrity.
It reminds me of another story taken from the Christian scriptures:
It begins when Jesus “sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury, for they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” [Mark 12:41-44] 
Whether rich, poor, or somewhere in between, we have the opportunity to contribute the way this widow did, with a felt generosity that will ripple into the way she lives her life. This is the conversation we can have together; what does it mean to use the money we have earned or saved in a way that reflects our values. This is why as a community of faith, we are called to see beyond the hard numbers to the heart, the soul of each gift. Said the treasurer of a congregation I worked with years ago: "nobody else knows what goes on in your home and your heart."
The occasion of our stewardship campaign gives us the opportunity to look at generosity and stewardship on the level of the soul and heart. This is particularly important in a culture that respects wealth and commerce above all.
We must be fundamentally about something different in our sanctuary here. We must value the giver more than the gift. Our principles teach us to honor a diversity of gifts that mirror an economically diverse and inclusive community.
I like the fact that my translation of the story of the widow says she gave “her whole living” which invites us to see the wholeness of the gift. It calls to mind the people in this congregation who give hours each week to see our books are balanced. The volunteers who create worship services. I am moved by each volunteer who leads our young children downstairs on a Sunday morning to help them on their own search in this world, and those who start the coffee or bring a pot of stew for our social hour. “Her whole living” reminds me of the people who carry the values of this church out into their jobs, their parenting, their gardening.
No matter how big or small your purse, money is only one of many tools for creating a life of integrity and generosity. But it is a powerful tool in our society. So let us use it consciously as an expression of our deepest values, let it speak saying what we mean for it to say. Let it speak the wholeness of our living.
Thank you for giving life to this place, and thank you for the gifts that only you can give.