Transfiguring Money into Spirit

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
for Sabbath, January 30, 2016

Texts:  Leviticus 27:30-34 and Matthew 25:14-30

I think it would be difficult to find a more “unspiritual” thing than a Frito bag. The very sound the bag makes when you handle it—the sharp, crinkly sound—is a bit annoying and speaks of trash, cheap, unhealthy. I once preached a sermon on the evils of food that comes in crinkly bags. The bag is not recyclable or compostable. I don’t even think it burns. It’s just a cheap container for corn chips.

But over the past thirty-five years, Frito bags have been transfigured. They are the containers of a sacramental food. Now, just as a communion cup suggests the Lord’s Supper, so a Frito bag suggests a sacred meal. Frito bags have been transfigured from trash into spiritual treasure.

I’m doing a series of sermons on spiritual disciplines—religiously-inspired habits that help nourish our souls, help us be more aware of the presence and favor of God, habits that help shape our lives, habits that help us embed holiness in the core of our being.

The impulse to goodness is a gift. God has created within us a desire to do good, to make beauty, to heal and help, to create and build. All of these gifts call for nurture. If we have a gift of music, we nurture that gift through taking lessons and spending hours practicing. If we have a gift of movement, we nourish that gift by working out in a gym or running or spending hours shooting hoops. Every gift invites investment in habits that will bring that gift to its richest flowering.

It’s the same with spirituality. We can engage in habits that will strengthen our impulses toward compassion, self-control, integrity and kindness. One reason we come to church is that the social connections and worship encourage us in the right path.

Typical lists of spiritual disciplines or holy habits include things like meditation and prayer, Bible reading and listening to and singing inspirational music. Even fasting. But Frito bags? I’ve never seen Frito bags on one of those lists. But for me, Frito bags have been transformed into a sacrament. (A sacrament is an earthly vehicle of God’s presence and favor.)

How did Frito bags get transfigured into sacramental treasures?

For thirty years, it has been a tradition on Friday nights at our house to have “Haystacks.” As many of you know, “Haystacks” is a traditional Adventist version of a taco salad. Beans, chips, salad greens and tomatoes. Now that the kids are out of the house there is more variation in our Friday night menu because Karin is not as crazy about haystacks as I am. Still, the default menu for Friday night is haystacks. When we have haystacks, I can easily recall visions from earlier days when the kids were little. In my mind’s eye, I see my youngest daughter when she was two or three years old, white blond curls around her big eyes. I see my son, making too much noise, too much mess. I see my oldest daughter getting out the china and the fancy silverware. Because on Friday night, the menu might seem inelegant, but dinner was special. Now, I have other faces to add to these Friday night memories. For a couple of months at the end of this past year, my son and his wife and their two children were with us. So now when I play the Friday night memory video, I see the face of my granddaughter, a mischievous grin on her face as she delightedly shovels beans into her mouth with her hand. Then asks for more chips! Always more chips.

And chips come in crinkly bags.

Over the decades I have experimented with the haystack recipe. Black beans instead of pinto beans. Cauliflower in addition to the typical salad greens. Rice in addition to beans. I’ve tried various kinds of salsa. But one item has remained constant, chips. Always chips. And the premier Haystack chip is Fritos.

The tradition of chips is so deeply rooted that if I open a bag of chips on Tuesday, I’m likely to think about the family gathered around the table on Friday night.

Our family tradition—our discipline, our habit—has transformed a crinkly bag of chips into a constant reminder of precious people and wonderful occasions around our table.

Another unlikely sacrament—a hundred dollar bill.

It’s common for people to talk about money as a bad thing. We can even misquote the Bible: Money is the root of all evil. Or quote what it actually says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Or in other translations, “all kinds of evils.” 1 Timothy 6:10

I suppose an inordinate obsession with money can lead to all kinds of evil. However, I think of money as the life-blood of goodness. Money provides us with warm, dry kitchens to cook in. Money puts shoes on our kids. Money allows us to send presents to our friends who live a continent away. Allows us to fly to Australia. Enables us to respond to emergencies thousands of miles away. Money flows in all kinds of goodness.

We can engage in disciplines that will give us a deep sense of the holiness, the goodness of money. The practice of these disciplines gives us a sense of partnership with God in doing good in the world. They heighten our enjoyment of our wealth—however meager it might be from an accounting perspective.

In the Hebrew culture there were a number or practices designed to turn ordinary commerce into an agency of spiritual life. One was a practice called “first fruits.” At the time of harvest, before beginning work, a farmer would take a sample of the first of the harvest and present it as an offering to God.

In this act of offering, the farmers were celebrating God as the ultimate source of their bounty. Of course, the farmers had worked hard. The entire family—men, women and children—all put muscle and sweat and maybe tedium into producing the harvest. Grape vines needed pruning. Vegetable gardens needed planting and watering and weeding. Grain fields required plowing and cutting and gathering and threshing. Farming, especially in the days before machinery, was labor intensive . . . to say the least.

The harvest bounty did not fall into their laps. They worked for it. Still, they offered first fruits as their recognition of the divine gifts of soil and rain and sun. The magic of life itself. The life mysteriously hiding in seeds and pouring up through the roots of the vines and trees. Even their knowledge what and how and when, times of planting, methods of cultivation—this, too, was gift. And in their first fruit offering they reminded themselves of the gifts. And it made them glad.

Another practice of the Hebrews was something called tithing. “Tithe” is an old English word that simply means one tenth. Faithful farmers devoted one tenth of their crops to the support of the temple and the priesthood.

We see the seriousness of this practice in the words of our Old Testament reading today.

And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed, or the fruit of the tree, is the LORD’S. It is holy unto the LORD. If a man wishes to redeem any of his tithes, he shall add to it twenty percent. Concerning the tithe of the herd or flock—any kind of animal that is passed under a rod for counting—the tenth shall be holy unto the LORD. The farmer is not to check to see whether the animal is good or bad. He is not to exchange one animal for another. Leviticus 27:30-32

Ten percent belonged to God. This was simply a given. It was to become a habitual part of their lives.

This idea has been picked by Christians and applied to income. The Adventist Church officially encourages its members to devote ten percent of their income to God. When we do this, over time we come to think of ourselves as financial partners with God. Our money is God’s money. God’s money is our money.

When I have talked with church people over the decades about this idea of tithing, about devoting ten percent of our income to God, I hear most two kinds of comments.

Some people explain that they cannot afford to tithe. Usually, the reason they cannot afford to tithe is because they don’t have enough money. They need every last dollar they manage to scrape together just to pay rent, the VISA bill and buy shoes for their kids.

A very understandable situation.

The other set of comments I hear goes something like this: “I can’t afford not to. I give ten percent or fifteen or twenty percent, and the blessing I get from my giving is irreplaceable. I couldn’t manage without giving.”

People who regularly, habitually, systematically give money as part of their religious practice acquire a special relationship with money. Money becomes a vehicle of partnership with God. Money itself is felt to be holy. It’s not just the money these folks give to church or to charities or to needy people directly. Money itself, the paper stuff in our wallets, the plastic, all of it is holy.

So paying the VISA bill becomes a spiritual exercise. When we are paying our bills, we are directing some of earth’s bounty, some of God’s gift, to cover the expenditures we made last month for food and gasoline and flowers and birthday gifts.

This is the fruit of regular, habitual tithing. We learn to see money as an abstract form of hard work and ingenuity. Money is a visual expression of the cooperation between the gift of God and our own hard work and even good luck. Money is transfigured into spirit.

A penny, a hundred dollar bill, a check for 50,000 dollars – as we manage money, we have a sense that we are touching a stream of divine blessing. Money becomes the life of God flowing through our hands.

Our financial capacities are vastly different. Here in this beautiful house, some of us have a great abundance of money. Some of us don’t know how we’re going to pay next month’s tuition or rent. We don’t know where we will find the money for a medical bill or legal bill.

To those of you with meager incomes and limited opportunities to change that, I wish to impose no obligation or burden.

But if you are a typical American with a decent job that gives you enough income to acquire credit cards and debt, I invite you to experiment with the discipline of tithing. Consider ten percent of your income as holy. Give that ten percent to God. If you have never done anything like this before, start with one percent or two percent. And some of you I know give twenty percent or thirty percent.

Wherever you are financially, I invite you to consider tasting the exquisite pleasure of transforming dollar bills into sacraments, ATM cards into vehicles of partnership and communion with God.