Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Where Was (and Who is) God? - John 9:1-7

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back and was able to see.

Jesus and his disciples were walking down the road. His disciples asked him a question. Spotting a man born blind, the wheels in their heads start turning. In their worldview, hardships are the result of sin. In fact, they are the direct result of sin. That is, some specific sin causes each specific hardship. It would be only logical, therefore, that the man’s blindness is the direct result of some specific sin.

The disciples question represents one end of the spectrum, in which we humans chart the course of our own destiny. Good things happen when we act righteously, bad things happen when we act sinfully. It’s a sort of a “What goes around comes around” flavor of theology.

At the other end of the spectrum is a theology in which God dictates the results of our lives. That is, God sets forces in motion and orders the world in such a way that only the results God desires actually happen. Indeed, St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” This premise is easily misinterpreted, however. We often hear that all things that happen to us are good, or that all things have a good in them. We can spend our lives trying to find the purpose behind every incident of pain and suffering.

It was June. June 13, 2000. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. I was a communication major with a strong business emphasis, and was discovering my love for marketing and public relations. I was still working for the same regional food store company I had worked for in high school. Because of my competence and dedication, company executives had placed me on their fast track, and I was now an assistant manager at the largest and highest volume store in the company. They were grooming me for the executive office, and predicting I would be the executive vice president of marketing operations by the time I was 35, which seemed a lot further away then than it does now.

It was one of those warm, still June nights that come to Western New York when the breezes stop blowing in off the lake. My parents came by the store on their way home from dinner to pick up some ice cream. It was their anniversary, after all, and after a nice dinner, they were going to have some ice cream and a movie at home. As the manager-on-duty, I had my nightly routine down pretty well, and while things had been steady all night, they hadn’t gotten out of control. I had some time to chat with the regular customers about the things we always chatted about. I poked my head into the walk-in cooler where Matt was replenishing the supply of beer. Matt had been my best friend since his family moved to town right before second grade and we ended up in the same class. He was home from college for the summer as well, and I got him on at the store a few nights a week in addition to his full-time summer job. I went back up toward the front end and talked with Regina, the last cashier on duty who was responsible for closing up with me that night. She was 72. She had taken this job a few months earlier because her husband was ill at home, and she was trying to make a little extra money to buy groceries with. I emptied the drop safe and headed up to the office around 11, doing the final nightly paperwork so that when we closed at midnight, the only thing left to do would be to balance Regina’s drawer.

Around 11:30, I heard a knock on the door that I recognized by now as Regina’s. Without looking up from the books, I told her I would be down in a minute. She simply said, “A.J., would you please come down here now.” I looked up at the security monitor whose camera was trained right outside my office door, to see Regina standing there, but she was not alone. A man with a ski mask was holding a gun to the side of her head right outside my office.

I opened the door, he waved the gun in my face, and told me to open the safe in the office. He followed me upstairs, and as I knelt on the tile floor in front of that safe, spinning the dial desperately trying to remember the combination, I felt the unmistakable feel of cold steel pressed into the back of my neck. Somehow, the safe popped open, he took the cashbox, and fled without harming anyone.

And so here, I invite the disciples back into the discussion with the question they asked Jesus in the text just read. “Why did this happen? What good was God trying to work out of this situation?” The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, why did this happen?” and we find ourselves asking the exact same question.

It was June. June 10, 2004. My mom called after an appointment with an oncologist. Her mammogram had shown some irregularities. The oncologist confirmed it. Cancer. Aggressive. Early stage 4. Treatable; not curable. Angry, so many questions swirled through my head. But at their root, they all had the same curiosity. “Why?” “Why did this happen?”

People offered explanations. I wish they’d have kept their opinions to themselves. Mom kept a journal all through her illness, and toyed with turning it into a book to help other families going through the same process. One of the chapters in that book was going to be “Stupid Things Not to Say When You Find Out Someone Has Cancer.” Well-intentioned people said some of the most hurtful things as they tried to answer the “Why” question. Some of my favorites: “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” “All things happen for a reason.” “I’m sure God knows what he’s doing.” I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “God didn’t do this!” And if God did, then that’s a god I want nothing to do with.

I need to push back against this. We find ourselves here for a Thanksgiving service, but it’s awfully hard to give thanks to God in all situations if this is our view of God. It’s awfully hard to cultivate a lifestyle of gratitude if we believe the one whom we thank is the author of suffering in our lives, no matter how redemptive that suffering may be. Quite frankly, if this were my view of God, I would have stopped believing in God a long time ago.

The theologian William Barclay lost his 20-year-old daughter in a horrible boating accident. Years later, he received an anonymous letter. “Dear Dr. Barclay, I know why God killed your daughter. It was to save her from corruption by your heresies.” “I wanted to write a letter back,” said Barclay. “Not in anger and fury, because that came and went in a flash. I wanted to write back in pity telling whomever ‘Your God is my devil. Your God is the God I don’t believe in.’”

Or, think about what gets said around other tragedies in which people specifically make God the author of suffering, always for some divine purpose. When a child dies, someone will inevitably say, “I guess God just needed another cherub in heaven.” Theirs is the God I don’t believe in. When the AIDS epidemic broke out 25 years ago, how many Christians rejoiced in what they perceived to be God’s judgment on homosexuals? Theirs is the God I don’t believe in. How many Christians divide and separate, and sing wonderful songs of praise to God, yet bar from their pews anyone unlike them? Theirs is the God I don’t believe in.

God doesn’t give people cancer. God doesn’t cause traffic fatalities. God doesn’t inflict illness upon children. God doesn’t do to his children what we wouldn’t do to our children.

The scriptures tell us that God is kind. God is loving. God is merciful. God is compassionate. These things describe God’s nature. God does things that are consistent with these particular characteristics. Anything that falls outside the purview of love, or mercy, or compassion are not the work of God. God can still work in the midst of the greatest tragedy, but God has not caused them. God can still redeem good out of the jaws of the most tragic circumstance, but God did not commit the tragedy.

It was June. June 7, 2008. I knelt in the middle of the stage of Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska. Bishop Lawrence McClesky put his hands on my head and invoked the work of the Holy Spirit in my ordination as an elder. My dad – who was my pastor until I was 18 – was among those with their hands on my shoulders, representing the great cloud of the ordained who had gone before. My mom was in the congregation, proud to see a day her doctors had told her she would not live to see.

The day was, in many ways, the culmination of a series of events that started in motion on another night in June 2000. The night the store was robbed was my last night there, and began an intense discernment process trying to determine what God would have me do with my life. Several months later, I was finally able to recognize and accept my call from God into the ordained ministry.

Did God cause the store to get robbed? Did God place it within the heart of the robber to hold up the store that night? Of course not. That is not consistent with God’s character; that is not who God is. Nevertheless, God was still able to use the situation. Though the powers of the world intended that situation for evil, God was able to use it for good. God was able to stare the powers of evil right in the face and say, “You shall not have the last word. I am still God, and I am still good.”

Back in our text, why was the man born blind? Jesus tells us it was not because of anyone’s sin. He was not born blind as an object lesson. He was not born blind in order to teach us something. He was not born blind in order to be given sight.

Where was God? God was being glorified. Whether the rain falls or the sun shines, whether the wind blows or the sky is calm, God is being glorified. Whether we are born blind or with sight, God is being glorified. Whether we suffer with cancer or live a long and healthy life, God is being glorified.

If we understand who God is, we have no choice but to be grateful. Gratefulness is a state of being that springs from deep within the heart, and while it related to Thanksgiving, it is something altogether different. Thanksgiving is an act – it is something we do. We give thanks and we name the blessings in our lives. But gratefulness is an attitude, it is the disposition to express gratitude by giving thanks. Thanksgiving is something we do, but gratitude is a state of being. Thanksgiving is an act, but gratitude is an attitude – it is the disposition that leads us to give thanks in all circumstances, even those situations for which it seems we have nothing for which to give thanks.

Gratitude is a pattern. One of the saints says that gratitude is the memory of the heart. The heart gives life by gathering in and then sending forth, so too does gratitude give life by taking in the goodness of God and then sending us forth to share that goodness of God with the world. We gather to worship, we depart to serve. We enter to be transformed, we go forth to transform the world. Gratitude works its way into our hearts, and we carry that with us. We bask in the radiance of God’s goodness, and we carry that goodness into the world, to people whose situations in life are anything but good. And the more we proclaim the good news of this God who places gratitude deep within our hearts, we find ourselves made all the more grateful in the process.

Rose Kennedy said, “Birds sing after the rain. Should not humans be allowed to delight in whatever sunshine remains in their lives?”

How can we not be grateful? God walks with us and will not let us go. God doesn’t do bad things to God’s children. God is our rock and refuge. And in the midst of suffering, we have an outlook on our suffering that says, “God, do something good with this. Help me to count my blessings and savor the joy I have each day.” Finally, we rest in God’s arms, knowing that we have a Father who loves us more than we could imagine or believe. As people of faith, that’s how we’re called to face those darkest and stormiest moments in our lives.

In our text, the man’s blindness and healing was not the point. The point was that God is be glorified, that we are to give thanks to God, that we are to be grateful in the midst of every circumstance.

It was June. June 7, 2009. Exactly one year after my ordination, my family gathered in the foyer of St. James United Methodist Church, and took a long walk down the center aisle of a sanctuary packed with friends and family who had all come to celebrate my mom’s life and mark her transfer of membership to the Church Triumphant. Oddly enough, I found myself grateful. Grateful for the full and wonderful life she lived. Grateful for her faith. Grateful for her example. Grateful for her love. Grateful for the time we spent together as we knew that her life on this side of the resurrection was ending.

I was grateful, grateful that she chose not to be a victim to cancer, because by focusing on the particular storms of life, we do not see God. However, throughout her life and especially in her last months, Mom said, “I am going to enjoy the people and the things in my life that bring me joy.” She saw God all around – in her friendships and family relationships, in the beauty of creation, in the laughter of her grandchildren. As a family, the moments we shared together became all the more precious, and we recognized every additional day with her on this earth as a unique and precious blessing from God. Through it all, she taught us all about gratitude. Not once did anyone in our family give thanks for cancer. We learned to give thanks in the midst of cancer. This Thanksgiving season, there will be empty chairs at many of our dining tables, and even as we grieve the loss of those who have been dear to us, God is still God – holding us and our suffering close, reminding us who we are and whose we are. Even in the midst of grief, we can be grateful.

Perhaps the question to be considered this evening is not, “Where is God?” but rather, “Who is God?” I cannot believe in the God who loves pain. I shall never believe in the God who does not know how to hope. I cannot believe in the God who only cares about souls and not people, who is unmoved by human suffering or thinks it’s simply people getting their just desserts. I cannot believe in a God who is incapable of making all things new, who never weeps, who has no mystery, and is nothing more than a little more powerful, vindictive version of ourselves. I cannot believe in a God who is not love and does not transform everything he touches.

I believe in a different God. I believe in one who knows our suffering and enters into it with us. I believe in one who can still redeem even the most damaging and harmful situations for good. I believe in one who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death and teaches us not to fear evil. I believe in one who sets a table before us in the presence of our enemies, who calls us to a table, and who promises to strengthen our bonds with him and with each other in the breaking of bread and receiving from a cup, who invites us to a feast and gives himself to us as the Bread of Life.

Friends, for this we give thanks. But more than this, we are grateful. Gratitude is a golden thread that runs through everything we do as Christ-followers. This year, I will not wish you a happy Thanksgiving, because thanksgiving is not a noun. I hope and pray that Thanksgiving will not be just a day on the calendar, a day of football and feasting, the start of the holiday season, or the prelude to a retail high and holy day. Thanksgiving is a verb. May we practice it not only in this season, but may the gratitude in our hearts show itself in a lifestyle of thanksgiving, and may the Giver of every good and perfect gift receive all the glory, the honor, and praise.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Defined by Generosity

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been talking about financial management according to God’s principles. Including today, we will have spent four Sundays working our way through a sermon series entitled Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. We’ve explored several themes over these past several weeks. We talked about how many in our nation, including many of us, have spent money we didn’t have to buy things we didn’t need. We’ve addressed our temptation to accumulate debt through credit cards and other means, and the real cost we pay for things when we use credit. We’ve talked about being wise managers of the financial resources God has given us. We’ve looked at how we change our appetites to make our lives simpler, allowing us to live healthier and more-balanced lives.

Today is the final message in this series. Today, we’re talking about what it means to be defined by generosity. In case you haven’t figured it out, this series of sermons is actually a stewardship series. That’s right, we’ve been talking about money. And today we’re going to talk about giving.

Now, listen carefully, and let me put your minds at ease. Let me tell you some of the horror stories I have heard about pastors and churches about how they’ve treated money, and at the same time, I promise I am not going to do nothing of the sort.

I am not going to stand in the pulpit and arrange for the lights to suddenly go out and say, “Unless you pay your tithe, it could happen.”

I am not going to pull out a $15,000 Rolex and tell you that God sent it to me mysteriously in the mail the day after I started tithing, and that if you’ll do the same thing, God will send you a Rolex as well.

I am not going to visit the homebound member of your family with the primary interest of collecting their monthly contribution to the church.

Today, we are going to talk about giving, but I have no stunts, scare tactics, tricks, or guilt. We’ve been talking about money, and yes, this is a stewardship series, but this has nothing to do with the church’s need for money or figuring out how we can get more money out of you. It does, however, have to do with discipleship, and so today we will be talking about the generosity of God in our lives and our appropriate response to it as we grow in faith. May we pray.

We are created in the image of God. From the tale of creation as recorded in the first book of the Bible, we believe ourselves to have been created in the image of God. There is a little reflection of the divine within each of us; we each bear some family resemblance to God. Among the most compelling of God’s character traits is God’s generosity. God is a generous God, giving freely and abundantly to us, his creatures. Indeed, the world in which we live is a gift from God, given to us that we might glorify God through our enjoyment of God’s many and wonderful gifts to us. The earth and all it contains belong to God, yet God shares freely and abundantly from the bounty of all that ever has been and ever will be.

Because God is generous, and because we are created in the image of God, we are created to be generous. You know that feeling you get when you help someone, or when you find the perfect gift for that special someone, or you find great joy in making someone else happy? You are created to have that feeling! God gave you that feeling! It feels good to help and to give because God created us with the willingness and the desire to give—to God and to others. This design is part of our makeup, we actually have the need to be generous. Yet, in our world, there are two voices that war against our God-given impulse toward generosity, tempting us to keep or hoard what we have.

The first is the voice of fear. We’re all afraid of something. People are afraid of all sorts of things – heights, spiders, public speaking, water – all sorts of things that people are afraid of! If you want to know the technical names for some of these fears, go to to find out. It’s very important to be precise in naming these fears, however.

For example, geniophobia is the fear of chins. It would be awfully embarrassing to confuse this with genuphobia, which is the fear of knees, or genophobia, which is the fear of sex.

But when it comes to the things that hold us back from being the generous people we were created to be, fear is at the root of so much of it. We fear what might happen to us, along with a misplaced idea about the true source of our security, and we’re kept from being generous. Instead, we hoard what we have. Here’s the truth: hoarding offers us no real security in this world.

The second voice that wars against our God-given impulse toward generosity is the voice of self-gratification.

Our culture tells us that our lives consist in the abundance of our possessions, even though Jesus tells us they do not in Luke 12:15. Yet, we live in a mindset of scarcity. There’s only so much to go around, after all. And so we find ourselves thinking, “If I give, there won’t be enough left for me.”

Those of you who have been to my house may know that I love cereal. I love those cereals that are bad for you, too – the ones that are loaded down with way too much sugar. Right now on top of my refrigerator, you will find a box of Cocoa Pebbles, Reeses’ Peanut Butter Puffs, and Corn Pops. Growing up, my mom never bought these cereals, at least not in the quantity I wanted, which is precisely why I buy them now. With four kids in our house, it was not uncommon to go through 7 or 8 boxes of cereal a week, and of those, one or MAYBE two was one of these were the sugary cereals we loved.

Grocery day was Monday, which meant on Tuesday morning, it was a mad dash to the kitchen to get some Cocoa Pebbles before they were all gone. And there were more Tuesday mornings than I care to count that my sister would eat four or five bowls of cereal just to make sure the rest of us got none. She ate so much cereal she made herself sick, but she did it because of the two voices we’ve just named – fear (of running out of cereal) and self-gratification.

And this is what the world teaches – to look out for #1 – and if I give, there won’t be enough left for me.

But, thanks be to God, these voices can be defeated. When we give our lives to Christ, invite him to be our Lord, and allow the Holy Spirit to begin changing us from the inside out, we find that our fears begin to dissipate and our aim in life shifts from seeking personal pleasure to pleasing God and caring for others. Although we still may wrestle with the voices from time to time, we are able to silence them more readily and effectively the more we grow in Christ. And the more we grow in Christ, realizing that our lives belong to him, the more generous we become. Stinginess is a fruit of stunted spirituality. Generosity, however, is a fruit of spiritual growth.

The Bible gives us several reasons to give to God and to others. In Acts 20:35, we find more joy in doing things for other people and for God than we ever did in doing things for ourselves. In Matthew 16:25, in the very act of losing our lives, we find life. In Psalm 24, life is a gift, and everything belongs to God.

The Bible gives us guidelines for giving. From the early days of the Old Testament, God’s people observed the practice of giving some portion of the best of what they had to God. A gift offered to God was called the first fruits or the tithe, and it equaled one-tenth of one’s flocks or crops or income. Abraham was the first to give a tithe or tenth, and God’s people have been giving 10 % as a gift of thanks to God for all that God has done ever since.

Perhaps you’ll remind me that’s the Old Testament, and we Christians live under the new covenant. True enough, but Jesus also did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Most Christians agree that the tithe is a good guideline for our lives, and one that is pleasing to God. That tenth goes to accomplish the work of God’s kingdom through the church. And the church, then, is responsible for praying and discerning. Our finance committee and treasurer have a tremendous responsibility; they’re responsible to ask not “How can we keep spending to a bare minimum?” but to ask, “What does God want to do through us in the next year, through the resources that this congregation have committed to God? Yet, even though we think the tithe is a good guide, it’s still a challenge.

The idea of tithing is a stretch for many of us, especially when you first start becoming a Christian and you’re having those impulses, that war that’s going on inside you between fear and the desire for pleasure. Give 10%? You’ve got to be kidding. But, I wanted to find a way to illustrate it the way God sees it. (Go into 10 apples demonstration.) God sees your wealth and your income sort of like these ten apples in front of me. God says nine of these are yours. Use them to take care of your family, to clothe yourselves, use them for food and for shelter and set some aside for retirement, give some away to your friends and family, give some to the poor, and take a vacation and have fun with some of them.

You’ve got nine of these apples. But the Lord says, “One of them is mine. And it’s meant to be used, first of all, as a way for you to express your praise and your love for me. But then, after you give it back to me, I’m going to use it to accomplish my purposes in the world.”

But here’s what many of us find. Many of us find—because the society is pulling us in so many directions—that nine apples aren’t enough anymore. I mean, they really aren’t. How can we do all the fun stuff and the cool stuff and the stuff we need to do and pay the bills and everything on just nine apples? And so we think, “You know, the Lord’s not going to mind if we just take a little bit. There’s that trip we’ve been wanting to take, and it’s a special trip, and the Lord will understand. And then it’s Christmas and we didn’t set anything aside for all those Christmas presents, and well, it’s sort of giving – not to God, but to other people. It’s to our children and friends, and God will understand.”

And then it’s time to start saving for retirement. It’s coming up sooner than you think! I should be setting aside more, and I can’t afford to take it from these apples, so, I’m sure the Lord will understand. And then, it’s time to get a new car. I mean, God doesn’t want his children riding around in a broken-down hoopty. And ACC basketball is coming up, and HD TVs are on sale at Best Buy this week, and then there’s that new house because our old house just doesn’t satisfy us anymore. And pretty soon, there’s not much left, I mean, not from the Lord’s apple. And finally we say, “Well Lord, this is your part. I am going to give this part to you.”

Now, I realize that this concept of tithing – of giving 10% of our income to the Lord’s work – is a stretch for many of us. Perhaps you are new in your faith, or giving at a level that you feel you can manage, and you look at this goal of 10%, and think, “There’s no way,” or “That’s only for rich people, not ordinary people like me,” or whole host of other thoughts. Yet, tithing is possible at virtually every income level. If it’s too much of a jump for you, take a step in that direction. Perhaps you look at your finances, and you give 2% of your income to God, or 5%, or 7%. For next year, set a goal for yourself to increase your giving by at least 1% until you reach the goal. That’s how most people begin to tithe. It’s something we do as we grow in our faith, and as we grow in our Christian living, we find ourselves blessed as we grow in our Christian giving, as well.

But friends, tithing is a floor, not a ceiling. Anything beyond the tithe is an offering. God calls us to keep growing in our living and to keep growing in our giving. We should strive to set aside an additional percentage of our income as offerings for other things that are important to us, such as mission projects, schools, church building funds, the benevolence fund to help our members in difficulty, and other worthwhile charities and non-profit organizations.

Our giving affects God; our giving means something to God. From the earliest Biblical times, the way people worshiped God was by building an altar and offering the fruit of one’s labors upon it to God. They would burn the sacrifice of an animal or grain as a way of expressing their gratitude, devotion, and desire to honor God. The scent of the burnt offering was said to be pleasing to God. It wasn’t that God loved the smell of burnt meat and grain. Rather, God saw the people’s heart by which they gave a gift that expressed love, faith, and the desire to please and honor God; and this moved God’s heart. When given in this spirit, regardless of the amount, our giving blesses the Lord.

How does God respond? In Luke 6:38, Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Or, when you get home this afternoon, read the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. This story Jesus told tells us clearly how God feels about those who hoard or sit on their resources, and those who use them wisely for the work God intends.

But friends, giving not only affects God, it affects us as well. When we give generously, our hearts are changed. When we are generous—to God and to our families, friends, neighbors and others who are in need—our hearts are filled with joy. They are enlarged by the very act of giving. When we give generously, we become more generous. Think of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. When he learned how to give, his heart grew how many sizes? And so it is with us.

And when we give, in our giving we find the blessing of God. In Malachi 3:10, we are invited to test God’s willingness to bless our tithe. The prophet says that when we bring 10% into God’s storehouse, God will throw open the windows of heaven and pour out such blessings that we will not have baskets or containers big enough to contain it all.

Giving is a matter of the heart – it’s not some carefully calculated formula, it’s not some sort of heavenly checklist – it’s a response to the goodness of God who is the biggest giver we will ever know. I’ve been asked a few times if we are supposed to tithe from the net or gross of our income. First, if we’re even asking that question in the first place, let me suggest that our hearts probably are not fully in the act of giving as God wants them to be. But second, I suppose it depends on whether you want a net blessing or a gross blessing.

Now friends, many Christians have it wrong. They say that if you give, then God will give more back to you. They say that you have to get the engine going by putting the fuel in, so if you want to be blessed, you need to start giving. But that’s not how it works. We are already blessed beyond measure, and giving is simply something we do to express our gratitude. We do not give to God so that we can get something in return. The amazing thing is that when we give to God and to others, the blessings just seem to come back to us, and those blessings are not necessarily monetary. Of course, there is no guarantee that if you tithe you will never lose your job or never have other bad things happen to you.

Nevertheless, when we give generously, the unmistakable blessings of God flow into our lives.

This week, all members and regular attenders will receive a mailing inviting you to share some information with the church. Part of that mailing will be an estimate of giving card for what you intend to give to God through the ministries of St. Paul United Methodist Church in 2010. Prayerfully consider what you will give. Then, on the following two Sundays, November 29 and December 6, place your card in an envelope and bring it to worship. This estimate of giving card is confidential and will only be seen by our financial secretary.

The card is simply an estimate. You can change your commitment at any time as your financial situation changes. You will never receive a “bill” asking you to pay your commitment, though you will receive periodic statements of our financial secretary’s record of your giving, but this is for your information only.

And hear me carefully. Your acceptance in this church is not tied to your ability to give. We don’t cow tow to the high dollar givers; we don’t sleight the low dollar givers. This is a Christian community where all people are valued, and I value each and every person here equally. Everyone is an equally important part of this church – longtime members and new visitors, young and old, wealthy or not, white, black, green, or purple.

I also recognize that it may be a very difficult time in many of your lives. You may be struggling financially because of employment or healthcare or other issues. Please let me know if there is any place you need help, and know that you have the love, prayers, support, and acceptance of this congregation regardless of your giving.

In your bulletin, you will each find an insert that says “Personal Goals and Commitment” at the top. On it, there are five measurable goals for you to increase your commitment to God by placing God in higher priority in your living over the next year. Don’t fill out this sheet right now, and don’t turn it in. This is for you to place in your Bible or other safe place to reference over the next year as you actively work toward each of these five goals. Over the next few moments will be a time of silent prayer, and you may wish to come to the altar to thank God for the blessings in your life and how you will respond through these commitments, or you may wish to remain in your seats and do the same thing.

Consider the goodness of God, who gives more than we can ever repay. My prayer for each of us is that we will be blessed to find the contentment and true joy that comes through simplicity and generosity, and that each us will continue to grow deeper in our faith.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cultivating Contentment

Keep your lives free from the love of money, and content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

And [Jesus] said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. (Luke 12:15)

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)

Every year in California, the brush dries out and the Santa Ana winds begin to blow, and every year, we find stories on the nightly news about wildfires burning their way through neighborhoods filled with multi-million dollar homes. When I see these stories, my heart is somewhat torn between two extremes – on the one hand, devastated for the loss of everything these people own; on the other hand, not feeling too bad because people who can afford to live in multi-million dollar homes are usually heavily insured and are going to come out just fine once the insurance claims are settled.

These disasters force us to wrestle with the question, “What is really important in life?” Many of the interviews with the people who have fled their neighborhoods center around their discussions of what they took out with them in the few minutes they had to evacuate. I saw one interview with a man whose family’s home was lost. They lost the house and its contents, but the firefighters managed to save his Porsche in the driveway. He said, “I wish they could have saved my daughters stuffed animals, instead.”

What’s important in life? Family, friendships, relationships, of course. The rest is just stuff. And yet, once the fires are gone, we know these neighborhoods will be rebuilt with bigger and grander homes, filled with more stuff than was in them before.

Today’s sermon is the third in our series Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. Two weeks ago, we talked about how our pursuit of stuff has led many of us into upside-down living where we are living off credit and spending money we don’t have for stuff we don’t need. Last week, we looked at good principles of financial management according to what God desires. If you didn’t get your cling of “Six Key Financial Principles,” you can pick one up off the table in the narthex. Today, we’re talking about changing our appetites so we’re able to cultivate contentment.

We are reminded that everything in the world is temporary. This is why we say with Jesus, “My life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Yet the culture is shouting that it’s not true. The result is a wrestling in our hearts. Despite the fact that we say we believe Jesus’ words, we still find ourselves devoting a great deal of our time, talents, and resources to the acquisition of more stuff. We say that our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions, but we live as if they do. May we pray.

Perhaps you’ve heard of restless leg syndrome, a condition in which one has twitches and contractions in the legs. Restless Heart Syndrome (RHS) works in a similar way, but in the heart—or soul. Its primary symptom is discontent. We find that we are never satisfied with anything. The moment we acquire something, we scarcely take time to enjoy it before we want something else. We are perennially discontent.

Sometimes, discontent is a virtue. There is a certain discontent that God intended us to have. God actually wired our hearts so that they would discontent with certain things, causing us to seek the only One who can fully satisfy us. St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” meaning we are intended to desire God. We are meant to yearn to know God more, to cultivate a deeper prayer life, to pursue justice and holiness with increasing fervor, to love others more, and to grow in grace and character and wisdom with each passing day, and we should be discontent so long as we have not fully embodied these.

Many times, however, discontent destroys. Many of you are probably familiar with the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which has been turned into several movies. One of the characters is an obnoxious spoiled little girl named Veruca Salt. Even when she gets everything she wants from her weak-willed and wealthy father, she responds by demanding more. She sings a song right before meeting an unfortunate demise in the chocolate factory, and that song tells us about her attitude toward life and discontent with what she already has. The girl who already has everything handed to her on a silver platter signs these lines. “I want the world. I want the whole world. I want to lock it all up in my pocket, it’s my bar of chocolate, give it to me now! I want a party with rooms full of laughter. 10,000 tons of ice cream. And if I don't get the things I am after, I'm going to scream!”

The problem is that those things we should be content with are the very things we find ourselves hopelessly discontented with. For example, we find ourselves discontented with our stuff, our jobs, our churches, our children, and our spouses. God must look down on us and feel the way we feel when we give someone we really care for a special gift and then or she asks for the gift receipt. It’s as if we’re saying to God, “I don’t like what you have given me, God; and I want to trade it in and get something better than what you gave me.”

St. Paul – that is, the guy for whom this church is named – is an excellent example of contentment. In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote of the “secret” to his contentment. I have learned to be content with what I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13). Like St. Paul, we can learn to be content in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves. Four keys, which include the “secret” Paul referred to in his letter, can help us to do that.

Here’s the first key. John Ortberg, pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, says there are four words we should say whenever we find ourselves discontented with something or someone: “It could be worse.” This is essentially the practice of looking on the bright side or finding the silver lining.

Many of you know that back in August, I had a little car trouble. A series of unfortunate and undetected events took place that led my engine to seize up while I was flying—driving responsibly—up I-77 toward Statesville. It was not a good day. But, I chose to look on the bright side. The car gave me the first sign of trouble right at an exit. The car died on the exit ramp and came to a stop at the bottom. Right at the bottom of the ramp, however was a truck stop. The towing company happened to be on site because the driver was getting a cup of coffee. The friend who I was meeting in Statesville came a few exits south and waited with me, and then was kind enough to drive me back to Charlotte. A member of this congregation had a vehicle waiting for me when I arrived in Charlotte only an hour and a half after the car died. Some of you generously helped me pay for the repair so I could get the car back. Now, am I happy I had to go through that? Not really. But, it could’ve been worse. No matter what we may not like about a person or thing or circumstance, we can always find something good to focus on if only we will choose to do so.

The second key involves asking one question: For how long will this make me happy? So often we buy something, thinking it will make us happy, only to find that the happiness lasts about as long as it takes to open the box. There is a moment of satisfaction when we make the purchase, but the item does not continue to bring satisfaction over a period of time. Many of the things we buy are simply not worth the expense. This is why it is a good idea to try before you buy.

The third key is developing a grateful heart. Gratitude is essential if we are going to be content. St. Paul said that we are to “give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). A grateful heart recognizes that all of life is a gift. Contentment comes when we spend more time giving thanks for what we have than thinking about what’s missing or wrong in our lives.

The fourth key is again the answer to a question: Where does your soul find true satisfaction? The world answers this question by telling us that we find satisfaction in ease and luxury and comfort and money. The Bible, however, answers this question very differently. From Genesis to Revelation—and this is the fourth key, by the way—it tells us that we find our satisfaction in God alone.

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you . . . My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night (Psalm 63:1,6).

Whatever my eyes desired, I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure . . . Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11).

Jesus said the two most important things we must do are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37, 39). If we keep our focus on these two things, we will find satisfaction for our souls and lasting contentment. There are so many things we can go after and try to fill the empty places in our lives with, but our focus must remain on living out the greatest commandment, to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Contentment is part of it. But in addition to cultivating contentment, we need to cultivate simplicity. Contentment and simplicity go hand-in-hand. There are five steps for simplifying your life I’d like everyone to consider. These will not only help simplify your spending, they will also allow you to spend time with the people who matter most in your life, doing things that matter. In many ways, these things will help contribute toward a better life all the way around – your finances will be simpler, you’ll be spending more quality time with your family, you’ll even find yourself healthier.

First, set a goal of reducing your consumption and living below your means. Set a tangible goal to reduce your own personal consumption and the production of waste in your life. For example, use canvas bags when you go grocery shopping and refuse any extra packaging. I always have the canvas bags in the car, but I usually forget to take them inside, so try to do better than that.

Stop buying bottled water and start using a BRITA filter or pitcher at home instead. Don’t buy individual cans or bottles of your favorite soft drink, buy in the large bottle and drink from a glass at home.

Whenever you are making purchases, look at the mid-grade instead of the absolute top-of-the-line product. If you are buying a new car, aim to improve the fuel economy over your existing car by at least 10%.

During temperate seasons, don’t run your heating or cooling system if you don’t need to. I switched my air conditioning off at the end of September and haven’t turned my heat on yet. Sure, a couple nights I’ve had to put extra blankets on my bed and there were some chilly mornings of getting dressed, but you should see how much my electric bill went down. Program your thermostat to use less energy during times you’re away or sleeping.

Switch to water at restaurants.

Clip coupons, shop specials, and take advantage of double- and triple-coupon opportunities.

Give up a habit that’s probably not good for you anyway. A mocha latte plus tax is over three dollars. A carton of cigarettes are anywhere between $20 and $50.

You can see that many of these reductions in spending will also be good for your health. What’s good for your wallet is good for your health and relationships, too.

The second step in simplifying your life involves asking yet more questions. For every purchase, ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” and “Why do I want this?” These questions will help you to determine the true motivation of your desired purchase. Four and a half years ago, when I moved to Boone, I was driving a 1992 Saturn coupe. It was small, had some miles on it, and had some, shall we say, “cosmetic imperfections.” The best things it had going for it was that it ran, was reliable, and was paid for. Members of the congregation were concerned that I was driving such a small, high-mileage vehicle without four-wheel drive in the mountains, and so I bought the car I’m driving now – mainly because it was newer, lower miles, larger, and had all-wheel drive. I made payments on that car for the next 36 months, during which time I saw my old Saturn around town at least once a month. I had paid thousands of dollars for a car to replace one that was perfectly fine. Moreover, this car had worse mileage, was more expensive to maintain, attracted the attention of cops – that had nothing to do with the person driving it, by the way – and has been involved in three separate accidents in the time I’ve been driving it. Basically, I bought something to replace something that was working just fine because I allowed myself to believe that I really needed it. At this point, I leave it unlocked with the keys in it in bad neighborhoods overnight, just hoping it will be stolen and I’ll get reimbursed from the insurance company. A few weeks ago, when stopped at an intersection on South Boulevard, I almost got rear-ended by an inattentive driver and was disappointed the car didn’t get hit.

Before I bought that car, I should have asked myself two questions. “Do I really need this?” and “Why do I want this?” Is it a need, a self-esteem issue, or something else? You may find yourself wrestling with your true motive and decide that your reason for purchasing the item is not a good one.

Third step: use something up before buying something new. This would have been a good principle in my car decision, as well. Take good care of the things you buy and use them until they are empty, broken, or worn out. Buy things that are made to last – just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s a good value. I find churches are notorious about this. We buy things that are cheap because we’re concerned about cost, but end up spending a fortune in the long run replacing them more often or paying expensive maintenance bills to keep them going.

Fourth, plan low-cost entertainment that enriches. When it comes to choosing entertainment for your family or friends, plan things that are simple and cheap. A few years ago, my parents were down visiting from New York, and I planned a special day trip for us to North Carolina’s favorite attraction – we went to Asheville and went to the Biltmore. I was planning to pay. My dad, whose sensibilities are naturally more frugal than my own, hit the roof when he saw that each ticket was over $40. My dad doesn’t pay $40 for anything, and he was appalled that I was about to. As it turned out, he just didn’t want to see the Biltmore. So, I was willing to pay more money than he was comfortable with to get into something he wasn’t interested in seeing. He would have been perfectly happy to pack a sack lunch and spend the day driving and hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which would have been both less expensive and more enjoyable for all of us. You’ll be amazed at how much pleasure can be derived from simple, low-cost activities.

Fifth, ask yourself, “Are there major changes that would allow me to simplify my life?” Consider selling a car and buying one you pay for in full, downsizing your home, or getting rid of a club membership you don’t use. Do you need as many HD channels as you’re currently paying for? Are you using the boat or RV enough to justify the insurance, maintenance, and storage expenses? Ask yourself questions related to your home, possessions, job, and activities to identify some significant changes that will simplify your life. If you are unable to do the things God is calling you to do because you don’t have the resources of time or money, you need to simplify. It’s not good enough to say, “God, I’ll do that in 15 years or so when I’m in better financial standing and can afford to do that” or “God, I’ll be happy to do that when I just have just a little bit more.” That attitude only feeds the cycle, and we can watch a lifetime go by waiting for “just a little bit more” before we are truly free to do the things God calls us to do. If you’re unable to find joy in life, if your heart is restless, perhaps it’s time to simply in some major ways.

Simplifying your life requires the practice of self-control. Solomon wrote, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28). In the ancient world, a city’s walls were its best defense against enemies; when it’s walls were broken down, an enemy could march right in and destroy it. There is no longer any protection. Likewise, self-control is a wall around your heart and life that protects you from yourself, from temptation, and from sins that are deadly and can ultimately destroy you. Self-control comes down to making a choice between satisfying an impulse to gain instant gratification and choosing not to act upon the opportunity for instant gratification by stopping to think about the answers to three questions:

What are the long-term consequences of this action?

Is there a higher good or a better outcome if I used this resource of time, money, or energy in another way?

Will this action honor God?

Envision how much better our decision-making would be if we asked those three questions about everything.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the man who went to the doctor complaining of recurring alternating dreams. “One night I dream I’m a tipi; the next night, I’m a big top. Tipi; big top. Tipi, big top. On and on it goes.” The doctor looked at him and said, “Relax, you’re two tents.”

This morning, you have a choice between two tents. Will you live in discontent, or will you live in contentment? You and you alone determine which “tent” will be yours. Today is the day to stop waffling between two opinions. You choose the tent in which you live in large part by deciding what life is about. If you decide, as one of our Scripture readings for today says, that “life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions,” then you are choosing contentment. Choosing contentment means we look to God as our Source, giving thanks for what we have; we ask God to give us the right perspective on money and possessions and to change our hearts each day. We decide to live simpler lives, wasting less and conserving more, and we choose to give more generously, because we are created in the image of God, and no giver is more generous than God.

I invite you to place your hands on your lap, palm side up. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Pray with me:

Lord, cure me of Restless Heart Syndrome. I’m sorry for times I’ve been ungrateful, unsatisfied with people you entrust to my care, unsatisfied with my loved ones, unsatisfied with my possessions. Forgive me for being discontent. Help me cultivate contentment. Help me to end the cycle of discontent. I choose contentment. I choose contentment in you alone.

Help me to be grateful for what I have, to remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wisdom and Finance

Last Sunday, my sister’s family came to visit from Hickory. We spent the afternoon together, and my nephews and I were finding fun things to do together. My 9-year-old nephew, Nathaniel, came very close to breaking something while they were playing. I told him that he would owe me the money for a new one, but I’d be happy to put him on a payment plan and only charge him moderate interest. This, of course, was a few hours after I preached a sermon about responsible borrowing and using our credit wisely. Even at 9, he knew that something sounded fishy about my proposal, and that it would seem the only one who would benefit from such an arrangement was me.

This morning is the second in our sermon series Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity. We are looking together at the principles of financial management as outlined in the Bible, and are trying to discover how God would have us best manage our money. Last week, we talked about how our pursuit of the American Dream has led people to spend money they don’t have in order to accumulate stuff they don’t need, resulting in an American Nightmare. Today, we’re talking about “Wisdom and Finance.” May we pray.

A few weeks ago, we looked together at the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Let’s review part of that story. There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything (Luke 15:11-16).

From Jesus’ description, we the see that the prodigal son had the habits of squandering and spending. The word prodigal does not mean someone who wanders away or is lost. It literally means “one who wastes money.” A prodigal is one who wastes money, who is a spendthrift. Many of us struggle with that habit as well. We’re not worried about tomorrow. We want it today. The problem with that kind of thinking is that, for most of us, the “famine” eventually comes. It comes when we have spent everything we have and even a little bit of next year’s income. So we use the credit card and we charge it, and we go a little further into debt. Finally, we come to a place where we find ourselves. We have nothing left, not even any credit, and we can’t figure out how we are going to make it.

It seems that the more financially secure we become, the less we worry about spending money here and there. We waste a dollar on this or that, and we forget where it went. Money just seems to flow through our fingers. We’re not as careful with our money as we should be. There are many ways we waste money, but there are two primary money-wasters that many of us struggle with. It is not necessary to eliminate these two things all together, but we should think more carefully about how we spend our money.

The first big money waster is impulse-buying. Just a few weeks ago, I noticed that I was out of milk. OK, I actually had milk, but for the first time, noticed the expiration date was more than a week past. I drove to the Harris Teeter at Cotswold, 5 minutes from my home, and walked into the store. I grabbed a cart on my way in, because who knew if I would pick up a few more things. 30 minutes later, I pushed the cart into the checkout lane, handed over my VIC card, and was proud of myself for the savings of $11.73 that got my total order down under $90. As I unloaded the groceries back in my kitchen, I realized I had probably bought more than I needed. I also realized that I had forgotten to buy milk.

How can we avoid impulse buying? Consider these helpful hints. Never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. Shop for what you need only. Make a list and stick to it; buy what you need and get out! Wait 24 hours before making an impulse purchase. For instance, did you know that if you walk into a car dealer, statistics indicate that 80 % of people will purchase a car within 48 hours? Whether you need one or not, whether you can afford one or not, 80 % of us will make a purchase. The longer the salesperson can keep you in the dealership has a direct correlation on how quickly you will purchase a car.

The second big money-waster is eating out. This one was shocking to me. The average American eats out 4 times per week. I looked at that and thought, “Only four?” Because of my schedule, and the fact that I meet a lot of you out for lunch or dinner to discuss church business, I probably eat out 10 times a week. If, on average, I am spending $10 a meal, that’s $100 a week - $5200 a year on eating out. That doesn’t even count dates where I have to pay double!

I am a sandwich eater. I thought I got smart when I starting buying $5 footlongs at Subway or taking advantage of the daily $2.99 half sub at Harris Teeter. $2.99 for a delicious sandwich – that’s a pretty good deal, right? I thought so too, until I got into my sermon research this week. I Googled how much a typical sandwich costs. Did you know that you can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at home for about 29 cents? An egg salad sandwich can be made at home for about 51 cents. A typical cold cut sandwich – complete with mustard, mayo, cheese, lettuce, and tomato – will run you about 98 cents.

Don’t like sandwiches? Harper’s down at South Park has a delicious filet penne – filet mignon in a creamy sauce with roasted vegetables served over Penne pasta – I feel like I’m telling you tonight’s specials – that’s available for $14. If the market cost of the filet mignon is $12.99 a pound and there are two ounces of filet in the meal, that means there’s about $1.65 of meat in the meal, 25 cents of pasta, and we’ll be generous and say a dollar’s worth of vegetables and seasonings. That means, for the meal you’ll pay $14 in the restaurant – plus tip – you can make the same meal at home for $2.85.

Here me carefully; I’m not saying to stop eating out. I’m simply saying that by deliberately reducing the number of times in the average week that we eat out, we can spend significantly less and get a better hold on our finances.

A big part of getting our finances under control has to do with our identity. Over the last few months, as our congregation went through a process of rewriting our mission statement, we were trying to clarify our identity. We were trying to make a statement about who we are and who we are called to be, and then have a filter by which we can make decisions about our future. As a congregation, we will continue to ask if our goals and activities are in line with our mission statement, and we will use that statement as a measuring rod by which those decisions are made.

Likewise, we all have to clarify our relationship with money and possessions. We do not exist simply to consume as much as we can and get as much pleasure as we can while we are here on this earth. We have a higher purpose. We need to know and understand our life purpose—our vision or mission or calling—and then spend our money in ways that are consistent with this purpose or calling.

Our society tells us that our life purpose is to consume—to make as much money as possible and to blow as much money as possible. In the economy, we are consumers – that’s our identity! But, this is not God’s vision for us. The Bible tells us that we were created to care for God’s creation. We were created to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We were created to care for our families and those in need. We were created to glorify God, to seek justice, and to do mercy. Our money and possessions should be devoted to helping us fulfill this calling. We are to use our resources to help care for our families and others—to serve Christ and the world through the church, missions, and everyday opportunities. We have a life purpose that is greater than our own self-interests, and how we spend our God-given resources reflects our understanding and commitment to this life purpose or mission.

Fulfilling these great and lofty goals and purposes doesn’t just happen. It requires planning. Taking the time to set goals related to our lives and our finances is crucial if we are to become wise stewards of our God-given resources. If you look at the insert in your bulletin, you’ll see that we’ve provided you with some resources to do this sort of planning. Each of us should think about our life purpose and goals and then identify two short-term financial goals, two mid-range financial goals, and two long-range financial goals that are aimed at helping us to accomplish our broader life goals. At least one goal in each category should relate specifically to faith.
So the first step is figuring out our life’s mission. We’ve already stated this should have something to do with caring for creating, with loving God and neighbor, to care for our families and those in need, to glorifying God, to seeking justice, and to doing mercy. The second step is setting goals that actually meet these purposes. The third step is putting a plan in place.

I had a friend who made a New Year’s resolution to lose 20 pounds. It was a great goal. When I asked him what his plan was, he said, “to lose twenty pounds.” I worked with a church whose goal was to have an active children’s ministry. That’s a great goal. When I asked what their plan was, they said, “To have an active children’s ministry.” Many times we put our goals together, and then fail to put a plan in place that will actually help us achieve those goals. A failure to plan is a plan to fail.

It doesn’t make any sense to make goals if we don’t put a plan in place. Financially, our goals need to be put into action through a plan. A budget is a spending plan that enables us to accomplish our goals. Some people use an envelope system to help them manage their saving and spending and stay on budget. Others use a variety of different approaches. Many people keep track of their budgets and actual expenses through Microsoft Excel or other financial management software. Many people find it helpful to seek the advice of a financial advisor. I don’t care what plan you use. I’m simply asking you to make a plan. Whatever it is, whatever tools you use, just make a plan. For those who find themselves in the midst of a financial crisis, a financial counselor can help work out terms with creditors and develop a workable financial plan. Whatever approach you choose, the important thing is simply to have a plan.

We need to remember that money is among the things with which we are entrusted by God. God makes us stewards over creation. God makes us stewards to care for each other and for our families. God gives us financial resources and entrusts their usage to us. Any plan we make about what we’re doing with the money that is entrusted to us needs to reflect God’s plan.

Your money is entrusted to you. Right there on the front of the dollar bill, it says, “In God We Trust.” Our trust is in God, and we reminded that everything we have already belongs to God. It’s already God’s money, and you’re called to manage it well. God will hold each of us accountable in the end for what we do with our time, our talents, and our resources. And so we begin to think, How can we help each other have good financial practices? I sat down with a credit union manager to share with me some of the basic things she tells her members about how to be good financial managers. There are four basic things. You know them already, but often we fail to practice them.

She said that in recent years, she sees a lot of people who are living beyond their means and don’t really grasp what is happening. They’re juggling payments, maybe paying bills with one credit card to save cash to pay down another card, maybe making only minimum payments on their cards. Total personal debt was rising—compounded by some pretty significant interest rates. Here were four things she said to do.

First, track your spending. Where is the money going every week? Most of us don’t know how much we’re spending at the grocery store or in restaurants every month.

Second, take a good look at this picture created by your spending habits—and then you must set some financial goals. That is the foundation of every budget and financial plan. Ask yourself what you want to achieve and by when?

Third, pay off your debt. This is the best way to simplify your life. Use your credit wisely and sparingly. If you want something, save up to get it. One of the ways I did this was after my car was paid off, I continued to make car payments to myself in the same amount each month – that is, I put that amount into a separate savings account so that when I am ready to purchase another car, I already have the cash in the bank for it.

Fourth, she listed this is as the number one thing that everyone needs to do: establish savings. Take it directly out of your paycheck. Don’t see it. Have it go into an account.

Here’s the thing – we all know these things. Just like we know to eat right and exercise. The challenge is to make a plan and stick to it. When push comes to shove, most of us don’t make the decision to eat right when we sit down at the table and the food is already prepared. We plan to eat right by planning meals that accomplish this. Likewise, we don’t make wise financial decisions with our paycheck in one hand and the Pottery Barn catalog in the other. We have to make a plan before it’s time to actually spend any money.

The hard part is doing it on a daily basis. We need a reminder. To help you out with that, we’re providing a small gift for each of you today that will help you remember these principles as you make your daily financial decisions. It’s a little window cling that says “Six Financial Principles” on it, and you should have received one from the usher on your way into worship. If you didn’t get one, there are more available on the table in the narthex. If you have yours, take it out now and let’s look at it together, so we can manage our money with wisdom and faith.

Here me carefully. The point of wise financial management according to Biblical principles is not so you will get rich. I am not now and nor I will ever preach the prosperity Gospel, that God desires for everyone to be wealthy. It’s about being responsible with what God has entrusted to us. It’s about using our resources in accordance with our purposes. It’s about not being in bondage to our debt so we are free to do God’s work. It’s about glorifying God in every single aspect of our lives.

1. Pay your tithe and offering first. You have no idea how important this is. In Scripture, we are told to put God first in everything. Put God first in your living and in your giving. Give your tithe and offering from the top of your paycheck, and then live on what remains.

2. Create a budget and track your expenses. Creating a budget is simply developing a plan in which you tell your money you want it to do. Money is actually very obedient; it does what you tell it to. Tracking your expenses with a budget is like on the scales, it may be uncomfortable or tell you a truth you may not want to know, but it allows you to see how you are doing and motivates you to be more careful with your expenditures. We have included a suggested budget outline on the insert in your bulletin to help you put a workable budget together.

3. Simplify your lifestyle, that is, live below your means. OK, this is where the rubber hits the road. What good is a plan if you don’t stick to it? Because this discipline is critical to the success of any financial plan, next Sunday’s sermon will be devoted to this topic.

4. Establish an emergency fund. An emergency fund is an account separate from checking or long-term savings or any investment funds that is set aside specifically for emergencies. In The Total Money Makeover, Dave Ramsey recommends beginning with $1000 and building that to 3 months worth of income. When you have this amount, you won’t need to use credit cards anymore “for emergencies.”

5. Pay off your credit cards, use debit cards for purchases, and use your credit wisely. As you are building your emergency fund, begin to pay off your credit card debt and start using debit cards or cash for purchases. I don’t know about you, but if I have real cash money, I think long and hard about pulling it out of my wallet and handing it over to someone. Some experts suggest start by paying down the credit card that has the highest interest rate. Others suggest paying down the card with the lowest balance, celebrating that early victory, and applying your payments from the first card to second, and so on, creating a snowball effect to pay off the cards as soon as possible. Now, here’s the painful part. Cut up the cards when they’re paid off. Cut them up so you’re not trapped or leveraged by your present-day pleasure, as the prodigal son was. If you must use a credit card, such as when you’re traveling or making purchases online, pay off the full amount monthly. If you’re unable to do this, it’s better to cut up the cards and stop using them altogether. Seriously. We can go to my office right after worship and you can use my scissors, if you want to. If your credit card causes you to sin, cut it up. Better to enter the mall without money than the poor house with all your worldly treasures!

6. Practice long-term savings and investing habits. Saving money is the number-one money management principle everyone should practice. Now, hear me carefully. We do not save merely for the sake of saving. We do not stockpile money simply for the sake of stockpiling money. There is a word for that: hoarding. The Bible is very clear that hoarding is a sin. It is described as the practice of fools and those who fail to understand the purpose of life. Saving, on the other hand, is meant to be purposeful. It is one of the tools at our disposal to free us to accomplish our true purposes in life. And when it comes to saving, there are three types we should have – emergency, savings for wants and goals, and retirement savings.

And friends, this is nothing new. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached a sermon entitled “The Use of Money.” In it, he invited the Methodists to practice financial principles that would align their lives with the will of God. The first was to earn all you can. Through diligent, honest, hard work, earn all you can. The second was to save all you can. Live simply, don’t waste, and save your money. The third principle was the sticking point, perhaps the same sticking point when Jesus told the rich young ruler how to inherit eternal life. The third principle was to give all you can. After you have earned all you can and saved all you can, give freely and abundantly. Give to those in need, give to God’s mission and ministry in the world. Give generously, for God is generous, and God’s grace is abundant.

Everything we have is a blessing from God. Whether we have been blessed with resources that are great or small in the eyes of the world, we are called to be good, wise, and faithful managers of what is entrusted to us. By the grace of God, we can each develop a financial plan that will truly be an extension of the greatest command, to love God, and to love our neighbor.

God, you know what we don’t even know. We don’t know where every dime went, but somehow you know what we did with all that we had, last year and the year before that. You don’t forbid us from having joy in our possessions. In fact, you delight in our joy. But what you know is that just acquiring more and more stuff isn’t where we find joy. Lord, forgive us for being wasteful, for being prodigals. Forgive us for leveraging our future in order to have pleasure in the present. And help us be good managers of the talents that you’ve given to us. Help us to be generous and willing to share, kingdom-minded and focused on accomplishing your purposes for our lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

When Dreams Become Nightmares

When I was a kid, I did a lot of drawing. In fact, I was a pretty good artist, if I do say so myself. I drew all sorts of things – animals, landscapes, city scenes, but I drew one thing more than anything else – cars.

Even at the age of three, I knew cars. And even at the age of three, I loved luxury cars. I could identify a Mercedes-Benz or BMW by the symbol on the hubcabs. And I really liked Mercedes-Benz and BMW. I still do. I would spend hours drawing these cars, paying careful attention to every detail. I soon realized that the cars looked weird just on their own, so I gave them a context. I started drawing them in the driveways of houses. At first, they were the houses I saw all the time - the tall, long and narrow houses of my city neighborhood. Now, I took some artistic liberty; most of them didn’t have driveways. In fact, you could shake your neighbor’s hand if both of you leaned out your bedroom window.

Soon, however, I realized it didn’t make any sense to have these luxury cars sitting in front of the modest homes of my working-class neighborhood, so I began to draw the houses larger and larger and fancier and fancier. Circular driveways around Roman fountains, Dorian columns, tennis courts, swimming pools, golf courses, palm tree-lined beaches, and of course, a landing pad for my helicopter. My helicopter. Somewhere, I had gone from drawing just a fancy car in the driveway of a really nice house to drawing my fancy car in the driveway of my big house. It was my American dream. I was drawing my desired future. We all had our version of it when we were growing up, and if we’re honest, still have a version of it that we’re working toward.

Today begins the first in our four-part series entitled Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity. When it comes to finances, we need a word of hope. Even though many economists argue that the economic recession has ended—and this is a debatable point—it’s still going to be a long way until we get out. We are offering this series of messages because we Americans have gotten ourselves and our nation into a pretty sticky situation pursuing the American dream. I am convinced that the American dream contrasts with God’s vision, and that pursuing God’s vision will bring us a joy and hope the American dream will never be able to deliver. May we pray.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the preamble of the United States Constitution, these are outlined as certain unalienable rights to all people, and their very existence is a self-evident truth. These three things are the principles upon which the American dream was founded. Some of us, or at least our ancestors, came to this land of opportunity seeking a better life, a new and improved life, something that would make it all worthwhile. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – who could ask for anything more?

However, somewhere along the way, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness became wealth, property, and the pursuit of more. Along with those dreams came a certain lifestyle. From Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to MTV’s Cribs, our television-viewing habits were only an indication of a fascination with how the wealthiest among us lived. Truth be told, we all wanted that lifestyle. It’s just like the Nickelback song says – “We all just wanna be big rock stars, and live in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars.”

For most people, the American Dream has to do with a subconscious desire for achieving success and satisfying the desire for material possessions. It is the opportunity to pursue more than what we have, to gain more than what we have, and to meet success. We tend to measure our success in life by the stuff that we possess.

The love of money and the things money can buy is a primary or secondary motive behind most of what we Americans do. We want to consume, acquire, and buy our way to happiness – and we want it now. You’ve all seen the bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” and that statement captures fully the ethos associated with the American Dream.

There is only one tiny little problem with the American dream. It’s completely unsustainable. The economic recession we find ourselves in now is the result a system that told us the only way to keep the economy healthy was to continue spending, even when we really couldn’t afford to. Eventually, under the weight of all that overspending, the economy collapsed. People were left unemployed or underemployed, retirement accounts dwindled, our 401(k)s became 201(k)s, housing values plummeted, and we experienced stress, anxiety and fear about our finances the likes of which had not been seen in many of our lifetimes.

The American dream has become an American nightmare due to two distinct yet related illnesses that impact us both socially and spiritually.

The first is Affluenza – the constant need for more and bigger and better stuff – as well as the effect that this need has on us. It is the desire to acquire, and most of us have been infected by this virus to some degree.

Let’s take a little quiz. Who thinks the square footage of the average American home is getting smaller? Who here has added on to their home, built a larger home, or bought a larger home? Who has more closet space in their home today than in the home you grew up in?

The evidence shows that the average American home is growing. In 1973, the average American home had 1,660 square feet. Now, it is an average of 2,400 square feet. Homes that are being built today are larger. They have more bathrooms, more closet space, more televisions, more laundry appliances, and more cars in the driveway than homes that were built before.

Yet, the American household is shrinking. In 1973, the average American household was 3.5 people. Today, the average American household is 2.6 people. That means that as recently as 1973, the average American person had 474 square feet of living space. Today, that same average American has 926 square feet of living space. In 35 years, our average living space per person has about doubled.

Or, consider this statistic. It is estimated that there are 1.9 billion square feet of self-storage space in America today. Not only are our homes larger to accommodate more and more stuff, we have to rent additional space so we can store even more stuff! We love our stuff! We love having more, we love being surrounded by things. For a time, I rented a 10’ X 10’ storage unit – 100 square feet. It was indoors and climate-controlled, and it cost me $80 a month. Let’s assume it was on the high end of things, and let’s say that the average cost of that much storage space is $50 a month. If there are 1.9 billion square feet of self-storage space in this country, assuming it to be 80% occupied at $50 a month per 100 square feet, Americans are spending $760 million per month on self-storage, and that’s probably a fairly conservative figure. That means we’re spending over $9 billion per year just for a place to store the stuff we think we need that won’t fit into our homes. That’s what we mean by Affluenza. We have developed such an appetite for “stuff” that storing the extra stuff we accumulate has turned into a $9 billion dollar a year industry, which is roughly the Gross Domestic Product of Madagascar.

The second social illness that has led to this American nightmare we’re experiencing is Credit-itis. Credit-itis an illness that is brought on by the opportunity to buy now and pay later, and it feeds on our desire for instant gratification. Our economy today is built on the concept of credit-itis. Unfortunately, it has exploited our lack of self-discipline and allowed us to feed our affluenza, wreaking havoc in our personal and national finances. The Great Depression was a complex problem, but economists and historians agree that one of the major contributing factors to the Great Depression was the overextension of credit. How little we’ve learned.

Consider these statistics. In 1990, the average credit card debt in this country was $3000. Today, it’s over $9000. If your card carries an 18% interest rate and you paid only the minimum each month and did not make any additional purchases, it would take you 19.8 years to pay off that credit card debt, during which time you would have paid an additional $8700 in interest charges. Think about that the next time you reach for plastic.

Between my second and third year in seminary, I went to Europe for five weeks. I had a great time. Originally, I was only supposed to take a weeklong class in Methodist studies in Oxford. But then I thought, “Since I’m already across the ocean, I may as well just enjoy myself,” so I made plans to spend another four weeks traveling around Europe. Now, I didn’t really have the money to go, but I wanted to so bad. Fortunately for me, I had this magic plastic card in my wallet. It has a high credit limit, and it made it possible for me to spend another four weeks traveling around Europe and not even consider how much I was actually spending. For some reason, I assumed I would just pay it off when I arrived back home – with what money, I don’t know.

Here’s the thing. I’m a pretty smart guy. I manage my money fairly well. I keep receipts, I track expenses, I’m pretty decent at making a budget and sticking to it. I live simply, I don’t accumulate a lot of stuff, I give stuff away I haven’t used in six months, and generally live within my means. And yet, there was something that I wanted and I just charged it without even thinking, like it wasn’t even real money. Thankfully, I’m probably the only person here who has ever done something like that with a credit card.

When we make a purchase with a credit card, on average, we pay an additional 125% over what we would pay using cash. Credit-itis not limited to credit cards; it extends to mortgages, car loans, and other loans. The life of the average car loan and home mortgage continues to increase while the average American’s savings rate continues to decline, and the average household spends 107% of its annual income. Are you depressed yet?” This is hard enough to sustain in a good economy. It’s crippling when things turn sour. Pursuing the American dream has become nightmarish for many of our friends and neighbors, and perhaps for us, as well.

At the center of our current economic crisis is the extension and abuse of credit. Credit comes from the Latin word credo, which means “I believe” or “I trust.” To extend credit to someone is to believe or trust that he or she will repay. Or sometimes, we talk about someone having street credit, meaning they are both trustworthy and an expert of some sort. Credit implies credibility. As Christians, our credo or trust is in God. The Apostle’s Creed begins, “I believe (credo) in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Throughout the Bible we find words of hope and promise that remind us we have no reason to fear, for God is our refuge and strength.

At its heart, our financial problem is a spiritual problem, which means the solution is also a spiritual one. Our souls were created in the image of God, but they have been distorted. We were meant to desire God, that’s how we’re created, but that desire has become warped and instead turned toward possessions. We were meant to find our security in God, but we find it in amassing wealth. We were meant to love people, but instead we compete with them. We were meant to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, but we busy ourselves with pursuing money and things. We were meant to be generous and share with those in need, but we selfishly hoard our resources for ourselves. There is a sin nature within us, a self-centered turn toward ourselves instead of the disposition toward God with which we were all created.

Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). The powers of evil don’t need to tempt us toward drugs or stealing or an extramarital affair in order to destroy us. All evil needs to do is convince us to keep pursuing the American dream—to keep up with and surpass the Joneses, to borrow against our futures, to enjoy more than we can afford, and indulge ourselves. By doing that, we will be robbed of joy, made slaves to our debt, and be kept from truly doing God’s will.

Consider the following scriptures.

Matthew 4:8-10: Again, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Luke 8:14, as Jesus explains what happens to different seeds that are scattered in various places: As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.

Mark 8:46: What will it profit them to gain the whole world but lose their life?

1 Timothy 6:10, an oft-misquoted text. Listen carefully for the emphasis here: The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

The problems we face with our attitudes and behaviors around money are spiritual, and so is the solution to them. Although we receive a change of heart when we accept Christ, in many ways we need a heart change every morning. We need to re-orient ourselves toward God and away from ourselves each and every morning. After college, a friend of mine lived in England for a few years, where they drive on the left side of the road. She said when she backed out of her driveway every morning, she had to remind herself to stay left. Without that constant reminder, it’s easy to keep moving back to what you’ve always known. There are things in my golf swing that I have to remind myself of every time I swing the club, because when I start swinging without thinking, I immediately revert back to old patterns and things that even feel natural, but are not the best way for me to swing the club and connect with the ball.

In the same way, each and every day, we need to re-orient ourselves toward God. Our natural inclination is to orient ourselves toward ourselves, to put ourselves and our own indulgences first. We’ve discussed sin as simply a condition of separation from God, and at its heart, all sin is self-centered-living instead of God-centered living. We are separated from God because we have placed ourselves in a position of greater honor and importance than we have God. And it’s our nature. It’s natural. If we’re not intentional, we keep going back the natural impulses within us.

Friends, I am not up here as someone who has this all figured out. I’m not preaching at you this morning. This sermon is just as much for me to listen to and embody as it for any of us, if not moreso. I still struggle with affluenza, with the desire to have more things and nicer things, to accumulate stuff, and fail to realize that my desire for all those things is a potential barrier between myself and God. I still have a long way to go.

But what I’ve come to realize is that pursuing the American dream as we know it doesn’t lead to happiness or joy or peace or contentment. It is a fleeting dream at best, and it can leave us absolutely empty if we devote ourselves wholly to following it. George Carlin says it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it. We can continue to go after more and more, living further beyond our means, so far upside-down that we don’t even know any different, but eventually, the pursuit of such dreams turns into a nightmare.

Do you long for something different? Something better? Something outside yourself, because you’ve looked deep within yourself and you know that the answers to life’s deepest yearnings just aren’t there? I know I do. The answer isn’t in accumulating more stuff. We were created with an spiritual void, a place deep within us that begs to be filled, a place that can’t be filled with the treasures of the world, but only with God. We were created in the image of God, and our wills were created to be formed more and more like God’s.

Every day, we need to get down on our knees and say, “Lord, help me to be the person you want me to be today. Take away the desires that shouldn’t be there, and help me to be single-minded in my focus and my pursuit of you.” As we do this, God comes and cleanses us from the inside out, purifying our hearts.

Not only do we need a change of heart; we must allow Christ to work within us. Christ works in us as we seek first his kingdom and strive to do his will. When we allow Christ to work within us, we find our wills being bent and shaped and molded more like the will of God. A little more each day, a little less of our old rebellious streak that keeps trying to pop up. As this happens, we begin to sense a higher calling—a calling to simplicity and faithfulness and generosity. We begin to look at ways to make a difference with our time and resources. By pursuing good financial practices, we free ourselves from debt so that we are able to be in mission to the world. A key part of finding financial and spiritual freedom is found in simplicity and exercising restraint.

Today, I simply want to give you permission to do two things. First, I want to give you permission to stop keeping up with the Joneses. If you’re like me, you probably don’t even like the Joneses very much anyway, so you don’t need to feel compelled to keep up with them. Second, I want to give you permission to stop living on credit, to stop borrowing against your future, to stop living so radically beyond your means, to stop living in bondage to your debt.

With the help of God, we can simplify our lives and silence the voices that constantly tell us we need more. We can live counter-culturally by living below, not above, our means. We can build into our budgets the money to buy with cash instead of credit. We can build into our budgets what we need to be able to live generously and faithfully.

Let me invite you to place your hands on your lap, palm side up. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. I invite you to say this prayer with me, quietly or even silently.

Change my heart, O God. Clean me out inside. Make me new. Heal my desires. Help me to hold my possessions loosely. Teach me generosity and help me have joy. Help me be an ambassador of hope this week, to bear your light to others. Help them see you in me. I offer my life to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.