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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Faithful Financial Freedom Part Four: Giving Thanks

Today is the last message in a four-part series of messages on Faithful Financial Freedom. At the root of this series is this question: “How do you live on the upside when the economy is on the downside?” We have realized that most people are responding to what’s happening in the economy out of the twin emotions of fear and worry. But as Christians, there’s a better way to respond. Fear and worry are not God’s plan for our lives. There is something better.

Hopefully you have learned a lot, and the learning continues today, so go ahead and take the sermon notes out of your bulletin. Most of us learn best when we take notes, so write down anything of interest we discuss.

Disclaimer here – yes, this is the money sermon. Today’s the day I will talk about your giving for the coming year. So, if you’re visiting with us, I apologize. You’ll probably learn a lot by listening in, but if you’re visiting, please don’t think we’re after your money or are going to hound you to make some sort of a commitment. Or, if you’re here and you just needed a word of hope and encouragement and I’m up here talking about money, you might be thinking, “That’s the last thing I needed to hear today,” let me tell you how this sermon is for you. This church exists to be the hands and feet of Christ right here in this corner of the world. We are here to love and value all people unconditionally with the love of God, and to help everyone in their journey of growing closer toward God. And so, we’re talking about money today because I want to be sure that this church continues to be here for each of you, and for people who will come after you.

The first week’s message was “God’s Perspective.” Then we focused on “Rebalancing Life Investments.” We realized that right priorities + right actions = right results. Last week we talked about the importance of starting today; because the seeds we plant today will determine the harvest we reap tomorrow. Today, we focus on what it means to give thanks, and how when we do, we are actually making an investment in God’s future harvest. May we pray.

When I think of a harvest, I inevitably think of Thanksgiving. 42.2 million people will travel 50 miles or more this week to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with people who are important to them. Ashley and I are driving to the northwest part of Pennsylvania to spend the holiday with my mom’s family. Across the country, 690 million pounds of turkey will be consumed, we will indulge in 1.9 billion pounds of sweet potatoes and 50 million pumpkin pies.

You know the story of the first American Thanksgiving. In 1621, Pilgrim settlers engaged in a religious celebration that proclaimed their faith in God’s providence. They had lost over half their population in a year’s time, and they were sure to lose many more as they faced a winter of severe famine. Yet, they chose to pause and give thanks to God. Friends, our times are also uncertain, but one of the most important things we can do is give thanks as an act of faith. Let’s look at three important ways we can invest all that God has given us into God’s future harvest.

Live and give thankfully

First, we must live and give thankfully, even in the midst of difficult, trying, and stressful circumstances. To unpack what this means, let’s go to the book of James, Chapter 1, verses 1-3: From James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ; to the twelve tribes scattered across the nations: Greetings, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.

James writes to Jewish Christians who were scattered throughout the known world. They were dealing with two incredible hardships. First, they had left their homes – they had left behind their job, their possessions, their friends and family, their support network, everything – they had left all that behind and only had whatever they could carry on their backs. They were homeless and hopeless. Their second hardship was persecution.

In light of these two hardships, James writes, “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3). Trials can actually be opportunities that test our faith, and testing our faith produces endurance.

Now, trials aren’t orchestrated by God. They simply happen because that’s the way life is, but when they do, they provide an opportunity to grow. Now, maybe that opportunity is a difficult one, but have you ever noticed that so many things worth doing only come on the opposite side of struggle? Resurrection is a great thing, but do you know what you have to go through if you really want to experience a resurrection? You have to die.

James says that we should be thankful in all things, because even what seems like a great ordeal may provide us the opportunity to grow. Growth is a good thing, and we should be thankful for it. Granted, it takes a lot of discipline to do. It’s an attitude shift to approach everything in life, even the things that are difficult, with thankfulness. Ever complain about your job? Who hasn’t, right? We complain about our job, our working conditions, our boss, our co-workers, our salary, our hours – who doesn’t love to complain about their job?

Well, you might think differently if you lived in Jamaica. Did you know there are two Jamaicas? One is resort Jamaica – this is the one most of us will see if we go for a visit. It’s a land of bright colors, great food, pristine beaches, luxurious hotels, strong drinks with little umbrellas in them served by courteous waiters in white shorts. But then there’s also real Jamaica – where the unemployment rate is 70%.

Friends, you and I are blessed. If you have a job and have the ability work, you are blessed. If you have a roof over your head and food to eat, you are wealthier than 2/3 of the world. Comparatively speaking, we are wealthy people. But we often compare ourselves to those who have more, and this fuels the appetite to spend and get ourselves in debt. We’re unhappy with what we have because we see those who have more, and we want what they have. But can I tell you something? Just having more stuff in our lives doesn’t make us happy. Contentment makes us happy, and contentment is key to living and giving thankfully, and living and giving thankfully is just one way we invest in God’s future harvest.

Live and give faithfully

In addition to living and giving thankfully, we must live and give faithfully. The last couple years have been hard on businesses, on the government, on organizations, and on individuals. The story found in Jeremiah 32 can help us to see the necessity of faithfulness during our most difficult times.

It was 588 BC, and Jerusalem is surrounded by the armies of Babylon. The king arrested the prophet Jeremiah because he was irritated with him. What was so irritating? Jeremiah had been prophesying against his own people, telling them they were the problem, not the outside armies. They were their own worst enemy. Why? They had turned their backs on God and were serving idols made with human hands.

What has happened in our economy is more than an economic correction; it is also a spiritual correction because we, too, have served idols of our own hands, and in so doing, turned our backs on the living God. Despite our advances, the truth is that we are not much different than the people of Jeremiah’s day.

Then, the people were about to be taken away into slavery by the Babylonians, and everything they possess, including the land itself, will soon belong to Babylon. It will be 50 years before the first wave of people come back, Jeremiah will never come back, and he has only two weeks before he is to leave. That’s when the story gets crazy. God tells Jeremiah to do something that sounds insane: take the money in his hand and buy a piece of land. Faith doesn’t always make sense. This is why we must live and give faithfully, not according to what makes sense.

Jeremiah told God that God was obviously crazy. Why should he buy real estate when the title to the land will be worthless in two weeks? But here’s what God was doing: God was telling Jeremiah to take the money in his hand and invest it in the place where God would produce a future harvest.

Sometimes, I think the greatest mistake the church makes is when we live sensibly and not faithfully. We make decisions based on what makes sense rather than what demonstrates faith. We clutch so tightly to what we have that we fail to plant it as seed in the ground, and we miss out on the blessings of the harvest God would have brought from that seed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the tighter we hang onto what we have, the less we have to hang onto. The looser we hold what we have, and the greater our willingness to plant it where God directs, the more we seem to have as a great harvest of blessing results.

That’s the paradox of faith. God tells us to take what’s in our hand and use it as seed in the ground today for God’s harvest tomorrow. To the spiritually immature, this makes no sense and seems irrational. Sometimes God’s directives don’t make sense to us, but we are called to live by faith and not by sight. Living by faith requires us to take a leap beyond our own abilities, beyond our own ingenuity, beyond the limits of what we can do on our own. Living by faith requires us to trust God and believe nothing is impossible with God. When we live and give this way, we experience the blessings of God’s future harvest. God has given you or put within your reach all the resources you need. And if you’re faithful and obedient with what God has given you, God will multiply it for God’s purpose.

Live and give sacrificially

Finally, we must live and give sacrificially. Listen up. Many Christians have forgotten who we are. Many Christians seem to have amnesia. Well, it’s time to wake up and remember who we are. We are the living, breathing, body of Christ. We are the only hands and feet that God has to do God’s work in the world. You and I are God’s economic delivery system. We are God’s bank account.

Have you ever heard a pastor say, “God doesn’t need your money. God can do it without your money.” That’s not true. In reality, the church as an organization doesn’t need your money. However, the church as the living, breathing body of Christ does need your money. God not only needs your money; God needs your hands and feet, too. God needs your time. In fact, God needs all of you. If God’s will is going to happen in the world, God needs all you have to give.

We give God everything as a way of recognizing that it was God who gave us everything we have in the first place. Let me tell you about the parable of the french fries, with credit to Dr. Jody Seymour, who is the senior pastor at Davidson United Methodist Church. There once was a father who had a son. More than anything, the son’s favorite food were McDonald’s french fries. The father loved his son deeply, and one afternoon he picked him up from school and surprised him by stopping at McDonald’s on the way home for some french fries. They went back to the table and the son began to devour the hot, golden fries dusted with just the right amount of salt. The father reached across the table to grab a few fries out of the box when his son grabbed the fries, pulled them away, and said, “Back off, old man.” The father pleaded, “But son, I bought you those fries; I gave them to you.” “Well,” replied the son, “they’re mine now.”

This is the difference between stewardship and ownership. A culture of ownership is driven by one word: “mine.” But as Christians, we need to embrace a culture of stewardship – recognizing that everything we have is a gift from God, and we are called to be good stewards of the resources God has given us. Each of us needs to take stock of where we find ourselves. Are our attitudes and actions consistent with those of an owner or a steward? For the people of God, there is really one possible answer.

God loves us and so God gives – God blesses us with grace long before we have done anything for God, and God does this simply because God is love. And those who love God give back to God because that’s just the way love works. We give freely and abundantly and sacrificially when we love; God gives that way to us because God loves us. Those who truly love God give the same way back to God – freely, abundantly, sacrificially, joyfully.

When we live and give sacrificially to God’s kingdom work, we are helping to bring people to new life in Jesus Christ, and that should be the basis of what we’re about as followers of Christ. Transformation in the lives of others should be the foundation of everything we do. If it’s not what we’re about, we may as well not even bother. If that doesn’t drive everything we do as a church, there is no point in any of the rest of it.

Friends, we are called to make an investment in God’s future harvest. We are the body of Christ, the only hands and feet Jesus has in the world to accomplish his purpose, and we are called to sacrificial living and giving. Jesus asks us to give everything—our very lives. He said we must lose our lives in order to find them. He told us that if we want to follow him, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily. Despite the risk, a true follower of Jesus continues to live and risk outside his or her comfort zone.

Think of the person in the world whom you love the most. When you give love to them, do you run out? Do you end up with a negative balance in your love account? There’s only so much love to go around, right, and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, right? Of course not. Love is one of those things that the more you give, the more you seem to have.

Because our giving to God is based in love, it works the same way. Jesus himself said our lives are like a seed. If all we do is hold onto that seed and use it for ourselves, it remains nothing more than a wasted seed that rots. But if we’re willing to give it up and risk it to the ground of God’s future harvest, it will yield a return for the kingdom of God that is thirty, sixty, or even one hundred times greater. This is why it is so important for every follower of Jesus Christ to live and give sacrificially. The salvation of others depends on every one of us choosing to live and give sacrificially—giving not only our money but our very lives, planting our seeds in God’s ground so God’s kingdom purposes may be accomplished, so that others may know the eternal life which begins today and continues forever.

This morning, everyone is invited to make an investment in God’s future harvest. We have all been blessed with so much in our lives, and everything we have is a gift and a blessing from God. And so, God is asking you to be God’s partner in bringing about God’s purposes in the world through this church.

This week, you should have received a letter with a giving guide and an estimate of giving card for your giving in 2011. In a few moments, we’ll enter into a time of prayer for you to consider and write down your commitment on the card. If you forgot to bring yours from home, there are extras in the back of the pew in front of you.

You’ll get to turn in that card as an act of thanks to God for all the ways you have been blessed. That 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 for your own information.

The goal in giving is 10% of our income. And I realize that may be a stretch for you. Perhaps you’re new in your faith, or you’re already giving at a level you feel you can manage, and you look at the goal of 10% of your income and you think, “There’s no way.” And I want to be clear here: your acceptance at St. Paul United Methodist Church is not tied to your ability to give. Everyone is valued regardless of their ability to give.

But I’m also aware that as we grow in our faith, we grow in our capacity for giving. If you are not yet giving 10% of your income to God’s work, I want to challenge you to take a step in the direction of tithing. Try increasing your commitment for next year by one percentage point. Keep doing this year by year until you hit the goal. That’s how most people begin to tithe – growing in their Christian living, they also grow in their Christian giving until they reach 10%.

I would especially encourage you to consider online banking. I personally do this, and it’s great. I use the online bill pay feature, and I have set it up on a schedule whereby every week, my tithe is deducted from my checking account and the bank automatically mails the check to the church. I never have to remember my checkbook, and I feel good knowing that whether I am in town or not, the church still receives my tithe.

So, we will have a time of prayer and discernment, and I want you to write down on the card what you honestly believe God wants to give through you in the coming year. First, think about all the ways you have been blessed. And then, think about how you want to express your thanks to God for all the blessings in your life, knowing that you are planting seeds that God will cause to grow a great harvest of blessing in your life and in the lives of others. After you have filled out your card, I invite you to come forward and place your card in the basket. When you fill out your card and bring it forward, I only want you to do it as an act of love and gratitude toward God. If you’re filling it out just to look good or keep up appearances, don’t bother filling it out.

Everyone who fills out a commitment card is welcome to take a St. Paul sticker as our small gift to you. You can put it on your car or in your office or somewhere else to let everyone know that you are part of a great church. Even if you turn in a card with a limited commitment or with an amount of zero, please take the sticker; it’s our way of saying “Thanks” for a commitment of any kind.

God is preparing to gather a harvest, and the seeds we plant today will determine the size of that harvest. When we give generously, the unmistakable blessings of God flow into our lives.

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