Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Who's Your Doggy?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Mark 13:24-37:

Every Thanksgiving morning when I was growing up my brother and I would get up and go into my parent’s bedroom and climb into bed with them and together we would all watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade all the way until Santa Clause appeared, which was the best part because that was the official beginning of the Christmas season and the time when we could begin playing Christmas music. That is one of my fondest childhood memories. As an adult, it is also one of the traditions I have tried to keep alive.

Even this year when we were at the Grand Canyon we watched the parade in our hotel room. Linda and I have also gone to New York to see the parade with the girls twice, although they do not remember going. Now, following the parade broadcast, NBC shows the National Dog Show. Since Linda and I have begun our own traditions for Thanksgiving, it has included watching the dog show as well. Now, if you can disregard the overt racism that comes with and was very much a part of the founding of kennel clubs and dog breeding which seeks to create the perfect breed and to make sure that the breed remains pure, if you can disregard all of those facts, dog shows can be fun to watch. But, you may be wondering, what in the world do dog shows or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade have anything to do with the first Sunday of advent or the scripture that was read this morning?

Traditionally the minister has been seen and talked about as being the shepherd to the flock. I’m the shepherd and you’re the flock. This has been the symbolism both metaphorically and also literally for a long time. Ministers will often refer to having to take care of their flock, congregations often use the same type of language, and the Pope and even our bishops carry a shepherd’s crook. We are supposed to be the shepherd guiding and keeping the flock safe. However, this is an image that has always bugged me and as the scripture this morning illustrates, it is actually incorrect.

The minister is not the shepherd, nor is the district superintendent, the bishop or even the Pope the shepherd. I understand what a powerful image the leader of the congregation as shepherd is, and I can see how it became part of the tradition. But, the simple fact is, it is wrong. I am not the shepherd; God is the shepherd. Now scripture is full of shepherd imagery, but it is nearly always God who is the shepherd not someone else. As the 23rd Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd….”, or as we are told in Matthew, that Jesus had compassion for the people because they “were like sheep without a shepherd.” So first of all we need to remove the idea of the minister as shepherd from our thinking. But, if the minister is not the shepherd then what are we?

Many of you will have already figured this out from the title of this message; if God is the shepherd, and you are the flock, then the minister must be the sheep dog. Now, I really wish I could take some credit for the idea, but it is not original to me. Several years ago a friend of mine was appointed to a church in the middle of the year, after the minister there was indicted. This was a congregation that had a history of troublesome ministerial appointments, and so for her first Sunday at the church, in order to give her some adjustment time, the daughter of one the members of the congregation gave the sermon. She wanted to talk about what had happened to the church, about its future, about its obligations to itself and about moving on. In order to help illustrate her point, she talked about how ministers were a lot like dogs and dog shows and I loved the analogy and thought it would be great to try and pass some of it on to you.

There are currently more than 150 different breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, and there must be at least than many different types of ministers, but all of them will fall into certain types of categories. The first category, and one we’ve probably all seen before, is the show dog. The show dog is most concerned with the appearance of things. It wants to be groomed and primped and showered with praise. It wants everything to be just right, to have everything in its place as it were. As a result, everything looks beautiful, most especially the show dog, and this is very impressive to behold and many people are won over by this display.

Unfortunately, even though it looks as if this work is being done for those who are witnessing the event that is actually a deceptive appearance because everything is about the dog. The dog is the most important thing. I don’t know how many people have had ministers like this, but you’ve almost certainly seen one of them on television. All the energies of the minister and also of the congregation go into feeding the ego of the minister. Everything that is done, even the good and beneficial things, are all ultimately done for one purpose: To make the minister look good.

Now, there are some benefits to having a show dog as a minister because their desire to be recognized and to be the best in show invariably helps to bring attention to the church, and people will come to someplace that is getting attention. The show dog might help to put butts in the seats, as they say, but ultimately, because they are so consumed with themselves, they can do little to make sure that the flock is being properly cared for. Little hurts are caused and ignored which eventual become open wounds which injure the community. But, by the time this happens the show dog has usually moved on because there is always a bigger and better show to move go to.

The next category of dogs is known as the toy dog, or as I like to refer to them “yip dogs.” In real life this category includes Chihuahuas and dogs like that. Now I’ll admit my bias against these types of dogs by saying that any dog that can fit in a woman’s purse is not a real dog. These dogs tend to have lots of energy and run around barking, trying to imitate real dogs and in that sense they can be cute and certainly there are lots of people who are attracted to this sort of dog. But, my obvious bias aside, they are supposed to make wonderful pets, especially for families and those living in the cities. They are loving and friendly to everyone and can climb and sit on you lap, giving them their other moniker, lap dogs.

Ministers who take after toy dogs spend lots of time running around, being ultra friendly and talking a lot. Again this is very appealing to some people because it looks like they are doing a lot of work. They are also certainly friendly enough and who does want a very friendly minister? But there are several problems with this type of minister. The first is that there is a big difference between looking busy and actually doing work. The expenditure of energy does not necessarily indicate that any work is actually getting done.

The second problem with yip dogs lies in their friendliness. For you see, there is a solid rule for clergy that is little discussed outside of the ministry: The minister is not a member of the flock. Ministers and congregants are different. I can never be one of you. I will always be the minister no matter what we are doing, I can never separate from that role. Now there are certainly ministers who violate this code, who try and be just one of the sheep, but this is almost always to the detriment of the minister and most importantly to the detriment of the congregation. When these boundaries are crossed bad things tend to happen.

Now I am not saying that the minister shouldn’t be friendly and likable, because that is certainly not the case. Nor does this mean that the minister shouldn’t love each and every member of the congregation, because that is the case because most importantly, we are the guardians and have to treat each and every member of the flock the same, no matter if you are a white sheep or a black sheep. We cannot show favoritism based upon whom we like or dislike. We are obviously human, and this is very hard to do because clearly there are going to be members of the congregation that we get along with and those that we don’t. But that is the very problem. A minister has to provide their services to all regardless of how they feel about them, and therefore they cannot show signs of favoritism. In times of crisis and times of joy, the minister needs to be able to convey the love of God for all and to all.

The final category is that of the working dog. Now this is a fairly wide category and will include the majority of pastors with whom you will ever have to deal, but there are also still some specific types within this group. First, there is working dog who doesn’t really want to work, or more blatantly, the lazy dog. The one who seems to spend their time lounging in the sun while the flock does whatever it wants to do. They tend to be those who are burned out or those who, for whatever reason, seem to be there simply to collect the paycheck and await retirement. But caution must be made when deciding if the sheep dog is lazy or not, because there are also those who appear to be lazy who aren’t.

Like with the toy dogs who seem to be always busy but who are getting little done, just because the dog is laying down at the side of the flock does not mean that he is not ever alert, watchful and doing a lot of work. It is entirely possible that they are getting a lot of the work done that needs to be done when the flock is not paying attention. But a good watch dog usually makes sure that the flock sees the work they are doing, not only to stop this sort of thinking, but also to let others, who might be a threat to the flock, know that the dog is ever vigilante as well as to let other sheep know that there is a good dog working with the flock.

The second type of working dog might be known as the point dog. This is the type of dog who, wanting to get a flock moving, goes out front and then turns around and starts barking in order to get the flock going. When the flock doesn’t move, they’ll take a few more steps forward in order to show the way and then start barking even more. When the flock still doesn’t move, they will then run back right in front of the flock and start barking a lot. This is type of minister who will use a lot of shoulds, you should be doing this, you should be doing that. The problem is, as one person so eloquently told me, people don’t like being should upon and many will leave the flock when they feel they are getting too much should. Of course the sheep dog in this situation is not in any position to do anything about it because they are so far out in front they can’t stop those at the back from leaving. The dog doesn’t understand what has gone wrong because he was only trying to lead the flock to better pastures, and the flock doesn’t understand why dog let so many other sheep get away, leaving resentment on both sides.

But, the best working dogs take combinations of all of the positive attributes and combine them. The best watch dog stands at the side when things are going well in order to survey the entire scene, but also to let the flock do its own thing. The flock has responsibilities to take care of itself as well. A good sheep dog not only lets the sheep do what they are supposed to be doing but also helps facilitate those things the sheep need to take ownership for, including bringing more sheep into the flock. One of the primary misconceptions about getting new sheep into the flock is that it is up to the sheep dog. But here’s a simple lesson in biology, sheep dogs cannot make new sheep, only sheep can make sheep. The sheep dog certainly plays a role in being able to get more sheep because they provide security, comfort and stability and they help move the flock to where the shepherd is calling them for the health of the flock, but by themselves sheep dogs cannot make more sheep.

The good sheep dog should spend his days wandering among the flock, checking on all of them, keeping them from straying to far and making sure they are content as a flock. The sheep dog does not care whether you are a white sheep or a black sheep, whether you stay firmly with the flock or whether you are more prone to become a stray. The dog doesn’t care because the shepherd doesn’t care. The shepherd has no particular favorites but loves each and every sheep exactly for whom and what they are, white wool, black wool, or no wool at all.

Now occasionally the flock will need to move in order to find better pastures. One of the problems with sheep, and other grazing animals, is that if they are not moved from time to time then they will destroy the pasture where they are. Now many sheep will be hesitant to move and some even resistant because they don’t see anything wrong and more importantly they remember how good the pasture has been to them. They remember how green it used to be and how much grass there was and they think if only we can bring that pasture back then everything will be fine. Now certainly, the sheep figure, they can’t have that old pasture again if they leave it, so they don’t want to leave. But the simple fact is, sometimes in order to regain the abundance of the past, in order to regain a thick grass on which to feed and which other sheep would like to join, the flock needs to move. And it takes a good sheep dog to know how to do this.

A good sheep dog will pick out a few of the sheep and get them moving forward, for the flock is always more likely to follow other sheep then they are some foolish dog. Once those sheep are moving, and this may require some barking, the sheep dog will move among the rest of the flock cajoling here and there, barking some and sometimes maybe even nipping at some heels in order to get the rest of the flock going forward. The dog will also make sure the flock is moving in the right direction, all under the instruction of the shepherd, and working from the back and the sides to make this happen. The flock will follow the sheep leading at the front, and the dog will keep those at the back moving with them. That is how a good dog operates, with the entirety of the flock in its mind and always looking for ways to make the flock stronger on their own. The more the flock can do for itself the better off the flock is going to be, for there is only so much that one dog can do.

Now obviously I hope that I am more like the last dog then the others, but the reality is that every minister has a little of all of these types in us. There are times when I will be a little show doggy, although that makes me very uncomfortable, I know there are times when I will want to be the point dog, but I hope I spend most of my time as the last one, working within the flock, inviting the leaders in the flock to provide the movement and direction, nipping where necessary to get everyone moving but letting the flock do what only the flock can do best. Because here is the most simple truth about sheep dogs, we come and go. The only constant is the flock and the love and presence of the shepherd.

The shepherd will never leave or go away, and the shepherd cares more for and about this flock then even the best sheep dog ever can. The strength, the endurance, the vitality, the spirit, the essence, the life and the future of any flock does not reside with sheep dog; it resides in the sheep and their relationship to the shepherd. The sheep dog will always exist outside the flock and they are always prone to change. The only constant is the flock itself, and that is where the power of any church lies. It resides in the flock, in each individual member and in their trust in the shepherd. So this week as we enter the season of advent, as we prepare to again celebrate the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus, the greatest gift we can receive, let us remember that God is the shepherd, the guide, the light of the world who shows us the way. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kids Say The Darndest Thing, Thanksgiving Edition

My oldest daughter, who is in kindergarten, was learning this week about Thanksgiving, and asked me what happened to the Mayflower. I told her I thought it had sailed back to England, but didn't know. When I asked her what she knew about the Mayflower, she told me what she could remember.

I then told her she should tell her teacher that she is a descendant of a signer of the Mayflower Compact, thinking this might impress her and give her something to brag about, to which she replied "can I also tell her that I have the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving DVD and that if you go all the way to the bottom on the menu you can watch the Mayflower cartoon?" Yes you can...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Turkey Talk

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 6:24-34:

I’m sure that all of us have some story about Thanksgiving dinner not going quite right, but whatever stories we might have, I think that Mary Clingman can beat us. For you see, Mary has been a receiving calls on the Butterball Turkey hotline for more than 30 years. She recounts the time that a woman called and asked what she needed to do differently to cook the turkey at high altitudes, when asked how high she was, the caller said, the 32nd floor. Or there was the woman who called to say that her kitchen was on fire and wanted to know what to do, she was told to hang up and dial 911. Then there was the person who called and asked if the yellow netting and wrapping should be removed before cooking. The answer was yes.

But I have to say my favorite was the man who called to ask if their frozen turkey was still good. When asked how long they had had it, he said it was at least five years, but they couldn’t really remember. Had it always been kept frozen, she asked, no, he said, they had moved once and then there was the time that the freezer stopped working, so it had probably at least partially defrosted a couple of times, after being told him that the turkey probably was not good and should be discarded. The man said that’s what he had figured, so he was glad he had given it to a charity.

Today in the church we celebrate both Christ the King Sunday, which is the last Sunday of the Christian year, and the reason we opened with “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”, and is is also the Sunday in which we celebrate Thanksgiving. This is always a day that I find tough to do because people often want you to try and do both, to cover Christ the King and Thanksgiving, and do both well, but that’s nearly impossible. So instead of doing both, it has been my policy to switch each year, and this year we celebrate Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a strange holiday, for it is not a holiday that people seem to spend a lot of time thinking about or concentrating on. There are not special stores that pop up to sell things specifically for the day, and there is no special candy. Even the marshmallow peep company which seems to make peeps for almost everything these days does not have a Thanksgiving peep. Nor is there any sort of quasi mystical mascot accompanying Thanksgiving. Maybe this is because it’s sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas, two big holidays, maybe it’s because most kids don’t get really excited about eating a lot of turkey, although having the extra days off from school is sure nice, so no one really focuses their attention on the day. In an article she wrote Kathleen Bergeron said that Thanksgiving is almost the forgotten holiday.

Outside of travel arrangements, and some people who fuss over everything, we just simply don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it or preparing for it, and yet in many ways it is one of the dominant holidays. It is the busiest travel holiday of the year, surpassing even Christmas, with airfares running as much as four times the average cost, which indicates that of all of the holidays it is the one that most families will be together for. Maybe that’s why some of us try and forget it because if we thought about all the time we will have to spend time with our families we would either be miserable or go insane. In doing a search for stories about family fights at Thanksgiving, I came across this post from Ann, who lives in she said “Thanksgiving horror stories? I have none. I find the key to family holiday success is buying as much wine as you think you need, and then doubling it.”

While I don’t think Jesus really had Thanksgiving in mind when he gave today’s passage, it certainly can apply. Matthew places this lesson as part of the Sermon on the Mount. Although the teaching is also included in Luke, he places it much later in Jesus’ ministry. I have also expanded what the lectionary calls for by including the line prior to the main passage about not being able to worship both God and mammon, and then closing with the passage telling us not to worry about tomorrow. I did this because I believe those two lines are crucial to understand what Jesus is trying to tell us, and because it also builds on what we have been covering for the past three weeks.

Now, we often throw out the line about not being able to love God and money as a claim about the problems of wealth. And it is, but it is about more than that, as we see by the passage that immediately follows. This line wasn’t meant to apply just to those who have wealth, but even to those who are poor because the desire to have wealth and things is just as damaging as actually having those things. It is in thinking that only if we have one more thing then we will be truly happy. Indeed, American Capitalism is based almost solely these days on the massive spending that we do on things that we are told that we “need.”

Now in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the lowest level are those things we need to survive, food, shelter, security, but that is exactly what Jesus is talking about. Jesus does not say don’t worry about how we’re going to be able to afford the vacation house or a television for the garage. Instead he says don’t worry about we are going to eat, or drink or wear. And notice that he does not say if you are worried about these things, meaning that some worry and some don’t, instead he assumes that we are worried about these things. These concerns may not seem all that important to most of us, but remember that for the majority of Jesus’ listeners they often did not know where their next meal was coming from. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, which precedes today’s passage by just a few verses, and ask for God to give us this day our daily bread, it was not just some idle request being made, nor should it be an idle request now. It is to put our reliance on God that God will provide what we needed, which is what today’s scripture is about.

In one of my favorite lines from the movie Mary Poppins, after the children, Jane and Michael, tell the bank manager, wonderfully played by Dick Van Dyke, that they don’t want to put their money into the bank but instead use it to buy food for the birds, and the manager tells them “fiddlesticks, feed the birds and what have you got? Lazy birds.” I think sometimes we read these passages as if Jesus is saying that all we have to do is sit back and do nothing and God will give us what we need. But that is not what is being said. In fact, Jesus says that we must strive, but we are not striving for food or clothing. It is the gentiles, Jesus says, who strive for the things of the world, who feel that they need more things to be happy. But, this always leads us to needing more and more because these things will never make us truly happy and if we are constantly trying to accumulate then we will always be worried about when we will have enough, and of course we will never have enough.

Instead we are first to strive for the kingdom of God, and then all these things will be given to us we are told. There is effort and diligence required on our part, but effort and diligence directed in the proper way. One commentator remarked “the call is for radical trust and single-minded service. That which is uncompromisingly primary is orienting one’s life to the approaching reign of God. After all, life is qualified by what one seeks. If relative, created values are made absolute, then there is no release from anxiety with their attainment.” That is what Jesus is telling us. When we focus on our wants and our needs then we begin to worry about things which are beyond our control and that leads us away from following God. Worry does not solve any problems or help us overcome our difficulties. Often worry serves the opposite of what it is intended to do and becomes a stumbling block for us, because instead of focusing on what is truly important in our lives, we become dominated by our worries. They become our god. Worry does nothing but create doubt and uncertainty; it distracts us from more important matters and paralyzes us from doing what needs to be done.

In Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, a survivor of the holocaust, wrote about one afternoon when the men had all walked back to their barracks after their day’s labor. They were laying in their beds, exhausted and sick after having spent the day in a cold rain. Suddenly, he says, one of the men ran into the barracks and shouted for the others to come outside. Reluctant to leave their beds, but hearing the urgency in the man’s voice, they staggered outside. They found that the rain had stopped, and although dark heavy clouds still hung in the sky, the sun had broken through and was reflecting on the puddles of water on the floor of the courtyard. “We stood there,” Frankl said, “marveling at the goodness of the creation. We were tired and cold and sick, we were starving to death, we had lost our loved ones and never expected to see them again, yet there we stood, feeling a sense of reverence as old and formidable as the world itself.”

There were obviously lots of things that Frankl and his other prisoners could be worried about and focused on, and they were, until someone brought them out of it and they stood in awe at the beauty of creation. Can Thanksgiving be that moment for us? It can be, but we have to decide to make it so. According to Dr. James Barton, “it is known that about one half of the patients consulting a physician have no organic disease....” Instead, he says, “the cause of the symptoms is tenseness or worry, strain, and fatigue… [all of which] can affect the workings of all the organs of the body.” In other words, worrying can literally make you sick.

On the other hand, in an experiment at the University of Michigan, researchers found that students who kept a “gratitude journal,” a weekly record of things they feel grateful for, achieved better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly and described themselves as happier than a control group of students who kept no journals but had the same overall measures of health, optimism, and exercise when the experiment began.

In another study researchers found that people who describe themselves as feeling grateful to others, and either to God or to creation in general, tended to have higher vitality and more optimism, suffer less stress, and experience fewer episodes of clinical depression than the population as a whole. This result held even when researchers factored out such things as age, health, and income – equalizing for the fact that the young, the well-to-do, or the hale and hearty may have more to be grateful for. In other words, expressing gratitude can not only make you happier but can make you healthier. No wonder Jesus tells us to be like the birds and lilies of the fields.

Now I know that Thanksgiving celebrations can add to our stress levels, but they need not. Remember why it is that you are gathering together, wherever that may be, and stop for a time to relax and reflect. In order to help prepare you, I would like you to take out your green daily Bible reading insert, if you haven’t already, and we’re going to spend a few moments writing down some of the things we give thanks to God for on the backside where we can write down the things we will like to remember from today’s service. We are not giving thanks for things, because that places the emphasis on the object, whatever it is, but instead we are giving thanks to God who provides for us. So instead of saying, I am thankful for my home, which can take on the tone of saying thank you that I am not one of the homeless, we say instead, Thank you God for the shelter that you have provided me, and I ask you to help all those today who do not have a place to call their own. Or you might say, I thank you God for the friends and family who surround me with their love and their care, and remember those who feel alone or isolated and ask that your love might be felt by them. So take out your paper, begin your thanksgiving journal by writing down one or two things you want to give thanks to God for...

Jesus calls us to move away from what our culture says is important into a life of trust and obedience. Away from worrying and being obsessed with the mights and coulds in our lives, to striving first for the kingdom of God; striving away from putting our dependence on ourselves or other things and instead putting our reliance on God. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Let us strive for the kingdom and let us take the time to give thanks to God. Thanks be to God sisters and brothers. Amen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fit To Be Tithed

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Mark 12:38-44:

One Sunday a minister was working on getting his congregation fired up about doing God’s work in the world. “If this church is going to serve God it’s got to get down on its knees and crawl.” And the congregation, being actively engaged in the sermon, yelled back “make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.” And then the minister yelled “and once this church has learned to crawl, it’s got to get up on its feet and learn to walk.” And the congregation yelled back “make it walk preacher, make it walk.” And then the minister said “and once this church has learned how to walk, then it’s got to learn how to run.” And the congregation yelled back “make it run preacher, make it run.” And then he concluded with “and in order for this church to run, its got to reach deep down into its pockets and learn to give.” And then there was a pause, and someone yelled out “make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.”

Today is the third and concluding sermon in our series on money, which is based roughly on a series created by Dave Ramsey entitled Faith, Hope and Money, and it is the day in which we cover everyone’s favorite topic, giving. Now as you have already heard me say, the church makes a terrible mistake when it reduces stewardship to simply being about giving to the church. It is a mistake which hurts the church and it hurts you, because even if you are tithing, which means giving ten percent of your income, then you still have 90% more to worry about, and the church tends to ignore that even though the scriptures have a lot to say about money and possessions, and it’s about a lot more than just the contributions you put into the offering plate. The Bible deals with issues of money more than 800 times, and Jesus talks about more than he talks about just about anything else.

So for the past two weeks we have been looking at how to get our financial houses in order. I have been closing each week with a passage from Proverbs which says, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.” The steps we have worked through together are the first steps to lead us to diligence, to financial diligence. In the first sermon we talked about the need to save. Does anyone remember what the three reasons are to save? Emergencies, purchases, and to build wealth particularly for retirement. And in order to make sure you are putting money into savings every single month what are you supposed to do? Pay yourself first. You pay yourself first because if you wait until the end of the month and then take out whatever is left I can assure you it won’t be there. We spend the money we have, but if we never see it then we can’t touch it.

Last week, in part two, we talked about the need to track all of our money, to set financial goals and to create a monthly budget. The median household in America will bring in more than 2 million dollars over forty years. In order to be good stewards of those resources we need to know where all the money is going and then to say what our money is going to do for us. We work hard for our money so our money should be working hard for us. Jesus says that you cannot serve two masters, you cannot serve both God and mammon, so instead of serving our money, which is how most of us operate, when we budget, track all income and expenditures, save, give and create financial goals which give us direction and a target, when we do those things then we are telling our money where it is going and we control it, it does not control us. When we are masters of our money, instead of focusing all of our attention, our energy, our frustrations, our stress, on financial concerns then we can instead focus everything we do and have on our relationship with God and what God is calling us to do. When we are masters of our money, then we can fully make God the master of our lives.

Now many of you have said to me that they wish they had heard this message 50, 60 or even 70 years ago, but as I said in the first sermon, it is never too late to start practicing financial diligence. If you are still alive then you can be doing these things. But even if you think it’s too late for most things, then talk with your children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren about financial matters. You will also probably be one of the few adults in their life who will actually talk with them about money, which will surprise them, because money is one of those things we normally don’t talk about. But you know what will be even more important? Rather than telling them, show them through your own actions. We learn a lot more about how to deal with money and what money means through how we see those who are important interacting with their money. Model this behavior for them and they will follow. If you tell a child about the dangers of credit card debt, but they see you using your credit card all the time, which lesson do you think they are going to follow? We need to learn how to be good stewards and we need to teach others how to be good stewards.

So what does that mean? A steward is an old English term; in feudal Europe a person of wealth would entrust all of his property to his steward to manage on his behalf. The steward did not own the property, it belonged to lord, the steward was merely entrusted to manage it all for its proper owner. So the first step to understanding what it means to be a good steward is to also understand that the resources are not ours to begin with that they belong to God. We are merely entrusted with them, we are God’s stewards. If we are to truly think of ourselves in this way it should change everything we do with our money as well as how we view our money.

The first thing that needs to change is how we view what we have so that we move from a position of scarcity, that we never have enough, instead to a position of abundance, that God has provided what we need. This change does not change how much money we have but it instead changes our entire perspective on our resources. If when we are working with our money we have ever said, “we can’t afford that,” which I’ve certainly said before, then we are working from a position of scarcity. Instead we should say “I am choosing to spend my money differently,” because that is working from a position of abundance. Has the reality changed any? No, but the perspective has changed completely, and if you want to teach a powerful message to your children, this is one of the first places to start.

When we work from a position of scarcity, then we act from a position of fear, and worse we are letting our money control us. When we say ‘we can’t afford this” our money is making our decisions for us, and we are serving another master. But, when we say “we choose to spend our money differently,” then we are now the ones in control. We are the ones saying where our money will and will not go so that our money relies on us we do not rely on our money. God does not work from a position of scarcity, nor does God give from a position of scarcity, and neither should we. We need to realign our thinking to a position of abundance, and when we operate from a position of abundance and when we are in control of our money we will find that we have more than enough.

The second thing that changes when we see everything as belonging to God is our view of giving, and this changes because, as Dave Ramsey says, it’s always much easier to give away someone else’s money than it is to give away your own. In my preparation for this series, I did quite a bit of study, and all of the financial planners I read and listened to said that one of the keys to getting your finances in order and under control was sort of counter-intuitive. In order to get our spending and finances under control we need to be giving some of it away. In addition, they all said that just like with your savings that the amount you give should come out first thing, to give away first. In the church we say that this is giving of your first fruits. We give off the first of the harvest and then we work with what remains. Now some of these financial planners, like Dave Ramsey, are overtly Christian, but most were not, but all of them advocated giving because of the impact it would make on us and the way it would change us.

In today’s passage, typically referred to as the story of the widow’s mite Jesus’ highlights the gift given by the widow. Even though Jesus’ says the other gave out of their abundance, that is they gave because they thought they had enough to give, the widow gives, in Jesus’ words, “out of her poverty.” But I would argue that the woman too gives out of her abundance because she understands that even with little, that she has been blessed by God, and so she is giving back a portion of what God has given. She is in fact giving from abundance. She is not holding tightly onto what she has, saying she doesn’t have enough to give, instead she gives because it is in her to give and she knows and trusts that God will provide. She is giving out of abundance, and she is also giving sacrificially, just as Jesus does. We need to be givers because we are made in the image of God and God is a giver. What does the 16th verse of the 3rd chapter of John say? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son….” God is a giver.

Now in reading about other reasons why we should give, some people will tell you that if you give that you will receive back multiples of your money in return. While I agree in principle with this idea, I fundamentally reject the premise that this is the reason to give. I reject it because that is to turn giving into an investment practice, which is fundamentally the wrong way to view giving, because that makes it all about you. Now that does not mean that we do not receive anything from giving, because we do, but often what we receive is simply the blessings that come from operating in the world with an open hand rather than a closed fist. If you approach a dog with a closed fist, what will it do? A closed fist is a universal sign of anger, and when we are not giving, when we are clinging on to everything we have, when we are hording, then we approach the world with a closed fist. But instead, when we give we have to open up our hand and present just the palm. What happens when you approach a dog with an open hand? The world responds to an open hand exactly the same way. Giving fundamentally changes the way we approach the world and the way the world responds to us.

Now we are told in scripture that we are to be giving and to give of our first fruits, and the amount identified for giving is 10% of your income. This is referred to as a tithe, because tithe is the Greek word for a tenth. These injunctions, to tithe and give our your first fruits, are found throughout the scriptures. Now, my grandfather always said that you needed to give 10% of your income in order to get into heaven, and maybe some of you have heard that as well. But, just like I reject the idea that the reason to give is in order to receive, I also reject the idea that we need to give to get into heaven. I don’t believe that God works that way.

If you believe that in order to get into heaven you have to tithe, then that means that you have to give. But let me tell you what I believe, even though the finance committee doesn’t like to hear such things, I don’t believe that we have to put one single solitary penny into this collection plate in order to get into heaven. Not a single solitary penny is required from us. We are offered eternal life because of the love of God and because of the price that Christ paid on the cross. God’s love, grace and mercy is greater than anything we could ever possible afford even if we were to give everything we have. The price for eternal life has already been paid! This cross is the receipt! This cross represents the cost of eternal life and it has already been paid for for you and for me. We don’t have to give anything to the church.

The church, our faith, our salvation are not mere commodities that can simply be bought or sold. These are not like a can of green beans or a pound of hamburger upon which a price can be set. Only you can decide what the correct level of giving. If you decide that this church is worth $500 a year to you, there is absolutely nothing and no one from stopping you from giving $500. You will still be able to walk through the door, you still get to sing all the same songs, even the ones you don’t know, you can still seek out the services of the minister, you can still attend any of the events the church hosts, and you still get to serve on committees.
Although now that I think about it, maybe we should come up with a plan directly related to committee service. The more money you give the fewer committee meetings you have to sit through. That might definitely get some positive response.

We don’t have to give anything. Instead, and you knew that was coming, we GET to give, and this is a big difference. It may seem like mere semantics, but there is a big difference between being obligated to do something and having the free choice to do it. Giving to the church is a choice, and one that I do think will impact your spiritual life and your relationship with God. In fact, the quickest and easiest way to increase your giving, and the way that every church should advocate, is through deepening your relationship with Jesus Christ. If you’ve been attending for a while you’ve heard me talk a lot about being on fire with the Holy Spirit, and if you are on fire then you can’t help but give.

When you are, as Dave Ramsey says, “a sold out believer,” then you will give naturally because you can’t imagine doing anything else. It will be something that we can’t control and we will give and give generously, we will be like the widow in today’s passage, because we are committed to this church and its mission, and we are committed to the gospel message, that is the good news, and believe that it should continue to be spread so that others can also experience the joy and love that we have felt through our relationship with God.

In the coming weeks you will be receiving in the mail a letter talking about the financial needs of this congregation for the year 2012, along with an estimate of giving card I know that you have not done this in the past, but we as a church are also working on becoming diligent in our financial practices and we need you to help us to do that. So to help us create our budget for next year, to know how much money we have to expend so we can create an accurate budget for the coming year, we are asking you to turn in your estimate of giving card so that we can be good stewards of the money with which we are entrusted. But, as we all begin to think about next year’s giving, here is where I throw down the gauntlet: I would like to challenge us to become a tithing congregation. That would of course mean that we as individuals are tithing to the church, but I would like to extend that to the church proper as well. You are already tithing each week’s offering to pay our mission shares to the conference, and I strongly applaud that, but I would also challenge us to tithe, to give ten percent, of our pledges to mission and outreach in the community as well.

Ultimately what we give to this church is between us and God, we can give nothing or we can begin tithing. The choice is ours. But I do ask that you at least begin the process of evaluating what this congregation, what the greater church and what your relationship with God means to you. If you find that your commitment to God, to this congregation, or your giving is not what you would like it to be I ask you to take this time to begin to change it. If you decide you’re quite happy with the way everything is, then you can also continue keeping the status quo, but I do ask that you take the time to at least consider it.

By giving freely and generously of ourselves we are making both a commitment and a statement about the importance of this church and God in our lives. We are making a commitment and a statement that Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection are meaningful and important to us. We are making a commitment and a statement that we think that the gospel should continue to be spread so that others can also experience the joy and love that we have felt through our relationship with God. And most importantly we are making a commitment and a statement that God is the most important thing in our lives, because we are putting God first before everything else.

I would like to close with a story told by retired Bishop Susan Morrison about an event she witnessed in Zimbabwe. She was preaching in a very poor rural church, but remembers the offering as the high point of her time there. She said the pastor prayed with fervent passion and excitement that God would lead people to give an offering that would be a living expression of the way God loves the world. As the collection plates were passed around the congregation, she noticed that the plate stopped at one of the women who held it and looked at it for a while. She then stood up and walked out into the isle, and placed the collection plate on the ground. Then, said Bishop Morrison, in the most stunning gesture of radical giving she had ever witnessed, the woman stepped into the plate. When you consider what your giving will be to this church for the coming year, I ask you to keep this story in mind and to consider prayerfully and deliberately what your relationship with God and with this congregation means to you, and to make the appropriate response in your giving as well.

We are called to be proper stewards of our resources, or more properly to be proper stewards of God’s resources. Hopefully if you are not already doing so we are now beginning to take the steps towards financial diligence. Dave Ramsey closes his radio program each time by saying, “There is ultimately only one way to financial peace, and that is to walk daily with the Price of Peace, Christ Jesus.” May it be so. Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Could Someone Explain the Irony to Cars.com

In the wake of the events at Penn State over the past week (which I will write about soon) Cars.com has pulled their sponsorship of the television coverage of the next two Penn State games. They are doing this because they don't want to be seen as being affiliated with what has happened at Penn State.

Here is the great irony of this. Cars.com has several advertisements that are completely demeaning to women. In one, cars are reading reviews about themselves, and we are told that "Sheila looks great topless" and "Mary, has a big rear end." Another car is told that his ride is "exceedingly smooth" to which he says "did you hear that Sheila?"

So, Cars.com runs ads in which statements are made to and about women that would get you fired for sexual harassment in just about any workplace in America today, but they don't want to be associated with what is happening at Penn State.

I don't think that Cars.com can exactly take the moral high ground on this situation, and I sincerely hope that people who have a lot more say and followers than I do will begin to point this out.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What's In Your Wallet?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The passage was Matthew 25:1-13:

Today we continue with the second part of our sermon series on finances which is based roughly on a series created by Dave Ramsey entitled Faith, Hope and Money. Last week we talked about the need to save. But, even though I told you why saving is important, I didn’t really talk about how we are supposed to do it, and so this week we are going to talk about goal setting, budgeting and how we find money to save. Now I know that this sermon series is very different than what you’ve ever heard, because I am getting a lot more concrete than most sermons about money ever do, and there is a reason for that. Quite simply, many people don’t know what they should be doing or what the implications are if they don’t do these things, so I want to make this as practical as possible. I think this is one of the areas in which the church has failed because our finances are important. They drive just about everything we do and don’t do, and the scriptures have a lot to say about these things, remember Jesus talked more about money than he did about almost anything else, and if I can change just one of your financial lives for the better then I will have accomplished something.

In my first real job out of high school I was making $6 an hour, for an amazing $12,000 a year. I had never made so much money. Two years later I was in management for the same company, and instead of $12,000, I was now making nearly $35,000 a year. What happened with me, and what happens with most people, is that this change in my income level only meant that I had a lot more now to spend. I did not put any of this into savings or into retirement instead my standard of living simply increased in order to match my new economic reality. Well, long story short, I did not listen to the advice I gave last week about saving and the power of compound interest, because I did not know that information, nor did anyone tell me what I should be doing with my money, instead it went in and then quickly went back out again, and to be honest I can’t say where it went. I did end up with a very nice CD and video collection, which I ended up selling in garage sales for a dollar a piece, but it was not $23,000 worth of those things.

Not happy with what I was doing, I accepted a new job in Santa Fe, where I cut my pay almost in half while simultaneously doubling my cost of living expenses, and I quickly racked up $10,000 on my credit cards. I began working a second job to help pay the bills, but instead of getting ahead, I just kept getting further and further behind. So, wanting to try and end the cycle, I went to my credit union and took out a loan to pay off my credit cards, because it was better to be paying 7% on the loan than the 14%+ I was paying on the credit cards.

Now, if I had been smart when I did that I would have cut up my credit cards, but I didn’t. Nor did I make any other changes to my behavior, instead I kept living the same way as I was before, and this time accumulated about $14,000 in credit card debt. And now not only did I have this debt but I still had the loan that I was paying on which paid off my first credit card debt as well. I decided that I had had enough, and so I stopped using my credit cards and with a recommendation from my credit union I contacted a credit counseling service and entered into a debt repayment plan. One of the great myths we tell ourselves is that we would be okay if only we made more money, but it’s not true because without behavior changes to how we are spending money more money will only make the problem worse. 80% of people who win major lottery prizes declare bankruptcy within five years. More money will not solve our problems, instead we need to control the money we have right now.

I am telling you my story this because I know that some of you have also been where I have been, and maybe some of you are there now. I also want you to know that I am not up here as some financial genius who has it all figured out, nor am I here to blame or shame you for where you are financially. More than 70% of people live paycheck to paycheck and a significant portion of these also carry credit card debt. The average household has $15,799 in credit card debt, and the average APR is 14.89%. In total, the US owes 793.1 billion dollars in unsecured debt, 98% of which is credit card, and 2.43 trillion in total debt, which includes mortgages and car loans. The average family with credit card debt paid 21% of their income to servicing their debt. The economic situation of the government is not something unique; instead it mirrors what is going on in our own personal lives. We cannot expect Washington to be good stewards of their resources, to have it all together, when we are not also being good stewards.

I’m sure that most of us have heard this line from proverbs, “train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” But for some reason we don’t continue. The next line should be one of the keys to understanding our finances and what it means to be a good steward, “the rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” Other passages in the Bible also stress the problem with debt, and in particular with the extreme difficulty of getting out of debt once you are there. In passages in Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Nehemiah, we are instructed that every seven years that all debts are to be forgiven, and every forty-nine years, which is the year of jubilee, that everyone who has sold their land, presumably because of financial problems, are to be given their land back. The scriptures are very concerned with debt and the negative consequences that come from going into debt.

And while debt is bad, it is really the interest and fees that are killing us. In 2007, which is the last year I could find numbers for, American paid 116 billion in interest charges, and an additional 20.5 billion in penalty fees. If you were to pay the minimum payment on that average balance of $15,977 at 14.89 %, it would take you 37 years to pay off, and you would pay $24,760 in interest. The average American household will pay more than $600,000 in interest over their lifetime, but most Americans cannot tell you what their current interest rates are. Ignorance is not bliss. “The borrower is slave of the lender.”

Proverbs tells us to “know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds; for riches do not last forever….” In order to be good stewards we must deal honestly and realistically with our finances. As we discussed last week, for most of us, our money just goes straight into our accounts and then right back out again, and most of us don’t know where most of it goes. So, the first step to getting our financial house in order is to be able to account for every penny that we take in and for every penny that we send out again.

The median household income in America is just slightly over $50,000. So if you are at the median how much money will you earn in a ten year period? That’s right, $500,000. So over twenty years how much money will you earn? That’s right, $1 million. And if you continue making the median over forty years you will see $2 million dollars. Now if you owned a business that saw $2 million in sales and you went to the manager and asked to see the budget or how they were tracking income versus expenses, and you were told that the manager wasn’t doing any of those things, let me ask you, would you fire that manager? Of course you would. I have yet to work for any business, even non-profits, that did not create a budget and track it every single month and every single year. Even businesses that have failed tracked their income and expenses and, and yet only 40% of Americans say that they track their expenditures and have a budget. That means that 60% of people are running their finances in a manner that would get them fired from managing any business they worked for. We deserve better.

This is incredibly important for everyone to do, but it is even more important if your finances are tight or you feel like your financial ship is sinking because the only way to stop the water from continuing to pour in is to find the holes in your boat and plug them, and the simple fact is we all have holes in our boat.
So the first task I want you to do, and I’m guessing none of you have ever had homework from your worship service, but I want you to use the quick cash flow register which you will find on a table at the back of the sanctuary sometime this week I want you to write down what you take in and what you spend on a monthly basis. Do not consult your check book or quicken or anything else you might use to track your spending, instead I want you to do it off of the top of your head. If you are married this is the only time I am going to tell you to do this separately. I want each of you to sit down and write it down so that you can understand as a couple where your communication about your finances is breaking down, because in the vast majority of couples one person is responsible for the finances and the other spouse just goes along with what they are told. This will probably be the most eye-opening exercise you will do because most people, regardless of how much they make, usually underestimate their expenses by between $1000 and $1500 dollars, and often people are off by even more. So first, do an estimate of how much you are spending against income.

Your second task for you to do is to track all of your expenditures for one week, accounting for every single penny. I’d like you to do it for more than one week, but we’ll start with that. There is a form on the back table called the Latte Factor which was created by David Bach, and for those of you who are like me and don’t drink coffee, don’t let the name put you off. The purpose is to see where all your money is going. Do not change your behavior so that you look better on the sheet, because if you do that it will not be effective for you. The purpose of these forms is to help you better understand where your money is going and what you might be able to eliminate in order to get better control of your finances. In order to make this effective, you need to be as specific as possible. For example, don’t just write groceries because that might hide a lot of things. Instead itemize or categorize things so you may decide if it’s really important or not, and only you can decide that. We cannot begin to control our spending or increase our saving until we understand our where our money is going, until we are in control of our money then our money will control us.

In proverbs we are told “Where there is no vision, the people will perish.” And so your third form is a goal brainstorming sheet, which will help you do some planning for saving. I want you and your spouse if you are married, to brainstorm your ideas for things you would like to do that require money. Do not be concerned of whether you can afford it or not, do not be concerned if you think it’s a waste of money, that is not what this process is about. Instead, if you’ve thought about doing it then write it down. Then, once you have written all your goals down, go through and mark whether the funding for them is immediate, short-range or long-range. This can be a little confusing, so just remember it’s when you want to be setting money aside, so retirement savings is an immediate goal even though for many it is a long-range plan. Then once you have listed funding ranges, then select three from each category and move them to the back of the sheet. You have now begun to set financial goals which will help you enormously not only in your financial planning but also in making your dreams a reality. If you don’t have a goal in mind then anywhere you end up will be okay, but once you have a target then you know where you are going and what you need to do to get there, and if you are married then maybe for the first time you will be on the same page financially and moving in the same direction.

Now there are some financial planners who say that budgeting is not necessary because they say that people don’t have the time to budget. To me that is, to put it quite bluntly, just plain foolish. In Hebrews we are told, “Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (12:11) It is your money and you work hard to earn it, so you should be working hard to keep it as well, although once you get started it won’t be as hard. Now what other financial planners will tell you is that the reason budgets don’t work for most people is the same reason that diets don’t work because they work on the basis of deprivation, and with that I would agree. The purpose is not to deprive you of anything, but instead to allow you to make decisions about what is important, and what isn’t, and to allocate your resources the way you want to reach your goals. Rather than depriving yourself instead you are working towards something.

But, to make budgeting a little less threatening, some financial planners instead will say you should create a personal spending and savings plan, which sounds nice and also emphasizes the savings part, others will call it a cash flow plan, which also sounds less threatening. You can call your budget plan Steve or Suzie or even your Hawaii fund, call it whatever you want, but you need to start doing it, and to get you started, you will find a quickie budget form. As you work on budgeting it will need to become a little more complex, but not a lot. Don’t make it so difficult that it doesn’t work. And you will need to do a new budget every single month because you will have different expenses every single month, but the more you do it, the more effective it will be for you. So to conclude today’s message, let me give you an illustration which builds in all of today’s lessons.

Jeff Savile is a hair dresser who lives in Seattle. Following a financial planning class he decided that he wanted to keep thing simple and so he came up with two financials goals. “I wanted to go to Hawaii or someplace else where it’s sunny once every year, and I wanted a red Mazda Miata,” he said. Even though he didn’t know how he was going to be able to afford those things when he started, within three months he had his trip paid for and had the down payment for his car. When he was asked how he could have saved so much so quickly, he said, “Listen, I counted up how many lattes I consumed during the day. Six! Six lattes with tips is $12 a day. I spend an average of $5 a day on snacks. I go out for lunch every day and spend about $8 every time. So far, that’s $25 a day. I work six days a week. That adds up to $600 a month. Cutting a few dinners eating out, I ended up saving $2,000 over a three-month period. My trip to Hawaii will cost me $1100, and the remaining $900 was enough for the down-payment on the car.”

Then he added, “But here’s the thing. If you had asked me at the last session how many lattes I drank a day, I would have said six. And if you had told me I was wasting a lot of money, that I was spending too much… I would have told you that I couldn’t have gotten through my job… without all those lattes. I would have told you not to tell me how many lattes I can drink during the day. And I would have told you that I don’t have the time to make my lunch every day. I barely make it to work on time, work long hours, and go home dead at the end of the day. That’s what I would have said to you. Instead, when I saw for myself that the lattes and lunches were costing me $600 a month, I realized I can more than adequately make a car payment and have plenty left over to go someplace sunny and warm every year. I instantly stopped drinking lattes…and I’m getting up early each day to make my lunch. It’s like once I realized that I could actually have these things, nothing could stop me!”

I cannot tell you what you should or should not be spending your money on, only you can make that decision, but in order to be good stewards of our resources we need to understand our spending, we need to do what we can in order to get out of debt, we need to be budgeting, we need to be saving and we need to be giving, which we will get into next week. Proverbs says “the plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.” We are taking the first steps of diligence, to financial diligence. Dave Ramsey always concludes his radio program by saying “There is ultimately only one way to financial peace, and that is to walk daily with the Price of Peace, Christ Jesus.” May it be so. Amen.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Does the Minister Need to be Good to Great?

There has been lots of talk recently about whether the Indianapolis Colts should draft Andrew Luck if they end up with the first pick of the NFL draft. There are some who are saying they should so that he can be mentored under Peyton Manning and then try and make the quarterback transition seamless. Others are saying because they have Peyton Manning at quarterback they should trade the pick and build up a team around Manning and go for the win now.

At the heart of this argument is the understanding that in order to be a good or even great team that you must have a good or great quarterback. You can get by with mediocre quarterbacking for a little bit, like the Bears did with Rex Grossman, but sooner or later, and usually sooner, he will be exposed and the team will drop down to the level of play of the quarterback. You cannot have an average quarterback, or in other words a mediocre quarterback, and have a good or great team.

Being a great quarterback does not necessarily mean that your team will be great because there are lots of other variables that the team also needs. But week in and week out the quarterback is the most important player on the field. He is also the person that most people pay to go see, and he can make or break a franchise.

I'm wondering if the same is also true for ministers and churches. Can you be a good or great church with an average or mediocre minister? We hear all the time (at least in the United Methodist Church) that the number of poor ministers is very small, that most are doing a very good job at what they do. But is that true? Are we truly gifted with lots of good to great ministers?

I think we can say that, in fact, most ministers are average. On one end of the spectrum we have some are truly gifted, at the other end are those who are "minimally exceptional," and in the middle are those who are neither good nor bad, they are average. So the question then is are the churches they lead average because they are average?

Of the churches that we look up to and say "that is a great church," are they great because of the pastor, the congregation or a combination of the two? Would an average pastor be able to take over a great church and still have it be great? And the reverse, could a great pastor take over an average church and in turn make it great? Or does an average or below average church suck the talent out of even a great minister?

I am inclined to say that churches are probably a lot like NFL teams, they need a great pastor to be great (and I recognize the difficulty in trying to quantify "greatness" in this usage), but I'm just not sure. What I also wonder is whether greatness in the ministry can be taught or if it's just God given? Can an average minister rise above their normal capabilities at a great church, or around a great minister, and then take those skills and apply them to other ministry settings?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Act Your Wage

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 25:14-30:

Today we begin a thee-part sermon series entitled Faith, Hope and Money, which is roughly based on a series from Dave Ramsey. Now even though I said last week that this would be a series on money unlike you had ever heard, I’m sure that most of you probably didn’t believe me and that some of you even thought about staying at home. Because normally whenever we hear that the church is going to be talking about money we begin to hold onto our wallets a little tighter because what we typically hear from the church is that we should be giving and giving more. And I’ll be honest, I’ve preached those sermons and you’ll be sure to hear some of them during my time here.

But I think the church has done a tremendous disservice to itself, to you and to the very idea of stewardship by reducing stewardship to being about giving money to the church. Stewardship is about a lot more. The biblical witness for giving is to give a tenth of your income, but even if you are tithing, you still have 90% of your income that the church is not dealing with or talking about and that is a major mistake. The scriptures have a lot to say about money. Issues of money and possessions are covered more than 800 times in the Bible Did you know that Jesus talked more about money then he did about any other topic? Rev. Jim Wallace, who is one of the co-founders of the sojourners movement, who are commonly referred to as Red Letter Christians, said that he once took a bible and cut out all of the passages that dealt with money, wealth, or possessions, and there wasn’t a lot left to it. It was pretty holy, and not in the sense we normally think of the scriptures.

Now I am not a financial planner. I cannot tell you what you should be investing your money in or where, or what insurance policies you should have, although you should have insurance, or whether you should have a will or a living trust or a durable power of attorney, although you should have at least one of them as well. I do have a financial planner who has agreed to come out and do a presentation and answer your financial questions if people are interested. I will also tell you that I am not a completely disinterested party in this conversation. I know, and the church also knows although they have chosen to ignore it, that the better you are doing with your own finances the more money is available for you to give, but to increase your giving to more than just the church. The simple fact is if you are having difficulty making your mortgage or car payment of even putting food on the table then I know that your giving will also be radically decreased, and so we are going to work over the next three weeks on what we can do to get our financial situation in order. It has been said that personal finance is 80% behavior and only 20% head knowledge, and when you start it’s probably at least 90% if not 95% behavior.

Now normally finances are one of the hush hush things. It’s like sex, it is simply not something discussed in polite company, and certainly not discussed from the pulpit. If you are like most people it was also not talked about in your house growing up nor were you formally taught or educated by your parents about their own finances. That doesn’t mean we didn’t learn things because we definitely did. We heard things like, “there’s not enough”, “we can’t because we can’t afford it,” “You have to work in order to earn it”, or “don’t think about it, someone else will take care of it for you.” All of these things impact how we view our money and our relationship with money, and nearly all of us harbor deep fears that we are the only ones who don’t know what’s going on with our money or what to do with it. Financial planner Karen Ramsey, who is not related to Dave Ramsey, begins each of her lectures by asking by a show of hands, and we’re going to do this too, “How many of you feel that everyone else besides for you has money figured out?” By another show of hands, and this question comes from Dave Ramsey, “who here has ever done anything stupid with their money?” Good, now we’re being honest and honesty is the only place we can start. Suze Orman has said that one of the financial laws is that “truth creates money and lies destroy it.” So the first start to solving our financial picture is to be completely honest.

Roughly 7 out of every 10 people live paycheck to paycheck. That means that if they are to lose their income they don’t know how they are going to pay their bills, but 20% of Americans believe they will become millionaires in the next ten years, and I strongly suspect it’s the group living paycheck to paycheck who believe that. According to Money magazine, 78% of us will have a major negative financial occurrence in any ten year period, major being somewhere in the realm of $5000 up, but 33% of Americans say they do not have at least $1000 in savings to use in an emergency (I actually think this figure is probably too low). Only 40% of people say they track their expenditures and have a budget. 30% of people over the age of 25 say they have not saved anything for retirement, and of those who have, only 11% say they have more than $250,000 saved or invested. 59% of people have said they have never sat down to calculate what they will need in order to retire comfortably, and yet 58% of people think they will be okay. Half of all marriages end in divorce, and, according to a survey by Citibank, 58% of those who divorce say that money was the primary reason. Others have estimated that money may in fact play a major if not the major role in upwards of 75% of divorces. Now the church has been talking a lot lately about protecting the sanctity of marriage, and yet here we are told that if we could solve people’s money problems that we might be able to save half of all divorces, and maybe even 2/3 and yet the church isn’t doing anything about it, and I really have to wonder why?

I really believe it’s because we are afraid. The church is afraid to talk about it and we are afraid to talk about it. Again, money tends to be one of those hush-hush topics. I have been serving churches in a ministerial role for eight years, and in all that time I have never heard anyone lift up their financial concerns during prayer time, even when they could have done so anonymously. I have certainly heard people talk about their employment issues, although this too nowhere matches what’s really going on, but no one has ever said, “I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills this week, and so I need to lift that up.” Not even anonymously. We don’t like to talk about our money, and a large percentage is driven by fear. Fear of the unknown and also the known, fear that we are the only ones who haven’t figured it out, fear that others will find out that we don’t have it all together.

Now I know that most of us feel like this, that our money comes in and goes right back out, and we hope that somehow, somewhere, that something will get caught, but normally it doesn’t. No one is opposed to savings, but yet we don’t save. We can’t just have wishful thinking about how we are going to save, we can’t have something where we say “a miracle happens here.” In Proverbs we are told “Precious treasure remains in the house of the wise, but the fool devours it.” If everything is just passing through then we are just devouring all we receive, we are the fool.

Now I know that many of you are going to say, “but I don’t have enough money to save, my finances are too tight as they are,” and the truth is you can’t afford not to save, because the longer you wait the harder it becomes. I know others will say, “I’m told old to begin saving now,” and I will tell you that you are never too old. If you are still alive then you can begin this, and even if you don’t think it applies then you can be talking with your children or grand children so they can begin getting ahead with their own finances.

There are three reasons to save. One is for emergencies. What did our grandma always tell us, we were to save for a rainy day. That is what Joseph does in Egypt. He warns the Pharaoh that there is going to be a famine and so they begin storing grain to protect themselves, they save for a rainy day, and it is what we should do as well. Dave Ramsey says that the way to start this is to create an emergency fund as quickly as you can of $1000 ($500 if you make less than $20,000 a year), but that is just a start, and remember this is not the I need a pizza or a new DVD player fund. This is for emergencies only. But the $1000 is just a start, most financial planners will tell you that you need to have anywhere between 3 to 9 months of expenses also, but that will take you a little longer to build up. This money will protect you in case you lose your job or something else happens that you are no longer in bringing in money. But it can also serve you in other ways, let’s say your car breaks down and you don’t have money saved up for repairs, then it also protects you against that. When you have an emergency fund then you no longer will have major financial crisis. Dave Ramsey jokes that when you are broke, when you don’t have an emergency fund, then your life will resemble a country song.

I can tell you that Linda and I are working on this, and recently had to replace all four tires on linda’s car. Instead of having to stress about how we were going to pay for it, since we didn’t have the money saved up for this, although we should have, but instead of using our credit card, we pulled the money out of our emergency fund, bought new tires and then set-up to refill our emergency fund. So we save for emergencies, or rainy days. If you are alive, there will be emergencies. God does not promise that it won’t rain, all we are promised is that we will no longer be drowned.

The second reason we save is in order to purchase things, you know like your grandma also told you to. When we save to pay for things it does several things. It stops us from impulse buys, and the average family of 4 spends $9,000 a year on impulse items, and it keeps us from going into more debt. And saving for purchases involves more than just paying for a new sofa. It also includes other things that are more regular like auto insurance, which we might pay only once or twice a year. Instead of being hit with the cost all in one month, we instead divide the cost by 12 months and save that amount each month. So if our monthly premium is $400, we save $33 each month so that when the bill comes due, we don’t have to stress about how we are going to pay the bill because we already have the money already in hand. It’s a novel idea I know.

The term often applied to this is called a sinking fund. The term was originally a way that the English helped pay off their national debt, but in modern usage a sinking fund is used by companies to help pay off debt, buy back stocks or bonds, and also for saving for major expenditures that they know they will incur as part of their operation, such as replacing machinery or the roof of a building. So create a sinking fund, although you can call it something else, in order to save money for expenses that don’t occur every month but that you know will come up, again such as insurance, or car repairs, vacations, Christmas, which comes every year on December 25th, I know we sometimes get surprised by this, or other presents. You know you will have these expenses so save for them so they don’t blow out your budget in one month or worse cause you to have to go into debt.

The final reason we save is to build wealth, and this is primarily for retirement. Today’s passage, which is commonly referred to as the parable of the talents, is normally interpreted as saying that God has given us certain gifts and skills and we to use are literal talents in serving the world. A good message and one I have preached myself. But a talent in Jesus’ time was a currency equal to about 6,000 denari, which was a day’s labor. So a talent is a significant amount of money. The first two men are willing to take a risk and invest their money in the world, whereas the final man hordes his talent, why because he is afraid. I think there is something to say to us about our relation with money.

Now, there are no get rich quick schemes to this. Proverbs says “a faithful man will abound with blessings, but he who hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.” The only person who gets rich with get rich quick schemes is the person selling them. If being rich were easy, everyone would be rich. It is hard. It takes time. Building wealth is a marathon, not a sprint, and so it involves putting money away and letting the power of compound interest do the trick and you need to start doing it as soon as possible. Let me give you just a couple of illustrations.

I’m 38, so if I had started investing $2000 a year, or $166 a month, starting at age 35 and did so until the age of 65. At age 65, I would have invested $60,000 and assuming I got 10% return, which is easier for calculations, it would be worth $419,569.95. If I had started at age 25, and invested $2000 for 40 years for a total of $80,000 my total would be $1,170,219.29, and I beat my 35 year old self by $750,000. If I had started at age 18 and put in $2000 a year until I was 25, and then never put in another dime, my investment of just $16,000 would be worth $1,332,752.55. The 18 year old investor who only invested $16,000 beat the 25 year old investor who put out $80,000 by $162,000 and the 35 year old by $913,000.

For the young people here today, do you understand what I just showed you? If you follow this simple advice I have just made you millionaires by the time you retire, and all it cost was $166 a month for 8 years. I know that those in here who are older than 25 would like to say something to you wouldn’t you? (do it now) Grandparents are you paying attention. Tell this to your children and your grandchildren and you can change their lives. Proverbs says “the good leave an interitance to their children’s children.” I think this about more than money. By educating your children and your grandchildren, and great-grandchildren about how to work with their money and how to make their money work for them, you can also leave an inheritance. PT Barnum said “Money is a terrible master, but an excellent servant.”

Now if you are older than 25, or 35 or 45, or even 65, is it too late to start? Absolutely not, as I already said, if you are still breathing you can be working this. Author David Chilton said, “the best time to plant an oak tree was twenty years ago, the next best time is now.” Don’t wait.

Now for those who still say they can’t afford to do this, that your budget is already too tight, as I already said, the simple truth is you can’t afford not to do this, (not a true $1 to $1 deduction, about .70, and if your company matches then it’s even better, many will match 50%, so you’re getting $1.50 of investment for 70 cents, it’s a great deal,) the easiest way is to pay yourself first. Why does the IRS take your money before you ever get your check? Because they don’t trust you to save the money in order to pay your taxes at the end of the year, and so they have you pay them first. The government is very smart in this, follow the lead of the government. I know you never thought you would ever hear anyone say that the government is smart when it comes to their finances, but they are smart about this. Pay your self first, take the money right off the top. You cannot spend money that you never receive. You should also be doing this with money you give to charities, but we’ll save that for later. Don’t wait until the end of the month in order to see if you have anything left in order to save it, do it first, do it first, do it first. Is that clear enough.

Now I’m sure that some of you are still saying, “that’s great John, but I still have more month left than I have money and if I do this I’ll have even less money and more month. I just can’t do it.” And I’m here to tell you that you can and you must, and by paying yourself first will help you because you can’t spend what you don’t have. We cannot begin to control our spending or increase our saving until we understand our spending and we cannot begin to act our wage until we understand where our money is going, which we will spend more time looking at next week. Proverbs says “the plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to want.” We are taking the first steps of diligence, to financial diligence. Dave Ramsey always concludes his radio program by saying “There is ultimately only one way to financial peace, and that is to walk daily with the Price of Peace, Christ Jesus.” May it be so. Amen.