Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Money: Grant This One Thing

This is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Mark 10:32-45:

Franklin Roosevelt once famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  He said that because he understood that we are driven by fear especially in times of crisis.  For the past few weeks we have been looking at how our money and our possessions can be a stumbling block to our relationship with God, but what we have kept coming back to again and again is fear.  When we are fearful, we seek secutiry, we seek assurances in order to try and combat or overcome that fear, and rarely does that security or assurance come to us from God.  Instead we try and seek it out through other means, through the things of the world, through the attainment of power, money or possessions.

Fear is natural and easy, because fear comes from the most basic, animal part of the brain.  The amygdala, which is at the base of the brain, controls our flight or fight response, it is the place that is triggered when we are fearful, and it is much easier to trigger than is our frontal cortext, which was one of the last areas of the brain to develop, but is also the most advanced, and it is where feelings of love, as well as rational thought comes from.  But that is harder to trigger and the amygdala wants to play a primary role.  We need look no further to see this in play than in the election.  Politicians play to our fear centers much more than they do to the frontal cortext, as does the media.  It surrounds us, and so we do things, and call for things, and say things, and act in ways because of this fear that we might not otherwise if we moved away from fear and instead were using our more advanced and developed parts of the brain.

We are told in the run-up to this rather strange story of James and John that Jesus has just told the disciples his passion prediction for the third time, and they are following him to Jerusalem, but Jesus is out ahead of them and we are told that “they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”  They were afraid.  They aren’t really sure what to expect, and so they are afraid.  On the night that Jesus is arrested they will all flee in fear, and Peter will even deny knowing Jesus because he is afraid and fears for his own life.  and so with the future unknown, faced with fear, James and John seek to have some sense of assurance for the future, they seek to have security about what the future will hold, knowing that regardless of what will happen to Jesus, or more importantly happen to them, they will have these positions of power and authority to hold on to, or to rely upon in the face of the unkown.  It’s sorting of like creating their own safety net.  When we are fearful, we seek assurance, protection and security.  There is a direct connection between fear and the need for security.

Now James and John certainly take a risk in asking Jesus to sit at his right and left hand, and it is such an unusual request, that future gospel writers aren’t sure what to do with it.  matthew changes the story so that it is their mother who makes the request, something we might believe as the stereotypical jewish mother, and Luke simply says that “a dispute” took place about which disciple was the greatest.  But what Jesus is telling them is to move away from their fear, to move into trusting God, to move into a new way of being and understanding.  Really, what Jesus is saying is something like, “You will not always be driven by your fears and your need for security.  Rather, you will be empowered to take up your cross and follow me.  Your will be faithful disciples even to the end.” (feasting. P 193).

Can you be baptized with the same baptism as me Jesus asks?  In order to be baptized we must be willing to die to our old selves, be willing to take on a new way of living, willing to take up our crosses daily and to follow Christ where ever he will lead us.  That is not a position we can undertake with fear.  And then Jesus asks, can you drink from the cup that I drink?  Sharing the cup invites us not only into the community of faith, but it also invites us to participate in the economy of God, and that is an economy not based on fear, not based on scarcity, but instead based in generosity, based in abundance, based in love, based in forgiveness, based in JOY, where as we remember back to last week, when JOY stands for Jesus first, others second, and yourself last.  The table is God’s sense of economy and it is one where fear is left behind and we enter into a new way of being and living with God as host and provider.  (5000 with five loaves and two fish, 4000 with seven loaves and fishes)

Are we driven by fear or by joy? By scarcity or by abundance?  Do we trust in the things in our lives, or do we trust in God?  Paul tells us that God loves a cheerful giver, although the Greek word translated as cheerful is helio, from which we get the word hilarious, probably not the connotation we had imagined.  Jesus says when you give do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  Both of those tell us the ways in which we are to give, which is not to gain anything, not to earn anything, not for fame or to be known, not in order to get our way, not for our own benefit or glory.  When we give for any of those reasons then our gifts have really been in vain because it has not tapped into the reality of why we need to give.  We give because we are made in the image of God and God is a giver, “for God so loved the world,” the gospel of john says that he did what?  He gave the world his only son.  We give because when we give we are changed, because it can place us in proper alignment not only with our things, but also with God, and it can indicate whether we are joyful or fearful, whether we give from abundance or if we give from scarcity.

So going back to our agricultural metaphors, here’s a little illustration about giving.  The tree of life is a common metaphor in scripture.  It is found in the garden of eden, and it continues as an image in Revelation, a topic which we will begin looking at next week.  We might look at our congregation as a tree of life, and in fact that is how jews view their synagogues.  They are often referred to as Etz Chaim, or tree of life, but in order to allow that tree to grow and to have it’s roots strengthened it needs to be cared for and given the proper things to allow them to grow.  They need light and carbondioxide, which means they need to be out in the world.  They cannot be boxed in or constrained.  They need food of some sort, which means they need to be exposed to things which feed them and renew them.  And they need water.  All of these things are important, and without one of them the tree will die, but water is one of the most important.

Now there are several things we can do with this tree.  The first thing we can do is to say “I’m not going to water it.  God will give it whatever it might need.”  But that only goes so far as we have seen this summer.  It also matches a famous statement about how things get done in the world.  It says, without God, we can’t, and without us God won’t.  If we refuse to water the tree then God won’t water it either.  Have you ever seen what a tree that is lacking water will do.  The first thing is to stop sending water out to the farthest branches and leaves.  It begins to turn inwards and reduce its size, it drops leaves and focuses only on these things that it thinks it absolutely needs to feed in order to survive.  I’m sure we’ve all seen or heard about churches like this.  But, here’s the problem, when churches go into survival mode they stop being a church because when a church is concerned only about its own survival it is no longer focused on making disciples of Christ, it is only focused on itself.

Now another thing we can do is to give it only the amount of water we are willing to give.  Now this glass represents the material blessings that have been bestowed on us.  To make this a little more colorful let’s make the water green.  Since we’re talking about money that works, but it also makes it a little easier to see.  Most of us work from a position of scarcity.  We say this is all I have and I need to be very careful with what I do with my money, while also still having some fun with it.  And so we start and we pay for housing, utilities and our food, then we pay for our car, and maybe we have to pay for school. And then there’s clothing, and our vacations, and retirement, and our credit cards, and hopefully we’re putting some away for retirement, and then we need a little spending money for movies, eating out and other forms of entertainment, and then at the end we say to God, “Thank you for all your blessings, this is what I’m going to present to you,” and so we put this in the plate, and say “ahh ahh” and we present it to God.

I recently received an email from Vanguard, who holds one of my retirement plans, and the headline said, “garden like you invest.”  And my thought was, if I truly invest like I garden, my investments are going to die.  We might also apply that to our tree of life, our community of faith here.  That’s not a lot to strengthen the roots of the tree, even with a lot of people doing the same thing, in some cases quantity does not make for quality.  I’m sure that we’ve all seen trees that are not getting as much water as they need.  When they are lacking their roots go out searching for more water and the root systems become very shallow.   Think of all the sidewalks you’ve seen broken up by roots that are too shallow.  By having shallow roots, trees can try and get more water.  We’ve all seen tree do this.  But this is only a short-term solution because what is the risk with a shallow root system?  In any strong wind, these are the trees that fall over because their roots are not strong enough to hold them in place.

A healthy tree, in comparison to one not getting enough water or other resources, have healthy root systems that are not only spread out but that also go deep in order to provide stability to the tree.

So let’s try that again.  This again is the same amount, but rather than giving to God from what remains we give from our first fruits, and look at how much still remains.  The scriptures tell us that we should be giving from our first fruits or from our treasures, and that is what this does.  It does not change the reality.  We still have the same amount of money but what has changed is how we perceive.  When we give from bounty we have changed our reality, because then rather than giving as a burden, or a yoke which we wear around our necks, we instead give freely and we give from abundance.  How much better will the tree do with this gift?

Now we know that there are some in this congregation who are still struggling financially, and we ask you to give what you can, and we ask that those who are doing better to help us all carry one another burdens because this is our tree and it lives and dies not with the work of just one of us but from the collective effort we put into strengthening our roots and spreading our branches.  To close I’d like to tell you a couple of stories.

In my last congregation, we had a family who were offered the opportunity to go and live and work in Shanghai, China for three years.  They really prayed about it for a long time and finally decided that it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.  As many of you know, being a Christian in china is not the easiest thing in the world, although it’s a lot easier for Americans and other foreigners than for native Chinese.  They kept looking around for a Christian community where they felt comfortable, where they felt like they were at home and surrounded by family, but it was not easy.  Then finally they found a couple of other families, on Christmas Eve three years ago they began worshipping together, and they again had that feeling that this was what church was supposed to be like.  They had continued sending in their offerings to our church, because they didn’t have another church to call home, until they found their new church, and then they changed their giving, because they had to give to their new home, to their new family, to their new congregation.  If you feel at home here, if you feel that this is your family, and you’ve ever been in a church where that was not the case, then you know what that’s like, and this church, this family, is dependent upon our gifts to survive.  All of us are necessary to help support, to feed and water this tree of life, the etz chaim, and I ask you to prayerfully consider what this congregation means to you and what you mean to it, and to make your gifts this year and in the coming year based on that prayerful consideration.  But let me close with this.

The Church of the Resurrection, which is located in Kansas City and is the largest United Methodist church in the country, holds a worship service once each month for Alzheimer’s patients from the area nursing homes.  Most of those who attend have advanced Alzheimer’s, and while they can’t remember their names they can still sing all of the songs.  After one of the services, one of the ladies in attendance walked up to one of the ushers and handed him an offering envelope before she was escorted back to their van.  The woman had tried to write her name on the outside of the envelope, but all she could do was just make some strait lines with a pencil, but it was what was inside that took everyone aback.  Inside was a packet of cookies that she had received at the nursing home.  They don’t take an offering at this service, but she knew that she was supposed to be giving to God from her treasure and so she gave probably the only thing she had to give, her packet of cookies.

Can we say that we match those stories?  Are we giving to God as a burden, or are we giving freely?  Are we giving because we have to, or are we giving because we are grateful for what God has given to us?  are we giving from a position of scarcity in which there will never be enough, in which we need to seek security and protection because we are afraid?  Or, do we give from a sense of abundance, do we give from our first fruits, do we give from a sense of JOY, in which we put Jesus first, others second and yourself last, do we give cheerfully, and do we give knowing that at God’s table all are served, all can eat, because there will always be enough and that God will provide because as disciples of Christ we are told to fear not, because Jesus has come to give us life, but not just any life, but life abundantly.  May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kids Say The Darndest Things: Technology Edition

At my wife's last job she had use of a iPad, and my daughters loved playing on it.  When she left that job recently she had to give the iPad back, and my girls have now been moaning the fact that they don't have it around to play with any more.

So several days ago, my oldest came up and asked if she could have an iPad for her next birthday, and I told her she wouldn't be old enough, so she said "can I have one when I'm 7?" and I told her no, then it was "can I have one when I'm 8?" and on and on and each time the answer was no.

Then my youngest daughter said, "can I have one when I'm 6902?" to which her sister said, "No, because you'll be dead."  And the response to that?  "That's okay, Jesus will let me borrow his iPad."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Money: Saving and Giving

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

There is a financial rule called the rule of 72.  Does anyone know what the rule of 72 says?  Basically, you take 72 and divide it by you the interest rate you are receiving, and the answer is how long it will take you to double your money.  So to make it really simple, if you are getting a ten percent rate of return, then you will double your investment in 7.2 years, and if you only get 5%, it would take you 14.4 years, and 15% percent would take you 4.8 years.  Now because I love this stuff, I should let you know that this number is not exact, because the actual number is 69.3, but dividing into 72 is a lot easier, and the difference is small enough, that using 72 is simply easier.  So the lower your interest rate the longer it will take you, and the higher your interest rate the quicker you will be able to double your money using the power of compound interest.

Of course what the rule of 72 does not tell us is that the higher your rate of return, or the higher your interest rate, the riskier the investment is as well.  If someone tells you they can give you an annual rate of return of 25%, it might seem like an incredible deal, but the reward for that return is the greatly increased risk that you will also lose your entire investment.  That leads us into another financial rule which is that the higher the risk you take with your money, the greater is the possible return, the lower the risk, the lower the return.  These might be helpful things to help us understand what is going on in today's parable.

As I was thinking about this series, what I wanted to say and what passages to use, this was the one week I wasn’t really sure about.  There were lots of different passages I considered, but I kept coming back to the parable of the talents.  Since we also covered this passage last year I wanted to try and stay away from it, but I kept getting drawn back to it, and so I trusted that this was the movement of the Holy Spirit and decided this was where I would go, although I still didn’t have the conviction of my conscience because even this week as I was beginning preparations to write today’s message I considered several times changing to something else, because maybe this didn’t really have anything more to say to me, and maybe even anything more to say to you.

That’s the problem with some passages from scripture, we hear them so often that we stop looking at them because we are sure they know what they say, and for me, at least, this is one of those passages.  If you’ve been attending church for most of your life, you’ve heard this passage preached on numerous times.  I didn’t really grow up in the church and I can remember sermons on this passage, and so we hear it or read it and we can say what this passage is about and normally it’s about using the talents that God has given to us in order to do God’s work in the world.  That is such the popular interpretation of this passage, and has been for a long time, that linguists actually say that the use of the word talent in English to describe physical or personal gifts comes directly from this passage.  There is nothing wrong with that interpretation, and as I have been emphasizing for the past few months, we all need to be contributing of ourselves not just to the success of the church but to the proclaiming and bringing in the Kingdom of God, and we’ll come back to that again and again.  But is that all this passage is really about?

Another interpretation, and one that might fit nicely into our series on money, is that this is a really sort of a pro-capitalist, social Darwinism, survival of the fittest statement.  That clearly Jesus is saying that God rewards those who are industrious, who work hard, and that you get what you deserve.  If you are rich it is because God has rewarded you and if you are poor it’s because God is punishing you.  This sort of theology can be seen being spouted on television all the time, with Joel Osteen being the best, or worst example, depending on how you want to look at it, of the gospel of wealth.  That is God wants you to be rich, and so if you are faithful to God then you will be rich, along with no sense of responsibility to others, after all if they were faithful, if they were as good of Christians as you are then they would be rich too.  The fact that they are not rich shows you what God thinks of them. Now the problem with these statements, and they are bigger than just taking this parable of the talents, is that nothing could be further from the truth about what is being said or meant here.

Normally this argument is made because of what happens with the first two men.  But notice that other than the fact that they are given differing amounts of money, they are exactly the same.  Their return on their investment is the same, which they double, they say exactly the same thing to the master, and the master says exactly the same thing to them.  These are not really two unique individuals here, but instead they are sort of stock characters in order to highlight and bring out the perspective about the third man, which is really who this story is about.

The last man we are told receives only one talent, whereas the first man receives five and the second man receives two talents.  A talent in this story is a specific amount of money, and it is equal to 15 years pay for a common laborer.  The average salary in the US is $26,634, so a talent in today’s dollars is $399,510.  That obviously is not an insignificant sum, to say the least.  Now on its face we might actually look at this man and think he is doing the right thing, or at least have sympathy for what he does, as well as for his attitude.  After all he recognizes that the money is not his, he is the only one who actually says that the money is the master’s and not his own.  In addition, in a bad economy, his investment decisions might be the sound one.  After all we might wonder what would have happened if the first two had put their money in high-risk ventures, remembering the higher the return the higher the risk, and they had lost everything?

Of course we will never know the answer to that question, and we won’t because again the moral of the story here is not that they doubled the money.  This is not a parable that tells us to take unusual risks with our money, nor is that what I am telling you, so please don’t call up your retirement program and ask them to change everything into high risk stocks and bonds because that’s what Jesus said.  Instead, again we have to pay attention to what the man says and what the owner says.  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.”

The man recognizes that the talent is not his, but he is afraid and it is this fear which drives his actions.  He is even to fearful to have put the money in the bank.  He is too afraid to engage the world in any way, and it’s clear that he doesn’t understand what is going on.  He has accused the owner of being harsh, but the owner has shown his generosity simply by the fact that he has entrusted the man a talent.  We also know of the owner’s generosity because he gives the first two men what they have earned, and now we are talking really significant amounts of money.  But notice that while they recognize that the money belongs to the master, because they offer it all back, not once do they say that the money is the owners.  I think this is an indication of their relation to the actions of the owner, but also their own actions.  They are not driven by fear as the last man is, and the last man’s fears not only lead to his downfall but his fear’s also become realized.

When we operate from a position of fear, then we operate from a position of scarcity, and the inverse is true, if we think that everything is scarce, then we will always operate from a position of fear.  But when we think that there is and will be enough, then we operate from a position of abundance, we act generously, and we move into joy.  What does the owner say to the two men, “enter into the joy of your master.”  You cannot have joy and operate from a position of fear.  This story is not about wealth, or about earning a great return on your investment, although that can be important.  You can be wealthy with $10 million and you can be wealthy with only $10, just as you can be poor with $10 million or $10.  It’s all about how we approach our money, our possessions and our relationship with God.  We often view faith as being the safe option, as the easy option, but we don’t ever talk about taking a leap of safety, instead it’s a leap of (what)?  That’s right.  It’s a leap of faith.  Entering into joy requires that leap of faith.

Ora Lee Brown is a real estate agent in Oakland, California.  One day as she stopped at the local grocery store to make her usual purchase of a soda, she was approached by a little girl who asked her for a quarter.  Ora Lee only had a $5 bill, so she invited the little girl into the store to get some change.  She told her that she could pick out anything she wanted in the store, but rather than getting a candy bar as she expected, she instead immediately got a loaf of bread.  Ora Lee bought the bread, and then the girl quickly left the store.  That night she couldn’t sleep thinking about this little girl, so she went to the school in the neighborhood looking for her, but she wasn’t there, but rather than just give up, Ora Lee made what she says was a rather impulsive decision.

She decided to adopt the first grade class of the school, the vast majority of whom were in a similar situation to that little girl, and she told them that if they stayed in school and graduated that she would pay for them to go to college.  Not only did Ora Lee begin saving $10,000 a year out of her $45,000 salary, but she also became a mentor, parent and teacher to the 23 kids in that class.  She visited regularly, she held meetings with the parents, she held Saturday tutorials, and she purchased supplies and tracked each child’s attendance and grades.  Then when they were in high school she began taking the kids to visit colleges, and attended graduation at 9 different high schools.  Of the original 23 students, 19 enrolled in college, and 3 others went to a trade school, all paid for by Ora Lee Brown, and they all graduated from college in 2003 and 2004.  Ora Lee is now on her 6th class of adopted students, having supported 125 students go to college.

All of the slaves recognize that the money they receive, and the money they do or might earn, does not belong to them.  They all recognize that they are to be good stewards of these resources and to protect them, but how they relate with them is radically different.  The two stewards invest them, and they take some risks, they are willing to step outside of the safe and secure, they are willing to engage with the world, they are willing to take a leap of faith, and because they do that they are invited into the joy of the master.  The third slave, on the other hand, acts out of fear, and because he is fearful he is in fact afraid to act, he doesn’t even take the safe act of putting the money in the bank, but instead he buries it, and his fear keeps him from not only gaining anything, but also keeps him from joy.  So, as John Buchanan said, the greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything.

For the past few weeks we have been talking about the role that money and possessions can have in our relationship with God, and just like today, it really boils down to fear.  Do we trust God and trust in God’s abundance, do we operate from a sense of abundance, regardless of what we have, or do we work from a sense of scarcity, regardless of how much we have?  Do we live lives of quiet desperation, living lives of fear, or do we live bravely such that we are willing to make leaps of faith, willing to be brave, to step off the cliff knowing that God will catch us?

In one of my meetings this week, Bishop Hutchinson said that when he was growing up, he remembers one of his Sunday school teachers writing on the board JOY, and then saying that if we were to live lives of Joy that we must understand the progression of importance, of how we give, of how our faith lives are lived out, what our priorities are, and  that is Jesus, others and finally ourselves.  Joy is Jesus first, others second, and yourself third, that is how we live into Joy, that is how we can be sure that we too hear God say, “well done my good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.” May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Wait, What? You're A Liberal?

Yesterday I was having a conversation with someone and I said that a certain author was too conservative for me, but that his material could certainly be adapted to other uses, and they responded that I was one of the most conservative people they know.  Through a little more dialogue I told them that I was not in fact a conservative, but was in fact a flaming liberal.

They then wanted to know how come they never knew this about me, and I said that a lot of it had to do with the fact that the town in which we live is very conservative and so I am very careful in what I say in church.  They said that I was denying them the ability to know me for who I truly am, which I somewhat disagreed with but I have to recognize that the role of the minister is very different than most occupations.  I cannot be the minister only to those who think like me.  My job is not to proclaim policy positions but instead to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and there are both liberal and conservative positions to that.

They then wanted to know how I could possibly do that, how I could make distinctions about that, and I said that it's hard.  But I also recognize the power of the pulpit and I try my hardest not to abuse that power, as so many do.  I also know that to get an honest hearing from people they need to know that I understand that power and hold it as a sacred trust.  I did say that I will use the pulpit to make a point when necessary, and I have even in this congregation, but that the purpose of preaching is not to be about scoring points "for my side."  Again, the purpose is to proclaim the Kingdom.

I do know that my sermons are different than what they have heard in the past, and are also more liberal than what they have heard, and so I consider it somewhat of a successful message that they are hearing in what I have to say a message that resonates with their life and which they can hear.  If I told them everything I believe they would not hear that message because I would be shut out.  But I can proclaim a message that is authentic to me, and more importantly true to the gospel message and get a genuine hearing.

What it also allows me to do is to build up trust and relationship so that later we can deal with more difficult topics but do them in ways that allow all of us to grow, change and hear differing opinions together and in respectful ways.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Money: Is This Enough?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 12:13-21:

One of the comedian George Carlin’s most famous routines was about stuff.  He said, “If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house.  You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it,” he said.  “and when you go out you have to lock it up.  Why? Someone might come and take our stuff.”  We all like stuff, and our culture and our economy is driven on this very fact. Although our current sermon series is about money, it’s also really about stuff, not only because money allows us to buy more stuff, but also because both can get in the way of our relationship with God.

In last week’s passage, a man comes and asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and, after Jesus tells him to follow the law, which the man says he does, Jesus says go sell everything you have, give the money to the poor and then come follow me, and we are told that the man goes away sad because he has many possessions, possessions with which he in unwilling to part and therefore they interfere with his ability to be a disciple.  And then we have today’s passage which has a similar theme.
If you do a search for how many times fool appears in the bible, you will find that it, along with derivatives like foolish, fools, etc, appears 173 times.  103 of those are found in the psalms, proverbs or Ecclesiastes, which you might expect since they are part of the wisdom literature.  The word appears only 38 times in the New Testament, 10 of those in the gospels, with six in Matthew and 4 in Luke.  But of all of the 173 times it is found, only once does God say it.  Jesus calls people fools several times, including calling the Pharisees fools just previous to today’s reading, but what seems striking to me, is that when God comes a calling, God is the one who calls the man a fool.

No judgment is made about this man’s possessions per say, but instead about how he views the possessions and what he does with them.  This parable is also not against saving for a rainy day, in fact scripture supports that, we need look no further than Joseph telling the pharaoh to put away grain for the coming seven year drought.  You should be saving for your retirement, you should be saving for purchases and you should be saving for emergencies.  This is part of what it means to be a good steward, but this is very different than what the man in today’s parable is doing.  The man is not stockpiling for a rainy day, or to help out those in need, he is gaining more and more simply for the sake of gaining more and more so that he can enjoy himself.

But the key portion of this passage is what the man says and to whom he speaks, because he speaks to his soul, “Soul, you have ample good laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.”  Of course, he missed out on the final portion of that statement, found most famously in Isaiah, which is that tomorrow you die, and of course that is exactly what happens.  That is why God calls him a fool.  The man is making assumptions and acting and living as if there is not a God, and as if he controls the length of his life, as if he controls his own soul.  Notice how many times  the word I is used in the story, the man says “I will” do something four times, and it is also “my barn, my grain, my goods.”  Everything is entirely about the man.  He talks to no one else, and no one else is even mentioned in the story until the one who can actually control things, God, comes in and demands the man’s life.

The real problem with possessions we are told is that they cause us to believe that we are self-sufficient that we don’t need anything or anyone else, we can do it all ourselves.  Even those who helped him are never mentioned.  Certainly he was not planting, harvesting or putting his crops away himself, nor was he building his own barns, but those who were assisting him are never mentioned because he believes that he is doing everything himself.  He doesn’t believe that he owes anything to anyone else, because he foolishly believes he is the one in control, that he has provided himself with everything he needs, so much so that he can tell himself what he is going to do not only with his property but even with the rest of his life.  You can live as if God does not exist, but that does not change the reality that we can be called to meet God at any time.  The man makes his possessions the entirety of who he is.  But what he finds out is that he is not in control of his life, and that the things that he has built up make no difference at the end of his life.

Now in our culture, keeping up with the Joneses is not only a saying it is a reality, and what studies have also found is that this is worse in economically diverse communities.  If you routinely have exposure to people who have bigger and more stuff than you do, then we want to move up to what they have so that we can feel good about ourselves.  But with the pervasiveness of television in our lives, it’s becoming harder and harder not to judge ourselves against others, and to be pushed to think that we need more things.  Juliet Schor, who studies consumerism, has found that for every added hour of television we watch, we increase our spending by roughly $200 a year.  So watching an average of 15 hours a week increases our spending by $3000 a year.

I once had a couple tell me that they didn’t watch any television exactly because of this reality, which sounds great, except for the fact that they drove a Jaguar, so clearly they had bought into at least one advertising idea.  It’s like the old Janis Joplin song:  “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porches I must make amends, worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, O lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”  Why does she need a Mercedes?  Because her friends all drive Porches.  But is there another way to live?  Are we as Christians called to walk a different path and to live a different life?

Last week I told you a story that has dominated my own financial life in being a child who couldn’t buy a shirt because I didn’t have the money to spend on it, and so as an adult in order to overcome that memory, I didn’t stop on buying things that I wanted.  Well my family ended up in tough financial times because my father lost his job, and as he remained unemployed for longer and longer, he, as so many people do, but men in particular, he didn’t know who he was without his job.  That was who he was, and so as his life spiraled out of control, he tried to gain any control that he could, and he thought that he could do that through his things, and this is a story that I have never told to anyone else, other than Linda, before, but he became a hoarder.  He couldn’t through anything away, he began buying things because through buying things he thought he had a sense of control over his life, he would pick things up off the street, his identity became entirely wrapped up, not in who he might be, but in his possessions.

By controlling the items that surrounded him he thought that he could control his life while at the same time giving himself a sense of worth, a sense of purpose a sense of being something more than he thought of himself.  His identity was in the things in his life, and he, like most of those Jesus dealt with, could not get rid of them because he mistakenly has come to believe that they are who he is.  He is inundated by his stuff, but really we are all inundated by stuff, and more stuff than we can keep but we can’t get rid of it either.  Our houses have become so full that we need storage units in order to keep it all.

In the US, we currently have 2.3 billion square foot of storage unit space, which is three times the size of Manhattan, and that’s with the square footage of the average home having more than doubled in the last thirty years.   Do you know what it would cost to provide clean water to every person in the world?  $10 billion.  We spend $22 billion dollars annually on storage units, and yes that is a capital B billion, and storage usage has increased 65% in the last 15 years and is still growing.  In fact it is one of the fastest growing sectors of the real estate market.  1 in 10 people now have things stored in public storage units.

We can live our lives in one of either two realities.  We can either live lives of contentment, or we can live lives of discontentment.  Those are the two realities.  Discontentment leaves us uncertain, questioning and hungering for something, anything to make us content.  That is what advertising is all about, making you feel that you cannot be content in your life without this widget in your life, and you know you have to have it because everyone else has it as well.  As the saying goes, we end up buying things we don’t need, with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.  It also gets us stuck in the happiness trap, and we say “I’ll be happy, when….”  But when our happiness is dependent upon the accumulation of things, or dependent upon other people’s actions, then it is a happiness that will never be achieved, it will always be just out of our reach and it will keep us forever seeking a true contentment that we can never attain.  But we don’t have to live that life.

In Philippians, Paul says “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it it to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” And then he concludes with one of his most famous phrases, Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”   We can live lives of discontentment or we can live lives of contentment, that is our choice.  To help us to remember to live lives of contentment, or to at least move us in that direction, I am going to be passing out these little key tags.  On one side they say contentment, and on the second side they have a prayer.  The prayer says “Lord, help me to be grateful for what I have, to remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity.”  We have plenty, so take one for each key ring you want it to be on, put it right next to all the key tags you get for discounts at other places like the grocery store, or place it in your wallet, glue it to the credit card you use the most, put it wherever you think you need it the most.  If you want to take some to give out to friends, relatives, neighbors, please do, but don’t take them if all they are going to do is be added to your collection of stuff.  The purpose is to help us eliminate the stuff and clutter or our lives, not to increase it.  Whenever you are feeling discontentment and thinking that you need to buy something in order make yourself feel better, pull it out and say the prayer.  When you are at the grocery store and you pull out your keys to give to the cashier look at it, say the prayer and ask if you really need everything you are buying, or do you just want it.  Don’t bury this in the middle of all of your other key tags, make sure it is the first thing you see.

Today’s parable is not about being rich or poor, having lots of things or few things, it is about where our allegiance is and where our focus lies. Do we put our allegiance in things or in God?  Do we worship our stuff, or do we worship God?  Do we believe that we are self-sufficient and independent, and live as if there is no God, or do we believe that we are connected to each other and to God?  Or, ultimately, does our faith in God have any impact on the practical matters of life?  When you look for things to fill your life, then there can never be enough, you will always need more, but when you look instead to God your blessings will overflow and you will never be lacking.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Money: Lacking One Thing

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Mark 10:17-31:

In your bulletin you have a little slip of green paper.  I want you to take it out, and then hold it up in front of you.  Now I want you to tear it in half.  Anyone have any problems doing that?  Okay, now it gets a little harder.  Now I want you to take out a dollar bill, or whatever you might have.  I want you to take it and feel it, and then hold it up and then here comes the hard part, and I’m guessing that most of your know what’s coming, now I want you to tear it in half.  How did that feel? (notice that it took people longer than it did to tear the paper)  Did anyone get a little upset stomach, or maybe got goose bumps?  Anyone not want to do it or didn’t do it?  Anyone who made excuses, such as knowing that you could tape it back together?  Anyone not have any bills to tear?  (Not to long ago that wouldn’t have really been possible)  Now what was the difference between tearing just the sheet of paper, which was really easy to do, and tearing the bill?  There is something that happens when we claim that this has some value, and this doesn’t, although really they are both just pieces of paper.  But tearing money is somehow inherently different than tearing another piece of paper.  Why is that?  Well I think the reason is one of the things that Jesus is making notice of in today’s scripture passage.
Today we begin another series on finances and stewardship.  Now I know that for many of you, you’re wondering if there is still some time to duck out the back, because you don’t want to hear another minister tell you about why you should be giving more money, but that’s not what today is about.  I have said before, and I’m saying it again right now, but I think the church has made a terrible mistake in limiting the understanding of stewardship to being just about what we might give to the church, and only talking about money when it’s about giving to the church.  Even if you were to be giving a tithe, which is 10%, you still have 90% of your money left to deal with, and God has something to say about that 90% just as God has something to say about the 10%.  Stewardship is about a lot more than just giving, and we, as clergy, have not only done a disservice to you by reducing money sermons to giving, but we’ve also done a disservice to the church.

If you don’t know how you are going to be paying the next round of bills, then you are not going to be able to give to the church, and so I would like to be able to change that.  But it’s also more than that.  Money touches, or is involved in almost everything we do and most of our relationships, and most of us are not really good at managing that.  In a survey done by Citibank, they said that financial concerns were the number one reason given in 58% of divorces, and according to the divorce lawyer association, they put financial concerns as a primary reason in 90% of divorces, and yet the church has ignored this.  Imagine if we as a church, and at least in rhetoric we say we are concerned about the state of marriages, so imagine if we might be able to cut the number of divorces dramatically simply by talking about and focusing on money concerns, and there is a lot that we have to say.

Jesus talks more about money issues than he talks just about anything else.  The word money is mentioned in scripture 186 times, possessions 53 times, wealth 127 times, debt 26 times, rich 312 times, treasure 103 times, in all money issues are discussed more than 800 different times and we ignore those statements, I think, at our own peril.  Not only because of the cautionary stories that are told, such as today’s passage, but also because of the strong witness we get of what God requires of us and our money.

Now let’s remind ourselves that money is neither good nor bad in itself, just as possessions are neither good nor bad.  They are morally neutral.  Scripture does not say that money is the root of all evil, instead it says what?  The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Jesus does not chastise the man because he has many possessions, instead the man is told, at least indirectly, that his possessions have become an obstacle to him and his relationship with God because he has an undue attachment to them.  In his inability to move beyond his possessions, or to even begin to consider the possibility of getting rid of them, he has shown that he would rather put them first rather than God.  He is more concerned with his relationship with his possessions than he is with his relationship with God, and this should be a warning for all of us, because that is where the problems with money arise.

Money, or possessions, have the ability to dominate our lives and to change our perspectives and our relationships.  It has the ability to make everything a commodity to be bought or sold, and it has the ability to make us believe that we are self-reliant and self-sufficient.  Our entire identity, our entire being, becomes tied up with what we own and how much we make, and we wrongly begin to believe that there is no sense of security with the things in our life.  With this misplaced relationship, the accumulation of things, or of more money, of keeping up with the Joneses, becomes the dominant motivating factor in our lives.  And this becomes the case not only because our society in particular pushes and says are important, but also because of things that have been ingrained in us since we were young children.  Suze Orman says that how we deal with our money as adults is based on  lessons about money we learned when we were young, often taught to us by our parents, who learned it from their parents, that we have carried with us, and that still impact how we deal with our money and our possessions to this day.  When you were a child, did you ever put a coin in your mouth?  And what were you told? (get that out of your mouth, it’s dirty)  Did they say that about anything else?  If you had dirt in your mouth, they didn’t say it was dirty, so what message did that send to us about money?

When I was growing up, I played competitive soccer, and so we would travel around the state playing in different tournaments.  During this time, my father also lost his job, and so I remember one weekend as I was preparing to go to a tournament in Tucson, my mother gave me some cash and told me that I should use what I needed, but that I shouldn’t spend it on things I didn’t need and that whatever I could bring back would be appreciated.  This was my first introduction to family finances.  So we went to the tournament, and on Sunday after the last game everyone stopped at the souvenir stand and they were buying different things, and the guy selling shirts asked me if I wanted a shirt and I said I didn’t, but he wouldn’t let up, telling me he knew how much I wanted a shirt, and then the coach also started in telling me I should get a shirt, but I didn’t want to spend the $10 on a shirt because that would be $10 less that I could take home to my mother, but I also didn’t want to tell them that, and so what I did is that I ran away and went out to the parking lot to the car to wait for everyone else to finish and come out.

I tell you that story because Suze Orman believes that it is money memories like this that drive how we deal with our money as adults.  I came across this idea, and across Suze Orman, when I entered into a debt management program because my credit card payments were more than I was bringing in each month, and so I went out and got help, so I don’t stand up here as some financial genius who has always had everything all together, because I haven’t.  I’m much better, but a lot of that has to do with understanding how that money memory from that soccer tournament was still impacting me as an adult.  I never wanted to be that little kid who couldn’t get what I wanted because I didn’t have the money, and so I had tried not to deprive myself again, and if I wanted something I would buy it, whether I could actually afford it our not.  When I recovered that money memory, then I was able to look at how I dealt with my money, and my greatest fears about money, and I was able to make the changes necessary to go in a different direction, or at least begin to go in another direction.  Now there are still times in which I still have the urge to go buy something, especially when money is tight, because I don’t want to be deprived again, and so there is a part of me that wants to give in and just do it, but I also understand that impulse and have much greater control.

Suze Orman believes, and I am in agreement, that all of us have memories or a memory like this that drive us.  I can remember when Linda did this exercise and her having the same sort of a-ha moment that I did that helped her understand how and why she approached finances the way she did.  And so we’re going to spend just a few moments this morning working on this.  Using Suze Orman’s instructions, I want you to think back to the first money memory that meant something to you as a child.  Some will have positive memories, but most will be negative memories, negative meaning it is something that causes us fear or agitation, a sense of never having enough, or being enough, or a lie or deception that took place.  You may come up with several, but sort through your emotions of each one and trust the one that feels most true for you, and then I want you to remember as much as you can about that experience.

Now you might not come up with one immediately, or you might not recall everything right away, but I want you to work on it, because I have found this to be dramatically impactful in how I understand money now, as well as having it seen played out in other’s lives as well.  In most cases, this money memory has not only impacted our financial lives, but also has seeped into the rest of our lives and has been driving many of the fears and concerns in our lives.  But once we get control of that fear, once we can understand what is causing us to make financial decisions that are sometimes destructive, then we will be on the first steps to overcoming our fears of money, and most of us are driven by fear of money, but what is the first thing that we hear about Christ?  What is the first announcement that people are told about Jesus?  Fear not.

Jesus said you cannot follow both God and Mammon, or God and money.  As long as we are being controlled by our money, or our fears and anxieties about money, then we are being controlled rather than controlling our money.  We are being influenced by money in ways that not only unhelpful, but are in fact dangerous.  The man in today’s scripture passage had many possessions, and because he put too much faith in them, too much of his identity was tied up in them, he forgot who he was and to whom he belonged.  “Go sell what you own,” Jesus said, “ and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  Accept, surrender and follow.  Are we controlling our money or is it controlling us?  Are we controlling our memories about money, or are they controlling us?  Are we trusting in God, or are we trusting in ourselves?

Our salvation rests not with how much we have or how little we have.  Our salvation rests in Christ Jesus, who says do not be afraid, and when we let our relation with money, with possessions, with our memories, get in the way to become the priority then we can get ourselves into trouble.  The disciples are greatly astounded at Jesus’ words and ask him “who can be saved?” but Jesus says to them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Kids Say The Darndest Things: Winter Edition

It is suddenly very cold where we live.  It was in the 80's last week, and in the 40s now.  So our daughters were outside playing, but bundled up.  Our youngest came into the house wearing her heaviest jacket, a ski keep, and gloves and says "Mommy, can I have a Popsicle?"  Only a child would think to have a popsicle when it's 40 degrees outside.