Thursday, October 17, 2013

Act Your Wage

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Timothy 2:3-15:

“Hi, my name’s John and I like stuff.”   I like stuff a lot.  I like it enough that I have done stupid stuff with my money, and my stuff, and I have also proved the point that you cannot out earn stupidity.  Making more money will not solve your problems, they will only exacerbate them.  If you can’t handle $100 you won’t somehow suddenly figure it out once you have a lot more money, and the fact that more than 80% of people who win large lottery prizes declare bankruptcy within 5 years proves that.  Today we continue in our sermon series entitled faith, hope and money, which is roughly based on a series of the same name created by Dave Ramsey. This week at one of the meet and greets someone thanked me for talking about money, and I was grateful to hear that, at least from one person, because most people don’t always feel that way.

I was talking with clergy colleague this week about our sermons for today, and I told him what I was doing, and he said that one time he preached on money he was told by someone on the way out that they came to church to hear about God, and that’s what they expected to hear about, not about their wallet.  To say that we can talk about God without talking about our wallets, would be the same as to say we can talk about God and not talk about relationships, or helping others, or reaching out, or even about prayer.  Our financial lives are intimately tied to our spiritual lives, not only because scripture has a lot to say about money, but also because just about every part of our lives is impacted by money, and so how we relate to our money and our possessions will impact our spiritual lives and our relationship with God.  In the passage we just heard, we are told that athletes compete by the rules of the sport, so what are the rules that God sets down about money?

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.  Look at it.  Feel it.  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? Now what was the difference between tearing just the sheet of paper, which was really easy to do, and tearing the bill?  Tearing money is somehow inherently different than tearing another piece of paper although really they are both just pieces of paper.  Why is that?

Money has sort of its own life. Sometimes it seems to do what it wants to do, rather than what we want it to do.  It has energy and power, there is a reason why we call it currency. All that is to say we treat our money differently than other things, like a green piece of paper, and how we look at our money, realizing what it can and cannot do for us, can make an enormous difference in our lives.

Personal income has tripled since 1956, and yet our happiness has remained the same.  In fact, there is not a direct 1 to 1 correspondence between what we make and how happy we are.  According to a study by Edward Diener at the University of Illinois, there is a breakeven point right around $50,000 at which money stops making us happier.  That is just about every dollar you make up to $50,000 makes you happier, but then it stops, and it doesn’t matter whether you are making $51,000 or 51 million a year.  I know those of us who make a lot less than 51 million, think that cannot be true, which I think is about every one of us, and if not please speak with me after service because we need to talk, but in surveys that have been done for decades, money does not correspond to happiness.  And yet, also regardless of income, most people report that to truly live well, that they need to make twice as much as they do.  That is, most of us say, if only we had more income then we would be truly happy.  Happiness, when approached in this way, is like constantly drawing a line in the sand and saying if we get to that point then we’ll be happy, but the line keeps moving on and on, and we get caught up in a cycle that can never be fulfilled, because happiness is never about what we have, but instead about what we don’t have, or having the next version of the thing we already have, and happiness becomes as serious problem.  The comedian Henny Youngman once said, “what good is happiness?  It can’t buy you money.”

Our own unhappiness with our money, or our possessions, almost always come when we compare ourselves to others.  It’s when we begin to look around that we get ourselves into trouble. (parable tax collector and Pharisee)  Of course this is becoming harder and harder because of what we are exposed to through advertisements, and if only you had this widget then you’d be happy and a genuine better person, but it also what we see in TVs and movies.  These things create reality for us, and we feel that we have to live into it, and as a result we end up spending more money than what we actually make in order to try and maintain a lifestyle we can’t afford, in trying to keep up with the Joneses.  Juliet Schor, who studies consumer spending and advertising, has found that we spend an extra $200 a year for every hour of TV we watch a week, so on an average of 15 hours a week, which I think is way underreported, equals an extra $3000 a year in spending.

We like to complain and moan about the government and how they deal with money, and we like to say that we have to balance our budget, that we can’t write checks with money we don’t have, but the simple truth is that the problems with government aren’t an exception to our own lives, instead they mirror our lives.   As of the end of August this year, consumer debt in the US was at 3.037 trillion dollars.  Let me say that again, us consumer debt at the end of August sat at 3 trillion dollars.  That works out to roughly $9000 for every man, woman and child in America, and that does not include mortgages or other real estate loans.   If we add in mortgages and other real estate loans, the total is 11.13 trillion.  About 849 billion of that is in credit card debt.  The average household has a little over $15,000 in credit card debt, and the average APR is 15%.  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 last year we paid 32 billion in penalty fees.   If you were to pay the minimum payment on that average balance of $15,000 at 15%, it would take you 37 years to pay off, and you would pay $23,913 in interest.   According to AARP, 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.

Now in looking at scripture we can say that having money is not a sin, but it can be a problem, and we can say exactly the same thing about debt.  Having debt does not make you a bad person, it does not mean that God does not love you, nor does it mean you can’t get into heaven.  But, the scriptures are very concerned with debt and the negative consequences that come from going into debt, especially the extreme difficulty in getting out of debt once you are there.  In passages in Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Nehemiah, to help keep the cycle of debt from continuing, 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.

Although every week when we pray the Lord’s prayer we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,”  in the original it does not say trespasses, instead it talks about debts.  “forgive us our debts, and we forgive those who are indebted to us.”  Now that has something to do with sins, but it is also about real economic debts. (parable of slave owes huge loan, forgiven)  How different might we operate if that was the prayer that we prayed ever week, or perhaps every day?  In Proverbs, several times we are warned specifically not to make surety for another, that is don’t be a co-signer.  In the 13th chapter of Romans, just after telling us what we should pay, like our taxes, Paul then says “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”   But perhaps the most direct statement about debt and its dangers comes from another proverb.

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.”  It was a line used last week when Karen and Kim where here talking about our preschool.  But for some reason we don’t continue on after that.  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.”  “train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.  The rich rule over the poor and the borrower is the slave of the lender.”  “You cannot serve both God and money,” Jesus says, because you will love the one and hate the other, and we are told that the borrower is slave to the lender.  When you are a slave, who do you have to follow?  You have to follow the master.  Why do you think they call it MasterCard?

That is the problem with debt, is that it can take our focus away from the things that are truly important.  And while there are lots of reasons people get into debt, sometimes we get into that situation by focusing on things, like our things, that aren’t truly important.  But even though we have debt, and I have debt too, it does not mean that it has to be our master.  A phrase that you need to remove from your vocabulary, especially when dealing with children, is to say “we can’t afford it.”  When you say that you can’t afford something, is that you making a decision or is it your money, or debt, making the decision for you?  It’s the later.  Instead say, “we’re not going to do that, because we choose to spend our money differently.”  It may seem like mere semantics, but in the first situation your money is telling you what you can and cannot do, and thus you are the slave, and you cannot follow both it and God, and this is just as true for us as a church as it is true for us as individuals.  But when we say that we are going to choose to spend our money differently, then we have changed the dynamics and we are saying that we are in control, that we are the master, and when we are the master of our money and our possessions, then we are in the right relationship with it, so that we can be in right relationship with God, for we cannot serve both God and money.  We can only serve one.

In Proverbs we are also told that “the good leave an inheritance to their children’s children.”  I think that is about a lot more than just leaving them money.  It is also about leaving them an inheritance of teaching and learning.  Teach your children about the difference between good debt and bad debt, good debt being debt that is taken on that will earn you money over the long run like a mortgage, or in some cases student loans.  When you use your debit card versus a credit card, explain to your children, or your grandchildren, or any child with you, the difference between the two, because children don’t know the difference and they look the same.  Take the time to tell them about your own finances, about the mistakes you have made, and what they should be doing with their money, but most importantly model the behavior you want to have them carry out, because what we learn about finances, like most things, is more often caught by mirroring behavior rather than it is taught.

We are often told to act our age, but sometimes we also need to be told to act our wage.  The only way to begin to begin to be a good steward of our resources, resources entrusted to us by God, is to spend less than what we make, and we have to work to eliminate our debt, for the borrower is slave to the lender.  When we seek happiness in our wealth or our possessions, we will always, always, always be unsatisfied, because they cannot bring us ultimate happiness.  It cannot fill the void in our lives that can only be filled opening ourselves up to something greater and bigger than we are, our things, our money, our possessions are always less than us.  To help us to live this out in our lives, the ushers are going to be passing around a basket which has a key tag.  On one side is says “contentment,” and on the reverse is a prayer that 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.”  I invite you to take one, and put it with your keys, and next time you are going out to buy something, especially to make yourself feel better, that you take a look at this, and say the prayer.  If this is simply going to become one more possession for you, please don’t take one, but if you need more than one, or would like one for others, please take more or talk with me and I will get you as many as you need.

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 work to eliminate our debt, and we need to, in the words of Jesus, to know the cost of building our tower before we begin.  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.

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