Friday, November 14, 2014

“Dimes And Dollars” - November 16, 2014

Texts: Proverbs 3:1-10, 2 Corinthians 9:6-12

We have been thinking about stewardship this month, and it is hard to think of a better example of stewardship than to hear young people lifting their voices in song and praise, using and developing the gifts God has blessed them with!

We have looked at “Friends and Family” and “Minutes and Months,” and this morning we come to “Dimes and Dollars” – our stewardship of money.   

I am aware that talking about money can make people nervous.  We know, at least in our head, we know that God has a claim over all of our life, we know that Christian faith has something to say about the way we use our time, our talents, that is has something to say about our work, our relationships, and so forth, but we somehow want to draw the line at our money.  As they used to say, “Now you’ve gone from preaching to meddling.”

We are not necessarily comfortable coming to church and talking about money, yet many of us could use some help in thinking about money in relationship to our faith.  The choices we make about how to spend our money, how we save our money, how to invest, about the things we spend our money on, about how and how much to give, choices about causes we support – in a sense, these are all spiritual questions.  And so, perhaps, coming to church and thinking about money is kind of like going to the dentist: we may not especially enjoy it, but we know we need it.

Apparently, stewardship sermons have always made people uneasy.  Benjamin Franklin, in a famous passage from his autobiography, tells about the time he went to hear the great preacher George Whitefield preach in Philadelphia:

I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived that he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved that he should get nothing from me.  I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistols in gold.  As he proceeded, I began to soften and concluded to give the coppers.  Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.
Well, if nothing else, I have some good news for you this morning.  The good news is, I’m no George Whitefield. 

Our stewardship committee met several weeks back to talk about and plan our fall stewardship emphasis.  We don’t usually follow a full-blown pre-packaged stewardship program, but we often will at least use some theme materials – bulletin inserts, bulletin covers, maybe a poster, as well as a general theme we can work with.  American Baptists along with a number of other denominations have a stewardship consortium and produce these materials together.  Our committee looked at this year’s theme, something about generosity, and to be honest it just didn’t grab us.  It would have worked, but it just lacked something.

So we talked a bit and came up with the theme of “Joyful Generosity.”  Joy was the word we were looking for.  Following Christ faithfully leads to generosity, but it is not a dutiful kind of giving, it is joyful generosity.

We live in a culture where a lot of people define themselves by the things they own, the things they possess, and feel that they deserve all of these things.  Rob Bell wrote a book titled Jesus Wants to Save Christians.  In it, he writes:

Entitlement leads to immunity to the suffering of others, because “I got what I deserve” and so, apparently, did they.  Moses warned about this in Deuteronomy 8, when he said, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.”
In an empire of entitlement, when the fundamental awareness is lost that this is all a gift, luxuries can begin to seem like necessities.  Excess can become normal.  And it can be very easy to lose perspective on just how much we have.

Maybe the key to Christian stewardship is understanding that it is all a gift.  Understanding how much God has blessed us, we naturally want to pass these blessings on to others, and find joy in doing so.   

You may be familiar with the story of Alfred Nobel.  One morning in 1888, Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, awoke to discover his own obituary in the newspaper.  I haven’t had that experience myself, but I can imagine that it would be a bit unnerving.  Nobel was a famed industrialist who has amassed a fortune from the manufacture and sale of weapons of destruction.  Accumulating wealth – getting rich – had been the main focus of his life.

The obituary he read was a simple error – Nobel’s brother was the one who had died.  A reporter made a careless mistake.  Anyone would have been disturbed to read his or her own obituary, but for Alfred Noel, the shock was overwhelming.  For the first time, he saw himself as the world saw him—“the dynamite king” who made a fortune from explosives.  As far as the general public was concerned, this was who he was and what his life was about.  According to the newspaper story, he was simply a merchant of death, and that was how he would be remembered.

As he read his own obituary with horror, Nobel resolved to change, and to make clear to the whole world the true meaning and purpose of his life.  He decided how best to use his wealth.  His last will and testament was an expression of his life’s purpose.  The result was the Nobel Prize, given to those who have done the most for the cause of human freedom and world peace.

How about you?  What is your life really about?  In a sense, this is the question of Christian stewardship.  More than just dimes and dollars, it is a matter of what we value in life.  Jesus saw it as a spiritual issue, a matter of one’s heart.  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  The question for us is, “Where is our treasure?”

As followers of Christ, we are asked to give simply for the joy of giving and simply because we have been blessed, not for what we may receive back in return.  Now the fact is, we may receive back.  Our scripture from Proverbs says, “Honor the LORD with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”  The Hebrews could see that at times there appeared to be a connection between generosity and receiving material blessing, and there are cases where we too observe this at work.

And yet this is not a prosperity gospel.  Becoming wealthy because we give to God is no sure thing.  The verses that follow our reading in Proverbs serve to make that clear.  Verse 11-14 read, “My child, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves the one he loves… Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.”  Generosity does not always lead to wealth.  Our generosity brings with it blessings, but not necessarily material blessings. 

I was once contacted by a reporter from the Daily who told me that an ISU professor had done a research study that showed people with strong faith tend to live longer, and what did I think about that?

I told her I could understand the results, that a strong faith contributes to a positive outlook on life, which can be important for health.  But I also said that if a person really takes one’s faith seriously, it can get you in trouble.  Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero had strong faith but it got them killed, and Jesus’ faith didn’t seem to help him live a long life.

The point is, faith does not necessarily equate to success in this life, and we do not give for what we can get out of it.  Giving to God is not like investing in a mutual fund.     

Alfred Nobel had accumulated wealth, but he found giving to be far more satisfying.  We are created in God’s image, and just as God’s nature is self-giving, we are created to give.  We are at our best when we give.  Until we learn to be generous, we are not experiencing life at its fullest.

Amy Butler is a colleague, an American Baptist pastor who just became pastor of Riverside Church in New York City.  She wrote a column recently in which she responded to an article she had read somewhere with the title, “The Shocking Truth about Church Budgets.”  The article stated that on average, 82% of church budgets go for buildings, personnel, and administration – things that are not even mission and ministry.  Butler argued that while his view was not uncommon, he was completely wrong, and that the writer had missed a fundamental shift in religious life.  Churches may have once thought of themselves as bastions of benevolence where well-scrubbed do-gooders who have it all together gather to plan how to minister to those poor unfortunates out there in society.  But that is not the case so much anymore.

She wrote, “What we are now is mission outposts.  We are islands in a world full of increasingly adrift people.  We are places of solace and hope, community and hospitality for people who are too smart to believe in God and pretty convinced they don’t need the church — until they do.”

People who have been away from church for years, if they ever were a part of a church, will stumble in, looking for some kind of hope and solace, and find to their amazement liturgy and music and preaching and community that help them start to connect with the tradition of the church and the message of Jesus – things they desperately need in their lives.

Or people may come looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, thinking a traditional twist on things might be nice, and start to discover that spiritual grounding of relationships has a value they had never considered.

Or parents will bring children here for music camp and find a community that values children, looks to broaden horizons, and sees every person as a beautiful child of God.  And the kids have a fantastic week.

Or, as Mark Kubik shared a couple of weeks ago, an offender will come to CCJ at a rock-bottom place in their life, and a year later, they will be in a much better place, with a bright and hopeful future. 

Or students will show up, facing any number of issues, from fitting in and finding a social group to struggling with academics to dealing with family stresses to questions of vocation and concerns for the future – and find here a community of friendship and support and encouragement that does not treat them as just a part of the pack but as an important individual.

Or someone is new to Ames, looking for friendship and community, and they find here a true family of faith where they can both receive support and find a place to serve.

All these things require substantial investment of resources that are labeled “facilities” or “administration” - ministers, musicians, church staff, air conditioning, building maintenance, snow removal, instrument tuning — but all of these things are ministry.  They are frontline, on the ground, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of ministry.

Now, I did not even mention the vital, continuing, day-by-day, week-to week ministry to those of us who are already a part of our church.  And besides all of this, we support a great deal of ministry beyond the four walls of our building.  Our church often tops the churches in our region in per capita mission giving.  But the fact is, our whole life together as a community of faith is mission and ministry.  The Narrative Budget that you will find in your bulletin today is a reflection of that.  It’s all ministry.

When I think of the way that I have been blessed, I want to give generously.  And when I think of how important and life-giving the work is that do together, I can give joyfully.  As Paul writes, “God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that … you may share abundantly.”

Most of you have received pledge cards in the mail; if you did not, there are cards available in the narthex.  This is not so much about the church asking for money, but Christ asking for faithfulness.  Our financial gifts are a tangible symbol of our committing our lives to Christ’s work.  As we receive our offering this morning, I would invite you to give your pledge of financial support to God’s work as a joyful act of worship.

God has put dimes and dollars in our hands.  Just as God has given to us, we are to pass on the gift.  God has given us so much.  How can we do anything less than be a cheerful giver?  Amen.

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