Text: Proverbs 3:1-10, 2 Corinthians 9:6-12
Our niece Hope graduated from college two years ago in December. After graduation, she moved to San Diego and got a job at a credit union. It wasn’t by design, exactly; she was moving there because that is where her boyfriend, now husband lived. But she needed a job and found that one.
Our nephew Tyler, meanwhile, graduated from college a semester later. After a first job that wasn’t so great, he now works at the Evansville Teachers Credit Union.
Last spring, our nephew Parker graduated from the University of Southern Indiana, the same school that Hope and Tyler attended. Do you want to guess where he works? Of course, he has a job at yet another credit union. So we have a little joke about credit unions being the new family business.
I was in town a little over a month ago and saw Parker. It was his second week on the job and he was in training. I thought I would ask a credit union-type question so I asked him if they had any CD specials. He just gave me a blank stare. For him, at that point, I suppose that a CD was something that old people might listen to music on. A CD special might be if somebody like me found the Eagles Greatest Hits for 50 cents at a garage sale.
Well, money may not be a career for everybody, but it is a matter that we all have to wrestle with. And the fact is, it is hard to talk about money. Just bringing up the topic can lead to anxiety.
There are those who say they don’t want to have anything to do with the church, because the church is always asking for money. In my experience and at most churches I am familiar with, that is actually not the case at all. We really don’t talk a lot about money a lot. If someone were to say, don’t talk about money, just stick to the Bible – well, when we look at scripture, money is a huge topic. One commentator noted that there are more than 2300 verses in scripture that talk about wealth, money, and possessions, and that 11 out of Jesus’ 39 parables focus on these matters. It is Jesus’ #1 topic.
There are so many issues we face as a society, large and small, that have to do with money. Affordable housing. Income inequality. Technology and modernization and automation and employment.
The cost of medical care can wipe out whatever savings a family might have and is the leading cause of bankruptcy. So many families are living paycheck to paycheck, one emergency away from a real crisis. Debt is a heavy burden for so many people; for those who carry a balance on their credit cards, the average balance is over $9300. Over 44 million people have student debt, with the average amount over $38,000. It is such a widespread issue that 68 members of Congress either have student loan debt themselves or a family member with such debt. The average debt for those members of Congress is $37,000 – mirroring the wider population. This affects everybody.
Money – and to be more precise perhaps, the lack of it - can be a real source of anxiety, and churches are by no means immune to this. Churches can find it difficult to talk about money. But as we all know, ignoring issues does not make them go away. And because scripture speaks so frequently about our possessions and resources and the way we use them, we need to take time to listen to what the scriptures say.
Psalm 24:1 reads, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” The view of scripture is that it all belongs to God. All that we have is a gift from God, and we are simply caring for God’s gifts. This is the idea of stewardship in a nutshell. We are to wisely care for all of God’s gifts – our friends and family and relationships, our time, our work, the world around us and the earth itself, as well as our resources and possessions and wealth. Our decisions about money are not just about us.
Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) Jesus observed the kind of hold that riches and greed and the constant need to acquire more and more could have on a person, and he warned against it. Money is important, but it is not God.
And yet, we talk about the Almighty Dollar. Materialism can have an almost religious hold on us. Our life can become all about earning more, about bigger and better and newer and shinier and more impressive. But that is no way to live. It is a god that will disappoint us in the end. The famed theologian Lily Tomlin noted, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” Or as Paul put it, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
We may act like we can separate our financial life from our spiritual life, but the fact is we only have one life. What we do with what we have has spiritual implications. What we do with our money is connected to and actually influences the deepest yearnings of our heart. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”
The way we use our resources is very important. Do we control our money and possessions, or do they control us? Are we consumers, or are we the ones being consumed?
Our scripture readings today point us toward a different understanding of money. The reading from Proverbs says, “Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.” And the reading from 2 Corinthians says, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Giving is not to be understood so much as a command to be enforced but as an opportunity we are given. We are created for giving, and it is simply a better way to live. When we live tight-fisted, we close ourselves off – we are unable to receive the blessings around us.
One of the biggest stories relating to giving recently, at least around here, is the Carson King story. You probably know who I am talking about. A guy holds up a sign during the College Gameday broadcast from Ames several weeks ago saying “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished” and the way to give. It was caught on camera, and people actually sent money. He just did it for laughs, but when money came in he decided to donate it to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. And it went viral. It became a massive story that had a number of twists and turns and controversy, but in the end people donated $3 million to the hospital. A guy makes a joke about beer money on national TV and the hospital gets $3 million. It was really amazing.
Why did people give toward that? The need was always there. But the publicity surrounding it magnified the need. And people gave, in a sense, for what they got out of it – but what they got out of it was not a financial return. What they got was joy, what they got out of it was the satisfaction and the blessing of being part of something bigger than they were and of working together to help make a difference for children in need. I imagine that most people gave cheerfully.
Well, we are talking about money today in part because this is the day for our annual Budget Forum. We meet after Church School to review a budget that has been proposed for our church for the coming year and to adopt a goal budget. Now I realize that this is not the kind of stuff that ordinarily gets everybody excited. Business meetings are not everybody’s thing, and business meetings to talk about budgets are definitely not everybody’s thing. They are not necessarily my very favorite thing, either, but I have come to think of church budgets differently.
With a budget, what matters is not so much the numbers themselves, but the ministry that those numbers represent. And while it is true that the numbers may not change dramatically from year to year, continuing and building on important, vital, compassionate, life-changing ministry year after year is something to celebrate.
Somebody wrote an article 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.
That is not an uncommon attitude. But I couldn’t disagree more. The church is not a social club that just looks out for itself, or a community of people who have it all together and join to celebrate that fact. To be a part of the church is increasingly a counter-cultural commitment. And the church is more and more a mission outpost.
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 worship and music and preaching and community that help them start to connect with others and connect with the message of Jesus – things they desperately need.
Or people may come looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, thinking a traditional venue 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. Kids who may not fit in so well in a lot of places are embraced at Music Camp, and everybody has a fantastic week.
Or an offender will be sentenced to probation with the Center for Creative Justice and come to CCJ at a rock-bottom place in their life. They are forced to reflect on their life, they are held accountable for their actions but also treated as a person with potential who has been given a second chance, 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.
Or, a person has a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and is filled with worry. And then they come here to take part in a singing group or a dance group and not only does it help them physically, they find a wonderful community of support. They find hope. They find joy.
What do these things look like in a church budget? They get labels like “facilities” or “administration” - ministers, musicians, church staff, utilities, building maintenance, snow removal, instrument tuning, insurance — but all of these things are ministry - real life, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of ministry.
I did not even mention the continuing, day-by-day, week-to week ministry to those of us who are already a part of our church. This is ministry that we all value dearly. And besides all of this, we support a great deal of ministry beyond the walls of our building – both with our involvement and with our financial support. While certainly not among the largest churches in our region, we are near the very top in dollars given to mission beyond our church.
We do not contribute in order to take care of the building or pay the bills, important as that may be. We do all of this for the sake of the ministry to which we have been called.
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 we do together, I can give joyfully. I can be a cheerful giver.
The challenge of giving is much like everything else in life. And the familiar Proverb we read this morning speaks to all of this. “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”
What would it mean to acknowledge God in our use of money? What would it mean to acknowledge God in our decisions about giving? What would it mean to acknowledge God in the way we invest our money? What would it mean to acknowledge God in the way we advocate for public policies that have economic implications? I’ll give you an answer on that one: it might mean not just talking about the middle class all the time but talking about the poor, talking about the marginalized.
Some of you are old enough to remember the comedian Jack Benny. He had this persona as a miser, a real tightwad. He would do this sketch where a robber would come up and say, “Your money or your life.” And Jack Benny would just stand there, not saying anything. The robber would say, “Well?” And Jack Benny would say, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
That was classic comedy from actually before I was born. Somehow it isn’t quite so funny now.
But the question is not really our money or our life. Our money – the way we use it, the way we think about it, the way we share it, the way we invest it – this is very much a part of our lives. And scripture speaks to us with a word of guidance and a word of hope: “In all your ways acknowledge God, and God will direct your paths.” Amen.