Last week, Clover preached on the “Trinity” – that marvelous doctrine of God expressed by the “circle dance” between Creator, Christ and Spirit: no hierarchy, everybody at the table. It is a model for how we need to be in community. There is no CEO here – just women and men, at the table, in relationship, discerning the desire of God.
I wanted to tip my hat to Clover’s sermon of last week because I am going to move from the sublime to – well, not the ridiculous – but to the very practical. Because Christianity conceived in the mind (theology) needs to be shaped by the heart and lived out in body. Sort of another kind of Trinitarian circle dance: the mind, heart, and body.
So think of this sermon as a circle dance with collection plates. Because I want to talk about money. And you can’t get more practical or uncomfortable than that. Next Sunday, Walter Brueggeman will challenge us about the prophetic judgment on nations who distribute wealth unevenly. This Sunday it’s personal – As the Capital One commercial asks: “What’s in your wallet… and where does it go?”
Did you know that Jesus says more about money in the Gospels than any other subject? Wealth and poverty, burying money and giving it away, sharing resources and expecting abundance. The poor love Jesus; the rich ….well, they find Jesus more troublesome.
I am really nervous to preach this sermon. Money is more difficult to talk about than sex. Money puts tremendous stress on marriages and relationships. Do you have control over your money or does money have control over you?
In preparation for taxes and FAFSA (Student aids and loans) (ugh!) Deanne and I went on a treasure hunt. We reviewed our credit card report and investment end of year statements. We looked through cancelled checks… and we found out a lot about where we place our treasures and began to discover our heart.
Deanne and I give around 8.5% of our taxable income to Forest Hill Church: this is our home, you are our family. We believe in its mission, we like the leadership, and we trust that our pledge goes to what the Session has said it goes to. So we are not official tithers; there is some work to do there. But we give to local charities and non-profits that express our faith concerns and so we give at least 10% away.
More than 15% goes to federal taxes and FICA self-employment tax.
Starting in September we will have three children in college – all have worked hard and have great scholarships but it still adds up.
Deanne and I rarely go out to dinner or a show. I haven’t bought a new suit in a long time. About 5% goes to our retirement savings plan.
We fly to California once a year–that’s a chunk of change! And then there’s vacation – although my parents still pretty much subsidize the house at the beach. And of course mortgage, car, medical expenses, insurance, clothing, cell phones, internet and cable bundles – all those bundles, food, house expenses, and now dog expenses – ionized teeth cleaning, rawhide chews, heartworm meds, and squeaky toys are not cheap! Oh yes, and the tree fell down in the back yard, ants are in the kitchen, and the driveway needs sealcoating. I had to have a cortisone shot in the shoulder and there were wisdom teeth pulled. Others have country club dues, credit card debt payments, student loans, or are supporting children and/or parents in a variety of ways.
You now know more about the Lentz finances then you ever cared to know!
But if we are going to keep it real, that I have to be self-revealing. We need to open up this conversation.
Many of you get this – you are paragons of generosity – you already tithe. And I think this community needs to hear more from you – about how you faithfully handle your money.
Our children need to know.
Because many of us struggle. We feel constrained – stingy – when we don’t want to.
Some struggle with gambling and buying things on a whim – addictive behavior.
Some feel shame – and we don’t want that.
Many feel judged – and we don’t want that.
You can feel trapped.
So this sermon is not about judgment and is not meant to cause guilt – Deanne and I struggle with it too.
But we need to talk about these things.
Do you keep a budget? A budget, whether it be personal, church or government says a great deal about where your heart is, what you value.
Is your pledge check to the church your first check of the month? Do you pledge? A pledge is a promise – and while an amount is important, the fact of pledging something to the church is even more important.
God made a pledge to the world. God showed her/his heart in Jesus – sometimes it costs dearly to show your heart. The widow who gave her “mite” impressed Jesus so much – her last coin was given away – she had nothing left and put herself in danger…it might have meant life or death for her!
But sacrifice for those things you love is not bitter hardship, it is an expression of investment – it is worth it! It isn’t easy writing the tuition check – but Deanne and I get such joy in it too!
Last March, Melanie Alban, Steve Sedam and I attended a Presbyterian stewardship conference in Kansas City. Some of the data was very interesting:
- Generosity is increasing. That’s good.
- But church giving is down. That’s bad.
The number of churches has decreased over the last 20 years (particularly mainline congregations) and the number of non-profits asking for money has risen significantly.
Non-profits and universities do a much better job of asking for and raising money than churches. They tell stories, more focused in their mission, less apologetic about asking.
Did you know that the average Presbyterian gives about 1.5% of their income to the church?
No wonder so many churches are stressed having to make hard decisions about payroll, building upkeep, programs and grants to denominations and local benevolence. And it is particularly hard when paying salaries is pitted against mission, when building upkeep is pitted against benevolence. As if they’re working against each other.
And churches – even Forest Hill – tend to let you know when things are tight and we are in need and how much we want, rather than celebrating what your pledges go for – giving testimonies to the power of God.
Just think of Jesus and the 5,000 on the meadow. The disciples saw this as an issue of scarcity – as a division problem. Jesus, of course, saw it as a multiplication opportunity – give me the bread and fish that you have and I will show you how to send people home full with leftovers.
The prophet Malachi once told the people: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lords of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.” (3:10)
That challenges me on a lot of levels. The so-called prosperity preachers have misused this text to build empires. Put God to the test? And yet, I am gracefully agitated: The more I give away, the more blessed I will be. God will more than match my gift. My giving pattern reflects my spiritual maturity.
Another question that was asked and answered at the conference: Why do people give?
- People give to things they believe in and feel connected to.
- People give if they trust the leadership.
- People give if there is transparency and accountability.
But most of all people give because they have had an experience of transformation. Just in the past week I have testimonies about people’s experience at Forest Hill:
- “I learned how to pray here!”
- “I grew up in a church that told me I was fit for hell. Here I learned I am a ‘beloved child of God.”
- “I marched with Greater Cleveland Congregation – I have never done that before.”
- “I was taken seriously as an adult.”
- “When they laid their hands upon me for blessing, my life changed.”
Forest Hill Church is not a typical non-profit in that our primary mission is not to deliver services to those in need. We may do that as part of our mission, certainly –
but our main mission, as I see it, is to create a community that will changes lives – your life as you experience God.
Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.
So go on a treasure hunt and find your heart. There is more than enough to go around.