HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
January 22, 2017
1 Timothy 6: 5-10, 17-19 (CEB)
There is constant bickering between people whose minds are ruined and who have been robbed of the truth. They think that godliness is a way to make money! 6Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy with what you already have.7We didn’t bring anything into the world and so we can’t take anything out of it: 8we’ll be happy with food and clothing. 9But people who are trying to get rich fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.
17Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. 18Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. 19When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life.
It is common at this time of year that we set goals for ourselves. Each January, as the calendar turns to a new year, many of us will make resolutions, which we hope to work towards and achieve in the ensuing months. Some of the most common goals are related to diet and exercise. I’ve been a member at the Y now for more than seven years, and I notice a steep rise in activity each January, and a nearly equal steep decline along about February. But we make other resolutions as well—things like spending more time with family, or using electronic devices less, or whatever we feel like we need to accomplish in order to have a happier, healthier, more enjoyable life. So it is that we are taking a few weeks to really give some consideration to what constitutes the “good life” we are always striving after, and what the Bible tells us about the sort of resolutions we need to be making to achieve that good life.
Last week we talked about how we often look for the good life in material possessions, but that constant pursuit of such possessions usually just leaves us frustrated and disappointed. So we talked about resolving to be grateful for what we do have and offering regular thanksgiving to God for the many blessings of our lives. We also talked about that fact that our lives have a greater meaning and purpose beyond amassing more stuff, and we should resolve to focus our energies on pursing God’s higher purpose for our lives.
This morning, we are going to take time to consider very specifically the matter of money. Whether we will admit it or not, I think it is pretty universally true among humanity that we feel or believe that the key to the good life is more money. But the problem is that if money is the path to happiness, there is never enough. It’s not that money in itself is bad; as Paul says in his letter to Timothy, it’s the love of money that’s the problem—when we see money as necessary to, in essence, “buy” the good life.
Yet, this is exactly what we do, at least in America. Let me share a few statistics with you that sort of give us a “snapshot” of individual finances in America. Since 2003, the average household income has increased 23%. In that same period of time, the average lifestyle cost has increased 29%. That’s a bad trend, and the only way such spending is possible is through the use of credit, which is exactly what most Americans do. The average credit card balance in the US is over $15,000 (that means interest payments alone top $2,500/year)! But it doesn’t end there. We have car loans that average $28,000, students loans nearing an average of $50,000, and mortgages that on average are over $170,000.
We buy the house of our dreams, but is that the good life? We buy the car of our dreams, but is that the good life? We stock up on name brand clothing or fancy electronics, but are those the things that give us the life we really long for? Because then the bills start rolling in and things get tense all of a sudden. The number one thing people stress about is money. Money promises the good life, but ultimately it’s stressful, it’s life-draining. Finances can ruin marriages, and I have seen personally how it can ruin families.
So how do we change all this? We have to have money in order to survive. But the question is, how do we use money in a healthy, life-giving way that doesn’t lead to stress and broken relationships, but instead to the abundant life God desires for us? We heard from Luke’s gospel earlier in the service, Christ’s admonition that you cannot serve both “God and wealth.” Wealth becomes a “god” in our lives when we feel money is what we need in order for our lives to be better. And when this is our guiding principle, we have an unhealthy view of money, and we use money in unhealthy ways. But you know, it occurred to me this week, that money has this incredible power to achieve good, too. And we know this, we all know this, but we get so caught up in feelings of scarcity that we don’t believe in the abundance of good that even the smallest amounts of money can make possible!
Now, there is no question that money is necessary to survival in the world today. We have to have money, but if we want to avoid the stress and strain of finances and truly experience the good life that money can make possible, we have to use money well. When our spending is out-pacing our earnings, we are not using money well. So a good place for all of us to begin is with the instruction of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. He taught that we should earn all we can, save all we can, SO THAT we can give all we can. Now, here’s what that means. First, we should work hard and earn a fair wage. Then, we should save all we can. And it’s important to understand here that Wesley wasn’t saying we should stash as much away in savings as possible. Rather, he was instructing us to spend as little as possible—I think of it like going to the grocery store with coupons, or buying whatever is on sale rather than the name brand. And we do this—earn all we can and save all we can—SO THAT we can give all we can. That’s the key to using money well—using it to do good in the world, being generous not for our own sakes, but for the well-being of others.
I pulled up a video this week of a Financial Advisor sort of summarizing a few steps to feeling financially secure. This is a Christian woman who said first to meet the basic needs of your family. Then, she advised, it is good to have some money set aside for an emergency. Third, she said, find a cause to support so that you are able to use your money to do good. And finally, she advised, set goals and fund them. Certainly a lot is captured in that last point, but I think it’s interesting that she didn’t specifically say something like build up an IRA or a 401(k), but she did specifically say to support a cause—to use your money to make the world a better place. As Christians, God has given us a very specific way to do that, by instructing us to bring a tithe, a tenth of our first fruits, as an offering of praise. When we give our money to God, we are supporting God’s kingdom cause, we are investing in God’s work to transform this world and make it a better place for all who are a part of it.
I just want to take a minute to say that I am very proud of this congregation because you all are generous. You support God’s work through this church with your tithes and offerings, and the fruits of your generosity have been great this last year. We closed the books for 2016 in the black, and we were able to accomplish some pretty amazing things in the last twelve months. We completed some much needed repair and maintenance work on the church building, not to mention some beautiful interior renovations. We offered several new small groups, classes, and short-term studies. We were able to welcome many outside groups to use our facilities at little to no cost because your generosity covered our expenses. This is good stuff; this is kingdom work, and it is happening because of your faithfulness in giving of yourselves and your resources. And I hope beyond hope that it will continue. I pray that this year this church will do even more work for God’s kingdom—that we will offer a safe space for even more people, that we will build partnerships with our neighborhood to improve our community, that we will speak out and fight against the unjust structures that keep so many stuck in cycles of poverty or addiction. There are so many possibilities! So much good work that we can be a part of in God’s kingdom by being generous with our money!
Now without giving you whiplash and sending you on a guilt trip, let me just say that this is where the rubber meets the road. Money can be a means by which we experience the good life, or it can bring us a lot of strife and stress. But ultimately, we are the only ones who can decide for ourselves whether our finances are a force for bad in our lives, or a force for good. If we are spending more than we are bringing in, relying heavily on credit, drowning in debt, then finances probably really stress us out, and we need to figure out how to simplify. We need to consider not only how we can live within our means, but even moreso how we can create space to use our money to make a difference in the world. On the other hand, many of us might be living within our means, we might not be drowning in debt, but we are also in a place where we could be giving even more for the good of the world. I once had a teacher who said that the tithe is neither a floor nor a ceiling. How can you increase in generosity? How can you increase your capacity to do good in the world? I honestly, truly believe that many of us, myself included, have the ability to give more. We think we don’t, we think there are other priorities, but really those priorities are only self-serving. When John Wesley began in ministry, he gave 10% of his income in offering to God. By the time he died, he was living on 10% of his income and giving 90% to God.
Having money is not the problem. The problem is how you think about money, where your heart is. When we think our security and happiness is in the money we have and not in God, then problems arise and life gets complicated. “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” Money cannot be the primary driver in our lives. It is time for us to repent of thinking that money can buy us happiness, and to understand and live the truth that it is “more blessed to give than to receive.”
Listen again to Paul’s words in his letter to Timothy, “Tell people…they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. When they do these things…they can take hold of what is truly life.”
Friends, we are blessed to be a blessing. And we find the good life when we are generous and ready to share.