Audio available, and here.
Proverbs 13.1-25, Mark 12.41-44, Psalm 62.5-12
We struggle in our relationship with money. Last week, I mentioned that we even have trouble talking about it, not because it is private or personal but because we are actually enslaved to it. Last week, we began to look at the book of Proverbs, in the Wisdom tradition of the Scripture, for insight into a spirituality of money. We discovered how money is a spiritual presence in our lives, how our relationship with money impacts our spiritual selves. Hear again these words:
Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, 9 or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, "Who is the LORD?" or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God (Prov 30.8-9).
We need a spirituality of money that is practical and down-to-earth, like the book of Proverbs. But since we struggle to even talk about it, and because (unfortunately) even the church is not trusted to talk about money, we all become extra sensitive.
Last week, we listened to the wisdom of John Wesley, a founding figure of Methodism, and his advice to gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. We looked at the insight from Proverbs regarding hard work, thriftiness, saving, avoiding debt, and giving.
Today, we are diving into Proverbs once again. This time, we’ll be looking at money and our personal security. Remember Linus and his blanket?
Scarcity: Friday night at the Fling, our family ate with Aileen K. She pulled out her tab, which I have here today, to show me that her server had torn it off of the already small memo pad and said, "Paper is scarce." Now, it was a joke, but it helps make a point. Here at the church, we do not buy paper by the sheet, or even by the ream (500 sheets). We buy it by the case – 5000 sheets of paper in one box! Paper is NOT scarce. Now, perhaps we mean that memo pads are scarce. If that is so, I encourage all of you to do what I do: Every time I vote, I ask the folks working the polls outside to give me the free memo pads with their candidate’s name. You will have enough memo pads for the year and you can tithe your memo pads to the church.
The wealth of the rich is their fortress;
the poverty of the poor is their ruin.
Poverty is a life of scarcity. "Ain’t no rest for the wicked/money don’t grow on trees" (song). Poverty is not the same as being poor. I’ve heard plenty of people tell me, "We grew up poor, but we didn’t know we were poor." Why? Because poverty is not just being poor. Poverty is a system that forces folks into choices, the "lesser of two evils" kind of choices. Pay the heat bill or buy groceries? Bounce a check and pay the bank fee or miss a payment and pay the interest and penalty? Don’t take the kids to the doctor’s because we are uninsured or can’t afford the co-pay, and end up in emergency instead. Go to work, pay for childcare, and take home almost nothing. Your car is making a noise, but you can’t afford to repair it, so you keep driving and things get worse, and more expensive. "The poverty of the poor is their ruin." It is hard, very hard, to triumph over the system of poverty. But it is not impossible. And, by the way, part of the calling of the church is to follow Jesus and "proclaim good news to the poor" not only by acts of charity but also by transforming the economic inequities of the poverty system and helping people acquire the skills to triumph.
It is, of course, much more comfortable to be wealthy. You don’t worry about the groceries or the utility bills. You are well-insured and you don’t worry about your co-pays. If you have children, you can afford child care and keep working. And those unexpected financial surprises? Those things that happen to all of us? No problem. The wealthy person has planned ahead. They pay for regular service, and they replace things on schedule, and they have emergency funds set aside. "The wealth of the rich is their fortress."
Abundance: In the ancient world, there was only rich or poor, so the proverb does not address the middle class. Most of us would object to being labeled rich, though we are, in fact, rich compared with the rest of the world. And many of us would object to being labeled poor. But very few of us would object to the idea that wealth, at least more than we have now, would make a pretty fine fortress. You breath a little easier, you worry a little less, you feel more secure. Wrap that blanket around you. How much do you need to feel secure? Just a little bit more.
That’s where things break down. Proverbs 13.8
Wealth is a ransom for a person’s life;
but the poor get no threats.
So, which would you rather? Be held for ransom or get no threats? Maybe wealth really doesn’t solve all our problems. Maybe money is not an adequate fortress. Maybe wealth can even be a cause for insecurity rather than the solution.
I worked my way through college. Over one Christmas break, I got a job with UPS as a driver assistant. I rode shot gun, he’d drop me off at the end of one street with a dolly and a stack of packages, and I’d have to jog down the street to meet the truck when he got back around to the other end. It was physical work, mostly fun (except for the dogs), and it was decent pay. But funds were tight. "Paper is scarce."
I was convinced that my driver was definitely NOT a follower of Jesus. I think we talked a little about faith, but the driving factor in my conclusion was the fact that he tuned his radio to rock music, including The Grateful Dead. And, how could you listen to "driving my train ..." and follow Jesus? Since then, I’ve gotten over my hangups with rock music.
On my last day at work, at the end of the day, my driver shook my hand. When I pulled my hand away, I was holding a couple hundred dollars. "This should help with college," he said.
His gift did a couple things. One is that it erased a barrier, a barrier that was completely in my mind. Giving does that. It also helped pay for college, the stated reason for the gift. And, it did that too. Beyond either of those things, however, I was reminded that my security was not in how much money I had, which – as a college student – was not enough. My security is in God. There’s a wonderful line from the Psalms that reads, "Every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills" (Psalm 50.10). If our security is in our wealth, our money, it is forever not enough. We will always need something else, because our money is finite, our bank accounts are limited, our wealth can be counted. But God’s? God’s resources are limitless. And, if our security is in God, if our trust is in God, if we recognize that what we truly need is Jesus, then we’re living in abundance, not scarcity. Paper is NOT scarce.
Generosity: So, what is the biblical guidance for relocating our security from our money (or lack of it) to God?
Some give freely, yet grow all the richer;
others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.
Now, there are a couple things to notice in this text. It is a proverb, not a rule, not to be taken in a 100% literal way, but to be taken with wisdom and understanding. If we give freely, for example, we actually grow less rich, we actually have less money. So, what is the proverb stating? Is it saying that if we give freely, that God is going to return that financially? Sometimes that happens, but not always. Yet, some people try to make that case, try to offer that guarantee. Usually, they seem to be preachers who, in the words of the song, "stuff their bank account with righteous dollar bills" ("Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked").
My suggestion is that the proverb is referring to the total return on giving, a return that is so much greater than conventional financial measurements. That UPS driver grew richer because helped a kid go to college. Giving enriches our lives in countless ways – and one of those ways is how it relocates our focus from our own limited resources ("paper is scarce") to the way we can partner with God and bless others.
Next week is Consecration SundayA special day in which you will be invited to make your giving commitment to God. It is not about the amount. Proverbs says nothing about the amount, referring only to giving "freely". Jesus said that the widow with two small coins gave more than all the wealthy. It is not about the amount. It is about God, and our need to give so that we can be secure in the unlimited resources of our Lord. Even the biggest bank account in the world is limited. Only God offers true abundance. I encourage you this week to take the time to pray and plan your commitment, so that when we come together next week you are prepared to simply celebrate and rejoice in the love of Jesus Christ and the freedom God gives. And, as you pray, you may find that you need to make some other commitments as well – to put a priority on getting out of debt, or to consecrate your whole life in a fresh way to Jesus as Lord.
And, don’t forget about the breakfast! Between our worship services we will have a special Consecration Sunday celebration breakfast. Because we want to plan appropriately and because we want to invite everyone, we are asking folks to respond with their plans for next week. The ushers are now distributing the reservation cards. Please put your name on the card and check whether you will be at the breakfast or not. We will be phoning folks who do not respond, so please be sure to return your response, with your name on it, today. Thanks!