That raises the fascinating question- one that I posed to the children a few minutes ago with my guitar: if something is built to last, am I really the owner, or the custodian- the one who cares and prepares something for the next person?
When I think of my own life, as bright, or as talented as I may be- or not, I can hardly claim credit for the initial work, if you know what I mean. I didn’t choose my parents, or to be born in the United States in the middle of the 20th century, at a time with unlimited prosperity and potential. I didn’t choose the gifts that were given to me.
Sure, I’ve worked with those gifts over the years- worked hard, but even then, it wasn’t happening in a vacuum: parents, family, teachers, friends, mentors- a host of people have contributed making me into the person I am still becoming. It would be ludicrous for me to claim for a second that I’m a “self-made man,” and that all I have become, and all I have, are all mine…
And that got me thinking about the church- specifically this church- and about you and me. We sit in this magnificent building, built roughly 90 years ago by some faithful people who were willing to risk moving out to what were essentially the suburbs, leaving a perfectly good church building downtown.
We are the beneficiaries of a legacy of forward-thinking, risk-taking men and women who were willing to put their time, talent and treasure on the line not only for their families but for those who would come long after them, because of their faith- for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Can anyone of us- no matter how long we have been a part of this community, really call this “my church?” in the sense that we own it- that it is ours- that we deserve it, or have earned it? Even those of us who are lifelong Bethlehem members- children, perhaps when the move to Lyndale Avenue was made, came along with the men and women who made the decision to move, and then paid for it… “My church!?” Not hardly.
The more I think about it, the more it gets beyond me, or past me. Is there anyone here who would claim that you are owed your relationship with God- that it was something you deserved on the basis of your talent, or good looks, or whatever, that as we’ve already seen, came from somewhere else, anyway?
You and I are given, flat out given, a relationship with God that lasts forever, not because we deserve it, or can buy it- indeed, it is given in spite of everything we do to get in the way because God loves you- and God loves me.
God, the creator of all that is, loves you and me so much that in Jesus of Nazareth, God becomes one of us. In the life and ministry of this carpenter turned rabbi, God shows us how we are to live- who to take care of one another- ministering to the sick, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry…
In his death on a cross, Jesus shares in the ultimate of what it means to be human- dying, abandoned and in pain, bearing on himself everything that separates you and me from our creator. And in his resurrection from the dead, Jesus overwhelms and overcomes everything- even the power of death- everything that can separate us from God, and invites us into an eternal relationship- God’s presence forever- through life, through death and beyond.
It would be much more accurate to say “I belong to Jesus,” or even “I am owned by Jesus,” than to ever talk about “my Jesus,” or “Jesus is mine…”
Now it’s taken me awhile (quite awhile!) to get here, but on this Sunday, when we begin a two-week sermon series “What if it’s not Yours?”, I wanted to review this question of ownership- really the ownership of all we have and are.
For us, the Biblical witness is perfectly clear: we own nothing- everything we have and are we hold in trust for the real owner- our God!
This was an issue for the people of the Hebrew scriptures: why else did God ask for a tithe- one tenth- of all they had? Dt 14:23 teaches that “the purpose of tithing is to help you put God first in your life…” – to remind you that all you have comes from God, and while God could ask for it all, you may use all but one tenth…
It was certainly an issue in Jesus’ day. Why else do you think that Jesus talked more about money than he did about heaven- or about hell? Why else do you think roughly one out if every six verses in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are about money and possessions? Jesus affirmed the habit of tithing in those Gospels, by the way- and if you think it’s an OldTestament, legalistic thing, I would say fine, give 20%…
Why else do you think that more than half the parables of Jesus are about money?
Why do you think that Jesus contrasts the “the rich people putting their gifts into the treasury” with the poor widow putting in two small copper coins…” with the comment that they have “given out of abundance, she has given everything…
And while he is certainly commenting on a system that is exploiting widows, just as certainly, Jesus is praising the woman for completely trusting in God to meet her needs.
Because Jesus knew- and knows- that we like to claim ownership of our lives- and all that our lives bring us- our talents and treasures- and that can put up an almost impenetrable barrier between us and our loving God!
This was an issue for the early church: In 1st Timothy 6: 17, Paul goes after this issue: “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches but rather on God, who richly provides US with everything for OUR enjoyment… – he’s talking to all of us, even though it sounds like it’s aimed at the rich.
The amazing thing about wealth is that it always seems to be about someone else, but it’s all relative. Compared to virtually all of the people in the world, everyone sitting here is wealthy. We just don’t necessarily see it that way.
Even the very wealthy sometimes miss it. J. Paul Getty, at the time the richest man in the world, was asked “how much is enough?” and was said to answer “Just a little bit more”.
Did you notice how the verse from 1 Timothy changes from the third person to the first person plural? From “those, them,” to “US!”
The passage is all inclusive. it’s about you and me, and it’s about God who is ultimately at work, we are to enjoy what God has given us, but everything ultimately belongs to the owner: to God!
And it is something that all people- from the beginning, right down to you and to me, need to be reminded of all the time. It’s something we can confuse- get wrong, all the time. The temptation is always there to say, “I did it, it’s mine; it all belongs to me!” and then forget- or ignore- that all we have and are have been entrusted to us for a time by our creator…
This is a lesson that continues to be learned today- more and more Bethlehem folks are discovering this joy of faithfulness- of generosity- of abundance.
A life, of open hands, gratefully receiving, and then generously sharing…
And the motivation for sharing? You and I give because God gives- because God loves- because it all belongs to God!
So if what we have doesn’t belong to us- we hold it in trust for God, what does this all mean in how we deal with money? Let me share some practical suggestions about making the most of the money entrusted to you by God…
Keep good records! The Bible says in Proverbs 27 that “riches can disappear fast, so watch your business interests closely…Know the state of your flocks and herds…” Obviously in biblical days, assets were tied up in your animals… but still, this is wonderful advice…
There is the old saying “money talks,” but I would argue that while it might not “walk,” it just slips away, and if you’re not keeping records- of how much you make, of where you’re spending, how much you owe and how much you’re saving, you’re inviting difficulty…
Plan your spending! A budget, by definition, is planned spending- it is telling your money where you want it to go, instead of wondering where it went. Proverbs 21: 5 says “Plan carefully and you will have enough…”
Quick example: One of the areas we as a culture have ignored this concept is in shopping. So much of our buying is based on impulse, and it gets us into trouble quickly! Do you know how fast those lattes for sale at Reindeer and Fourbucks add up? A question I have found very helpful is “Is this expenditure a good use of God’s money?” Often, it gives me the pause to resist the impulse.
Proverbs 21:20 in the Good News translation says that “stupid people spend their money as fast as they get it”. Maybe that’s all you needed to hear today.
Then, save for the future. Again, from Proverbs 21, this time in the Living Bible: “the wise one saves for the future…” One of the things that those who lived through the great depression grasped well was taking care of the future. My grandparents didn’t make a lot, really, but they saved, and when the time came for them to leave their home and go into nursing care, they were able to pay for it.
One of the things that many Baby Boomers have completely neglected is savings. There is a huge percentage who will be flat broke as they age. Dependent, most likely, on a government that won’t be able to care for them or children who could well despise them for their lack of planning and maturity…
Return 10%- and we talked about tithing earlier- but I stress it again because it teaches you to count on God to meet your needs…
And finally, enjoy what you have! So many of us worry about what others have- we find ourselves on the wrong end of the commandment “do not covet…” We try and keep up with the Jones, even if it is a race to see who can be bankrupt first…
Another way of saying this is that to make the most of the money you have been entrusted with is to save 10%, give away 10% and live on 80%. If the ratios get too far out of balance, you’re looking at huge problems in just about every area of your life!
Finally, one more way that you can share your talents- make the most of God’s money is by remembering God’s work in your will- at the end of your life- whether it is a college, or Lutheran Social Service, or Bethlehem, or some combination of them.
Betty Sorenson was a member of Bethlehem her whole life- lived across the street. She was a child of the Great Depression. She was frugal, but content. When she bought a car, she paid cash. A good time for her was Old Company Buffett with her friends at lunch. And when she died, she left everything she had to Bethlehem’s Foundation.
Her careful living resulted in the single largest gift our Foundation has ever seen: close to half a million dollars when all was said and done. Her faithful witness will continue in the Foundation’s important work.
Consider our Foundation, or the Church itself in your estate planning. If you have children, adopt the church as one of them (if you have two, divide the estate into three).
Brothers and sisters, God has entrusted us with so much- has given us so much to do God’s work in the world. That is true, by the way, whoever is President, and whichever political party is in power. How we live, how we witness with our lives, with everything that God has given us, makes an important statement to our world about whom we trust to meet our needs.
It is a fascinating time for this congregation- a time for us to remember who we are: a congregation that has always been open to taking risks when it came to sharing the Gospel with our community.
A congregation that will stand by and with the immigrant community, with the communities of color, with the LGBT community, and whoever is feeling endangered or at risk. And that is no different today than it was Tuesday.
It’s simply who we are, it’s what we do: connecting people with God, each other and their mission in the world. And we are a congregation that has been blessed by God with the very talents that we need to answer God’s call to us, wherever we live, serve, work or play.
My prayer is that we learn to see our money as just another way that God’s presence is made known- that we learn to see it (and each of us!) as God’s servants, and not our master. Your giving matters. Your generosity makes a difference as we serve together, in Jesus’ Name and for his sake. Amen!