Sunday, November 11, 2007

Kingdom Economics 101: Investing and Divesting

Follow Christ. Question culture. Love the church:
Living with money.
2 Corinthians 9:1-15; Deuteronomy 8:10-18

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Today is the last Sunday in this series on cultural issues:
“Follow Christ. Question culture. Love the church.”
And as you’ve heard, the topic is money.

If you already took your church mail out of the box,
and you’re being observant,
you might have noticed that the very day the sermon is about money,
lo and behold, there is a letter from the Finance Committee,
asking you to carefully consider what God is calling you give,
for your 2008 Faith Promise.
Now, if you immediately got cynical,
and assumed we had it all planned out this way, on purpose,
well... you would be correct.

This is indeed a stewardship sermon.
The kind you normally hear when November comes around,
and the Finance Committee rolls up their sleeves
and gets to work on their two main jobs—
helping us finish this year in a strong fashion,
and urging us to be generous
as we project our giving for next year.
So, predictably, the job of the preacher
is to make the committee’s work easier,
and preach a sermon that has a touch of humor
so as to lighten the mood, relax the people,
and make them more receptive,
a sermon that has exactly the right amount of
psychological arm-twisting,
just enough to make them want to give,
but not too much that it’ll backfire.
Then to serve up the meat of the message—
ironclad biblical and theological reasons
to dig deep, give generously, sacrificially,
and be downright happy about it.
There’s a real art to good stewardship sermons,
that only years of preaching are able to perfect.
After 24 years, I think I almost got it down pat.

Except today, I’m going to forget everything I learned,
and give you the hard stuff right-up-front.
This will not be your average, garden-variety, motivational
sermon on tithing.
You may not even go home inspired.
I don’t know. Maybe you’ll go home mad.
But don’t blame the Finance Committee.
They had nothing to do with this sermon.
Didn’t even know I was preaching on money today.
If you look around, you can tell who they are,
by the worried look on their faces.

Today I’m going to tell you what the Bible really says
about how much to give to God’s work in the world.
And I warned you, this is not a lesson on tithing.

The message about what scripture expects of us,
in our giving to the cause of the kingdom of God,
can be summarized in three words: “Give it all.”!
Everything you possess...the entire contents of your bank accounts,
your retirement accounts, your mutual funds, stocks, and bonds.
Your piggy banks.
Your land, your house or houses, your vehicles.
Your home entertainment systems.
Your computers and iPods and x-Boxes.
Your books... and magazines and music and movies.
Your kitchen gadgets.
Your furniture. Your wardrobe.
Or...if you have none of those things,
then your little duffle bag that holds all your earthly belongings,
and the shirt on your back.
Give it all.
God wants all of it.

If we read the Bible honestly, that’s the only conclusion we can come to.
God wants all of us, and all of our stuff,
to be given over to God, for God’s own purposes.

One theme that has come through repeatedly in this whole series,
is that God owns it all anyway.
When we talked about caring for creation a couple weeks ago,
we said everything God created, belongs to God.
We are caretakers and stewards of the earth.
Last Sunday, when we explored issues of life and death,
we affirmed that life itself, came from God, and belongs to God.
We only hold it as a sacred trust.
It is no different with material things, possessions, and wealth,
which are ultimately rooted in this God-created world.
It is all God’s.

On that note, let’s restate our confession of faith.
Look in your bulletin, in your order of worship.
And read this together, in unison.
It comes, once again, from Mennonite World Conference,
and from our MCUSA Confession of Faith, article 21.

  • God is known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, calling a people to be faithful in fellowship, worship, service and witness.
  • We acknowledge that God is Creator is owner of all things.
  • God calls us as the church to live as faithful stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. As servants of God, our primary vocation is to be stewards in God’s household, set apart for the service of God. We live out now the rest and justice which God has promised.
  • As stewards of money and possessions, we are to live simply, practice mutual aid, uphold economic justice, and give generously and cheerfully.
  • We are not to be anxious about the necessities of life, but to seek first the kingdom of God.
  • We cannot be true servants of God and let our lives be ruled by desire for wealth.

We openly admit it in our confession.
God is Creator and owner of all things.
God has entrusted us with it, to care for it.
We, and our stuff, are “set apart for the service of God.”
The Christian calling is a calling to stewardship.
And as good stewards of this stuff,
we don’t hold on to it too tightly,
we give it to God.
We live simply. Without anxiety.
We are generous with it.
We care for others with it, so nobody has to do without.
We use it with justice.
Everything we do, after we say yes to Jesus,
is stewardship.
It is the core of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus,
taking the whole of our resources—personal, spiritual,
material, financial—the whole of it,
and devoting it to the cause and the values of God’s kingdom.

That’s being a disciple.
That’s the “Follow Jesus” part.
Now, about the “Question culture” part.
Seeing our lives and possessions as a temporary trust from God,
and our calling as stewards for God,
is radically counter-cultural.

In fact, if there’s any area of life,
where we need to muster all our forces,
and focus all our energy,
to stand against, and actively resist the pull of our culture,
it’s in the area of money and wealth and possessions.

On average, church members hear one sermon a year
on the topic of money and stewardship.
It’s been estimated that we receive
about 10,000 commercial messages each week,
on radio and television,
in newspapers and magazines,
on billboards and trucks and cars,
on the computer, when we check email and news,
on T-shirts, designer clothes and shoes,
there is no escape.
Every message gives us advice on how to spend our money.
They either tell us that we don’t have enough,
and need to get more.
Or they tell us we don’t have the right things,
the products that bring true happiness,
and we need to buy
what the happy and beautiful people are buying.
Our western culture,
and the whole economic system that holds it up,
is driven by the desire to buy, to consume, to accumulate.

Meanwhile, we Christians claim to be formed and shaped
by the narrative of scripture, rather than the narrative of culture.

The narrative of scripture reveals some fascinating things.
Like the texts we heard today.
Take 2 Corinthians 9.
Some of the Christians in Jerusalem were in desperate straits.
They were poor, and persecuted,
and their fellow church members
didn’t have enough to meet their needs.
So the apostles spread the word to other churches.
In today’s text, Paul is not so subtly, and not so quietly,
putting pressure on the church in Corinth to share their wealth.
He assumed they would understand,
that as sisters and brothers in the same family of Christ,
they had a privilege and an obligation to help.
Paul assumes the church, the faith community,
plays a major role in helping its members discern
how to spend their money, how to save it, how to give it away.

I doubt any of us would disagree: that’s a counter-cultural narrative.
The narrative of our culture when it comes to money, is
“Shhhh! It’s personal. It’s nobody’s business but my own,
what I do with my money.
There is an unwritten vow of secrecy,
when it comes to how much we have,
how much we earn,
how much we spend,
and how much we give away.
That’s not to say everyone needs to know everything.
But if our stewardship of God’s money
is a matter of Christian discipleship,
why wouldn’t we find ways to give and receive counsel,
to support, encourage, and challenge each other,
in this critical area of the Christian life?

And in Deuteronomy 8 this morning, we were being warned—
well, the people of Israel were being warned,
but the warning applies just as well to us today.
Verses 12 and 14:
“When you have eaten your fill
and have built fine houses and live in them...
then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God.”
Verse 18:
“Remember the Lord your God,
for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.”

Wealth breeds forgetfulness.
We Christians make the bold confession of faith,
as we did this morning,
that all things belong to God,
and we only hold them in trust for a while,
and that we wouldn’t have them if it wasn’t for God.
But the more of these things we have in our hands,
the more likely we are to forget who they belong to.
It is so natural, so normal, so predictable of a human failing,
that even in the simple agrarian economy of early Israel,
with their simple homes and farms and strong community life,
Moses warned them about life in the promised land.
Once they have plenty to eat of the food they raised,
once they build a sturdy house and live in it,
look out!
Look out! You’re going to forget God.
You’re going to forget who it all belongs to,
and who gave you the power to get it.

If that was true for the children of Israel in the land of Canaan,
how much more is it true for God’s children who live in
the 21st-century global economic and military empire
called America?

Now, of course, having lots of money, in itself,
is in no way a moral failing.
It is a divine privilege. It is a wonderful opportunity.
Having more money, leads to having more power to do good.
With power, comes responsibility.
What we possess, in material things and money, is simply this:
resources to put to work in the kingdom of God.
Not everyone has the same kind of wealth,
and thus not the same kind of power,
and not the same kind of responsibility.
But what I do have, is from the hands of God,
and still belongs to God.
It is my calling as a Christian to honor God with it.

To live my life simply.
That is, in a way that does not distract me from God’s call
to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
God has given us tremendous resources.
In North America, we are rich. All of us are.
We have more economic power,
than most everyone else in the world.
So we have a greater responsibility,
to be generous, faithful stewards of God’s wealth.
And to invest it in the work of the kingdom.

That is really our primary calling as disciples:
to invest fully and wisely in the work of God in this world.
God is at work, with us as collaborators,
in restoring this broken world to its state of shalom,
to the beauty and wholeness in which it was created.

Chances are, we are invested partially, but not fully, in the kingdom.
The church has not always encouraged us in that direction.
The American church is just as much a product of our culture,
as we individuals are.
So we’ve been taught, often in church,
that if we set apart ten percent of our income,
and give it to the church,
we are being very good Christians.
But giving a tithe is the easy way out.
Virtually everyone can do that,
and still have all their needs met.
I think this relatively easy, low-cost emphasis on the tithe,
has inoculated us against the more difficult word of scripture:
Give it all!

But it’s not a joyless giving. Not at all.
It’s cheerful giving. It’s hilarious giving.
What we are called to, brothers and sisters in Christ,
is a radical life of practically unhinged generosity,
prodigal love and sharing of our goods,
and wide-open hospitality.
Like the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 9,
who themselves were poor,
but begged for the privilege of giving to the saints in Jerusalem.
Like the Israelites,
when they were giving their gold and jewels and fabric
to build the tabernacle—
they had to be told sternly—stop giving!
We have more than enough!

No, I’m not advocating giving without discernment.
Discernment is essential.
Here’s where the “love the church” part of our series comes in.
I have a topic for your next small group meeting,
if you want to get real practical.
Or any small gathering of your trusted Christian friends.
Bring your personal bank statements and receipts,
and your Faith Promise form,
lay them out on the coffee table,
and ask these sisters and brothers in your family of faith,
to help you discern how you’re doing,
in this part of your walk as a disciple.
How you’re spending, saving, sharing.

We want to know our generosity is, in fact,
serving the purposes of God and God’s kingdom.
I’m not suggesting foolish, mindless generosity.
But lavish, hilarious, and prodigal generosity
for God’s kingdom and its work? By all means, Yes!

What keeps us from being lavish and hilarious in our generosity?
It’s when our goods are already invested
in what our culture values.
Like in Deuteronomy,
our nice houses and full pantries have put us in a different mode.
We have forgotten God,
and we put all our energy into protecting our investments
in the things of this culture and this world.
What is called for, in kingdom economics,
is divestiture.
We need to divest (get loose of our investments) and re-invest.
To whatever extent our wealth and possessions
are distracting us from what God is calling us to,
we need to divest ourselves of that.
I can’t tell you how much is too much,
before you get distracted from God’s kingdom.
But discerning sisters and brothers in Christ,
who we know well, and trust well.
might be able to do that.
If we were willing to break the vow of secrecy,
and start talking to each other about our use of money.

But that makes us pretty vulnerable, doesn’t it?
It certainly does.
Investment is protection.
Di-vestment is vulnerability.

Even the word origin tells us that.
To “in-vest” means literally, to “put on clothing,”
vestments, garments.
To “di-vest” is to “take off the garments.”
Clothing is for our protection.
To be naked is to be completely vulnerable.

But maybe God is calling us to be like Adam and Eve in the garden,
naked toward God,
to be vulnerable toward God,
to depend completely on God.

Maybe for some of us, our wealth is protecting us
from the risky, vulnerable, path toward the cross.
Maybe we cannot take up our cross and follow Jesus,
without first doing some careful divesting.

And I’m not targeting any particular income level or class
when I say this—this can happen to any of us.
It may be true that the more we have, the greater the temptation.
But we are all liable to trust more in our material investments,
and less in what we invest in God’s kingdom.
I’m convinced that all of us, in some area, need to divest.
Need to let go.
Need to leave some things behind,
so we can move forward with Jesus,
and invest in the kingdom of heaven.

Michael Card wrote a powerful song entitled,
“The things we leave behind,”
which Nathan May is going to sing for us.

Michael Card writes,
Every heart needs to be set free
From possessions that hold it so tight
‘Cause freedom’s not found in the things that we own
It's the power to do what is right...
And it’s hard to imagine the freedom we find
From the things we leave behind.

May God give us strength and grace for this journey.

Questions to live with:
  • In what ways do your money and possessions exercise power in your life? How are you managing that power?
  • Is God calling you to “divest” yourself, literally or spiritually, of things that distract you from your primary calling as a steward of God’s wealth?
  • How can your decisions about “divestment” be accurately discerned? Who will support you in your divestment choices?
  • Where is God calling you to make new “investments” in the kingdom of God? Who will help you discern, and support you in your investment choices?
  • Is Park View Mennonite Church being called to “divest” or “invest” in new ways? How can we discern that? How can we find the strength to do so?

—Phil Kniss, November 11, 2007

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