Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.
Money, ba ba ba ba baaa, Money!
Everyone’s favorite subject to talk about in church on a Sunday morning – it’s got to rank up there with partisan politics and human sexuality. From my vantage point, I can tell that you’ve been on the edge of your pews these last few weeks eager to hear what this preacher has to say about money. I mean, just look around, you look like a bunch of kids of Christmas morning ready to receive something.
Money! The American Dream! Red, White, and Blue!
So very many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us the dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deep bank accounts that would finally make us happy.
On any given day we wake up from the dream and seek out ways to make it a reality by pursuing more than we have, gaining more than we have, and saving more than we have.
And knowing how important money is in the larger culture, it’s amazing that the American flags has fifty stars on it rather than fifty dollar signs.
Money dominates everything. It’s why we go to work, it’s what we use to buy our food, it’s how we judge to whom we should listen and respect.
Truly, we might think that we, like the Lord, care more about the content of one’s character than the clothes the character wears, but most of us tend to measure our worth and the worth of others based on their material possessions.
But, and this is a really big but, for many of us the American Dream feels more like the American Nightmare.
Today we’re going to talk about Wesley’s second command within the Gain All You Can, Save All You Can, and Give All You Can. But before we get there, it might do us some good to see how we got here.
There was a recent study that noted at least 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy and their personal finances, more than half are worried about being able to provide for their family’s basic needs, 56% are concerned about job security, and 52% report lying awake at night thinking about one thing and one thing only: money.
Which, probably isn’t all that surprising to most of us here, particularly knowing how much the world revolves around economics. But maybe this statistic will surprise us a little more: In 1990 the average credit card debt in America was ~$3,000. Do you know what it is today? Over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, students loans, or medical debt.
If that doesn’t scare you then consider this: If any of us here are near the $9,000 credit card debt mark, and statistically some of us are, and we only pay the minimum payment every month it will take something like 200 years before the debt will be repaid!
The American Nightmare is in full effect when it comes to our finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few of us, if any, save our money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come.
But then it does.
Again and again and again.
Money, whether we like it or not, whether we are rich or poor, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else.
Which leads us, again, to Wesley’s theological thoughts on the subject. Having first gained all you can, save all you can.
It’s a lot easier to say than to do.
And in our parlance: It’s easier to preach than to practice.
Now, to be clear, Jesus had plenty to say about the fallacy of saving, particularly when stockpiling goods or resources came at the expense of others, or one’s soul.
Jesus uses a parables about the man building up extra storehouse to show our self-righteousness and hoarding can destroy one’s life. Jesus holds up the widow with her one coin given to the temple as the ideal steward. Jesus flips the tables over in the Temple because of the money lenders and the money changers.
But for as much as Jesus spoke against the desire to save, he also often talked about vineyards, and planting, and produce. All of which are long term investments.
It takes years for certain plants to bear any fruit at all, and even then they’re usually not very good yet. The sower scatters seed on the ground not really knowing how long it will take before they will become something else.
Jesus, and Wesley, called disciples of the Lord to faithful stewardship of the resources given to us first by God. And the fact that it first comes from God is THE WHOLE THING.
Wesley once preached, “We are not at liberty to use what God has lodged in our hands as we please, but as God pleases, who alone is the possessor of heaven and earth, and the Lord of every creature. We have no right to dispose of anything we have, but according to God’s will, seeing we are not proprietors of any of these things.”
As faithful stewards we are given a responsibility over things like money, but also our souls, bodies, speech, hands and feet, talents, time, and material goods.
But here’s the distinction, again, that is different and makes all the difference: Everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God. All that stuff I just mentioned, my money, my possessions, my talents, my body, they are not really mine. They belong to God.
That parable I mentioned before, the one in which Jesus tells the story of a man who had accumulated so much stuff that he tore down his building to build bigger buildings, there’s something in it we often overlook. The man in the parable cannot see what he has as belonging to anyone, or anything, else. “I have no place to store my harvest, I’ll tear down my barns, and build more. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and all my goods.”
The farmer of the parable foolishly believes that he is solely responsible for his good fortune. Which, as I mentioned last week, is bonkers. No one is self-made. Period. We are all results of things beyond our control that shape and nurture us in ways seen and unseen.
God gives and gives and gives, we’re just so steeped in a world that is constantly telling us that we are the masters of our destiny, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can’t even see how God is the one who gave us boots in the first place.
But, lest we revert back to the message from last week and the first part of Wesley’s understanding about gaining all we can, the question remains about what to do with what we’ve gained.
The book of Proverbs, as confounding and frustrating as it may be, has a good and difficult word for us: Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.
That’s just another way of saying, we are wise to manage our finances with a far-sighted view. Which, again, is easier to say than to do. It means that we are called to make decisions now about the way we use our resources now, so it will provide for us in the future.
For many of us, if not most, this is almost an impossibility. It is an impossibility because we live in the shadow of the culture of now. Those in the past might’ve understood the value in delaying gratification, in saving now for later, but we have all been conditioned to believe we can and need to have everything we want and that we can and need to have it now.
The American Economy, often touted as the strongest in the world, nearly collapsed a decade ago in large part because of irresponsible mortgage lending that allowed people to purchase homes they couldn’t really afford.
Today, the overwhelming amount of credit card debt is a consequence of people thinking they can purchase things on the basis of instant gratification rather than prudence in looking for the long term instead of the short-term.
Even student loans are being offered to people now to finance a version and vision of the future they cannot see and yet every year we are pumping out more young people with college degrees and insurmountable debt to a job market that doesn’t exist.
Saving now for then goes against the grains of our experience in ways that are confounding and continue to make things worse. But it can be done.
Experts will tout out a great number of programs and maxims and even proverbs to get people like us to start thinking about the long game economically. Things like you have to have a plan – something like the 80-10-10 rule: spend 80% of your income, save 10% and give away 10%.
This will feel like an impossible challenge for many of us because we are up to our necks in a culture that constantly encourages us to live beyond our income.
What keeps us from saving is often not the high cost of living, but the cost of high living.
There are simply things we don’t need that we think we need and we’ve largely lost the ability to discern the differences between wants and needs.
And part of the call to save all we can, as Christians, is also a witness to the fact that we save not just for ourselves, which also goes against everything else we’re told. It is a good thing for every person to ask themselves: Who will get all of this stuff when I’m gone? What kind of impact will what I have make on others? What can I invest in now that will live on long after I’m gone?
But we don’t ask ourselves those questions. Instead we live in this paradox in which we are so conditioned to only think about now that we are unable to think about later, or a time when we are no longer here.
And all of this, all that I’ve said on the subject, it doesn’t really feel like it has much to do with God. I mean, I know I referenced scripture, and I talked about Jesus, but just thinking about my words makes me feel like what you’ve received today would be better suited for a economic forum than the corporate worship of the great I AM.
But saving is God’s cup of tea.
Sure, God desires to save us in a way that is remarkably different than the call to save our finances for a day yet seen, but they are still linked to one another.
God is all about the long-game.
Think about the crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t waiting around on the cross hoping for instantaneous faith and instantaneous gratification before doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Jesus wasn’t waiting in the tomb on the first Easter measuring our fidelity before breaking forth into resurrected existence.
God sees potential in God’s creation in a frame of reference often beyond our ability to grasp. God believes in God’s people as a long term investment – it takes a lifetime of hearing about the goodness of grace before it really sticks.
But God keeps saving anyway. Even when things in the present scream the contrary, God keeps pouring out the Holy Spirit on a bunch of investments that no one in their right mind would put their money on. God does this because God is beyond time. God saves because that’s who God is.
For us tomorrow is never promised. That’s part of the wisdom that comes with discipleship – an immediacy of gratitude for the present. And yet, we worship a God who believes in seeing beyond what is here and now. The time has come for us to do the same. Amen.