The Wealth in our Wallets instead of the Well-being of the World

This afternoon I watched the United States join two nations… Syria and Nicaragua… in being the only three nations in the entire world that are no longer signers of the Paris Climate Accord.

As I listened to the justifications, what I heard over and over again was the mention of a few economic sectors that will be impacted negatively and are disadvantaged because we are choosing to prioritize a different future for the world.  Our President spoke about a drastic and unfair “redistribution of wealth” through the International Green Fund and how instead we need to put America First. His focus is solely on the wealth and wallets of the few, instead of the well-being of the many.

Well, if we are really going to put Americans first, perhaps we should think about all of these ways that Americans will be impacted if we do not make drastic changes to halt climate change.  The link is the official report of the National Climate Assessment and includes data from thirteen different U.S. government agencies.  The impacts include health, agriculture, energy, coastal migration, extreme weather, and are broken down by sector, region, and show the risks if we do nothing.

One of the most disheartening aspects of the argument to withdraw is that we need to stop worrying about other people and focus only on ourselves and what is best for ourselves. And yet, as I understand the Christian faith and my calling to live our the love of Jesus Christ in the world, my duty is to love my neighbor and to set free the oppressed and to care more for the well-being of others than I do myself.  Even if we stick with the idea that we, as Americans, are leaders in protecting the environment, the thought that we can just take care of ourselves without helping to bring others along doesn’t even find a home in scripture.  For as Jesus teaches the disciples in the gospel of Luke, we have been given this world as a gift and we are called to be its stewards.  “Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)

In this chapter filled with parables, we are called to remember the worth of even the sparrows, to guard ourselves against all greed, to sell our possessions and give to those in need, and to make wallets that won’t wear out.  And then, ironically, Jesus lifts up the fact that the crowds “know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky” (12:56).  We know when its going to rain or when a heat wave is coming.  Except, it appears that our government can’t see the conditions on the earth and in the sky.  We refuse to acknowledge our impact on the world around us.  We are willing to put our own personal gain above the well-being of the world.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.” – Luke 12:34

Lord, have mercy on us.

J&MES: Preparation & Opportunity

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We talk about preparation all the time.

Am I prepared for retirement?

Are we ready for school to start?

Are the teams ready for the rivalry game?

Or, the conversation around here lately… Are we prepared for Rally Day?

 

We want to be like those who seem to be the most prepared and we try to be part of that crowd by going to the best schools, practicing our hearts out with an instrument or a sport, working extra hours to get the big project done at work…

 

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity. (Seneca, ancient Roman philosopher)

LUCK is where PREPARATION meets OPPORTUNITY.

 

What kinds of opportunities are you preparing yourself for?

Are you seeking opportunities to serve God or yourself?

Are you seeking opportunities to be like Jesus, or the Joneses?

We might cry out that we will not forget God, that we will worship and honor Jesus, that all of our hearts yearn for God’s plans…

Yet what are we doing on a daily basis to prepare ourselves for God’s opportunities?

 

James writes his letter to the people of God because they have been so focused on:

what they want

and what they think

and what they believe that James no longer sees the word of God in their midst.

They have deceived themselves into thinking they were following God, when all of their preparations were merely distorting God’s word into something to suit their own needs.

And then… when God’s opportunities came along, they were not prepared.

Instead, they argued.

They argued about who was more important and who was right, rather than listening.

They argued about who was included and who could be forgotten, rather than reaching out.

They argued about how much time they had to put in and why it wasn’t their turn, rather than get their hands dirty.

And in doing so, they exchanged the gifts of peace and love for the desires and sin of this world.

 

You know what?  We have, too.

We teach our children they deserve to have everything regardless of the cost.

We are quick to judge when we encounter someone with different political viewpoint (ahem, or different sports team) and make assumptions about their intellect.

We walk right by the neediest around us and put a check in the mail to make ourselves feel better.

We spend our days working hard so we can have the finer things in life and then are too tired to enjoy them.

We use and abuse one another so we can get ahead.

We ask the question, “how will this help me?” more than “how can I help others?”

 

Those words do not describe a people, a church, a nation that is allowing the word of God to prepare them for opportunities to be like Jesus.

God doesn’t want us to strive to get ahead of each other… God wants us to sit down and fellowship with our neighbors.

God doesn’t want us to be first… God wants us to be servants.

 

So the question is… what kind of preparations should we make in order to be more like Jesus on a regular basis?

What can we do so that we are lucky enough to be prepared when opportunities come along?

 

In James 2: 1-6, and 3:13, we reminded to be humble. We are called to stop showing favoritism to the rich, and instead to honor the poor among us.

A spirit of humility helps us to recognize we are not God’s gift to this earth – but imperfect vessels that the word of God can transform.

Humility means that we treat the love of God as a gift, not something we deserve.

Humility means that we make ourselves low so others might be raised up.

Humility means that we put another before ourselves.

Humility means that we are quick to truly listen to what another person has to say before we butt in with our own thoughts and feelings.

And when we are humble, then we are also lucky enough to be prepared when someone in need crosses our path and we can help them with compassion and dignity.

 

James writes in chapter 4:1 that the source of our conflict is our cravings. He writes that we waste our energy and gifts on things that aren’t good for ourselves or others.

I keep thinking about all of the bad habits in our lives that are wasteful. The things that merely satisfy a craving and aren’t preparing us to be obedient and merciful and genuine.

What if (and this is one I’m guilty of) instead of wasting our time following celebrities on social media, we sought out role models who are making a difference in the world?

What if on Monday mornings we spent less time trash talking about who won the big game, and instead we shared an act of kindness with our “enemy”?

What if the gossip at lunch on Thursday afternoons was replaced with brainstorming ways to help out with a community problem?

What if we spent a few less hours watching television and spent a few more hours volunteering?

All of these daily habits can cause a subtle shift in our lives, so that we are lucky enough to be prepared… and have the time and energy to respond when God’s opportunities fall in our laps.

 

We also can prepare ourselves by changing where we store our treasures.

James 5:1 cautions the wealthy that misery is coming upon them… the more we have, the more we have to lose.

And in striving to be financially prepared for our future, we are hesitant to respond when we see genuine needs around us. We close off our hearts and homes and lives.

We often cling so tightly to our stuff, our issues, and our solutions that we can’t open our hands to receive the amazing and beautiful gifts of God.

Let go.  Open your hearts and your hands to welcome the word of God. And then live it out in every moment of your days to everyone you meet.

And when you do so, you will be able to embrace the riches of compassion and forgiveness, patience and joy, kindness and peace.

And we will also be in luck… because those treasures are exactly what we need when opportunities to be like Jesus come around.

 

This is a church full of doers and I know that so many of you work your tails off to be prepared, so that when the opportunities come around, and they do… you are prepared to take advantage of them.

We work so hard to get ahead.

But I want us to remind what James has to tell us about our preparations, in chapter 4:

“Pay attention, you who say, ‘today or tomorrow we will go to such-and-such a town. We will stay there a year, buying and selling, and make a profit.’ You don’t really know about tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for only a short while before it vanishes… Pay attention, you wealthy people! Weep and moan over the miseries coming upon you. Your riches have rotted. Moths have destroyed your clothes. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you.”

James is warning us to stop putting so much stock in our preparations.

He reminds us that when we seek our own opportunities, we tend to forget what God wants for us.

Every day, God gives us opportunities to be like Jesus, to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.

Are we prepared for what God has in store for us?

 

 

Willing to Yield

I want to start out this morning with a testimony… and I think it is very important that you understand this is not me preaching about what you should go out tomorrow and do… I am simply sharing what my experience of God was this past year.

That is an important qualification, because I’m going to be talking about money.  And talking about money makes a whole lot of us uncomfortable… but it is a part of our daily lives and it is an important part our words from James this morning.

And my testimony is this: For the first time in my life, this year I tithed to the church.

Now, I have always given to the church.  But for a long time, I made excuses about how much I should give.

When I was a teenager and had only part time jobs, I might have stuck a dollar or two in the offering plate – whatever pocket change I might have had that day.  It was the last of my money… not the best.

When I was in college, I did not attend a church regularly on Sundays, but worshipped on campus Wednesday nights – and no one asked for a financial contribution.  No one asked me to give, much less give sacrificially.

As a seminary student and an intern at a church, I was spending more money on school and travel than I was making and piling up debt.  I gave my time to the church and occasionally a few bucks as well.

And then I came here.  I came to be a pastor and I knew that I could not ask you, in good faith, to give faithfully to the church and to God,  if I was not also giving.  Having a steady paycheck for the first time in my life, I should have immediately started tithing.  But I didn’t.  I held back.  I looked at my student loans and a bit of debt from college… I looked at how much our cable bill was going to be… I thought about how we wanted to travel a bit… I knew that taxes would take a chunk of my wages… And so I started out small.  I gave to the church – but only a small portion.

And then, I became comfortable with that level of financial giving.  I knew I was doing God’s ministry in other ways and so I didn’t worry about it.

But one day a year or two ago, I was having a conversation with a friend, a fellow pastor, about the things that we cling to… the things we hold close and refuse to give to God.

I realized in the midst of that conversation that I had never willingly yielded my money to God.  There had been times when I had given out of guilt.  I have given because it was what I was supposed to do.  I have given out of habit as the offering place went around and each person in the pew pulled out a buck and dropped it in.  Sound familiar?

But never had I prayerfully thought about what God wanted me to give.  Never had I searched my heart to ask what I was willing to yield, what I was willing to joyfully give up in my life for the sake of our Lord and our church.

I started out last year by giving a much larger percentage on a regular basis… and this year, my heart led me to give a full 10% of my income to the church.

I joyfully give that money to God… and I have to tell you – I haven’t missed one cent.  I now give to the church first… the money comes out of my paycheck before it ever comes home with me.  I give God my first and my best, instead of the change in my pocket – instead of the leftovers from my own spending and desires.

I have been blessed through my giving.  No, I don’t have more money in the bank than when I started… but now I am reminded that the things that money buys – cable t.v. and new clothes and name-brand cereal don’t last.  What lasts is the kingdom of God.  What lasts is the word of God.  What lasts is the joy that I have found through letting go… through being willing to yield.

 

Now… I’m going to put my preacher hat back on.

Because we all have different places in our life where we have been unwilling to yield.  It might be money, like me, but it might be an addiction. For others the thing they grasp is their pride.  Some of us are unwilling to let go of our schedules or our desires.

Throughout the book of James, we get some harsh truths about what it means to live in Christian community.  On Labor Day weekend, we heard about the source of our conflict – pride and a lack of humility.  The next week we were reminded that rich and poor are all the same and we need to stop judging and stop loving.  Last week, we were dished up some truth about wisdom and speech… and our tendency to ignorance and cynicism.

In each message – we have been asked to let something go.  Our pride and the need to “be important”, our status and the desire to “be better”, our knowledge and the need to “be right”,  and today we are asked to let go of the material things we cling to and the stuff we seek out.  We need to let go of our desire to “be the joneses.”

As we read James… even though I have experienced the joy of willingly yielding and letting God have control of my money – I have to admit that each one of these admonitions still hits close to home for me also.   Each of these realities is something that I continue to struggle with, even as I know I am being faithful in some ways.

1)    Keeping up with the Joneses kills our souls

James is quite clear in chapter four that our desire to keep up with the ways of the world means that our heart has gone astray from God.  Familiar verse from the gospels reminds us– you cannot serve both God and money.  And so every time that we choose the things we want over the things of God, we have cheated on our Lord and Savior – we have been unfaithful.

It is hard to accept sometimes, but God cares about what you do and what you have.  If our gracious Lord and Savior makes sure that the birds of the air and the flowers of the field are taken care of… then he’s also working to make sure that you have enough – that you have abundant life.  But so often, we turn our backs on the life God has given us and want to be someone else and have other things.  Verse 5 reads: Doesn’t God long for our faithfulness in the life he has given us?

This life might not be perfect.  We might not have everything.  But Mother Theresa once said, “grow where you are planted.”  Don’t look over the fence at your neighbors and want what they have… gratefully give thanks every day for the gift of life and the wonderful things that are a part of yours.  When we humble ourselves before the Lord and give thanks for who we were created to be, God is right there, ready to lift us up.

2)    Keeping up with the Joneses is killing other people

James chapter 4 starts with the hard truth that war and conflict comes from our desire to have what we don’t have and our desire to keep what is already ours.  As he says in verse two:  “You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder.  You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight.”

That reality is lived out on our newspapers and television programs every single day.  Bank robberies and drug related shootings.  Civil wars in far off countries about the precious resources of those places.  Jealous acts of violence enacted towards someone for cheating or stealing a person you loved from your life.

But there is a quiet hidden reality to these verses that we are not always ready to admit to – a truth that needs to be confessed about ourselves.  The things that we have in this world – everyday, ordinary things that we buy and use and dispose of… our desire to have those things is killing people, too.

Take my cell phone, for example.  This summer, I dropped my phone and cracked the screen.  So I upgraded to something new.  My husband upgraded at the same time, even though his old phone was just fine. But within these simple devices are resources and minerals that you can’t find everywhere.  In fact, the tin inside of these devices that are used to solder the metal parts together is mined mostly in Indonesia and China.  I read recently about one province in Indonesia, two little islands where nearly half of the tin for cell phones comes from.

The tin mining industry has devastated these two little islands.  The mining is done in shallow pits and these pits cover the island – thousands and thousands of pits dotting the ground.  Most of this mining is done by hand, rather than machine and it is not a regulated industry.  Small groups of men, often boys, work in these pits and scrape the walls by hand.

The reporter who visited the sites had this to say:  “these dangerous pits – the walls literally just collapse and bury people alive.  In one week, while I was on BangkaIsland, there were six men and actually a boy, a 15-year-old, who were buried alive in these pit collapses…”

My heart broke when I heard that story… how our demand for smart-phones and tablets has caused an industry to explode without regulation or safety and that people are dying so that I can have 3G. Our relationship with God and our command to love our neighbor means that we need to think carefully about the purchases we make in this world.  We need to pray before we buy something.  And we need to be informed about the far reaching impact of the things we want.

3)    Keeping up with the Joneses doesn’t get us anything but fat and dead

We are often so focused on the things that we want today, that we do not stop to think about the far reaching implications of the stuff we accumulate.

As Brandon and I start to pack up our house, we have tons of things that we do not need and will never use.  We are busting at the seams with cheap trinkets and clothes that no longer fit and craft supplies we don’t have time to use. It has been a reminder that we have abundantly blessed… and so we are taking this opportunity to share and donate and repurpose some of what we have been given.

The reality is that the stuff we have will not last forever.  And we won’t be alive to enjoy it forever.

As James continues in chapter five, the wealthy get one final harsh warning.  In this translation from The Message, I want to invite you to hear these words… remembering that we are each wealthier than 75% of this world:

Your money is corrupt and your fine clothes stink. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in your gut, destroying your life from within. You thought you were piling up wealth. What you’ve piled up is judgment.

4-6 All the workers you’ve exploited and cheated cry out for judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of the Master Avenger. You’ve looted the earth and lived it up. But all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse

All you’ll to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse.

The old adage says, you can’t take it with you… and its true.  Our time here on earth is short and piling on pleasures and wants and desires doesn’t get us anything but a house full of stuff that someone else is going to have to sort through.

James’s advice for us: remember that you are nothing but a mist that vanishes with the sunlight.  Remember that you are nothing but grass that withers and a flower that fades.  What good is all of the wealth in the world when tomorrow you are gone?

 

Let’s take a deep breath.  Because we can hear these harsh words and they cut straight to our core. We might want to give everything away when we go home because we feel so guilty.

But I need you to hear this.

God does not want your money, if he doesn’t have your heart.

God doesn’t have any use for your stuff, if he can’t have your soul.

God doesn’t care about the things that you own… even if they could be used to help other people… unless you are willing to give him your life.

 

Let us prayerfully ask about what God wants us to yield.  Let us joyfully and freely give – not because we have to, but because we want to.  And let us join with Christ in the world along paths “the Joneses” don’t often travel