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