November 15, 2015
Proclamation by George Betz, Interim Pastor
Texts: Malachi 3:6-10; Matthew 6:19-21; 24; II Corinthians 8:1-15
There is an imp in me that leaps out at the most unexpected times. On a Saturday afternoon in May, 1980, I stood in the pastor's study after officiating at a wedding of two recent Wharton Business School MBAs. The groom reached into his tuxedo pocket, pulled out a checkbook, and said, “HOW MUCH? . . . HOW MUCH DO I OWE YOU FOR THE WEDDING SERVICE?”
I responded, “There is no set fee. It's your decision.” He responded. “Reverend, you did a great job! So come on . . . how much do I owe you? I told him...again, “THERE IS NO SET FEE FOR MY SERVICES.”
He continued to press me. He asked, a third time, “COME ON, REVEREND, GIVE ME AN IDEA...GIVE ME SOME GUIDANCE...OF HOW MUCH I SHOULD GIVE YOU. HOW MUCH? HOW MUCH?” He had pushed me to the max, so I responded.
“TELL YOU WHAT: GIVE ME WHATEVER YOUR BRIDE IS WORTH TO YOU!” That groom almost fell on the floor. He wrote out a check to me. And the amount on that check --- almost knocked me on the floor!
During this season of stewardship emphasis, People of faith and integrity are asking...“HOW MUCH? HOW MUCH SHOULD I GIVE? HOW MUCH IS EXPECTED OF ME? HOW MUCH SHOULD I PUT DOWN ON MY PLEDGE CARD? How much should I give to God and God's work in and through this congregation?” These are honest questions. These are important questions. These are questions of . . . people who care.
This morning...I want to speak to you heart-to-heart, pastor-to-people --- about money. It is impossible to preach the Gospel faithfully without addressing the issue of money and faith. This may surprise some of you, but Jesus had more to say about money and possessions than He had to say about repentance...or Evangelism...or heaven or hell. One sixth of the Gospel materials deal with money matters. Over one third of Jesus' parables address the issue of money and possessions. MONEY MATTERS WERE EXPLICITLY TAUGHT BY JESUS ---- BECAUSE MONEY DOES MATTER!
Over 40 years of pastoral ministry, I have noticed that most of my pastoral colleagues absent themselves from the financial concerns of the congregation. Money is off limits. For many, it is the 'elephant in the room'. A church finance chairman said to me early in my ministry: “Reverend, you concentrate on spiritual matters...and we'll take care of the finances.” (That church's financial situation was on the critical list and getting worse!) A pastor from a neighboring Presbytery told me a few weeks ago, “I hate the annual 'beg-athon'” - referring to his church's Fall stewardship campaign. When I hear a statement like this, I cringe. Why? Strong pastoral leaders NEVER beg for money! Strong pastoral leaders don't beg for God. Unfortunately, many do. A pastoral colleague in a neighboring Presbytery said to me, “Church finances are one area in which I don't like to be involved. A person's giving to the church is that person's private concern with God. It's not my business, and I don't want to bias my ministry, or even give such an appearance of bias, based upon a member's giving...or lack of it.”
This approach can be described with four words: It is NAIVE. It is OSTRICH-LIKE. It is UNBIBLICAL. And it is blatantly IRRESPONSIBLE! By absenting himself/herself from the financial stewardship aspects of a church's life . . . a pastor sends a message loud and clear: And that message is: MONEY IS NOT SACRED ENOUGH...OR SPIRITUAL ENOUGH...OR IMPORTANT ENOUGH ---- TO DEAL WITH and ADDRESS.
The Bible shows us a far different and candid approach to money matters. Malachi had no qualms about being upfront and candid about money issues. Give less than 10% and you are robbing God! In our Second Corinthians text, Paul states explicitly that the pastoral leadership of the church is to exercise an active role...a necessary role...in financial matters. And this is the message to me: IT IS A FOLLY FOR ME AS YOUR PASTOR TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT EVERY ASPECT OF YOUR SPIRITUAL, RELATIONAL, FAMILY AND PROFESSIONAL LIVES ---- AND IGNORE OR AVOID THE ISSUE OF YOUR STEWARDSHIP OF MONEY!
Having stated how the Bible instructs me to lead in your stewardship of God's money...and ultimately it IS God's money . . . let me lay out some bottom line ROCK SOLID principles.
I. Let me begin with Jesus. He says, “YOU CANNOT SERVE GOD AND MONEY. WHERE YOUR TrEASURE IS, THERE WILL YOUR HEART BE ALSO!” An interesting word. And stay with me on this. Jesus could have said...”Where your heart is...is where your money will go!” But he said the opposite. Why? He is saying with stark candor that MONEY and how you spend it ---- reveals where your heart is! Your heart...follows the money!
This past week, I came across an interesting article on aging and heart disease. A recent study suggests that our faces reveal things about the health of our hearts. Two signs were noted: Puffiness around the eyes is a sign of potential problems. And a receding hairline in both women and men indicate problems. Apply this to our stewardship of money: Where and how we spend our money is a strong indicator of where our hearts are. Where our priorities are. What is important to us. What our love for and commitment to God and God's purposes is all about.
Do any of you remember the old Robert Hall Clothing stores? The commercials were memorable. One was, “Select...don't settle --- at Robert Hall.” But the best one was, “Bring your cash to Robert Hall. MONEY TALKS AND NOBODY WALKS!” Friends: Our money does talk! Loud and clear. Money says more about our faith, our commitment, and our theology –- than our professions of faith and verbal utterances of our love of God! What does our monetary giving . . . say about the condition of our hearts?
The way in which we give...what we give to --- is the strongest indicator of the degree to which our heart is inclined toward God! And here is a principle of effective monetary stewardship: WIN THE HEART . . . AND YOU WIN THE CHECKBOOK! Until a person's heart is changed --- that person will remain a meager giver!
II. A Second guideline for Biblical giving is: GIVE IN A WAY, A STYLE, THAT COSTS YOU SOMETHING. You heard me correctly! King David said this: “I WILL NOT RENDER UNTO THE LORD THAT WHICH COSTS ME NOTHNG!” (II Samuel 24:24) Rick Warren wrote in a pastor's newsletter: “MINISTRY THAT COSTS NOTHING---ACCOMPLISHES
NOTHING!” Where did we ever get the idea that being a follower of Jesus is cheap and easy and makes no demands? Yes...the Health, Wealth and Prosperity preachers are preaching this pablum...but this is NOT the Gospel! Real Christianity...authentic Biblical Christianity... COSTS. IT WILL COST YOU YOUR LIFE --- AT THE SAME TIME IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE! You can't follow Jesus and be His disciple . . . on the cheap!
Accepting Biblical stewardship as a way of life means having a whole new way of looking at your paycheck...your allowance...or your pension check. Question --- and I am moving from preaching to meddling . . . : What is the first thing that comes out of that check? IS IT FOR GOD...OR YOURSELF...or something else?
I grew up in an affluent area in North Jersey. Please note: I was not affluent. I was raised by a single widowed Mom who was a secretary. Many members of my home church in Caldwell were affluent and upwardly mobile. Many were attempting to outdo one another on the upwardly mobile ladder. I think you get the picture. Very similar to many people living in Millstone. In a message preached over thirty years ago to that congregation, my father-in-law noted in a sermon: “SO MANY PEOPLE ARE USING THEIR PAYCHECKS TO KEEP UP WITH THE PROVERBIAL JONESES. DO YOU KNOW WHERE THEY ARE GOING? HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE WITH THE JONES A HUNDRED YEARS FROM NOW! . . . The aim of the Christian life is not to keep up with the Joneses . . . BUT TO KEEP UP WITH CHRIST AND HIS KINGDOM AND TO BE SURE IT NEVER BOGS DOWN! In the stewardship of money --- are you attempting to impress the Joneses--- or please God? Your answer makes all the difference in your life!”
III. Point three, and let me make this point by asking a question: “Why do you give, and what is your motivation for giving?” John D. Rockefeller observed that people give for two reasons: Either because they believe the cause is worthy and will pay dividends in human betterment, or --- because a sense of duty impels them.
The Gospel of Jesus moves us beyond duty, and calls us to what the Bible calls, “the GRACE OF LIBERALITY”. The Apostle Paul reminds us that God loves a cheerful giver, a person who gives graciously with winsome abandon. Giving for this person is pure joy! It's not surprise...you will notice...that those people who give most generously of their time and their money --- ARE THOSE PEOPLE FOR WHOM THE CHURCH IS MOST MEANINGFUL. THOSE PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN TOUCHED AND CHANGED BY GOD'S AMAZING GRACE.
I am talking about the “GRACE DYNAMIC” at work. Your pledge of money is a response to God's grace --- YET...GOD DOES NOT ASK THAT YOU DRIVE YOURSELF INTO PROVERTY. Listen to Paul's practical instruction: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of faithful balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need in order that there be a fair balance..” (II Corinthians 8:13, 14) Paul is calling for equitable sharing. He's also lifting up a principle. Namely, GIVE...AND GOD PROVIDES.” Such is the genius of God's economy! In the realm of money...God is fair! The issue is . . . DO WE TRUST GOD?
Let me close with a true story that continues to inspire me, haunt me, and humble me.
Bill Taaffe was a member of the Session in the church I served in Maplewood. He was also a Senior Editor at Sports Illustrated Magazine. On the first Friday in November, 1990, Bill came home with a pink slip. In a major shake-up at Sports Illustrated...Bill had lost his job. There would be no severance pay. He called me that same Friday evening to give me the bad news. The following Saturday morning, I paid a call on Bill and his wife, Donna. They were devastated . . . for obvious reasons. They were facing a scary financial future. At one point in our conversation, I said to Bill: “Bill...I want you to consider backing off on your giving to the church. If needed, cease ALL your giving. The Session will understand. I understand.” He and Donna thanked me for the offer. We prayed together and I left.
A week later was Stewardship Dedication Sunday. Bill and Donna came forward to present their pledge. The pledge card read: “A tithe of my unemployment.” A week after Thanksgiving, our Session took up an offering for Bill and Donna. And on the second Sunday in Advent...we presented them with a check in the amount of $4800.00. Was I proud of that Session? You better believe it! This is what Sessions do for one another. This is what Christians do for one another.
Bill remained unemployed until March of the following year. He continued to give 10% of his unemployment income to the church. And then the good news: He landed a job as the Chief Travel Editor of the New York Times . . . at a salary far greater than he was earning at Sports Illustrated. With the good news, Bill asked for a new pledge card –- and began to tithe on his new increased income!
Draw your own conclusions about the spiritual integrity of Bill Taaffe. And think more:
What would happen if 30 members of THIS congregation followed the lead of Bill Taaffe? Instantly, overnight – we would experience a stewardship reformation! Think of the possibilities! Think of that 'glass half full'! Think of what will happen . . . with a cadre of people re-committed to God and God's purposes . . . ! And friends --- IT CAN HAPPEN!
The question is: Will it happen? You must decide.
I will close with this long-held belief. A long-held conviction: God is faithful. God is 100% faithful. And God honors the faith . . . and FAITHFULNESS of His people.
The issue is . . . for every one of us in this congregation: Do we trust God? Really trust God!
Will we trust God's faithfulness as we think about our discipleship . . . our membership . . . our faith . . . our commitment . . . our spiritual integrity . . . the promises we've made to God and one another . . . and ultimately ---- our love?
Confession . . .
I am a baby boomer in serous denial. I have a difficult time admitting . . . that I am a senior citizen. It pains me to admit I cannot do the things I did 30 years ago. I used to run 3-5 miles a day. (Now...I walk 2-3 miles every other day.) 20 years ago, I climbed 40 feet up into trees for the purpose of pruning them. (Now...it's a huge challenge to clean my gutters.) I remain a party-animal. However, things are different. 30 Years ago...I partied with my friends till the wee hours of the morning . . . often seeing the sun rise! (Now...I like to get into bed before 11:45!) Last Fall, while getting into our sailboat...I over-extended my hamstring muscle in my left leg –-- and it took two months to heal! Ouch! I try to minimize my 'senior anxiety' by saying I am getting 'older' –- NOT –-- getting 'old'. But the anxiety is not assuaged!
When I turned 65 some time ago, I took a vital and youthful 87 year-old friend and colleague out to lunch to seek his wisdom, counsel and advise. I asked him: “What's your secret of staying so young, vital, and productive?” His response was pastoral, practical and prophetic. He said,
“A person gets old when he ceases to stay active, keep thinking,
keep growing, and keep serving. So, I make it my mission to stay
active, keep thinking, keep growing, and keep serving!”
This...let me suggest...is not only a strong and practical 'word' for individuals.
It is a strong and practical 'word' for churches . . . this church . . . The United Presbyterian Church of Millstone. Fact: The majority of our people are seniors. But our challenge is this: NOT to act old! But to be...and act...young! Recall the words of my friend...again... and insert 'church' for 'person':
“A church gets old when it ceases to stay active, keep thinking,
keep growing, and keep serving.”
So . . . my fellow seniors and seniors to-be: Let us make a decision be young and stay young by wrestling with these questions... and...coming up with some real live answers:
(1) How are we as a church staying active . . . and moving toward a BIG vision?
(2) How...and where...are we thinking BIG --- and thinking 'outside the box'?
(3) How are we growing in our faith...as individuals...and a Community of Disciples?
(4) How are we becoming a stronger group of of servants –- one to another and the larger Millstone Community?
Fact: We are all getting older . . . all of us! This is the reality for 21 year-olds. It is the reality for 72 year-olds. But the good news is: We don't have to be old and act old!
From the Interim Pastor's Study . . .
Churches . . . all kinds of churches . . . ask all kinds of questions. Let me lift up some common ones I have heard over my years in pastoral ministry.
“What do we need to do in order to grow?”
Better question: “What do we need to do in order to become healthy and strong?”
“What do we need to do in order to survive?”
Better question: “What do we need to do in order to THRIVE?”
“What do we need to do in order to pay our bills and stay 'in the black'?”
Better question: “What do we need to do in order to grow faithful stewards?”
“How do we get more people into our church so we can pay our bills?”
Better question: “What are the real needs of the people God wants us to reach
and how can we address those needs?”
“How do we get more members and grow our membership roll?”
Better question: “How do we make and grow faithful disciples of Jesus?”
“What do we need to do in order to attract people and not push them away?”
Better question: “What do we need to do in order to be faithful in our
calling, our witness, ministry and mission --- and give God cause for joy?”
“How can we maintain the status quo and not rock the boat and alienate people?”
Better question: “How do we move faithfully toward God's future...and...
become the church God is calling us to become?”
Dear friends and colleagues in ministry . . . I encourage you to think on these questions.
And, as always . . . talk with me. I am listening. We're in this together . . . all of us!
From the Interim Pastor's Study . . .
What a great bunch of people! Of course, I am referring to the people of UPCM! I can't believe I have been with you for one month already. Yes . . . time flies when you are having fun. And . . . I am having fun. Ministry in your midst is a joy...as well as a privilege. And yes . . . you are a gift from God to me. God's call to serve you and lead you is God's word to me: Betz, I still have much work for you. Be on with it.
As I anticipate our life and work together during the interim period, let me lift up four realities we face as we think about our common ministry. Presbyterian pastor and spiritual director John Ackerman lists four things people are seeking.
The Reality of God.
People are yearning for and finding what women and men found in the Great Awakening: A vital personal relationship with the living God. Too often people do not find this in their local churches. The normal parish may focus is on one style of spirituality such as Cursillo, prayer groups, or social action, but few encourage a variety of spiritual approaches that suit the heart-felt needs of a wide range of people. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work.
People want to find God in the company and community of other seekers --- often in an informal setting that includes people of all ages. This happens when people commit themselves to be together in small groups. (See Acts 2:42)
Empowerment to find God.
People need to be empowered to find their own pathway to God. For too long churches have been more concerned with running programs than with helping people...people in the church and people they are trying to reach beyond the church...find and follow the direction of God. People need specific help for their personal spiritual growth. Churches need to move from a Christian education paradigm...to spiritual transformation paradigm. People need to talk about how they can find God's call and God's presence in their jobs and relationships.
An Inclusive Spirituality.
People are looking for a broad, inclusive approach to spirituality that is more than “Jesus and me.” Yes, they want close intimacy with God, but increasingly people want transparent relationships with their spouses and a few close friends. They also desire a theological stance that is open to people of other faiths...Evangelism that has more to do with “sharing their stories” than with clobbering people over the head.
Let us work...together...to address these four realities in everything we are and do! And let's have a a whole lot of fun in the process!