This week we look at whether the outer expressions of what we do align with who we want to be as followers of Jesus and as this outpost of the church. Are we creating the impact for which we hope? Or are we at least moving in that direction? When our practices—no matter how incremental or seemingly simple—are serving the vision, we live with a sense of wholeheartedness and wonder that energizes us, those around us, and the world. We “truly live,” our scripture says.
In our worship series we are continuing to draw things from the film It’s a Wonderful Life.” We will be highlighting the characters of Peter Bailey (George’s father), George Bailey, and Mr. Potter. The difference between the Baileys and the Potters of the world show themselves both in their inner and outer worlds. Do we harvest love and generosity or bitterness and resentment? In the movie, we start with George’s father Peter. He refuses to foreclose on mortgages when the people fall on hard times, and he confronts the mean-spirited Mr. Potter by saying:
Voice of Peter Bailey: “Mr. Potter, what makes you such a hard-skulled character? You have no family, no children. You can’t begin to spend all the money you’ve got.”
And George himself later reminds Mr. Potter that how we share with others is where true riches lie:
Voice of George Bailey: “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about … they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book, he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.”
In our scripture today we do not hear that it is evil to have money, but that what we do with that money is what makes us rich or not. Let us prepare our hearts to hear the Word. This week we are in 1 Timothy 6:17-19. I will be reading it from the Common English Bible translation.
Hear the word of the Lord.
[Paul says:] 17 Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. 19 When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life.
Mr. Potter and the Baileys are great examples for us this week. While Mr. Potter may be the person in the city that has the most money, the Baileys are by no means poor. Father Peter and son George both made a very comfortable living at the Bailey Building and Loan. Peter raised his family in a large well-furnished house where Mother had to worry whether son Harry was going to take the best china dishes to his high school graduation party. I probably would have sent him with paper plates. The point here is that there is nothing saying that affluence or wealth is a sin. Nor, is being poor a sin. It is about attitude. In either economic state you can have an attitude of being at the center of the universe. Likewise, anyone can be generous and giving, people who spread light and life wherever they go.
Money doesn’t buy happiness though poverty can buy distress. However, it is an interesting thing. When people come back from mission trips to the poorer places in the world, they almost invariably talk about the generosity in the hospitality of the local people with their food, resources, and even money.
I would find that very difficult. I still struggle with the scarcity mentality. When I was poor, I didn’t feel generous. I felt desperate. Yet, I was not a Christian then. Would that have made a difference? I don’t know. I didn’t worship the Unholy Trinity that I mentioned last week of: me, myself, and I, but I did think that the only people I could go to were me, myself, and I. Perhaps, that is one of the benefits of community, especially our Christian community. You don’t have to feel like you have to go it alone. Perhaps, it’s the strength of the community that helps the special people I mentioned earlier to be so generous, but I digress.
While Jesus invited one rich man to give away all of this possessions and follow him (Mt 19:21), Jesus also had patrons supporting him and his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). In the past, it was common for wealthy people to use their money to build schools, hospitals, and even churches. It still happens, but we don’t hear about it as much these days. There are endowments set up for scholarships or to sponsor faculty positions at universities. These days, we are more likely to hear about funds being raised on the internet through Kickstarter or GoFundMe. There, many people can contribute various amounts to support all kinds of projects. These people are all serving as the patrons of today.
It’s all less a question of whether one is rich or not. It is more about attitude. In the film, Mr. Potter uses his resources to bring people down and pump himself up. Whereas George uses his resources to give people a helping hand and even remember their better natures.
On the original Black Friday in 1929, when the stock market crashed, there was a run on the bank (as there were many in real life). In the film, there was also a run on the Building and Loan. George convinced the depositors at the Building and Loan to leave the bulk of their investment there, instead of bankrupting the institution that was helping people buy their own homes. Because of his generosity and earnestness with them in the past, they decided that they could trust him despite their fear and panic.
Mr. Potter sees the worst in people, whereas George and his father sees the potential in people. It is the way that God sees people, not as they are but rather as who they will become. On the night that Jesus was arrested, all of his closest disciples deserted him. His most outspoken student denied him three times. Did God decide to cut them loose as unsuitable? No, God already knew who they were, and God knew who they would become, people who would spread the Good News of salvation.
How do we nurture that attitude within ourselves? We practice, even if it is a little bit at a time. The title of this sermon is “Looking Out.” It could mean looking out into the world, out of our relatively small group of people here and out into our community. It could also mean who are we looking out for? How do we balance our need to care for our own well-being and also look out to the bigger picture? Are we looking out for #1: me, myself, and I? Or, is it more than that? Do we want to help others prosper as well as ourselves.
We can hear that word “prosperity” a lot these days, especially when it comes to the church. Have any of you heard of the “prosperity gospel”? While some of the proponents of this can sound very positive, the message is that if you give enough and pray hard enough, you will receive financial security and good health.
However, if we look at the origin of the word “prosperity” it comes from the Latin word prosperare, which literally means “to cause to succeed” or “to render happy.” That encompasses so much more than money. Whether we are wealthy, or not so wealthy, we can participate in the prosperity, we can take a hold of what our Scripture calls, “what is truly life.” Or as the New International Version puts it, “[You] may take hold of the life that is truly life.” What does that mean? That we are living the abundant life of the Kingdom of God, rather than the life of scarcity that we find in the present age.
But what about this assertion from Paul that those who are “generous and willing to share … will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age”? (1 Tim 6:18-19) Is that people buying a better place in heaven? NT Wright says, “The New Testament is clear from start to finish that the eventual goal of [our faith journey] will be in accordance with the life we have led … We are commanded to live our lives in accordance with the new world we have already entered by faith” (NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters, pg 79).
Therefore, if we are poor we are to live faithfully in that life, which is not to say that we cannot try to better our circumstance. However, what is required of us will be different from that of those of us who are more affluent. Paul’s command to “be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others,” actually applies to every member of the community in their own way. (Chelsey Harmon, “Commentary: 1 Timothy 6:6-19”, Center for Excellence in Preaching, pg 1)
Good deeds and generosity are the things that Christians are supposed to be known for, not that this is what people hear about the most these days. Christianity is one of the only if not the only world religion where you are not required to perform specific things in order to be saved. The grace of salvation by God is a free gift. No strings attached. The word that is translated as “grace” comes from the Greek word for gift.
There is, however, an expectation that as we move forward in our lives with God that we will do good and be generous, not because we have to but because we want to. As the Holy Spirit continues to transform us, the more we will realize that our life and everything that we have are not our own. Therefore, we will want to support and help people that God loves … which means everybody, regardless of whether we consider them worthy. It is not for us to decide.
A friend of our church stopped by this week. I hadn’t seen him in a while. He had asked us for some help with a bill a few years back. Back then, he wasn’t in a head space that allowed him to be grateful. He was desperate. His focus was on his immediate need. Thankfully, we were able to help. It was good. The help we provided was not extravagant, but it was what he asked for. Now, he comes back as a different person. He’s full of love and gratitude. He’s generous. He wants to give back. We were just one step on a long road, but it made a difference. You made a difference. Because of your generosity, we can be a place of refuge for people.
In 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul writes, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” That’s what we are … seed planters and waterers. But, as many of you know, seed and irrigation costs.
As a church, we try to be good stewards of the resources that you provide. Like George Bailey, we want to use those resources to lift people up and help show them where God is working in their lives. We’re not trying to make money here, so we live very close to the margin. That’s why we need your help. You have been so generous in the past for which I thank you deeply. I hope that you will continue to be equally generous as we move into 2020.
Next week, you will have the opportunity to pledge your financial support of the ministries of Joseph UMC for next year. There are so many pieces of the puzzle. There is your active participation in those ministries. One of those pieces is financial. I ask you to pray and consider what you can do to help us continue to be a beacon of hope to this community, a place where people can feel safe to come for sanctuary, be it from the brokenness they see in the world or the brokenness they see in their own lives.
As I have mentioned before, the church is like a hospital. It is not a place where perfected people gather. It is where the broken and injured come to get better. The people of the congregation are also, along with the Holy Spirit, the doctors and nurses of this spiritual hospital. That means that we will have good days and bad days. We will make mistakes some days and come through in wonderfully unexpected ways on others. Then, we can move forward together as people who love the Lord and want to get better. That will allow us to go out and share that Good News with other people in our world.
No matter how broken you feel. No matter how hurt you have been, God has a place for you. Hey, if God will take me in my brokenness, God will take you.
Last week, I said that there are so many individual people we help every day, but we rarely see their faces. That is something I would like to change. Let’s meet the people. Let’s see them, not merely as statistics on a piece of paper, but as the flesh and blood people made in the image of God that they are. Let’s be more than a cold beacon. Let’s be a church that is in the lives of the people around us and in our midst.
It can’t happen with me just wishing and hoping. It takes all of us to do it, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Please, help us do that!
Remember, after worship next week when we collect the pledge cards, we will have a celebration Harvest Love Feast. Whether you pledge or not, I especially invite you to be there.