Winston Churchill famously said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” There’s a fair amount of theology packed into that sentiment. Theology that’s an excellent starting point as we begin our annual stewardship campaign.
Each year, around this time of year, churches everywhere, and certainly Methodist Churches similar to ours, begin to turn their attention to the coming year of ministry. Finance Committees begin to plan — and sometimes to fret — about budgets. Pastors preach sermons on financial stewardship. Stewardship Committees mail out stewardship packets, asking people to make Financial Commitments (or pledges) for the coming year. And all of this is very important work, work without which the ministries of the church would not be possible.
But there is an unintended — and extremely misleading — consequence of the way we typically approach budgeting and stewardship. Namely, it often leads us to assume, inaccurately and unfortunately, that these two concepts are so interrelated as to be almost equivalent. Which is to say, it’s easy to begin to think that the point of our personal generosity is to fund the church budget. When in fact, the church’s budget is simply the practical result of our personal financial stewardship.
In other words, our giving is about our relationship with God and our commitment to Christ. Our giving is entirely unrelated to the church’s budget. The church’s responsibility is to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to it, to be sure. Our responsibility as disciples is to be good stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to us.
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Yes, there is the practical matter of money. But there are much bigger questions of meaning and purpose. Too often, we confuse the two. And when we do, we’re on shaky ground indeed.
[Mosaic — Title Slide]
So as we begin our three-week stewardship campaign for the 2018 year of ministry, yes, there are budgets being worked on by the appropriate staff and lay leaders of our congregation. Yes, you will be receiving a stewardship packet explaining the many ministries here at First Methodist Sherman. And yes, you will be asked to make a financial commitment on Commitment Sunday, October 22nd.
But this year, you will not find a proposed budget in your stewardship mailing. Because our personal generosity as followers of Christ is not about the church’s needs. It’s about growing in our discipleship. It’s about deepening our faith through intentionality in our giving. It’s about our response to God on our walk with Christ.
To accompany this sermon series, we’re doing a church-wide study on the book Shiny Gods by Mike Slaughter. Some of our Sunday School classes are studying it. Pastor Sam is offering a study on the main campus during the Sunday School hour. Abbey Echols is offering the study at Mosaic at 11am. We have copies of the book available for purchase if you’d like to do the reading on your own. And I hope everyone will participate in one of these ways as we think deeply as a community of faith about this vital component of our spiritual lives.
Because as Mike Slaughter points out, Jesus talked about money more than any topic other than faith. In fact, 16 of his 38 parables — more than 40% — are about money or possessions. And Jesus is simply building on the tradition of our salvation history. Because teachings on personal generosity begin with the story of Abraham, were codified in the Law of Moses, and were a consistent theme throughout the Hebrew scriptures, long before Jesus made them a focus of his ministry.
This morning, we’re going to turn to a famous story from the Book of Exodus. To set the stage, God has delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, miraculously led them through the parted waters of the Red Sea, given them food and water in the desert, and led them to Mount Sinai to receive the Law of the covenant. They have heard, among other commandments, very clear instructions against worshipping other gods (Ex 20:3-4, 23), and they have promised to keep the covenant (24:3).
Then Moses goes up the mountain to get final instructions from God. Exodus tells us Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights (24:18). And while he’s up there, the people get antsy…
[Read Exodus 32:1-14]
Idolatry is worshipping, or trusting, or placing our faith in something other than God. The first two of the Ten Commandments deal with this particular sin, and our passage this morning is the first example of it in our faith history. But only the first example. The rest of the Old Testament is full of examples of God’s faithful turing to idols.
In fact, our passage this morning is not the only Golden Calf story in our faith history. A few hundred years after the first Golden Calf incident, a king named Jeroboam led the northern kingdom in secession from Judah. Needing a religious symbol for his people in the absence of the ark of the covenant, which remained in Jerusalem, Jeroboam erected two golden calves — one each at the temples in Dan and Bethel. We read that story in 1 Kings (12:25-33). Jeroboam even uses the same phrase from our passage: “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28).
But golden calves are only the most glaring example of idolatry. Not only have God’s people made for themselves other physical idols, there are plenty of metaphorical idols that God’s people struggle with. And these are perhaps more insidious, because they’re more subtle.
In Shiny Gods, Mike Slaughter offers a pretty good working definition of an idol — “anything, or anyone, that receives the primary focus of my energy or resources, which should first belong to God.” It’s important for us, as followers of Christ, to identify and name the idols in our lives. We’ll come back to this point shortly.
Earlier in Exodus we read that when the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, they see a cloud covering the mountain. They see lightning. They hear a trumpet, and then they hear God’s voice, speaking to them what we know as the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol…” (20:2-4). There was more, of course, but this is the relevant part for our passage this morning. And the people had responded, “Sounds good, God! It’s a deal!” And then Moses went up the mountain for a few weeks…
“Why’s Moses been gone so long?,” they demand. “How can we survive out here without God?,” they wonder. So they demand that Aaron give them something to worship that they can see and touch, a tangible assurance of the presence of the divine. Aaron does not seem to put up much of an argument, desiring to give them what they think they need. But he’s also ambivalent about it, declaring a festival to the Lord to be celebrated in the presence of this idol.
The irony here, what neither the people nor Aaron realize, is that on the mountain, God is giving Moses instructions for the ark and the tabernacle, which is the tent that houses the ark. In other words, God is making provision for this need the people have for a tangible presence of God. They don’t know it, but God is giving Moses the plans for precisely the thing that the people are demanding. As God had done throughout their journey so far, and will continue to do for God’s people throughout our salvation history, God is providing. But as they have shown time and time again, and as they will show time and time again, the people of God are impatient and lacking in trust.
The symbol of the bull was associated with the Canaanite gods El and Baal, as well as with a cow-goddess in Egypt named Hathor. With Aaron and the Israelites, as with Jeroboam and the northern kingdom several centuries later, it’s unclear whether the people were somehow associating the bull image with God or worshipping a false god altogether. Either way, their trust is misplaced.
So it is with God’s people in all times and in all places, I think. Whether we’re conscious of it or not. Whether we realize we’re making an idol or something or not. Whether it’s a choice we’re making, or we’re just going along with the crowd or with the culture. An idol is “anything, or anyone, that receives the primary focus of my energy or resources, which should first belong to God.” And idolatry is poisonous to our spiritual health.
Let’s finish the text…
[Read Exodus 32:15-24]
When our son Sam was little, Whitney made cupcakes one day. To keep both the boys and the dog from getting them before dinner, she put them in the microwave for safekeeping.
Well, she was doing something in another part of the house when she heard a chair being drug across the kitchen floor. An experienced mom, she was pretty sure she knew what was going on. So she tiptoed to the kitchen doorway and waited for the next sound.
When she heard the microwave door pop open, she walked into the kitchen and startled our youngest child. “Sam, what are you doing?”
“I just looking!” He said. (Actually, he was still working on his “L’s” — “I just wooking!” He said.)
That’s what I think of when I read about Moses confronting his little brother.
After intervening with God on behalf of the people, Moses is understandably irritated. He comes down the mountain and smashes the stone tablets containing the covenant. This is a symbolic way of declaring it null and void.
Then he confronts his brother — “Aaron, what are you doing?!?!?” Like a little kid caught doing something he shouldn’t, Aaron gives perhaps the most improbable explanation in all of Scripture. “I just threw their gold into the fire and out came this Golden Calf!”
Now, all’s well that ends well. A few chapters later, the people will have a chance to make it right. In order to build the ark and the tabernacle — in other words, in order to make the things that God was giving Moses the plans for when this Golden Calf thing happened — the people will make another offering of their gold and possessions. What had been misused for an idol will be properly devoted to God.
As we begin our annual stewardship season, rather than focusing on the budgetary needs of the church, let’s make sure we don’t have any idols distracting us from God, “anything, or anyone, that receives the primary focus of my energy or resources, which should first belong to God.” Identifying and naming our idols is the first step to growing in generosity. And if we’re able to do that, the church budget will work itself out.
In Shiny Gods, Mike Slaughter recommended that we all do what he calls a heart check on our priorities. And I want to ask that this be our homework for the coming week. I recommend that we do our heart check before we make our commitments to the church for the coming year.
First, let’s check our proverbial calendars. How do we spend our time? Specifically, how do we spend our Sunday mornings? More to the point, where do we spend our Sunday mornings? And beyond Sundays, are we taking some time for God each day?
Where are our service hours being spent? Are we serving Christ through Christ’s Church in some way? Are we serving our fellow children of God in the community in some way? In other words in the hours that we have beyond however it is we make our living, do we have our priorities straight?
Second, let’s be intentional about checking our household budgets. Slaughter says, “Money is one of the truest indicators of faith. Jesus said it himself: ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21).” Assuming that Jesus is right — which is always a safe assumption for disciples — it’s important to ask ourselves, where is our heart?
Which is to say, where does our money go? How close are we to the biblical goal of the 10% tithe? And what are we prioritizing above our giving to God through Christ’s Church?
A heart check on our finances will tell us what takes priority over generosity in our lives. That’s an important first step in figuring out what comes next in our spiritual journeys. I’ve told you before that there was a time in my life when I gave more to Starbucks each year than I gave to Christ’s Church. Whit and I used to spend way more at restaurants than we gave back to God. It took us an intentional journey of several years to reach the tithe. But we got there eventually because we felt it was what God was calling us to do.
Friends, as we’re doing our heart check this week, may we remember that stewardship is not about the needs of the church. It’s not about church budgets or pledge cards or stewardship packets. The ministries of the church are but a byproduct — albeit an eminently worthy byproduct — of our giving.
But this is about our relationship with Christ. It’s in that relationship, not in the idols that we sometimes discover we’re serving, that we find our sense of meaning and purpose. “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Amen.
 Shiny Gods: Finding Freedom from Things that Distract Us, p. 40.
 Shiny Gods, p. 17.
 Shiny Gods, p. 39-40.