Seek Ye First, Matthew 6:25-33
First United Methodist Church, November 11, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
So often we lose track of what's of ultimate importance. We get distracted with "real life" and "real needs." These "distractions" aren't insignificant. We have to deal with them.
There are bills to be paid. We can be so careful, and then something unexpected happens, and there you go! You've gotta figure it out and the budget is blown.
There are health care needs…medical costs…insurance claims to file, paperwork to complete, doctors to contact, tests to be scheduled…there's always something, it seems.
There are results to be waited for…results that could mean changes at work…results that might mean a promotion…results that might mean a change in medicine…results that might mean that your life is about to change.
There are relationships that need attention…the kids aren't getting along and you seem to be the referee…your brother's unhappy about something…mom has something on her mind…the holidays are approaching (oh, no!) and some of this is going to suddenly be front and center!
It's so easy to get caught up in the distractions because they're a part of our everyday lives! And so, we lose track, we forget about those things that are of ultimate importance, because there are little red flags dropping all around you that catch your attention, that you really need to attend to.
It happens in our personal lives, and in the church, as well. We get distracted from our mission and get caught up in other things, because we're surrounded by those other things and the red flags are dropping here, too. We end up spending our energy (and our resources) on things that are of secondary importance. But they're important, you know? You can't ignore them!
What kinds of things do we get caught up in?
Two of the bigger things are Buildings and Budget!
Our buildings are aging, and you can't just ignore the places that need attention! Someone slipped and was hurt outside the education building this week. The rains come down, the water flows creating a river just outside the north door, and then it gets slippery. We didn't want anybody to fall, and we certainly don't want anyone else to fall. We need to do something.
Our kitchen floor needs fixed, because it's a safety hazard. As they were checking out the floor, they found other issues that need to be dealt with. You know how these things grow… Our kitchen is important to our ministry. Over a 2 week period we will have had 3 funeral dinners coming out of that kitchen, we've had 2 community meals in the last 3 weeks, and Boy Scouts serve out of there once a month, including today. The kitchen is on our list of needing some major attention.
Wouldn't it be nice if the safety and maintenance needs of our buildings were taken care of and we didn't have to worry about something happening and needing to figure out on the spot what needs done and how we're going to pay for it?
We're working on a plan and we'll be sharing more about it soon…because you have made it clear that our two buildings are an important part of our toolbox for ministry, and that the Plymouth community is blessed by our being here on 400 North Michigan. We want this place to remain a house of faith and a pillar of strength in this community, a place where disciples are equipped and sent out for ministry. We don't want our buildings to be a continuing challenge on the budget, or a distraction to our ministry, or to limit our ministry. So we're beginning to work on a plan that will help us to do that better.
Budget! It's Commitment Sunday, the time when we offer God our financial commitments to the work of ministry through First United Methodist Church for 2019. This hasn't really been a "campaign" this year, we've been pretty low-keyed. I've wanted us to focus on how this church has blessed us, and to think about how we might continue to bless others, to plant seeds, to make disciples, and make a difference in people's lives. The little purple sheets of paper you filled out a few weeks ago will gradually appear on the bulletin board in back that I asked the children to help decorate for us. Last week Sarah Smith shared about how this church has blessed her, and this morning Barbie and Abi will do that. Next week we'll continue to read the little purple sheets of paper and add them to the bulletin board so you can see them. One person in the church, when offered the purple sheet of paper said, "Really? You want us to write down all the ways we've been blessed by the church on this little sheet of paper? There isn't enough room!" He ended up writing things out on a notebook-sized sheet of paper, and after we read it, we'll add it to the others posted on the bulletin board.
The thing is, we want our giving to come out of our love for God, and our recognition of how God has generously blessed us. It's about our need to give back to God and to what God is doing and can do through the life of the church, rather than our saying, "Ok, here's the budget, what will you give to make this budget work?" I said something last week about "feeling" what we give, and I'm not sure I explained it. When we "feel" what we're giving to God, it's a heart thing, a thanksgiving thing, a desire to plant seeds, even when we might not be able to see the growth…it’s something that’s important enough to us that we need to really think through it and plan for it. It doesn’t come out of what's left over after we've taken care of everything else, but it is instead, an important part of shaping our budget at the beginning.
The Bible talks about a tithe, which is 10% of what we receive. The goal is that if we're not already tithing, that we're working toward a tithe. With all of us working toward that together, the church is blessed to do more….to plant more seeds…to make a difference both today and tomorrow.
I know we talked about it a couple of years ago, when I used some jars and 100 little wrapped up gifts to illustrate a biblical example of giving. One jar has 10 little gifts in it, representing a tithe, given to the church. A second jar has another 10 little gifts in it, which represents savings. Savings for retirement, college, vacation, a home, whatever all you want to be saving for. The third jar has 80 little gifts in it, and it looks pretty amazingly full compared to the others: that's what we have leftover to spend on ourselves; food, mortgage, utilities, clothes, whatever.
That takes some planning and figuring out. There are distractions along the way. For example, I have a 14 year old car with more than 298k miles on it (which is something to celebrate!) but it's been making some noises and shifting gears takes a little more muscle than it should, so we're taking it to the mechanic this week to receive the verdict. We need to figure out if what's wrong is worth spending money on, or if it makes more sense to replace it. A big piece of me wants to keep driving it until its wheels fall off because after 14 years, me and my Solara have become good friends, but I don't know if that's the smart thing to do. We'll see.
Along with that, Scott and I are working hard to be debt-free, and that's probably a couple of years away. A car payment will slow that process down a bit, but we don't want it to impact our giving to God. We want to keep growing in our generosity…to grow in what we give to the church. Dave Ramsey's snowball debt elimination plan has worked well for us: When you pay something off, you add the amount that you were paying on that bill to the next one, and down those balances go. Way cool. But now I may have a car payment coming up.
The check I receive every two weeks from the church has my pension and health insurance deducted, but not taxes. Our taxes include income tax, both ends of the Social Security tax (which makes sense to those of you who are “self employed”), and 15% of the fair rental value of our parsonage. With the help of our accountant, I estimate our tax liability, bank it in savings and then pay quarterly. We tithe the rest.
I tell you that, because I've had people tell me that preachers don't pay taxes, but we do. We're considered self-employed, so we pay about 26% income tax, it just doesn't come out of my check before I get it.
Something else Scott and I carry in the back of our minds is buying a home someday. You probably won’t let us live in the parsonage forever, so when things are paid off it’ll be time for us to think about that. We don’t have a mortgage right now, but we’ve owned 2 homes in the past, so we’re familiar with how that works. That’ll be in our future and we want to be ready when the time comes.
So, we need to figure things out just like you do, we have distractions/unexpected expenditures just like you do, and we want to give our best to the church, we want to be planting seeds, because we know that all that we have comes from God, and we want to be good stewards. We want to be responsible. And we want our church—this church—to be blessed by our giving.
We want to be good stewards of the gifts we've been given.
I know that's what you want, too.
In this morning’s scripture, Jesus talks about the birds in the air. "They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?"
I keep the blind that's in front of my desk up all the way so I can see the birds in the air and the tops of the trees and the sky. That little piece of God's beauty inspires me…the birds catch my attention when they soar through the seasons, wings seemingly still while God carries them through the sky.
God's abundant providence carries us/surrounds us/lifts us up.
"Why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field…will he not much more clothe you?"
When I slow down, open my eyes to the wonder of it all, three things happen.
First, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gladness and thanksgiving. I want to lean back and shout –or sing- “Thank you, God!” My giving, our giving, is a key way we have of shouting –or singing- “Thank you, God!”
The sight of the birds reminds me of all the ways I am blessed…we are blessed…and I want to express my gratitude. My feeling of delight. My financial gifts are my thanks-giving.
Second, I am reminded that when we keep the main thing, the main thing, then the rest of life has a way of falling into place. This is true with our financial life: when we plan our giving, when we are faithful in our giving, then the rest of our money issues begin to get worked out.
This is true in our life as a congregation: when we focus on loving Jesus and loving people, when we focus on being a servant people meeting human spiritual and physical need in love, then the rest of the church –including buildings and budgets- tend to do just fine. Churches that are distracted, always trying to take care of their own stuff, focused more on institutional survival and bricks and mortar and keeping people inside the church happy, can lose track of the main thing. When we give ourselves away for God, Jesus says, we will find life. When we cling to our own agenda, when we are distracted, when we try to hang onto every dollar we can for our own stuff, then we lose our life.
The birds remind me that keeping the main thing the main thing usually means the rest of my money life –and the church’s life- gets ordered just right.
Third, and finally, the birds remind me that God has put me here to plant seeds of love, of peace, of faith, of community, of justice. Jesus, in the gospels, spends a lot of time talking about fruitfulness. He talks about knowing people –and trees—by the good fruit they bear…He talks about wise stewards who use what they have been given, and multiply their talents over and over.
We were put here to plant seeds of hope and love and truth and justice and peace and community. We plant those seeds through our prayers, our worship life, our time with God in Bible study, our welcoming words to strangers, our children’s ministries, our different ways of reaching out into this community and beyond… We plant those seeds with our financial gifts to God. Every dollar we give is like a seed God takes and puts to work.
I’ve asked Scott to clean up my wheelbarrow so we could bring it into the sanctuary. Instead of putting our pledge cards in a basket or dropping them at the communion rail today, I want to invite you to place your 2019 pledge card in the wheelbarrow. Because your giving is all about planting seeds. Your giving is all about planting seeds so that tomorrow will be better than today. Your giving is all about changed and blessed lives.
Jesus wants us to look up and see, he wants us to look around and really notice that we live in a world of divine abundance. The loving care of God surrounds us, covers us, lifts us up. He wants us to remember—above all else—who we are and who we're called to be: we're his disciples, we're the church. And He wants us to be a part of what he's doing in this world—to remember our mission and to be focused on that mission, to be planting seeds that can help others grow… To do our very best in welcoming, reaching out, serving and giving. Jesus wants us to keep planting seeds and not be distracted by the stuff that matters so much less!
Seek first God’s kingdom…Together, let’s plant seeds in Jesus’ name. Amen.