This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, June 7, 2015.
Let’s pray. Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.
It was two years ago today that I answered the “historic questions” in front of the assembled Indiana Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (I’m the one on the far left above; note that this is not the entire class). There were nearly 2,000 members and 500 guests from every local church across the state gathered at the Indianapolis Convention Center. All I had to do was answer these questions appropriately and my 11 year journey toward ordination would be nearly complete. This was the last, “thing” I had to do before the ordination service the next day. I stood with my ordination class on stage, lights blinding us, answering the questions before the assembly: questions that had been asked in some form or another to every ordination class in every annual conference, in every part of the world since the time of Wesley. There are 19 historic questions:
1. Have you faith in Christ? 2. Are you going on to perfection? 3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? 4. Are you earnestly striving after it? 5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? 6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? 7. Will you keep them? 8-13. Have you studied the doctrine, discipline, polity of the United Methodist Church and agree to teach, preach, maintain, and support it? 14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? 15. Will you visit house to house? 16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? 17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God? 18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? 19. Will you observe the following directions? 19a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. 19b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake. (I redacted questions 8-13, if you’re really interested, the full list can be found in paragraph 336 of The United Methodist Book of Discipline: 2012.) The questions weren’t all that hard, I’d thought a lot about them over the preceding 11 years. And, besides, my peers and I had all the answers in front of us on a piece of paper that the bishop had handed out as we walked onto the stage. I answered them all with confidence. Without a doubt, I believed in Christ, was striving to give my life fully in love to God and neighbor; I had studied the doctrine, polity, and practice of the United Methodist Church; I was willing to commit wholly to the work of ministry. I understood full-time vocational ministry to be my calling and committed to doing nothing but work productively in the Church. It was the second to last question though that gave me pause: “18: Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? It was a trick question of sorts. By and large, many of my peers—myself included—were swimming in more debt than our modest salaries could comfortably handle. One veteran member of Conference jokingly told me to cross my fingers behind my back when answering that question. I had worked my way through college and seminary, I had been (by this time) paying it off for nearly 4 years) but still had a large student debt, a smaller than average (but still large) credit card debt, and Stella had just been born. I thought crossing my fingers would be too obvious: I crossed my toes. I wasn’t in debt so as to embarrass me in my work, but I was in debt so as to make me worry about it; and, to be quite honest, with a new baby, our budget was tight. Nevertheless, I answered the question, trusting that as I lived out my calling, and kept a careful budget that my family could make it and we’d eventually be debt free and financially stable. Fast forward two years: I now have three kids, am living in the second most expensive state in the union and am supporting my family on basically the same income I had two years ago while living in rural Indiana. We have reduced our debt substantially in the last few years; but, needless to say, finances in the Juncker household are still pretty tight. We are “making it,” but we watch our bank account fairly close. Whether you’re finances are tight like my family’s or you are relatively comfortable, all of us—I’m sure—struggle with money and the temptation to buy and consume more.
We live in a time of excessive materialism. Many people today are on a treadmill of consumerism, and that treadmill just keeps going faster and faster. But the day will come when either we are going to break down or the treadmill is going to break down, because we cannot continue to go faster and faster in our passion to consume.
This morning, I’d like to suggest six principles for curbing our consumption. These ideas, outlined in Adam Hamilton’s book, Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity, are not new. In fact, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard some of this before. But hearing it again isn’t all bad. “So often we’re like dieters who know that in order to lose weight they must eat right and exercise, yet still they fail to do so. Similarly, we know many wise money-management principles; yet often we fail to practice them.” Principles without purpose are powerless and therefore never practiced. Before we can put the principles into practice, we must first talk briefly about our purpose. Think about it…
What is your life about? Why do you exist? Do you exist simply to consume as much as you can and get as much pleasure as you can while you are here on this earth, or do you have a higher purpose? How do you understand your life purpose—your vision, or mission or calling? And are you spending your money in ways that are consistent with this life purpose? The answers to these questions are very important.
Every dollar we spend says something about what we find most important. It’s true of church budgets and personal budgets. The things we invest in—the things we’re willing to spend money on—are the things we find most valuable. So what’s most important and valuable in your life? Do your spending habits truly reflect your values and support you purpose, mission, or calling in life? Your purpose in life is your own. You’re the one who will ultimately define it, but I’d like to suggest that as Christians we have a common or at least overlapping understanding of our purpose. It goes something like this:
We were created to care for God’s creation. We were created to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We were created to care for our families and those in need. We were created to glorify God, to seek justice, and to do mercy. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus Christ and to seek to do his will in our lives. It is to say, “Here I am, all of me! I’m yours. Put me to work, help me serve, use me to accomplish your work.” Now if this is our life purpose, then our money and possessions should be devoted to helping us fulfill this calling. We are to use our resources to help care for our families and others—to serve Christ and the world through the church, missions, and everyday opportunities.
My purpose is bigger than me and yours bigger than you. We are called to live for more than just ourselves. We are called to live like Christ who offered himself freely and fully to the world in love. But, it’s hard to give ourselves away if we owe a part of who we are to others. Therefore, how we spend and use our money reflects our understanding of and our commitment to this purpose. How do your spending habits support and enable you to live out your life purpose? Once you’ve got your purpose figured out, then you’ll be able to better live according to some principles. I’d like to suggest 6 key financial principles that, when followed, can help you keep your finances in check so that you can live your life purpose. As I mentioned before, these principles are pretty basic, but they’re a good reminder for us all.
1. Put God first in your living and giving. (2 Corinthians 9:6-7)
Make God your first priority and spend accordingly. Give your tithe and offering off the top of your paycheck rather than scraping it from the bottom. Honor God with your wealth (see Proverbs 3:9-10). “Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn’t give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7, Common English Bible). God doesn’t want you to feel coerced. God wants you to give because God is important and first in your living and your giving.
2. Prepare a spending plan and track all expenses monthly. (Proverbs 27:23-24)
Proverbs 27:24a (Common English Bible) warns us that “no treasure lasts forever” which is exactly why we need to know where we’re spending our money. Creating a budget is critically important so that we can make sure we’re spending money the way we should and need to. “Tracking your expenses with a budget is like getting on the scales: It allows you to see how you are doing and motivates you to be more careful with your expenditures.”
3. Simplify your lifestyle; live below your means. (Matthew 6:19-33)
In his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus commands us: “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them” (Matthew 6:19, Common English Bible). Learn to live below your means; and, if you already are, consider how you might simplify even more so that you can invest fully in God’s work: for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21, Common English Bible). We’re going to talk more specifically about simplicity and generosity in the next two weeks.
4. Provide immediately for an emergency fund. (1 Timothy 6:9-12)
An emergency fund is an account separate from your everyday checking and long-term savings accounts that is available for emergencies: a medical emergency, the car breaks down, the heat goes out. Having emergency funds available means that you won’t have to rely so heavily if at all upon credit cards or loans to get you through the emergency. To establish the fund, give regularly to it. It’s best to make it automatic. It’s recommended that you have three months’ worth of income saved in the account. Note: it’s not a place to simply accumulate wealth (see the warning in 1 Timothy 6:9-12), it is an account to provide in a way that’s responsible for the “unknowns” of life.
5. Pay off all credit card debt and use cash or debit cards, not credit cards. (Proverbs 22:7)
“A borrower is a slave to a lender” (Proverbs 22:7b, Common English Bible). While starting the emergency fund, start paying off your credit card and other consumer debt. I like Dave Ramsay’s approach: pay off the lowest debt amount first, then take the payments from the first and apply it to the second until you are debt free. Once the card is paid off, cut it up or put it in in a place where you won’t regularly use it. People who use credit cards instead of cash or a debit card spend 12-18% more on their purchases. Use cash or a debit card. Oh, and on your debit card, make sure that it doesn’t turn into a credit card when you don’t have the funds in the account. The bank can turn that off so that when you don’t have the funds, the card is rejected. Use cash or a debit card.
6. Practice long-range saving and investing habits. (Luke 14:28)
“We do not save merely for the sake of saving. There is a word for that: hoarding. Hoarding is frowned upon in the Bible as the practice of fools and those who fail to understand the purpose of life. Saving, on the other hand, is meant to be purposeful.” We should save for emergencies. We should save for specific wants and needs. And, we should save for retirement. By setting aside small amounts of money, we will be able to provide for ourselves in any situation that comes our way, be able to buy what we want without having to become a “slave to a lendor,” (see Proverbs 22:7), and we’ll have enough to see us through retirement.
These six principles can help us better use our money so that we can live out our life purpose: a purpose beyond ourselves that continues the mission of Christ and brings glory to God. For some, putting these principles into practice might mean committing to making a new start in order to find financial peace.
Making a new start so that we may achieve financial peace and accomplish God’s greater purpose for our lives requires us to do one of two things: Either we must make more money, or we must spend less money in order to have money for the things that are most important to us. These are our only two options. Most of us cannot control whether or not we are going to make more money; increasing our income simply may not be a possibility. But we all can choose to spend less and simplify our lives. We can decide that there are some financial habits we’ve been practicing that we will forgo for the sake of doing God’s will.
And, what we’ll find in the process, as we commit to living a purposeful and principled life is that it is indeed a joyous “gift to be simple, a gift to be free, and a gift to come down where we ought to be.” Would join me in a prayer of contentment:
Lord, help me be grateful for what I have, remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity. Amen.
 Adam Hamilton, Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), p36.  Hamilton, Enough, 37.  Hamilton, Enough, 46.  Hamilton, Enough, p48.  Hamilton, Enough, p55.  “Credit Cards Make You Spend More: Studies” by Lindsay Konsko on July 8, 2014, nerdwallet.com <http://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/tips/credit-cards-make-you-spend-more/> Accessed June 6, 2015.  Hamilton, Enough, 57.  Hamilton, Enough, p60.  “Prayer of Contentment” by Adam Hamilton in Enough, p6.