Several months ago, my clergy support group discussed stewardship. We eventually got to the topic of stewardship sermons. When we did, a member of the group said, “When it comes to preaching about money, most preachers are wimps!”

Unfortunately my colleague’s comment is often true. When it comes to preaching about stewardship, clergy tend to be timid, tentative and apologetic. However, the Bible is not timid about money at all. Because financial stewardship is a major biblical theme and our churches need strong financial support to prosper, clergy need to become bolder when it comes to preaching about money.

Last fall, our church engaged in a major emphasis on financial stewardship. During October, all of our adult Sunday School classes studied Adam Hamilton’s excellent book, Enough. In support of that study, I preached a four-week sermon series about Christian finances called “God Lessons from the Great Recession.” A brief synopsis of the series follows. 

1. Don’t be a financial fool. The first sermon based on Jesus’ parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21 warned listeners not to make the acquisition of money and things their ultimate priority. To help make the point, I told my congregation about the classic movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams. The movie tells the story of a rich and powerful old man called Big Daddy. Tragically, Big Daddy was like the parable’s rich fool, absolutely bankrupt in things that really matter at the end of his life. The bottom line of the sermon was: Don’t let this happen to you.

2. Follow God’s financial plan. The second sermon laid out in broad strokes the following six biblical financial principles. A listening guide listing these principles and Scripture references was provided.
• Earn ethically (Habakkuk 2:6-9; Proverbs 11:1).
• Resist greed (Ecclesiastes 5:10; 1 Timothy 6:9-10).
• Spend modestly (1 Timothy 6:6-8; Hebrews 13:5).
• Avoid debt (Proverbs 22:7; Romans 13:8).
• Save diligently (Proverbs 21:20; Genesis 41:35-36).
• Give Generously (Proverbs 3:9; 1 Timothy 6:18). 

3. Cultivate a life of contentment. The third sermon grappled with the question, “What brings true contentment?” The text was Philippians 4:10-13, in which Paul says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” I began the sermon by sharing important research from an excellent book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. According to the author, social scientists have discovered that once a person’s basic needs have been met, additional money and possessions have virtually no impact on his or her contentment level.

So if money and things don’t lead to contentment, what does? Although numerous factors contribute to our overall happiness, none is more important than gratitude. The remainder of the sermon laid out several strategies for enhancing gratitude, all based on the apostle Paul and the Book of Philippians.

4. Follow Dr. Green’s final prescription. The title for this sermon came from the popular TV show “ER,” which ended a 15 year run in 2009. In this television series, Dr. Mark Green, a main character, was about to die from a brain tumor. Before his death, he shared his final words of advice with his daughter, his final prescription so to speak. He said, “Be generous. Be generous with your time. Be generous with your love. Be generous with your life. Be generous.”

This message, based on Proverbs 11:24-25 and Acts 20:35, was the only sermon in the series that focused directly on supporting the church financially. I shared my own testimony on tithing and encouraged members of the congregation not currently tithing (most of them!) to move in that direction.

This small-group study and sermon series profoundly impacted our stewardship campaign. The campaign, carried out primarily through the mail, began immediately after the four-week emphasis. In spite of a terrible recession, more people pledged more money than ever before in the history of our church. In fact, pledges increased 13 percent since the year before. An increase of that amount would be remarkable any year, but given the horrible economy, it was almost miraculous.

It proved to me that when church leaders creatively and boldly challenge their congregations to support God’s work generously, the people of God will respond enthusiastically.

Here is the first sermon in the series; the others are available

Sermon 1: Don’t Be a Financial Fool
(Luke 12:13-21)
Back in 1948, Hollywood produced a movie called Key Largo staring Humphrey Bogart. The movie was about a gangster whose life was filled with violence, deceit and greed. In the movie, this gangster and his thugs take a group of people hostage. One of the hostages asked him, “What drives you to lead this kind of gangster life? What is it that you really want?”

Well, he’s not quite sure how to respond. He is not a reflective man and has no real answer to the question, “What do you want?” So one of the hostages, played by Humphrey Bogart, suggests an answer. He said, “I know what you want. You want more.” The gangster’s face brightens. “Yeah, that’s it.” That’s what I want. I want more.”
(John Ortberg, When the Game Is Over It All Goes Back in the Box, p. 189.)

“I want more.” In many ways that’s the story of America. We want more. Through the years, we have gotten more. For example, when Key Largo was made, the average American home had less than 1,200 square feet. Today, the average America home in has more than 24,000 square feet. House sizes have more than doubled since that film was produced. Yet we still don’t have room for all our stuff.

So in recent decades, a whole new industry has built up in America called the self-storage business. There are now more than 30,000 of these self-storage facilities in the country. These units offer over a billion square feet for people to store their stuff. In the 1960s, the self-storage industry did not exist. Today, we spend more than $12 billion a year to store our extra stuff. (Ortberg, When the Game Is Over, p. 83.)

Last year, my family and I drove to North Carolina. Somewhere around Asheville, we were driving though some beautiful mountains. Then right on one of those beautiful mountains, I saw a huge self-storage complex. They completely clear-cut the mountain and built hundreds and hundreds of storage units on it. It was such a sad sight. One of the most beautiful places on earth had been totally ravaged to build storage space for stuff we cannot fit into our already oversized houses—stuff we do not need and stuff that does not make us happy.

Like the character in Key Largo, we continually want more; and we get more. In the process, we are destroying the planet. Although Americans only represent 5 percent of the world’s population, we consume 25 percent of the world’s resources and produce 35 percent of the world’s pollution. Not only is that unsustainable, but it is immoral; and we still want more stuff.
More stuff does not satisfy. Think about Michael Jackson. Jackson had more stuff than anybody could ever want. He used to go on shopping sprees and buy literally millions of dollars of stuff. His home was full of stuff. He bought so much stuff that he was in debt by more than a half a billion dollars. Yet in spite of all that stuff, Jackson died a miserable man. We want more, but more is not what we need.

In his book Enough, Adam Hamilton talks about wanting more. He says that America has a bad case of affluenza. Affluenza is the constant desire for more, bigger and better stuff; but the stuff never satisfies. Here is the definition Adam Hamilton offers in his book for alluenza: “The bloated, sluggish, and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses; an epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by the dogged pursuit of the American Dream.; an unsustainable addiction to economic growth.” (Adam Hamilton, Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity, p, 15.)

Don’t misunderstand: It’s not that money and things are bad. We all need food and shelter. We all need to have some savings and retirement resources. Not having adequate finances is a terrible thing. God does not want us to be penniless. Stuff is not bad; but spending our lives acquiring more and more stuff that we do not need is bad, because stuff is never enough. It’s not what matters most, and that brings me to today’s Scripture reading in Luke 12.

The story begins with an inheritance dispute. A man says to Jesus, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Few things in life are as ugly as families fighting over an estate. They are like vultures, fighting with one another for the largest piece of rotten meat. Well, Jesus refused to get sucked into the fight. He said, “Who appointed me as a judge or arbiter between you and your brother?” Then Jesus told the people, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Then Jesus told an interesting story about a rich man who had everything he needed. His barns were full of grain, and life was good; but like the character in Key Largo he wanted more. So he decided to tear down his barns and build even bigger barns so he could have even more stuff. He said to himself, “I have so much stuff I can now eat, drink and be merry.”

In one of his books, pastor and author John Ortberg talks about this man in Luke 12. He said this man had a life plan that included the following:
• Harvest large crops.
• Build bigger barns.
• Acquire more stuff.
• Achieve financial security.
• Eat, drink and be merry.
• Remember not to die.
(John Ortberg, When the Game Is Over, p. 26.)

Of course, the last part of the plan was hard to pull off. Not many of us can avoid our own funeral. In fact, none of us can avoid our own funeral. Speaking of funerals, I recently heard about a man who was at home, dying in his bed. At best, he only had a few more days left on earth.

As he lay in bed, he could smell the aroma of chocolate chip cookies. Well, chocolate chip cookies were his favorite food in the world. So he dragged himself out of bed and crawled down the hallway into the kitchen. There he saw a whole table of warm chocolate chip cookies. He reached his hand out to eat one last cookie before he died, but right as he grasped one of the cookies his wife smacked his hand with a spatula. “Put that back,” she said. “They’re for the funeral.”

In spite of his plans to build bigger barns and acquire more stuff, this man inconveniently died. When he did, God called him a fool. Let’s look again at the text, “But God said to him, ‘You fool!’ This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20-21).

When we make money and stuff the center of our lives and in the process neglect God and others, then we are fools. So God says, “Don’t be a financial fool.” Don’t make money the center of your life. It’s not what matters most.”

Years ago when I was a young man, making a lot of money was my primary goal in life. After college, I went into the insurance business; for some reason it really clicked. I was winning all kinds of sales awards and making a ton of money. Unfortunately, I became absolutely consumed with money.

Like the character in Key Largo, I wanted more. Like the rich man in today’s story, I was all about building bigger barns and acquiring more and more stuff. Almost all my energy was devoted to making more and more money. In the process, I neglected my family, health and soul.

One night, I came home late from another long day of work. My wife and child were asleep. I rarely saw them in those days. So I got out a bag of chips and a Coke and turned on the TV and watched the late-night classic movie. It was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, staring Paul Newman, Burl Ives and Elizabeth Taylor. The movie was based on Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play. That film changed my life. Even though it was a secular film, it was the most powerful sermon I ever heard—before or since.

The movie was about an old man and his family. The man was rich and powerful. Everyone called him Big Daddy. He had all the things money could buy. He owned 28,000 acres of fertile farmland, worth an absolute fortune. He also owned a huge southern mansion filled with expensive furniture and art. He had acquired $10 million in stocks, bonds and cash—and that was way back in the 1950s!

Big Daddy had it all. He also had an alcoholic son and colon cancer and was dying. The end of the movie finds Big Daddy and his son in the basement of his mansion. For one brief moment, all that money and stuff are stripped away. We realize Big Daddy is not wealthy at all. His relationship with his wife was shallow; he was estranged from his son; and his daughter’s only concern was getting the lion’s share of Big Daddy’s estate. He had no significant relationships; he didn’t even know the names of his servants. He knew no love, no purpose in life, no meaning, no faith. He was absolutely bankrupt. What did he have? A basement full of expensive antiques.

It hit me that night that if I continued on my current course, I would end up just like Big Daddy—rich in material things but bankrupt in the things that really matter. God used that movie and some other experiences to say to me, “Martin, you are chasing after the wrong dream. Don’t invest your life in making more and more money. Invest your life in more important pursuits. Don’t be a financial fool.”

Please join me in reading once again from today’s text. “Watch out! Be on your guard against greed. A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Martin Thielen’s website is Martin’s fifth book What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most will be released February 2011.

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