Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 24, 2010

2010.10.24 Enough:Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity Sermon 2:“When Dreams Become Nightmares”

Central United Methodist Church

Enough: Discovering Joy

Through Simplicity and Generosity

Sermon 2: “When Dreams Become Nightmares”

Pastor David L. Haley

October 24th, 2010

“The lover of money will not be satisfied with money;

nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10)

“For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?

Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:26)

Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith,

and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:10b, NIV)

Several years ago the Royal Bank of Scotland sent an offer for a Gold MasterCard to Monty Slater. The card came with a $20,000 credit limit – impressive for a first credit card – particularly when you consider that Monty is a Shih Tzu dog. Raymond, his owner, thought about using the card for some of Monty’s favorite treats but reconsidered, recognizing that his pup was not in a position to pay the balance when it came due, and that might negatively affect Monty’s credit rating.1

This may be a funny story, but it illustrates a sobering truth: We live in a world constantly tempting us to live beyond our means, to “have it now” and pay later, as opposed to saving and being good stewards of our money. We’re all caught in the struggle; no one is exempt; myself included.

For example, this week Apple came out with a new MacBook Air laptop computer.  I’m an Apple guy, though I’ve never been a fan of the Air. But this one is a stunner. My computer is about five years old, has a few problems but still works fine, and I was planning on replacing it in the spring. But after seeing the commercial for the new air, ever since, the Apple Store up at Old Orchard has been calling me, and I don’t mean on the phone. In fact, I could hardly concentrate on this sermon, so often did that voice keep calling.  This is what I’m talking about.

Let’s face it; we love stuff. We love gadgets and the newest makes and models. We want to replace our cars when they’re only a few years old. We look in our closets overflowing with clothes and say we have nothing to wear, because we want the newest fashions. We wrestle with these things.

Last Sunday, in the first sermon of our series, Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity, I sketched out the background of why our economy is in such a mess, and suggested that by living beyond our means, we’ve contributed to this disaster. Today I want to examine how and why we have done this. 

In some ways, it’s the American Dream. There have been several lofty dreams in our nation’s history, but generally what we mean when we talk about the American Dream is our desire for success, and with that, our desire for “more.” But lately, for many, this version of the American dream has become the American nightmare:  too much stuff, too much debt, too little savings, too little left over to give away.

How did this happen? To a great extent, it’s due to two distinct yet related illnesses that impact us socially and spiritually.

The first illness is called affluenza, the constant need for more bigger and better stuff. A program on the Public Broadcasting Station defined affluenza this way:

affluenza, n. 1. The bloated, sluggish, and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste, and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.2

If we’re honest, we must admit we’re all infected with this virus.  We love shopping and buying things, sometimes using it as a form of entertainment and a cure for boredom.

At the same time – as we know – there are vast plans to inflame our illness. Every day we’re subject to ads for which companies paid thousands or even millions of dollars, in order to convince us we need something. And they’re good at it! The voices whisper in our heads, and we find ourselves agreeing, That’s right. I do need that: new clothes, a new computer, new furniture, a new car, a new kitchen, a new house.

At the same time, we don’t have room for all the stuff we have now. An article on Slate.com a few years ago noted that according to the National Homebuilders Association, the average American home went from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,400 square feet in 2004; all the while the building of self-storage space was expanding rapidly.3 Ever go in a house 50 or 100 years old? How big are the closets? How did they live with so few clothes, so little stuff? So, houses got bigger, family sizes got smaller, and yet we still need to rent more space to store our stuff?  Most of which – when we die – is going right into the dumpster. What’s going on?

The second disease that goes along with affluenza is credit-itis. Our economy is built on the concept of credit-itis, which allows us to buy now and pay later. Unfortunately, it also exploits our lack of self-discipline and feeds our affluenza, wreaking havoc in our personal and national finances.

Remember layaway? Kids don’t know what layaway is. What an odd idea: save money and make payments on something, only to be able to take it home after we’ve paid for it in full.  How primitive!

Today, credit cards have replaced layaway, and more of us go deeper in debt to get what we want now and pay for it later. Average credit card debt in America in 1990 was around $3,000. Today, it’s estimated to be around $6,500.4 Considering that many Americans pay off their credit cards each month, the average debt for those who maintain a balance must be significantly higher.

It used to be that credit card companies required you to make a 4 percent minimum payment on your credit card balance. Today, many credit card companies allow you to make a 2 percent minimum payment. If you have a balance of $9,000 on your credit card and never use the card again, only making a 2 percent payment each month while paying 18 percent annual interest, it will take approximately 240 years to pay off your existing balance. In other words, it won’t happen.

Unfortunately, credit-itis is not limited to purchases made with credit cards; it extends to car loans, mortgages, and other loans as well.

Most people finance cars over four or five years, but some websites now offer a 96-month loan: eight years. Of course, few people keep a car for eight years; the average is three to four. So, when you trade in that car, you’ll discover you’re driving “upside down;” you owe more than the car is worth. But the car dealer – helpful, as car dealers are – can roll the difference into a new car loan, financing 105% of the purchase price. Before long you’re an indentured servant of the car finance company!

The same trend can be seen in home mortgages. Traditionally, the life of a home mortgage has been either fifteen or thirty years, with 5 percent down. Now, mortgage lenders offer forty-year mortgages, and some even fifty or sixty-year mortgages. There are interest-only mortgages and adjustable-rate mortgages, mortgages with no money down, which – as we are seeing – enticed some into buying homes they could not afford.

In addition to home mortgages, there’s been a boom in home equity loans, which allow us to withdraw money from what is, for most of us, our single largest savings account, our home. But instead of paying down the mortgages, banks entice us to withdraw the equity for home improvements or other purchases, like paying off credit cards. But do you really want to pay for the next 30 years of eating out on your mortgage?

Another problem related to the illness of credit-itis is the issue of declining savings. As late as 1982, the savings rate for Americans was at 10 percent. Now, overall, the net national savings rate is at its lowest level since the Depression, and it’s falling: it’s an astonishing -2.5% of national income, meaning that most of us are spending more than we’re earning.5

I could go on and on with statistics such as these, but the point is this: we have become a credit-crazed society. Even those of us not in debt up to our ears look at our W-2 at the end of the year and wonder, “Where did it all go?”

This American nightmare leads not only to debt collectors and bankruptcy, but to tremendous stress in our marriages and lives. We are suffering the consequences of our addiction to consumption and compulsive buying, yet our desire is never satisfied. This is because there is a deeper, spiritual problem within us, of which affluenza and credit-itis are but symptoms.

 

This problem is this brokenness inside us.  Although we are created in the image of God, it’s gotten distorted. We are meant to desire God, but we turn that desire toward possessions. We are meant to find security in God, but we seek it in wealth and affluence. We are meant to love people and use things, but we use people and love things. We are meant to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, but get distracted from simple pleasures by the pursuit of more, more money and more things. We are meant to be generous and share with those in need, but we selfishly hoard our resources for ourselves. This brokenness – and the consequences which follow – are what the Bible calls sin.

The practical result is that we don’t need to do drugs or steal or have an extramarital affair in order to mess up our lives, all we have to do is pursue the American Dream – not life, liberty, and happiness – but to keep up with the Joneses, borrow against our future, enjoy more than we can afford, and indulge ourselves. 

By getting into debt, we become slaves. By spending all we have, we’ll never offer our tithes to God, never help the poor, never use what we have to accomplish God’s purposes.  By becoming a slave to creditors, we will not know simplicity, generosity, or joy; it’s hard to know love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, and gentleness, when the bill collectors are calling. Our effectiveness for God’s kingdom is neutralized and the Gospel gets choked out of our lives.

Do you remember Jesus’ parable of the Sower?  He told about a farmer who sowed seed, and some of the seed fell among the thorns and weeds. Jesus described the result this way: “As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear [the word of God]; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14). This is what happens to us when we are afflicted with affluenza and credit-itis.

What’s the answer? In the next few weeks we will look at biblical teachings and practical tips related to how we can change our habits, get out of debt, get a handle on our money and possessions, live more simply, and give more generously.

But before that, we must acknowledge that the starting point is transformation within us, resulting in changed desires and a changed sense of purpose.  Not once and for all, but every day, one day at a time.

Here’s the good news: This is something God specializes in, changing us from the inside out.

How God does this might be compared to what we do this week as we turn pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns. If you’ve ever picked pumpkins from the field, you know no pumpkin is perfect. The task is to incorporate your pumpkin’s imperfections into the design you carve into it. You look at the pumpkin and begin to imagine what it can be. Next, you draw on it a face of some sort. Then you come to the first step in the actual transformation of the pumpkin, which also is the messiest. You open it up, and you begin to scoop out all the nasty, slimy, smelly stuff inside. Then you carve the face or design, which is no doubt a bit painful for the pumpkin. And, ultimately, you replace all of the muck with a light that shines from within.

This is a picture of what God intends: that greed and envy and materialism be replaced with God’s light, which shines from within in such a way that it gives light to others.

I’m not suggesting we never buy anything for ourselves, never buy a new car or go on a vacation or buy new clothes or something else we want. I am suggesting that, with the help of God, we simplify our lives and silence the voices constantly telling us we need more; that we live counter-culturally by actually living below, not above, our means; that we build into our budgets the money to buy with cash instead of credit; that we build in what we need to live in simplicity and generosity. In doing so, I believe we will also discover joy.

 

The Shakers were a sect of Christians known for their simplicity, but also for their singing and dancing.  Perhaps the best-known Shaker song is the one we are singing each Sunday during this series: “Simple Gifts,” written by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. This song, sung as the Shakers danced and worshipped, captures the invitation to simplicity:

“’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come out right.”

***************************************

This series, “Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity,” was developed by the Rev. Adam Hamilton and the staff of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and then made available to the larger church through Cokesbury. As such, these sermons are my versions of Adam Hamilton’s original sermons, for my congregation.

1“Dog Offered Credit Card,” BBC News, July 28, 2003; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/manchester/3104839.stm
2Visit http://www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza/.

3“Self-storage Nation: Americans are Storing More Stuff Than Ever,” by Tom Vanderbilt, July 18, 2005; http://www.slate.com/id/2122832/

4“Credit Card Debt Statistics,” http://www.money-zine.com/Financial-Planning/Debt-Consolidation/Consumer-Debt-Statistics/

5“Chart of the day: Negative net national savings,” January 4, 2010, http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2010/01/04/chart-of-the-day-negative-net-national-savings/

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Responses

  1. Reverend Haley,

    I just wanted you to know that I read your sermons and get a great deal from them. Great job and keep up God’s work!! Amen!

    Also, our church, the First United Methodist Church of Springfield, Illinois will embark this coming Sunday on Enough Discovering Simplicity and Generosity via sermons and a church read of the Hamilton book. I have already read it,..easy and interesting read. Also,..sparks of Dave Ramsey… Our church also has done the Financial Peace University with even “scholarships” for those who are in a financial need so that they can attend.

    God bless you, your ministry, and your church,

    Dr. Les Hohenstein
    Springfield, Illinois


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