Walking into the pulpit to ask our congregation to give while assuming that people do not want to give is a bit like a young man beginning his proposal of marriage with the words “I know you'll say no, but….”
Preaching on money is intimidating to many pastors, because of this assumption that people in the pews do not want to hear how they should be handling their finances, especially when it comes to giving to the church. We need to believe, however, that sermons on money can be a means of grace. Reading, hearing, and meditating on Scripture, and by extension hearing meaningful, inspiring sermons, guide us as we grow in faith. If that is true about sermons in general, then it is also true of sermons on money. That prospect gives me courage to preach about money without reservation, guided by the following five imperatives.
Preach a Series on Money
When preaching on money I prepare a series of three or four sermons. While the lectionary gives us occasional opportunities to preach single sermons about money, a brief sermon series fosters development of deeper biblical and theological core beliefs (and even a storehouse of phrases) that build from one Sunday to the next, becoming the connective tissue of a belief system regarding our financial choices. The first sermon in a series could, for example, develop the concept of living within our means; a second might bring to life our calling to live within our means but beyond ourselves, and a third might call us to not only live beyond ourselves, but also beyond our time.
Help People Find Balance
Pastors tend to over react to a false prosperity gospel by preaching a skewed gospel of self-sacrifice that excludes enjoyment of pleasures God has afforded us in life. Our sermons on money can feel more like a call to pick up our cross daily than an invitation from Jesus to feast and drink at table with him. Jesus enjoyed life to the fullest, relished the pleasure of eating and drinking with friends. Scripture does not condemn earthly pleasures enjoyed within the proper context—excess at the expense of the poor is condemned, closing hands to the hungry is condemned, tuning out the cry for justice is condemned.
Folks in our churches will eagerly hear sermons that teach us how to find a faithful balance between enjoyment of earthly blessings and faithful living. A text that directs us toward balance is Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, “It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work … and to accept their lot in life. And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God.”
Denying workers the fruit of their labor is unjust—and we should say so. Enjoying what our work affords us, likewise, is good and just—and we should say so. Work should have its reward, but notice the balance the Teacher inserts into the discussion: to enjoy your work and to accept your lot in life is a gift from God. Accepting your lot doesn't mean being lazy or putting up with injustice, it means enjoying life within the means our work affords. Is it God's will that we go into debt in order to go on vacation or to desire such an expensive house that we have to borrow the down payment to get it? Vacation, home, clothing within the means our work affords is indeed a gift from God. And even this enjoyment is balanced against our outrageously generous God's call to share some of the means our work affords us with the poor.
People want to know how to faithfully navigate life today and are especially hungry for wisdom concerning the use of money. So, preaching that helps us balance faithfulness and enjoyment will be experienced as the act of grace that it is.
Create an Atmosphere of Grace
We are created in the image of our outrageously generous God. As such, our spiritual DNA is embedded with a bent toward generosity. But our bent to sinning holds our natural generosity hostage. Our task as preachers, therefore, is to liberate our hearers' innate desire to give. If we enter the pulpit assuming that our people are like the tight-fisted robbers of God described in Malachi 3, then our preaching will create a demeaning atmosphere and our congregants will be defensive hearers rather than eager listeners. Our message might be heard, but it will not result in an actionable and faithful response. When entering the pulpit armed with the assumption that people in church generally want to do the right thing, however, we create an atmosphere wherein the act of proclamation itself becomes an experience of God's grace. And in my experience, God's grace opens locked doors.
One example of door unlocking grace is Paul's teaching in 2 Corinthians 8:10-14. He reminded the Corinthians of their prior commitment, and then sought to release their ability to give by teaching them the principle of proportionate giving and assuring them that whatever they give is acceptable if they give it eagerly—not by condemning them for not tithing. And he tempered even that teaching by clarifying, “Of course, I don't mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality.” A sermon on this text could teach that Jesus never calls us to live beyond our means, but Jesus does call us to live beyond ourselves. Prophetic teaching does not necessitate hammering the congregation, as Fred Craddock reminded us, with “ought and must and should!” Our preaching on money will be prophetic when we invite our members to live beyond themselves—the very thing most of us want to do but do not know how to do.
Address Real Life Issues
Our parishioners welcome sermons that address their real life issues in a practical way. Most Christians want to live beyond themselves and beyond their time, not solely for themselves. But many of us have fallen prey to a consumer lifestyle and are therefore unable to meet our own obligations, let alone join fully in partnering with Christ in doing God's will on earth as it is done in heaven. Our preaching on money needs to address both consumerism and imprudent debt in a way that helps free people to be partners with God in the new creation.
The issue most of our church members face is not so much earning all we can, but saving in an impulsive and debt-ridden age. People who are in financial peril will grab hold of a sermon that describes, for example, the indispensible power of focused living in an impulsive age as if it were a lifeline. This message can brought to bear through the story of God working through Joseph (Genesis 41) to save the people from famine. Joseph's focused living and disciplined savings, not a miracle, delivered the people from famine, and focused living and disciplined savings can save the hearer from financial peril too. But the real payoff of a message on this text is helping the congregation realize that God worked through Joseph's focus and discipline to ensure the survival of God's chosen people, and thus helped Joseph live beyond himself and beyond his time!
When our sermons teach our congregants how to eliminate debt and build savings we not only help them gain control over their finances, but we also empower them to use their resources to partner with Christ in doing God's will on earth—and that is an act of grace.
Draw People to Invest in a Higher Calling
Our message is a means of grace when it draws people to fearlessly invest their lives in a higher calling. Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6:19-21 points us heavenward, but if we're not careful we can turn this point of grace into a barb. Jesus cautioned that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We sometimes use his words to make the point that if we're not careful we will love our treasure more than we love Jesus—I confess that I have preached that very message with predictable results.
But as I think about it, I have never seen a bumper sticker on a parishioner's car that said ''I Love My 401k,” never been in a kitchen where the refrigerator proudly displayed photographs of the family's finest silver or the wife's mink coat, never had a parishioner take me in the living room, get all misty-eyed and say, “Have I ever shown you these pictures of my bank statements?” Jesus is getting at the importance of investing in the things of heaven—God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven—rather than in the stuff of earth. It is not so much a matter of refraining from having an emotional attachment to our money as it is a matter of orienting our lives towards the things of heaven rather than the stuff of earth. Sermons that raise our sights will draw on that deep, but sometimes hidden, well of outrageous generosity imbedded in us at creation. And preaching that draws that hidden generosity upward is an act of grace.
Preaching on money is only intimidating when we enter the pulpit with an incorrect set of assumptions about our parishioners and a misunderstanding of the goal of our preaching. Our preaching on money can help our members live beyond themselves and beyond their time. Our preaching on money can be a means of grace through which the Holy Spirit liberates our innate generosity, frees people from debilitating debt, and draws us to invest in God's kingdom and thus partner with Christ in the new creation.
Bruce Emmert is Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Leavenworth, Kansas. This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider.