Reading the Fine Print (sermon 11/9/14)

fine print

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people… “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”
– Joshua 24 (excerpts)

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One of the first things I did when I arrived here in town was to open a checking account and a savings account at a local bank. Since I knew I wouldn’t have a permanent address for a couple of months, I gave the bank my Ohio address as the official mailing address. Now I’m probably like you; I generally try to leave enough in my checking account for all the known expenses and a small cushion, and then put the rest in the savings account. But when I went back on the trip to Ohio to do the final packing and getting the movers all loaded up to bring my stuff up here, there were a series of additional unexpected expenses that I needed to cover. So, just as I’d always done in the past when this kind of thing happened, I hopped on my smartphone, onto my banking app, and just transferred a bit more money from savings to checking to cover things. This actually happened four times during the whole move process.

As part of the moving transition, since I knew I wouldn’t have a permanent address here for a couple of months, I’d instructed the Post Office to forward my mail here, to the church. And shortly after I got back here in town, I was in the office one day and I got an official-looking piece of mail from my new bank. It was a notice that I’d exceeded my allowable number of transfers from one account to another for the month, and that they assessed me a service fee of fifteen dollars for having done that. While that was annoying enough, this particular bank won’t send notices like this via email, so they’d sent this notice through the mail, first to my Ohio address, which took a couple of days, which then forwarded back here, which took a couple more days, and by the time I’d gotten the first notice, I’d already made the other excess transfers. Before it was all said and done, I ended up paying my new bank for four of those excess transfers before I’d even realized I had a limit on them – I never did in the past. In fact, I ended up being assessed more in service fees from my new bank in one week, than I’d paid to my old bank in thirty years.

I was not a happy camper. At first, I thought about going into the bank and complaining, but I knew that they would just tell me that those were the terms and conditions I’d agreed to when I opened the accounts. This particular bank has a lot of boilerplate fine print that you have to accept when you start banking with them. Honestly, I think there was more legalese to supposedly wade through just to open a bank account than it took for my ex-wife and I to get our divorce. Be that as it may, and as mad as I was – and still am – at my new bank for its ridiculous penalties, I knew that in the end, it was really my fault. I hadn’t read the fine print. I hadn’t paid attention to the full implications of our agreement, and I didn’t have anyone to blame but myself for the consequences.

Being aware of the fine print is what our Lectionary text from the Book of Joshua is about. The Book of Joshua tells the story of the Israelites’ finally ending their wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership, to occupying the land of Canaan under the military leadership of Joshua. First, the Book tells a story of the victories over the tribes of people whose land they were taking over. After that’s accomplished in the story, then we hear how all the land was to be divided among the tribes of Israel, and that the people settled down on the land had enjoyed many years with no opposition. Finally, we get to the part of the Book that includes today’s Lectionary text. Joshua is now an old man, he knows he doesn’t have much longer to live, and he calls the leaders of the tribes of Israel together for his final thoughts. It would have been something like George Washington’s farewell address to the American people when he retired from public life; Joshua would have been seen in a similar light to the Israelites. And once they’re all together, he tells them that they’re going to have to decide what god they would follow; either Yahweh, the God of Moses, or one of the other gods worshiped in the cultures surrounding them. There were a number of these other gods – we hear in the scriptures about Ashera and Ba’al, and there were others; and they weren’t just limited to the other cultures. Many of the Israelites themselves were sort of hedging their bets when it came to religion and were worshiping Yahweh and some of the other gods at the same time. Joshua tells them boldly that as for him and his family, they would follow Yahweh, but they were all going to have to decide for themselves. Surely, he tells them, they’ve seen firsthand the power and greatness of Yahweh, who, according to the story, had brought them success on the battlefield against all their opponents so they could occupy their land. But they also needed to know that Yahweh was a God who placed expectations on his followers. If these people said they followed God, but they didn’t really do what God expected of them, they would suffer the consequences. This God expected loyalty and obedience, he warned them, and told them he wasn’t sure they could actually pull it off, so he cautioned them to choose carefully. Joshua was telling the Israelites to read the fine print, to understand the terms and conditions, the consequences, of deciding to follow the God of Moses – our God.

Sometimes it’s hard to focus on that aspect of following God. We want to focus on love, and mercy, and grace; and talking about the expectations that God has of us can sometimes rub us the wrong way. It can sound like we have to do certain things in order to earn God’s favor, or that we’re supposed to do good deeds to appease an angry God. It isn’t that at all, really; it’s just that God expects us to live with gratitude for what God has already done in our lives. And God wants that gratitude to show itself in every aspect of our lives – in our thoughts, in our actions. And that includes our finances.

This week, you’ll all be getting some information in the mail about our stewardship campaign. When you get it, and you read through it, I’d ask you to really think about Joshua’s words to the Israelites here. Are we considering the full implications of our saying that we’ve chosen to follow God? Are we prioritizing our finances in a way that pleases God? Are we giving enough to support God’s purpose for this congregation? Are we giving at a level that’s needed to reach out to the community beyond our own doors and draw them into our church family? Are we giving enough to have adequate programming for our youth? Are we simply trying to maintain the status quo, or are we giving at a level that allows the church to grow? That’s what it all really comes down to, because the simple, hard truth is that there is no such thing as a church maintaining the status quo – if a church isn’t growing, it’s dying. If a church, we aren’t stepping up to the challenge of reaching out to new people and growing, and being willing to support the church financially at a level that allows that, then we’ll end up being just a congregational dead man walking – a continually shrinking social club waiting for the last surviving member to turn off the lights and lock the door behind them when they leave. We’ll become an asterisk in history, another sad memory of another congregation in the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery that folded.

Some pastors are squeamish about talking about the financial needs of the church. I’m not one of them. We need money in order to do what we do here, in order to live out God’s purpose for us being here. Maybe these words sound harsh. Maybe they are harsh. But harsh or no, it doesn’t make them any less true, or any less important for us to think about as disciples – followers – of God through Christ. Remember, Jesus himself talked a lot – a LOT – about using our money in ways that pleases God. Someone once did the math, and calculated that if a pastor preached about financial stewardship through the year in the same proportion as the amount of time Jesus taught about it, there would be 17 sermons a year about this subject – a full third of the year. You’d run me out of town if I did that. But you get the point. The way we use our money is important to God.

All that we have has come from God, and with the intent of using it wisely. So when you get your stewardship campaign information, please consider it carefully. Consider the question that Joshua asks us, across the ages: what god do we serve? Do we take the financial gifts that God has entrusted to us, and serve other gods with them? Financial stewardship isn’t just giving to help meet a budget. It’s actually a spiritual discipline that expands our ability to trust in God, rather than trusting in our own bank account balance. Pray about how you’ll support the church next year. Pray for God to help you see your financial priorities in different ways; ways more aligned with being a child of the Kingdom of God.

If we step out in faith and increase our financial support of the mission of this church, God will bless our efforts. Not in the crass way that “prosperity gospel” preachers claim; God isn’t going to shower you with riches, fame, and fortune if you give to the church. God won’t send you $1000 next week if you give him a hundred today. But through the discipline of giving faithfully, through the trust that we place in God by putting our money where our mouths are, over time we really will experience the deepening of our faith, and a deepening of our experience of God in our lives. That’s what God promises us. And that’s a promise that we can all take to the bank.

Thanks be to God.

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