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Our Deficit Problem

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on February 27, 2011.
Psalm 131; Matthew 6:24-34; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

In case you haven’t noticed, it seems like everybody these days has a deficit problem.  Individuals are struggling to get out of debt, and so are businesses.  Many of us have heard about the budget deficit in the state of Wisconsin because of the high profile, Mexican standoff between the governor of Wisconsin and the public-sector unions.   But the truth is most state governments, including North Carolina’s, are buried under a mountain of debt.  So for, that matter, are many churches and denominations.  Our own church is extremely fortunate in this regard, as thanks to generous giving and restrained spending we essentially broke even in 2010, and our church is debt-free.

Our nation is not so fortunate.  As of January 31, 2011, the United States debt was $14.13 trillion, twelfth highest of all the nations in the world.  On paper, that’s over $45,000 owed by each citizen of the United States.  As you know, our national deficit problem is the source of much political debate these days. But don’t worry —tempting as it is to weigh in on this weighty matter, I am  not addressing our national deficit today!      

I want to talk about a different kind of deficit—a deficit even more disturbing than our national debt.   Let me ask you to reach into your pockets, pocketbooks, or billfolds and pull out any kind of American currency—a penny, nickel, dime, quarter, fifty-cent piece, dollar bill, etc.  If you were to examine any or  every coin or a dollar bill, you would find a common phrase imprinted on each one. 

Anybody know what that phrase is?  In God We Trust.  Since 1956, the motto of the United States has been, In God We Trust, and it has been imprinted on all our currency ever since. 

Now, I’m glad our nation has such a motto.  But I can’t help but believe that Jesus would find it terribly ironic that we Americans print In God We Trust on our money.  Because as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 6, money is the number one rival to God for our hearts. 

The question Jesus raises in the Sermon on the Mount is, “Who will be God in your life—God or money?”  One thing is for sure—it can’t be both.  Yes, of course you can work for a living and work for God.  But you can’t be supremely loyal to both God and money.  As Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.   You cannot serve both God and wealth.”

Now the truth is, if you judge us by our actions rather than our words, most American Christians are more devoted to money than God.  Recent surveys indicate only six percent of church members tithe, or give ten percent of their income to the work of the Lord through the church.  The average church member gives 2.6 percent of his or her after-tax income to the church, and most keep the remaining 97.4 percent for themselves. 

What that ratio tells me is that our most significant deficit problem is the deficit of trust we have in God.  It’s not that we don’t believe in God…few of us are true atheists.  The problem is we don’t trust the God we believe in to care for us and our needs.  That means we are “practical atheists,” professing our belief in God but behaving as though we can only count on ourselves and our efforts to provide for our needs. 

Jesus sees this trust deficit for what it is—our fundamental problem in life.  “Therefore I tell you” Jesus says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what your will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”  Let’s be clear about what Jesus is saying and not saying.  He’s not saying your physical needs are unimportant—they are.  He’s not saying it’s not proper to work for a living or plan ahead—it is.  What Jesus is saying is that we are not to be consumed with these issues because obsessing over them means we trust ourselves and not our God.  Since we on average keep over 97% of our money, our perhaps currency should read, “In Ourselves We Trust.”

Someone has noted that in scripture two mindsets are laid out as fundamental options for the human race.  The mindset of faith says, “You can trust God.  You can trust that God’s goodness and power are sufficient for your life, and live with a sense of relaxed confidence in him.”  The other option, the mindset of worry, says “When push comes to shove you are on your own.  You are on your own to provide for yourself and your family.  You are on your own to protect yourself from harm.  You can talk about God all you want, but you have nobody to count on but yourself.” 

Friends, on this Stewardship Commitment Sunday, your choice is not  just between giving and not giving your time, talent, and treasure to the church.  Your fundamental choice is between trusting God and worrying about yourself.  Which will it be?

Until recently I was barely aware of Psalm 131.  But I confess I have fallen in love with this very brief word from God.  If you are looking for a model of trust in scripture, look no further than Psalm 131:2 that says, I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. 

Can you conceive a clearer picture of trust than a baby who’s just finished nursing and is now leaning against his mother?  Or a weaned child who knows implicitly she can trust her mother for all her needs?  There’s no trust deficit here in these relationships.  This is trust at its deepest level.

This kind of trust, spiritually speaking can only be developed by regularly feeding on the loving presence of God in solitude and silence, in prayer and meditation.   As we lean against God and get quiet in our souls, God heals our anxieties and calms our worries.  And over time we become mature and secure enough in our faith to focus not so much on making a living as making a life with God.

And making a life with God involves focusing on God’s top priority for us in this life—bringing his kingdom on earth, even as it is in heaven.  To be “worried” in the Greek literally means to be double-minded, trying to live with two or more number one priorities.  But to be formed into the image of Christ means to share Jesus’ focus on the kingdom of God.  As Jesus says, “Strive (seek) first (for) the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you.”

God created us to be organized around some focus.  Some try to organize themselves around money.  Or work.  Or pleasure.  Or possessions.  Or fame.  But none of these organizing principles work in the long run.  Ironically, they just create more anxiety.

Jesus is reminding us that we are created by God to be organized around the kingdom of God.  Doing the work of the kingdom—reaching the lost, discipling the new Christian, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, loving the unloved—that’s what we are created for.  Do you really think earning the most money and building the nicest house in town will satisfy your soul? 

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, we are all ultimately accountable to God for what we do with our lives.  We have a finite amount of time, and energy, resources and talents.  We can write whatever we want on our commitment cards.  But at the end of the day, God will know what we’re giving and what we’ve done. And hopefully, at the end of our lives we will hear, “Well-done, good and faithful servant.”

So, my friends, the question I put before you today is this—“If the kingdom of God were actually the organizing principle of your life, how would you use your God-given time, and treasure, and talent for the work of the kingdom in this church?”  Oh, and here’s an added question I am asking myself—“When I have completed my commitment cards regarding finances and service, will I honestly be able to inscribe upon them, In God I Trust?”

I hope so.