October 11, 2015

Wise Investing

Has anyone seen the movie Blast from the Past?  It came out about 15 years ago.  It featured Brendan Frasier and Alicia Silverstone in a movie about a man (Christopher Walken) who, in 1962 and fearing the start of World War III, locks himself and his wife in an elaborate and incredibly well-stocked underground bunker for 35 years.  During that time they have a son whom they name Adam (Frasier) and raise him to adulthood.  Finally, as the 35 years are drawing to a close, their supplies starting to run low, and their grown son pushing to explore some of the world outside, they open the doors and send him out for two months to gather supplies and intel and, should he be so fortunate, a wife to bring back to the bunker with him.  What the family didn’t know is that World War III never happened, and instead of emerging into some Mars-like post-apocalyptic wasteland, he emerges into a 1990s urban Los Angeles neighborhood driven by a host of worldview beliefs that in the 1960s had not yet trickled down to the general population.  In other words, a man who thought Leave It to Beaver was a pretty accurate view of the world emerges into one much more aptly captured by Sex in the City.  He is incredibly polite, extremely well educated (for 1962), and totally naïve about pretty much everything that has to do with social interactions (especially girls).  During his foray he meets a woman (Silverstone) named Eve—get it—who is crude, worldly, and deeply cynical about life.  Curious about this odd stranger who seems to have walked out of a TV Land sitcom, she helps him experience a bit of the world and gather the supplies his father told him to get.  And, because it is a romantic comedy after all, the pair eventually fall in love.

One of the funnier scenes in the movie comes when Eve discovers some stock certificates that Adam had brought out of the bunker with him.  From an earlier conversation with his father he thinks they are simply worthless trinkets from the past; a novelty item with his name on them.  They were valuable when they were purchased, but since the companies were probably all destroyed in the war they don’t matter anymore.  What they turn out to be are 10,000 shares each of IBM, AT&T, Polaroid, and some other companies all with at least 35 years of value on them.  What he thought was just a collection of worthless pieces of paper turned out to be some incredibly wise investments now worth millions upon millions of dollars.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to have had a crystal ball 50 years ago so that you could have done some investing like that?  I mean, just imagine if you had been able to get in on the ground floor of Microsoft or Starbucks or Google or Facebook or Twitter or any other company like that.  While only a handful of folks really understand the power of wise investing and even fewer actually take part in it, making really smart investments can be an incredibly powerful tool for building fabulous amounts of wealth.  If we can get invested in the right things at the right times we can easily leave ourselves set for life.  But, as ripe with potential as investing is, it always brings with it an element of risk.  Simply put: we don’t know the future.  The whole idea of investing is that we are banking on the future turning out in a certain way.  The best investors have an uncanny ability to correctly predict the future.  For the rest of us, though, when we put money out there planning on things turning out a certain way we may or may not be right.  And if not, we may lose our investment.  Depending on the size of the investment that could be devastating.  Think back to the beginning of the Great Recession when businesses were folding left and right and the stock market was dropping like a stone.  Lots and lots of people lost years’ and years’ worth of investment.  That’s hard to come back from.

But what if there was a way to make an investment that came with a guaranteed payout.  I’m not talking about the latest and greatest “sure thing.”  I’m not even talking about an investment scheme where the principle is secure so that at the very worst you end up back where you started.  I’m talking about an investment that really and truly comes with an absolute guarantee of a return that far exceeds your initial input.  Would you be interested in it?  Of course you would.  Who wouldn’t be?  This morning I’d like to talk with you about what exactly this investment is and how you can be a part of it.

We know about this investment from the writings of the apostle Paul.  Most of the letters Paul wrote were to whole communities of believers.  But there were a few letters we have that were written to single individuals.  One of these was to his young protégé, Timothy who was serving as a pastor in Ephesus.  Paul wrote with instructions on how he could lead a church well and keep it from falling into heresy.  The letter is generally really practical in its application (although not without a few interpretive thorns), but right near the end Paul ramps up the practicality to eleven and offers this almost Proverbs-like list of instructions for Timothy to follow in his ministry.  If you will grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and turn to 1 Timothy 6 you can look at some of these with me.

He offers Timothy the reassurance that he is well-rooted in the truth and that folks who either teach or simply live by any other doctrine are “puffed up with conceit and understand nothing.”  These folks “have an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth.”  I sure wish Paul would say what he means.  He encourages Timothy to “fight the good fight of the faith,” and to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”  He exhorts him to keep pursuing the faith with diligence until Jesus returns.

In other words, he has a lot to say in a pretty short amount of time.  It would seem, then, that with so much to say, he wouldn’t want to waste his time coming back to a subject more than once and if he did then that must be a really important subject.  Well, as it turns out, Paul does hit a subject twice in this litany of advice.  And that subject is money.  His goal is to warn Timothy about the dangers that money can pose to a healthily lived out Christian faith.  You see what Paul knew was that there is no single greater threat to a person’s walk with God than money.  There is nothing in this world that competes so much for the devotion of our hearts than money and the stuff it can acquire for us.

In order to address this, Paul eases into it by talking about contentment.  Look at this in v. 6: “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.  But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.  It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”

Now, I could preach a whole sermon on just that bit.  It’s rich with both theological and practical value.  But that’s not where I want to stop this morning.  Do you see where he’s going with this?  This is not Paul being anti-wealth or anything like that.  He’s talking about not making acquiring wealth our first priority.  That doesn’t tell us anything new or shocking, though.  Although getting rich certainly isn’t a bad thing, putting a desire to get rich above other desires can lead to problems.  It leads us to make dumb choices that usually land us both poorer and generally worse off than when we started.  Paul is not against being rich, he’s just saying here that if you aren’t rich, don’t put getting rich too high up on your to do list.  Simple enough, right?

But what about the folks who are already rich?  What are they supposed to do?  How should they handle their wealth?  Paul saves this one for just nearly the end of the letter.  Look down to v. 17 and check this out with me: “As for the rich in this present age…”  Now, before you check out with self-comforting reassurance that you’re not rich and so these words don’t apply to you, let’s get just a bit of perspective.  The average household income here in Virginia last year was $66,155.  I admit: That may not have helped you feel like this applies to you.  Let’s try this: The average household income in the U.S. in 2014 was $53,657.  We must have a bunch of rich people in the Commonwealth, right?  But for some of you, you may not feel rich yet.  We live in the wealthiest country that has ever existed in the whole history of the world.  It’s easy to not feel very rich here. So, since most you are probably still feeling well below average let’s try this: the global annual household income sits at around $10,000.  Feeling richer now?  Let me see if I can push this a bit further.  The median (meaning half the population falls above this line and half below it—using the median instead of the average prevents some really wealthy or else really poor people from making things look better or worse than they actually are) household income in the interior African nation of Burundi is $673.  That’s about $1.84 a day.  In other words, for many Burundians, it would have cost an entire day’s wages just to get from your house to church this morning by car.  Getting home would cost another day’s work.  Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine having to work for two days just to be able to come to church?  The congregation would probably be smaller, but it would be a lot more devoted.  Feeling richer yet?   Speaking of coming to church, if you drove here in a car you own, you’re rich.  If you turned on a TV in more than one room this morning—meaning you have a TV in more than one room—you’re rich.  If you were able to eat a nice, big breakfast this morning and still have enough food in your house that you will be able to eat lunch and dinner without having to go to the store…you’re rich.  If perhaps you don’t because it’s grocery day, but you can go to the store pretty much whenever you want and pick up whatever you need to feed your family, you’re rich.  Should I go on?

The point is that all of us here are rich.  We may not always feel it in a culture where there are a lot of people a whole lot richer than us, but compared to the rest of the world we might as well be Scrooge McDuck swimming in our money vault.  Thus, when Paul says, “As for the rich in this present age,” he’s talking about us.  In this present age, we’re rich.

With that settled, what exactly does Paul have to say to these folks…to us folks?  Stay with me here in the text: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.”  This seems simple enough, right?  If you are rich…and we are rich…we shouldn’t make our stuff the foundation point for our confidence.  Don’t think you’re something because you have a lot of stuff.  Also, don’t sink your hope into your wealth.  Money is a temporary thing.  It can disappear incredibly quickly.  If we rest our hope on what we have we will find ourselves disappointed and deeply so in short order.  Instead, we should place our full hope and faith on the God who owns everything and provides abundantly for His people for what?  For our enjoyment.  He gives us things for us to enjoy them.  That’s important, by the way.  If you have stuff, it’s okay to enjoy it.  Just remember whose it really is while you do.

But Paul’s not done.  He goes on to give some more commands to rich people and listen closely here because he’s about to show us this investment that always pays and never fails.  Verse 18: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works to be generous and ready to share…”  In other words, rich people, instead of thinking their stuff is intended to be solely for them, are to be intentionally about doing good with it (which is the best way to do good with it).  Look, though, at the result of this in v. 19: “…thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”

That’s it.  If you want to truly be rich, if you want to make the single most secure investment you will ever in your entire life make, the trick is to do as much good with what you have as possible.  The more good you do, the richer you will be; the more of life you will enjoy; the more fully you will live.  If you will take your money and invest it richly in doing good—in kingdom advancing projects—then no matter how much you may have left to use in this life, you will be building up a larger and larger treasure when the final kingdom arrives.  What this means is that contrary to popular opinion, the richest people do the most good.  The richest people are the ones doing the most good in the world around them.  The richest people do the most good.

Still, though, this begs a natural question: how?  How can I do the most good with the money I have?  While there could perhaps be a number of ways to answer that question, I think they can all be boiled down to something very simple: give it away.  It can’t do any good for others as long as it is in your hands.  It can only serve you then.  If you want to do good with your money and thus make this investment that always pays and never fails, you need to give it away.

Do you remember what I said about money just a second ago, though?  There is nothing in this world that competes with God so much to be the chief desire of our heart as money.  What that means is that giving money away is hard.  Sometimes it’s really hard.  When bills are piling up and we’re feeling the pressure that comes with facing the reality of having more month than money, giving it away is the furthest thing from our minds.  We’re feeling poor when we want to feel rich.  Our culture tells us over and over that if we want to feel rich we need to have more, not give more.  And yet, the richest people do the most good for other people with their money and it can’t do any good for anybody but us if it’s sitting in our bank account (and frankly it won’t do us but so much good sitting there either).  Well, this simultaneous need for giving combined with the challenge of giving means that giving is a discipline.  Disciplines take…discipline in order to achieve and do well.  They require us to put them into practice and then gradually increase our load of them in order to grow in our ability to do them.  For the rest of our time together this morning, then, I want to give you some tools and some challenges to help you put this discipline into practice in your lives in ways that will leave you richer than you’ve ever been before.  The richest people do the most good; here’s, then, how you can be rich.

The first tool is that giving has to be a priority.  You have to make it a priority.  What does that mean?  It means that it has to come before other things.  On our DVR we have dozens of shows set to record.  The boys have cartoons that are always coming on and Lisa and I each have a variety of shows that come on at various times during the year.  Whenever I set something new to record I get a little message that pops up and warns me that the new show is at the bottom of the priority list.  This means that if there is a conflict between it and another show higher up on the list, the other show is going to get the nod.  If I want to change that I have to go into the settings and bump the new show up to the top of the priority list.  Giving needs to be at or near the top of your priority list when it comes to money.   There are tons and tons of other things you can do with your money than give it away and do good with it.  The options are nearly endless.  Now, they are all variations on spending it, but the list of things on which you can spend your money stretches from here to the moon and back.  If giving is not a priority for you then when something else comes up…and something else always comes up…you will put it aside in favor of this other thing.  It’s like with exercise.  If you make exercising a goal but don’t really make it a priority, then when something else comes up…and something else always comes up…you’re not going to exercise.  I’m not necessarily saying it needs to be number one on the list.  It’s between you and God where exactly it goes.  But I am saying that it has to be near the top or else it won’t happen.

The second tool is to set your giving at a percentage of your income.  I’m really not concerned with the particular percentage you choose, but you need to choose one and go with it.  Ten percent is a great place to start although I think the New Testament moves away from that as the goal and in the direction of more generally sacrificial giving.  The reason for that is that while ten percent may represent a sacrifice for you, it also may not, and settling at a percentage that is truly sacrificial is more important than getting to or staying at ten percent.  The reason picking a percentage is so important is because it allows your giving to be both consistent and accurately reflective of your current financial realities.  If your income suddenly grows…so does your giving.  You don’t have to worry about falling back into something not sacrificial.  If it suddenly shrinks, though…so does your giving.  You don’t have to worry about bankrupting yourself by sticking with a giving plan that’s beyond your financial reach at the moment.  You don’t have to worry about getting discouraged and giving up because you can’t hit the amount you set as your goal anymore.  So again, the second tool for doing the most good with your money so that you can be as rich as possible is to pick a percentage of your income and that let be the amount you give.

The third and final tool is to make that percentage progressive.  You do still need to pick a percentage and you need to stick with that.  But eventually you need to get a new percentage.  One that is larger and more challenging.  Let’s say you set a goal for yourself of running a marathon in one year’s time.  That’s a great goal.  You make it a priority and commit yourself to a strict training regime.  Since you’ve never run before in your life, you start by running a mile a day.   That’s a good place to start.  (If you’re interested that’s about seven times around the edge of the church parking lot.)  The mile is tough at first, but over time it gets easier and easier.  Your time starts to get faster and faster until eventually you can run a mile in about five and a half minutes.  That’s a great mile time period, let alone for a marathon.  But, if after a year’s time you’re still just running a mile a day you’re not going to be ready to run that marathon.  You’re going to be ready to run a mile.  If your goal is to make the biggest investment possible in the kingdom of God such that you are able to be as rich as possible by doing the most good possible with the money you have, making giving a priority and picking a sacrificial percentage are a great place to start.   But if you never move from that spot what will happen is that over time you will get used to that money not being there.  You’ll build your financial household around it being gone and eventually you won’t even miss it anymore.  When you don’t miss it anymore it will start to slide down on the list of priorities.  Other things will come up and giving will eventually be left by the wayside.  But, if you keep progressively inching that percentage up over time, you will always notice it; giving will always stay a priority; you will find your faith growing with it; you will find yourself thinking in terms of giving and making plans around it; and you’ll find yourself truly wealthier than you’ve ever imagined you could be.  The richest people do the most good and you’ll be one of those.

Challenge time and then we’re out of here.  First, if giving is not a priority for you, change that.  Make giving a priority.  Put it ahead of as many other financial things as you can.  I don’t care how much you have, until you do this you will stay poor.  Second, if you are not practicing percentage giving already, take up the practice.  Start with 1% if you have to, but pick a percentage and go with it.  Third, if you are a faithful giver already, my challenge to you is to give more.  And not because I want to try and squeeze blood from a turnip.  I don’t want something from you, I want something for you.  I want for you to experience the joy and wonder of living high on the spiritual hog.  I want for you to be able to be incredibly, mind-blowingly rich when it counts most.  I want for you to be an integral part in what God is doing through this community of believers.  I want for this community to take the money specifically designated to missions and double it over the next ten years so that as a whole community we are mimicking the kind of kingdom investment we are making individually.  I want for us to become not simply a well-known part of the Church Road community, but an absolutely essential part of it.  In just about every community in the world, the richest people are considered the most indispensable.  I want for that to be us…not because we have the most stuff, but because we are doing the most good.  The richest people do the most good.  Let’s be rich together.