“What Would Jesus Buy?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 11, 2016: Advent 3
Money, politics, and religion: these three topics are usually off limits in polite conversation. But I want to break from that today by suggesting that for people of faith, there is a strong connection between all three—money, politics, and religion—and an especially strong connection between our religion and how we spend our money. You’ve heard the question, “What would Jesus do?” but have you ever considered, “What would Jesus buy?”.
At this time each year we are flooded with images and statistics like what we just saw in that video. These images and statistics focused on the global crisis of contaminated water. According to UNICEF, every 15 seconds a child dies because they lack access to clean water. Fortunately, UNICEF estimates that their work and the work of their partner agencies has provided access to clean water to more than 2.6 billion people since 1990. Two things make their work possible: a belief, or religious conviction, that access to clean water is a basic human right, and enough money to make that belief come to life.
Clean water is just one thing that comes into view this time of year, though. In order to address the needs of the homeless, of families who cannot afford to celebrate Christmas, and to provide job training and health services, the Salvation Army stations a person outside of just about every store in town from Thanksgiving to Christmas ringing a bell, collecting loose change in a red kettle. It would be odd to see this in the heat of summer, right? If your mail is anything like mine, there are at least three to four letters a week that come in the month of December asking for money. This week I received letters from the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, Princeton Seminary, and Heifer International. One is asking for money to feed hungry people, another to continue training ministers for the church, and the other to support sustainable agriculture in developing countries. In my email this morning, I received messages from World Vision, Operation Christmas Child, and the Wounded Warriors project, all asking to be remembered in my holiday giving.
Why is it that most organizations ask for money this time of year? What is it about Christmas and other religious holidays that make December the perfect month to ask for donations and gifts? Well, I think it is partly because most of us ramp up our spending this time of year. Whether from a feeling of obligation or a desire to show gratitude, all of us give a little more this time of year—and organizations are good at playing on our sentimentality. One flier I read this week asked me to considering buying a cow for a family in Africa instead of a bigger television. A little guilt, peppered with some pride that you’re doing something good, perhaps helps you to dig deeper into your pocket. After all, a cow for an impoverished family will sustain them for 5 or 6 years; the TV is just for entertainment and isn’t really necessary in order to live.
I try not to be a skeptical person, and while I think a lot of organizations rely on guilt and sentimentality this time of year to float their budgets, I think there is something deeper going on here. And that deeper thing has to do with the world-changing message of Christmas. Whether an organization claims Christian doctrine as their guide or not, I think there is a general understanding that Christ’s birth changed the world in a real way and changed the people who follow him. Take for example the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. Getting behind this organization financially is not difficult. Though they are not an explicitly Christian organization, their work is extremely sacred. Feeding hungry people, feeding people at all, was something Jesus did routinely throughout his ministry. In this way, it is easy for people of Christian faith to give their money to the Regional Food Bank. The work they are doing is something that is important to Jesus. Sentimentality and guilt aside, giving money to organizations that do work that is important to Jesus is easy for us, and even more so during the time of year when we celebrate his birth, when we celebrate how his birth changed us and the world.
Determining whether or not an organization is doing work that is important Jesus, and whether we should support them financially or not, is not quite as easy. Luckily, we have a great guide in Mary, the mother of Jesus. A few months pregnant with Jesus, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth who was a few months away from giving birth to John the Baptist. When Mary entered Elizabeth’s home, John jumped in Elizabeth’s womb and she sang out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Mary also sang: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary’s song continues with praise for God’s faithfulness throughout the generations, and praise for God’s mercy on those who fear the Lord. Mary sings of God’s strength— strength that is shown in scattering the proud; strength that is shown in bringing the powerful down from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly; strength that is shown is filling the hungry with good things, and sending the lustful away, the bloated, those who steal from the poor to make themselves rich away empty. The final verse of Mary’s song confirms that God keep promises, especially the promise made to Abraham and his descendants that a Savior would come from their family line.
Mary is not the first person in Bible to sing. Moses sang of God’s redemption when the Promised Land was ahead of him and the slavery of Egypt was behind him. Miriam also sang on the banks of the Red Sea when God led the Israelites out of Egypt. The Psalmist did nothing but sing, of the goodness and mercy of God, and also of the trials and temptations of life. When the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah received their words from the Lord, they sang to God's people, calling them to repentance and holiness in the face of sin and evil. When John the Baptist was born, his father Zechariah sang after being silent the whole time John was in the womb. Simeon and Anna, servants in the temple, sang of God’s faithfulness when Mary and Jospeh presented the baby Jesus for the Jewish rituals. And each song in the Bible has been used to formulate Christian thought on who God is, what God does, and what God calls his people to be and do. These songs, particularly the song of Mary, call us to action. When we remember God’s faithfulness and mercy, we have to go and do something about it in the world, showing that faithfulness and mercy, and love, in all that we do and say. All that we do and say in response to God’s faithfulness and mercy includes what we do with our money.
This congregation financially supports many ministries and organizations. A few come to mind as good examples of how we take Mary's song and act for God with our dollars.
The first thing that comes to my mind is our financial support of Solar Under the Sun. Solar Under the Sun is a ministry that brings clean water to places in developing countries using solar-power water pumps. Solar Under the Sun began its ministry in Haiti, but has spread to areas of Kenya, Uganda, Ukraine, and Honduras. We support them financially because we believe that their work is important to Jesus, a living example of the Gospel. Solar Under the Sun is addressing energy poverty, which is not just about turning a light bulb on an off; without energy, there is no water, and when there is no water there is no life. Our dollars with this ministry are, as Mary sings, filling the hungry—and thirsty—with good things…literally.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance also comes to mind. When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was among the first to arrive and the last to leave, with some still working there to this day. When the tornado ripped through Joplin, Missouri in 2011, PDA was there with clean water, generators, and several hundred sets of hands to aid in the recovery. In 2013, on that beautiful day in May when Moore was torn in two by a tornado, some members of this congregation and the congregation in Stillwater teamed up with PDA to give aid to their neighbors. We financially support Presbyterian Disaster Assistance because when disaster strikes, they are there, in Mary’s words, lifting up the lowly.
Locally, we bring Mary’s song to life in our support of a ministry called Gettin’ Home. Gettin’ Home is a re-entry program for women who have been released from incarceration in Oklahoma. For every 100,000 women in Oklahoma, 127 are in prison. This is more than double the national average. One of the greatest factors contributing to this is recidivism, of women being released from prison only to be convicted and imprisoned shortly after for another crime. Gettin’ Home is trying to stop this cycle. Skills training, arts programs, visitation with family and children, spiritual counseling, addiction care, and mental health services are all offered at Gettin’ Home because they believe that this will equip someone to lead a productive and crime-free life. And with less people in prison, the burden on tax payers is eased. Our dollars here are again lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, and most importantly, showing the mercy of God.
These are just a few examples. There are many more. Each, in their own way takes the good news of the Gospel off the pages of the Bible and puts it to work in the lives of God’s people.
I’m not going to tell you today where you money should go; I’m not going to tell you that one organization is more worthy than other. I’m also not going to play with your emotions to get you to reach into your pockets or open your checkbook. Rather, take my words today as a reminder. Remember that you have the power to have a significant and holy impact on the world with what you do with your money. Some say that money is the root of all evil. I’m not so sure. I think that what we do with our money is either evil or good. Consider what Jesus would buy. Would he always look for the best deal or would he look for the deal that is fair for all involved? Would Jesus buy something without any concern for where it came from, or would Jesus want to know where it came from, who made it, and at what cost? Would Jesus buy things that only serve his needs and wants, or would he consider how is money is supporting a family, a community, people with names and faces? Would Jesus spend his money on wants or needs?
On this third Sunday of Advent, we can almost hear the brush of angel’s wings against the sky as they fly to Bethlehem. Mary’s due date is fast approaching, and so is our’s. What would Jesus buy? Your answer is between you and God. But if we align our financial living with the living of our faith, not only will the world be prepared to receive Christ, it will be a place of peace, justice, and mercy. I pray that as we all shop and spend and give, we do so with Mary’s song ringing in our ears: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Amen.