The Saints who participate in The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending some time in June and July contemplating what it means for us to go on to what’s next – after the storm of the Coronavirus dissipates. In so doing, we’ll look at some key decisions regarding our faith, family, finances, and fellowship – and how we can choose to engage in those areas differently than we did prior to the interruption that the virus imposed. On July 4, we considered the financial impact that the pandemic has had – and its un-evenness. In doing so, we considered the voice of the prophet in Isaiah 55:1-7 Jas well as Paul’s advice to the Corinthian community in I Corinthians 16:1-2.
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On October 28, 1980, President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan met in Cleveland, OH, for a presidential debate. I would doubt that many people can remember a single thing that President Carter said that evening, but one of the lines uttered by Ronald Reagan has become a staple in the American political discourse for the past forty years. The retired actor looked earnestly into the cameras and asked the American people, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
That was a powerful, powerful moment in American political history. Now, so far as I’m concerned, it’s the wrong question to ask if we’re seeking to measure a society’s social and communal vibrancy, but, well, here we are. Those eleven words have become virtually canonical in American political discourse.
This month we are continuing to ask questions about who we would like to be and who we are becoming as we and our neighbors emerge from the pandemic. I wonder how you might answer “The Great Communicator’s” question today. Are you better off financially now than you were on December 31, 2019? I’m not asking you to diagnose our nation, state, city, or neighborhood, but rather to reflect on your own conditions. How are things in your home, financially? Which direction are they heading?
There are so many variables in this conversation, aren’t there? We, or those whom we know and love, have endured job loss, or received unemployment benefits; we’ve seen gas prices drop and then jump; many of us have received stimulus payments or tax credits; we’ve spent less on vacations and more on exercise equipment, perhaps.
As you think about your own family’s situation, here are some emerging trends from across the nation. We have, by and large, saved more since the onset of the pandemic. In fact, in March of 2021 the savings rate surged to 27.6%, and for the totality of the pandemic it has exceeded 12%. That compares to less than 10% in 2019. What this means, quite simply, is that many Americans are spending less than they make.
That said, however, it’s not even. While a third of our countrymen and women say that their finances have actually improved during the past 18 months, half of all Americans report having less than $250 left at the end of the month. 12% of us say we have no money left, and 29% say that our credit card debt has increased.
Even more alarming is the fact that 13% of American households with children – one in eight – have not had enough food in the past seven days. Black and brown Americans are more than twice as likely to be short on food than their white counterparts.
While many in our culture are contributing to a housing boom of epic proportions, 1 out of every 7 renters has fallen behind during the pandemic; that number jumps to 1 in 4 when we look at renters who are Black. So you see, when I ask how you are faring economically, it’s easy to realize that your experience may be categorically different than that of your neighbors.
There is, however, good news on the horizon. There are reasons for hope. New cases of the virus are down by 95%, and vaccines are available to anyone aged twelve or more. Nearly 50% of the entire population of the United States has been immunized. Economists are talking about all the ways in which consumer spending is set to take off in the weeks and months to come, saying that there is “pent-up demand” for goods and services.
And there’s more good news about our money, at least in certain respects. In spite of the economic challenges of the pandemic, Americans donated a staggering $471 billion to charity in 2020 – a new record. Giving to causes related to racial justice, environmental concerns, and education all rose significantly. It is noteworthy, particularly in the present context, to observe that giving to religious organizations, however, declined in 2020.
Now look, I don’t want to overwhelm you with statistics, but I’m telling you all of this because I think that it is vitally important for you, for me, and for all of us to think intentionally about how we will choose to behave as stewards, as financial creatures, and as participants in an economic community in a post-pandemic world. What will we choose to be doing with the blessings we’ve received?
In recent weeks I’ve referenced the experience of the Israelites who were forced to go into the exile in Babylon. I do not mean to equate our nation’s struggle against the Coronavirus with the forty-year struggle that they endured, but I do think that it’s helpful to note that the Bible has plenty to say about people who are forced to be in situations that they’d rather avoid.
The passage you’ve heard from Isaiah 55, for instance, is directed specifically to a group of people who have experienced a catastrophic upheaval. They’ve been forced into all manner of new experiences and situations involving hardship and suffering and transition, and now they are heading for home. They are beginning, after this long season of dis-orientation, to imagine what life can be like in “the after”.
The prophet speaks God’s word in the form of an invitation – “Come, all of you!” The vocabulary and structure of this summons is similar to that which might take place at the coronation of a ruler or the dedication of a temple. Isaiah is clear – the abundance of God is for everyone – the only qualification is to be hungry or thirsty.
As Israel hears this invitation, it is clear that there’s only one thing that can keep you away from this celebration: your own decision that there are, perhaps, more interesting options available to you. Maybe you think that you’ll be able to find something better on your own than that which will be offered up at the feast. Or maybe you’re interested in coming, but you wouldn’t be caught dead at a celebration if those people are going to be there.
The problem is, of course, that so often when we insist on being the captains of our own ships or the masters of our own destiny, we wind up spending ourselves on things that do not ultimately matter. Some of us know that for months or even years we longed for some free time to do things that were important to us; we wished for a season when the world would just slow down and then we’d get around to tackling that project or planting that garden or writing those letters. Some of that may have happened, but let’s be honest: all those episodes of Tiger King or The Office did not watch themselves, did they? We thought that if we had the time, we’d take care of some of that clutter that was building up. Instead, we’re on a first-name basis with the delivery-truck drivers from Amazon or Wayfair. When Isaiah talks about spending our money on that which does not satisfy, does that sound remotely familiar to you?
We each have the opportunity and the responsibility to assess how we are using the resources that are entrusted to us. We’ve always had those decisions in front of us – but now, as we engage in a number of cultural shifts, we have the ability to be intentional and deliberate about how we use the selves that we’ve been given.
Paul, writing to his friends in Corinth, suggests a rule of thumb. “Make a plan,” he seems to be saying, “to ensure that you are able to support the Lord’s work in your own community and around the world.” Sharing in God’s intention of provision for all people should not be an afterthought. Instead, he writes, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save…”
Paul’s wisdom – to his culture and to ours – is to live within our means and to live with other people in mind. Paul tells the first generation of Christ-followers that the model for giving is not merely to respond to the needs that we see, but rather to be prepared to respond to those needs of which we have not even become aware. “If you have it ready,” he says, “then when the situation calls for it, you’ll be in a position to respond.”
So I wonder, beloved, whether that is a posture that you believe is available to us – to you and me – as we emerge from this pandemic? We have the privilege of deciding who we are going to be, and how we are going to be, in 2021 and beyond. Is it possible for us to live into this kind of behavior?
As we think about that, I’d like to tell you a little bit about where we are right now. And as I do that, I’ll tell you that I know precious few specifics about people’s individual finances – and that’s ok with me. I know some things about the money that the church has, but I don’t know the precise sources of those funds. But this is what I’ve seen, and what I know.
Before the pandemic, most of the funds that came into the church did so in a manner that is as old as this building: folks came to church, they brought their wallets or their checkbooks with them, and at some point in the service, someone stood up here and said, essentially, “OK, folks, it’s time to pony up in order to keep this place running”. And the ushers came forward, passed the plates, and people participated. It was an easy thing to do, and you knew that other people were sharing in that with you. And mostly, when you were here, you gave. And mostly, when you were not here, you didn’t give.
And then, for a long time, nobody came. We’ve had to adapt to a reality where there were no ushers, no plates being passed, and no sense of whether anyone else was in it with us or not.
From what we can tell currently, there are 6 or 8 people who contribute electronically on Sunday mornings during what we call “the offertory”. More folks have taken to mailing in gifts during the week, and some of you have set up automatic transfers from your bank to the church account. Now that a few of us are finding our way back into the building, some of us are placing gifts in the plates at the back of the sanctuary.
I will note, parenthetically, that sometimes it is hard to remember to give when you’re not able to be here. If you would like information about how to be a person who gives automatically, you can speak with Ron Gielarowski or Jason Dix about doing that.
The result of all of this giving that we’ve seen in 2021 is that at the end of June, our congregation finds itself about $10,000 in the red. That is to say, in spite of our attempts to be cautious about the ways that we budgeted, we’ve spent about $10,000 more than we’ve given. I’m not saying this to be alarmist, or to stand before you as someone who thinks for a second that God can’t pay God’s bills. Rather, I’m simply trying to make you aware of the truth. So far, it’s not been a banner year for the congregational finances, and the typical trend is for June, July, and August to be the slowest three months of the year when it comes to offerings. I’m not complaining – I’m just telling you where your church stands – and I am reminding you that in large measure, we stand where we stand as a result of decisions that we’ve made individually and corporately.
As I mention this, I’d like to point out ways where this is happening well. There are places where I’ve seen you seek to offer funds in ways that clearly seek to satisfy your, and the world’s hunger.
For instance, in the first month of the pandemic I opened an envelope that had been mailed to the church addressed specifically to me. Inside was a check for a thousand dollars, along with a note that said, “We don’t know how long this is going to last, but we’re afraid that the church will be pinched. Here’s an extra gift that we hope will help you pay the salaries and keep the lights on.”
Similarly I know of a man in this community who mentioned to his wife, “You know what, honey? We probably have too much money in our checking account – we definitely have more than we need. Should we be looking for ways to give more of this away?” And so for months, they have been. Organizations and individuals alike have found some surprise gifts that came from this family’s realization that they are in a position that not all of their neighbors are.
A non-member who lives out of state and worships with us electronically ended 2020 with a significant gift to the church. The Elders and Deacons are in the process of establishing a means by which this gift can be developed into a kind of revolving fund wherein neighbors can give and receive assistance as needed. We’ve already tapped that fund to assist a neighborhood family that experienced a devastating fire.
In 2021, I have met with more than three dozen people or families who have needed financial help – they are among those I mentioned earlier who fell behind on their rent, or experienced food insecurity, or faced utility shut-offs. Working with other people in the Presbytery, our congregation has written 32 checks totaling $8739.90 to landlords and utility companies on behalf of our neighbors.
Are you better off financially now than you were in 2019? I have no idea. To be completely honest, I’m usually not aware of my own financial status. But I know that every time I’ve had the opportunity to be a giver, it has been rewarding. I have found that there is more joy in generosity than there is in miserliness. I have found gratitude to be a great balm for a troubled soul.
And so with all of that in mind, I’ll invite you to join Paul, Isaiah, and me in reflecting on and talking about your finances with the people that you love. I’d like to encourage you to be deliberate and purposeful about the ways that you spend your money and yourself. Whatever you do, give, or spend – do it because you’ve decided that thing. Do not get sucked into habits or patterns unthinkingly. Instead, let me remind you that today, and every day, you have the opportunity and responsibility to be who, and whose, you are with intentionality.
Forty years ago, Ronald Reagan asked the nation if we were better off than we had been. Today, I’m asking us to plan to be better next month than we are this month. I’m asking us to lay the foundations for satisfaction and gratitude that come as a result of being generous stewards of the abundance that we’ve received. Thanks be to God, who is the giver of all good gifts! Amen.
 The statistics in this and the previous paragraph are found here: https://www.investopedia.com/how-covid-19-changed-our-saving-and-spending-habits-5184327
 These statistics about food and rent can be found at https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-recessions-effects-on-food-housing-and