I don’t usually talk theology while I’m working. But last Sunday, as I took in the broad, airy, blue-tinged church interior before the service, executive pastor Lance Stratton approached me. “I’m doing the hardest thing in the world today,” he told me after we’d chatted a bit. “I’m preaching about money.”
I tried to sympathize. “I have a friend who is fond of quoting the line from Scripture about alms covering a multitude of sins.”
“That’s where the Catholic Church got its idea about indulgences,” he replied.
“But it’s in there, right?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. So, are you buying forgiveness? Or does the giving change your heart?”
“Or is it sacrifice?” I asked back.
“That would make a good study,” he concluded.
When I took my seat, an old friend of Stratton’s leaned forward and introduced himself, and I mentioned the sermon topic. “It all belongs to God,” he said with a smile. A minute later, he read me a bit from the prophet Haggai as proof: “‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine, declares the Lord.... He who earns wages earns wages to put them in a bag with holes in it.’ You can’t take it with you.”
Before the money talk, there was music, the silver jangle of guitar strings, and the rattling thump of a kick drum giving life to “Holy Is the Lord” and “Mighty to Save.” “Shine your light and/ let the whole world see/ We’re singing/ for the glory of the risen King...”
“This place is filled with Your glory,” said the worship leader. “Thank You that You’ve brought us together just to hang out with You and be with one another and hear Your word, sown into our hearts.... I ask Your blessings on Pastor Lance, as he brings the message that You put on his heart to preach.”
Stratton’s sermon stressed putting first things first, starting with what Jesus called the “first and greatest commandment”: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.... This is where we must begin,” he said, “by being sold out to God.” He quoted Second Corinthians: “They gave themselves up first to the Lord.” “I’m all over Scripture today,” he noted, “because I really want you to realize these are God’s words and not mine.”
Back to Corinthians: “Trust the Lord with all your heart....” “It all begins with that first word, trust.... God can do whatever God wants to do. My hope is that all of us will leave here feeling like it’s possible to get next to God, to live in that place where crazy things happen, especially where it relates to money.”
Putting God first provided context for the hard part, taken from Proverbs: “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops.” “God wants the very best from us,” said Stratton. “That’s what He’s asking for. He’s worthy of it, and we need to give it to Him.” Otherwise, “we’re outside of His will,” giving Him “our dregs, what’s left over.”
Stratton warned of barriers to trust, including ingratitude and indebtedness, the latter of which held power to yoke us to the world and keep us from doing God’s work. “I know that for some of us, these words hold conviction and shame. Some of us are there, and we don’t know what to do about it. I have really good news for you: God wants us to be able to succeed in this area. If you begin to do first things first, right where you are, no matter the conditions, you’re going to put yourself right smack in the middle of God’s will for your life, and things will begin to happen.” Citing Malachi 3:10, Stratton offered: “God says, ‘Go ahead and try Me on this.’”
In closing, Stratton invited financially troubled congregants to consider joining a small group that was working through David Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover. And as the band started up again, he put forth a personal invitation: “God wants to meet you right where you’re at, and our church wants to be a help in that and not a hindrance. If God has spoken to you, and you’d like me to pray with you, come up and we’ll say some special prayers, and I’ll get you hooked up with people that can help.”
What happens when we die?
“I believe we live once,” said Stratton. “And then we go before God, I believe immediately, and we face judgment, based on our life. And here’s the key — if we’ve given our life to Christ, I think that covers the judgment. All the stuff that would keep us away from God no longer does. I defend the cross in that one thing more than anything else.”
— Matthew Lickona
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Address: 6090 Santo Road, Tierrasanta, 858-268-0545
Founded locally: about 60 years ago
Senior pastor: Matt Sparks
Congregation size: 100
Staff size: 4, including part-time
Sunday school enrollment: 20
Annual budget: pending
Weekly giving: $2891 last week
Singles program: no
Dress: mostly casual, some semiformal
Diversity: majority Caucasian, but diverse
Sunday worship: 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour