Sunday, September 30, 2007

Trust Fund Baby - 1 Timothy 6:6-19

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment: for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and to Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time – he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Focusing: Our practices around money
I need everyone to get their wallets out this morning, as the beginning of the sermon is a little more interactive than usual. As I name a particular credit card and its slogan, if you possess one or more of that particular card, I’d like for you to hold it up.

“There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Master Card.” “Visa: It’s everywhere you want to be.” “It pays to Discover.” “American Express: Don’t Leave Home Without It.”

The credit card has become our lifeline to economic freedom. It’s more convenient than cash, most cards provide rewards and incentives to their cardholders, the cardholder is protected against fraudulent purchases, and the opportunity to pay over time rather than in one lump sum is the biggest attraction. The credit card allows us to own today what we can’t afford until tomorrow, and has made the American Dream bigger and earlier for many people.

Yet, an article in U.S. News and World Report a few years ago stated “American dreams these days are built on hope, hard work, and often, a mountain of debt.” Indeed, American consumers last year spent an average of 107% of their income – consumer debt is at an all-time high level while personal savings are at their lowest rates in decades even as income levels have risen steadily. The pursuit of wealth, it seems, is fleeting at best. May we pray.

Contentment: How much is enough?
Our text this morning begins in a place that is strange territory to many of us. It begins with contentment. It tells us that there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment. Our culture has taught us that contentment is a goal toward which we work, not a starting place. All you have to do is look at advertising to get this message. If I hadn’t entered the ministry, I would likely be working in an advertising or marketing-related field right now, and every advertising message can be broken down into this basic formula: 1.) You are not happy. 2.) People who own product X are happy. 3.) If you purchase product X, you too will be happy. The logic of advertising is built on the premise that contentment rests on your next purchase.
The writer of 1 Timothy envisions an existence where contentment is the norm rather than something obtained only by the wealthy, where praising God is the highest ideal rather than building an impressive stock portfolio, where security lies in God and not in trust funds.

This teaching about money is one of the more controversial statements found in Scripture, and I think even more so in our day than in the time it was written. It is certainly one of the most misquoted Scripture passages I run into – people usually remember verse 10 as, “Money is the root of all evil.” In reality, what the text actually says is, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” That’s a slight change in semantics, but it sure changes the meaning of what we’re talking about.

It would be simpler if the text said “Money is the root of all evil.” Oh, how much easier would be the preacher’s task! I could give you clear warning – to divest yourself of your stock portfolios and IRAs, to clean out your bank accounts, to sell off your home – lest you should fall prey to the evils of this world. I would admonish you to seek poverty as a sign of your piety. By this logic, the poorer you are, the more devout a disciple you are. Even if unpopular, even if hypocritical, my preaching would be incredibly clear on this topic.

However, I suspect many of us would think twice about our faith if material poverty were a prerequisite for being a Christian. For one thing, by worldly standards, all of us are rich people. If you slept in a secure place last night, if you had a meal or the opportunity for a meal last night, if you own a motor vehicle, if you have or will graduate from high school, you are more fortunate than most of the world. If you made $26,000 last year, your income is higher than 85% of the world; if $33,000, then you are wealthier than 95% of the world; and if $47,000 or more, then you are in the top 1% of world income earners. By worldwide standards, you and I are wealthier than most, and certainly wealthier than those to whom the apostles ministered. And, perhaps somewhat comfortingly, nowhere in Scripture does it say that money or worldly goods are a terrible thing in and of themselves. What our text today – and so many other texts like it – does say is that the love of money is something dangerous.

Lovers of money?
And that’s where it gets complicated. The writer of 1 Timothy seems to indicate that having wealth is not, in and of itself, the problem. However, there seems to be some sort of a gray area imagined in which our attitudes about money turn detrimental. What we’re not told is where the boundaries of that gray area are, mostly because they exist at a different point for everyone. The love of money is something to which anyone can be susceptible. You can be wealthy and consumed with the desire to acquire more and more. Yet, you can also be poor and obsessed with money; though you have little, you yearn for more. Perhaps the best example of the devastating consequences for “those who want to be rich” (v. 9) is the ruin the gambling industry has brought to many individuals and their families. It is estimated that 10 million Americans now have a gambling habit that is out of control, and the number grows daily.

Money – little pieces of paper with dead presidents on them – is not the issue here. Whatever a society collectively agrees has value can become currency. For Native Americans, it was wampum. For others, it was jewels and precious metal. For French settlers in North America, it was furs. In Kevin Costner’s worst movie ever, WaterWorld, it was clean, potable water. For small children, it can be candy.

As I said, the issue is not the money itself. The issue is everything a love of money stands for. Love of money represents self-sufficiency and autonomy. Love of money represents a self-worth that is determined by one’s net worth. Love of money represents a barrier between us and our neighbors, and between us and God. Money, in and of itself, is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. However, the attitude we have surrounding it shows clearly to the world what we think about ourselves, God, and our neighbors. Money can be used to keep others at arms’ length, put them in their place, or build impressive walls to keep them out. But money can also be used to bless others and to provide hope and healing in situations of bleak despair.
How can we use money to bless?

Several years ago, a self-made millionaire was to speak to the eighth-grade class at the junior high he attended in New York City. Statistically, the kids had little hope for a good future. He was basically going to give them a pep talk, that if he could pull himself up by his own bootstraps, so could they. Before he began his speech, he realized how hollow his message would sound without anything to back it up, and he decided to put his money where his mouth was. He announced to the entire class that if any of them graduated high school, he would personally pay for their college education. The next day he met with his accountants and lawyers and put $2 million into an endowed fund for the education of those students. At the end of six years, 80 of those 120 eighth-graders had graduated high school – in a community where the dropout rate would ordinarily have run right around 80%. It seems to me the investment he made is still reaping huge dividends. Money can be used to bless people, and to provide hope and healing in situations of bleak despair.

Friends, we have all benefited from someone else’s generosity. We have all gotten a hand up in life. We have all received things we didn’t deserve or work for. That’s what grace is. That’s who God is. God does it, not because we’re particularly special or have done some great thing to make ourselves deserving. God simply does it because that’s the way God is.

And I wonder, some years from now, what sacrificially generous act will be performed by someone here today. I wonder how that will change lives and inspire action. I wonder what a young preacher will say to her congregation about such an act of generosity being an example of someone who chose love of God over love of money. And I wonder how our lives will be changed because of it.

The author of 1 Timothy invites us to recognize the gifts that have been placed in each of our lives. We are invited to recognize that our contentment does not lie in the accumulation of things, but in a God who created us, who loves us, and provides for us. And freed from defining our self-worth by our net worth, our response is praise. That’s what our text this morning invites us into. But our praise is owed not to the things with which we have been blessed, we praise God from whom all blessings flow. The love of money is certainly one option by which we can live life, and all our attitudes and behaviors can be shaped by it. But we are presented with a vastly superior option: the love of God, and given the opportunity for all our attitudes and behaviors to be shaped accordingly.

I’ve seen what the love of money can do to people, and most of the time, it really isn’t pretty. There was a time in my life when I was consumed with the desire for money, and I found it an empty pursuit. I discovered at the end of the rainbow, there is no pot of gold.

What changed my attitude? Let me tell a difficult and personal story. It was the summer of 2000. I was 20 years old, and working as a manager in a food store that was one of 120 locations throughout the Great Lakes. I was placed on the company’s executive fast track, and was being groomed to be the executive vice president of marketing by the time I was 35, earning around $150,000 per year. On June 13, 2000, the store where I was manager-on-duty was robbed by a masked gunman. He only wanted access to the safe in the office. And as I knelt on the tile floor in that office, desperately trying to remember the combination to the safe before me, the unmistakable feel of cold steel was pressed to the back of my neck. A thought crossed my mind: “It’s only money. So this is how it will end for me – all for a few thousand dollars.” Somehow, the safe popped open, I pulled out the cash box, and handed it to the gunman. He left, no one was harmed, but all of a sudden I realized there had to be more to life than that. A process of discernment began within me that night that opened me up to God’s design on my life like I had never been open before, and allowed me to accept the call into ministry about seven months later. My life was intended to count for something more. The love of money has driven people mad, and their lives have been increasingly emptier because of it.

But I’ve also seen what the love of God can do for people. The love of God has made people whole, and their lives have been increasingly fuller because of it. May it be so for each of us.

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