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Money Matters

Sermon – 10/10/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Timothy 6:  6-19

I want to share with you this morning a word that comes to us from the first letter to Timothy, chapter six, we read:

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 the many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is the 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 eternal life for 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 without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time He who is 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 make take hold of the life that is really life.

In my last two sermons I’ve emphasized the importance of understanding the historical context of a letter like this, that without it we can’t really understand what the author is trying to tell us.  But this morning, you can forget all that – because there are those passages that are timeless, like the 23rd Psalm, that speak in every age, regardless of context.  And I think this is one of those.  Just simply wise, deeply insightful words for living a Christian life.  And the message is clear, easy to understand, but at the same time challenging and not at all easy to follow. 

I would note this about the literary context of this passage, that 1 Timothy is a letter written to the leaders of the church to provide instruction on the order of the church and the proper teaching of the church.  And therefore, it is striking that this letter concludes with a rather lengthy section of the proper attitudes toward wealth.  It’s clear from the context that this is not the last because it is the least important but rather it is last as a way of adding emphasis.  When you sent your children off to college, do you remember the last words that you gave to them?  Isn’t it something like, “Call home if you need anything.” “Don’t drink & drive.”  “Study hard, and whenever you go out of your dorm room just be sure that you have on clean underwear!”  Isn’t that the kind of advice you gave?  You save the most important thing for last!  Well, maybe not that, but you save the most important for last. 

Let’s take note of the instruction provided to us here.  Be satisfied with what you have.  Godliness with contentment.  It’s a very familiar concept that was taught by Greek philosophers of that time, namely that the path to happiness was an attitude of acceptance with whatever was given.  Whatever your lot in life to be content with that, whether you were a pauper or a millionaire, it doesn’t matter because ultimately you will leave this world with every thing that you brought into it – which is nothing.  Now that’s not the kind of attitude that you will find very high on the list of those steps to personal wealth and financial independence, is it?  It’s not what drives Wall St.  But think about who is the wealthier person – that person that works 80 hours a week to support their mortgage payment, and that 3, 4,  or 500,000 dollar home?  Or that person who lives very simply, humbly, has a part-time job and spends most of their time sailing and volunteering to help children read at the local school  Which life would you rather lead? 

I listened to the Presidential debate pretty closely Friday night, as I suspect most of you did.  I did not hear either candidate say at any time that we should be content with what we have.  Can you imagine on that question on taxes that they always get asked, if one of the candidates had said to us, “Well, you’ve got a roof over your head, you have food on your table, you have clothing on your back, quit griping!  You have everything you need.”  Who would elect such a person?  But I get the impression that is the essence of what  1 Timothy is conveying to us.

Patrick and I were in Nicaragua and Costa Rica last summer, some of you may remember, and Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries of Central America.  We stayed in the home of a family very middle to upper class, but in a home a little smaller than ours.  They had no car, they had only one telephone, an ancient computer, no yard to their house, just a little courtyard in the middle that was muddy and had a couple bushes and a lot of chickens.  And the family we stayed with in Costa Rica had even less, even though Costa Rica is a more affluent society than Nicaragua. Both of the families were single parent households – single Moms raising their kids.  And I’m sure they had gone through a lot of hardship in life.  But I never got the sense that they were envious of us.  Indeed, they were just so gladly sharing with us.  Content.  I’m sure there were things that they would have liked that we had and take for granted that they don’t have.  But they were no less happy than any of us.  It was incredibly impressive to live amongst them in that way, to share with them. 

The message here of 1 Timothy then is whatever you have, trust that it is sufficient provided that you do have those basic necessities:  food, and clothing, and that may be a pretty big IF because not everyone has them.  There are those things that are necessities.  We might add other things to that list besides food and clothing, like shelter.  And I think one of the big debates in our society today is whether or not that list should include healthcare.  I used to live in a country where healthcare was considered a basic human right provided to all of its citizens rather than as a privilege that you have to earn.  I know the difference.  And I will tell you even with all the shortcomings of universal healthcare, I would gladly choose that system over the one we have any day.  The trade-off in my mind is worth it.  But that aside, the point here is simply is that Timothy is not saying that we should be content in every situation, you know, if you’re living on the street you should be content with that – that’s not the message.  But rather if our basic needs are met, then we should not fret over that which we do not have.  As Jesus said ‘consider the lillies’ and how richly God clothes them and how much more God provides for us, so don’t fret over what you do not have.

And then the author contrasts this spirit of contentment with those who desire wealth and suggests that such desire is the cause of ruin and destruction.  Then in that often mis-quoted passage tells us the love of money, not money itself, but the love of money is the root of all evil.  I learned a hard lesson myself about this a few years back when we hired a contractor to work on our home who said to me that he wanted to have the success of his father, he wanted it all.  That’s what he actually told me.  And I thought that here was a person with a lot of drive and ambition.  Only later did I realize that no, this was precisely the attitude that 1 Timothy here describes of someone who seeks that wealth for wealth’s sake and because of that makes very poor decisions. Well, the result of that story, some of you may know, is that we were left with a house that was unfinished and a big hole in the back and a bigger hole in our bank account.  It was eventually finished but by someone else, and I learned that lesson, to pay attention to that kind of attitude that someone has.  What really irritated me and still irritates me to this day is not the loss of money, but that the signs were there, and I didn’t pay attention to them because I wanted to believe and trust in that person who I thought was a friend.  So to pay attention to the attitude that one has toward money because it reflects a spiritual maturity.  To distinguish between ambition to be good, or even to be the best at something and the ambition simply to be rich for money’s sake. 

And then to those that already are rich, whether they have earned it or they were born with it, 1 Timothy provides two basic guidelines.  First of all, to rely on God, not on your wealth.  And secondly, to be rich in good works and generosity and giving.  The first of those recalls that parable of Jesus of the rich man who accumulates a good retirement plan in the form of a bigger barn.  Once he’s got a big enough barn to store up all of his grain he thinks I can sit back and take life easy, I can put up my feet, eat, drink, and be merry.  Now I’ve got it made.  And he dies that very night.  The Lord says to him ‘you fool.  What good is all of that wealth now?’  And I struggle with that text – what’s the implication of that?  In terms of our pension plans, our IRA’s and our 401k’s?  How on earth are we supposed to apply that message?  You combine with that the story of Ananias and Sapphira – remember in Acts, in the first church in Jerusalem where they held all things in common.  Whatever people had, whatever they made, they brought it and laid it before the feet of the disciples and they shared among them equally.  Those two – Ananias and Sapphira – sold a piece of property and decided to hold back a little bit for themselves, you know, for the future.  And do you remember what happens?  They’re struck dead!  I mean, you want to get someone’s attention to motivate giving, this probably would do it! 

So if we really trust God and take the Bible seriously why don’t we just cash in all of our assets?  I did a little arithmetic, I did some checking on you – and I added up the wealth of this congregation (you didn’t know I knew your wealth).  I added it up.  We have over $50,000,000 as a group, I think probably even twice that as I was being conservative. At least 50 million dollars that we have as a community.  That’s what we’re worth.  Think about that, what if we took that, cashed that in, think of the ministries. Think of the things we could accomplish with that money.  Never mind the fact that none of us would own a car, or a house.  We could all live here, it’s a big place, there are a lot of bathrooms, no showers, but hey, you know, living among friends, who cares?!  Why do we hang onto those things?  Because that’s what we depend on to live, isn’t it?  Or we anticipate drawing on those resources at some point in the future.

The good news here is that unlike the rich young ruler to whom Jesus says ‘go and sell all that you have, give it to the poor, come and follow me’, 1 Timothy is a little more practical.  The author does not go so far as to suggest that we should get rid of all of our goods, take a vow of voluntary poverty.  Bless those who do, but that’s not the message here.  What he does say is this:  if you want to know the good life, the really good life, if you want to guarantee your future, then your generosity will demonstrate your faith in God.  Great saying I heard on NPR this morning as I was driving in, that says:  money is like manure.  When there’s a big pile of it, if you keep it all in one place, it stinks to high heaven, but if you spread it around, it does a lot a good.  (Don’t meditate too long on that one, we don’t want to dwell down there in the sewer!) 

Gilbert Davis was on the faculty of Brite Seminary in Texas and he served as a de-facto development officer for the school.  Any time someone would call up and say they wanted to make a gift they’d send out Gilbert, because he was good with people and their money.  He went to visit a millionaire who actually told him that he had assets—his savings and bonds and CDs and stocks and all that – assets of a million and a half dollars.  And if he could only get another $150,000 he would then have enough to live comfortably and would be able to share with the school.  Gilbert went away empty handed.  Another call came in from Dallas.  Senior citizen by the name of Mary Francis Goodman.  Said she wanted to make a gift to the school and they sent out Gilbert to a very humble home, no sooner had he sat down for a cup of coffee and some baked goods that she had just made that morning, she said “I want to make a gift of $10,000 to the school.”  And he was rather surprised because as he looked around the house there was no indication that she had any money of that kind to give.  And he said “if you don’t mind my asking, what’s the source of your income?”  She said, “Oh, well, I have Social Security”.  And?. .. “I do have a little part-time job at the cafeteria that helps make ends meet”.  And Gilbert said to her,  “Well, ma’am, don’t you think you should hold on to your savings in case you ever need it?”  To which Mary Francis Goodman replied quite sternly, “Young man, God has always provided for me and He always will.” After some a long conversation about faith and money and with the tools of financial planning, he was able to show to her how she could actually multiply that gift and still draw some benefit from it from during her lifetime and give from that, and then have a much larger gift to share with the seminary at the time of her death.  That’s what they agreed to do.  And he said as he left:  “you are a very generous woman”.  And she said to him:  “God has always been generous with me”.

Mary Francis Goodman put that millionaire to shame, you see, and not only him but all of us, who rely more on our own financial nest eggs than we do on God.  On what we save for ourselves more than what we invest in God’s mission.  And it’s a challenge to me. 

In between these two texts, where we have the guidance to those who desire wealth and those who have it, the author speaks of fighting the good fight of faith, of taking hold of that eternal life to which we are called.  This is the anti-dote to the dangers of wealth for both those who have it and those who don’t but wish they did.  And the message is clear:  faith that does not impact our attitudes about money is not really worth much, is it?  Ultimately, it comes down to this:  what is worth more, what money can buy or what God can do?  And 1 Timothy leaves us with this question, a challenge really:  which matters most to you?  If money matters more, are you happy with that?  Are you willing to let God change that?  If faith is more important to you, how is that evident in the money matters of your life?  Those are questions each of us must answer in our hearts  and show where it matters most, in our pocketbooks. 


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