Sunday, September 26, 2010

Real Life

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Ordinary 26
September 26, 2010
William G. carter

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.

They are shelling out big bucks to hear a woman by the name of Joyce Meyer. She’s one of those TV preachers, and some folks here might have seen or heard her. She is well known. When Joyce Meyer puts on one of her teaching conferences, it is cast as a tent revival in a convention center. She recently took over an auditorium in Saint Louis, and her organization sold four thousand hotel rooms. Most of the people who came were women. They heard her speak about this and that. Her main topic is how the Christian life results in prosperity. You heard me correctly. If you follow the biblical principles that Joyce teaches, you will become affluent and rich. God will bless you by giving you more money.

Now, it’s really interesting to me that such a message would be so popular in a time of economic difficulty. People are willing to shell out $60 a seat to hear how they, too, can become rich. And when each hour-long presentation concludes, they flock to her merchandise tables to buy Joyce Meyer’s DVDs at $20 a piece. Or they buy downloadable MP3 files to enjoy on a morning walk. The people at each of the St. Louis merchandise tables are three-deep, all of them ready to consume her message, and learn how you too can follow the Lord Jesus Christ and gain a full pocket book.

I pick on her because she is not an isolated phenomenon. Since Wall Street’s semi-meltdown in the last months of President Bush’s term, lots of Christian-types have been stepping up and preaching this kind of thing. “Follow the Lord Jesus Christ and it will pad your wallet.” Tithe and you will be blessed ten-fold – that’s why you tithe, right? To get the money back ten-fold.

This is not a new phenomenon. There’s some of this floating around in the First letter to Timothy. Before we ever get to the text for today, Paul says that the bishops of the church should not be “lovers of money,” and the deacons should not “be greedy.” And immediately in the verses before our text, Paul warns against the wacky Bible teachers of his own day, particularly those, he says, “who imagine that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Tim 6:5). They will tell you whatever you want to hear, in order to gain a profit.

The underlying assumption is this: more money will make you more happy. A lot of us live by that. At least one person I know posted on Facebook this week, “I wish I was a billionaire.” Well, don’t we all? Don’t we wish that each one of us was a billionaire. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, indeed, if every person we know could be a billionaire. It could repair poor roads, improve tough schools, and pay off college tuition bills (I am thinking about that a lot, for some reason.) All of this swirls around. Here’s the assumption: if I could get money, even if it’s at the expense of other people, than I won’t have the same difficulties that they do.

In the late part of the first century, some people were coming along and saying, “You know, this has been a strand in Jewish thinking.” For instance, there’s a verse in the Psalms that says, “I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (37:25). If you take God seriously, things will go well for you.

And we would like to believe it: the Christian faith promotes a generosity of spirit, and says we should expect that generosity from God. If I show up for worship, my life will improve, right? If I keep praying, all my worries – particularly my financial worries – will drop away.

I may regret saying this, but I will say it anyway: nothing is ever as easy as the preachers would want us to believe. Write that one down in the margin of your worship bulletin. Nothing is ever as easy as the preachers would want us to believe.

For one thing, riches are unpredictable. Can any American doubt that in 2010? Paul knew it at the end of the first century, and the Jews knew it and wrote that down in their Bibles, too. The apostle quotes from the book of Ecclesiastes, written a few hundred years before him: “As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. This is also a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; what gain do they have from toiling for the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 5:15-16)

500 years ago, John Calvin could declare, on behalf of all the Calvinists who would follow him, that hard work produces its own reward. According to Calvin and his bunch, a full day of work is what we need to put in, so that idleness would never taint our spirits. If we don’t have enough to do, or if we are between jobs, keep at it. There is always something to do – a neighbor to assist, a home to improve, a skill to develop. Hard work produces its rewards.

But where this thinking has always gotten foggy has been in the attempts to connect such rewards to faith in Jesus Christ. Like I said, things are never as easy as the preachers would want us to believe.

Paul joins the conversation at this point. He is instructing Timothy to scratch below the surface of these causal connections between God’s love and financial blessing. There is no simplistic connection. He reminds Timothy of the same theme he has developed throughout this entire letter: that there is a quality of life that is independent of how well off we are, or how financially settled we are. He calls it “the life that really is life.” Or to be blunt about it -- “real life.” That is what the Gospel of the Living Christ offers us: real life.

It’s worth reflecting on what real life might be. What does it look like? A couple of weeks ago, David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times. “The first decade of the 21st century will come to be known as the great age of headroom,” he said. People have built enormous houses and driven oversized cars. As he describes a town like Clarks Summit, the rule seems to be the Smaller the Woman, the Larger the Car. He writes, “So you would see a 90-pound lady in tennis whites driving a 4-ton truck with enough headroom to allow her to drive with her doubles partner perched atop her shoulders. When future archeologists dig up the remains of that epoch, they will likely conclude that sometime around 1996, the U.S. was afflicted by a plague of claustrophobia and drove itself bankrupt in search of relief.”

That approach doesn’t seem to be working for many of us. Not any more, if it ever did. And it raises the question, “What is real life?” In Paul writes to Timothy, he sets up a checklist. Food and clothing, check; they are good. Temptation, trapped by senseless desires, not so good. Love of God and contentment with what God gives, those are good. The love of money, that’s the root of all evil. Righteousness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness, put them on your list of good pursuits. Wandering away from the faith and piercing yourselves with many pains, not a good idea.

What is the life that really is life? I’m at the point in my life where I notice how all my high school classmates are turning out. I think of two different women that I had eleventh grade crushes on. One went to nursing school, married a software engineer, now lives in a 5100 square-foot house in the suburbs. Another went to nursing school, heard the call to the mission field, and started a health mission in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Both of them are Christians, but I’m guessing real life is different for each of them. The first one is very settled, has everything in place, and wants to vote for politicians who will protect all of that. The other has taken great risks for Jesus. Her eyes are crinkled from smiling so much; the first one looks very weary.

Or I know two different guys from the high school band, both of them from the trumpet section. They went to the same college to study Music Education. One of them married a girl in my church youth group, produced three kids, started a jazz band, taught in a high school, and then abandoned his home in midlife for a series of one-night stands. The other got a job in an elementary school, has stayed there for twenty-three years, and still jumps out of bed to keep teaching those kids. He also plays the keyboards and sings for weekly mass. Is there a connection between faith and reliability?

Paul says to Timothy, “Look around! Pay attention to the pursuits of the people around you.” Pretty soon, the truth of their lives will be revealed. If all a person does is chase after money, they may get what they pursue, but they won’t have much of a life. Maybe that’s why some of the unhappiest people I have ever met are those touched everything and it turned to gold. I have to wonder why that is.

And then there’s that monk in the New Mexico monastery. He walked away from a successful and lucrative career as an engineer. He gave up all his stuff and signed it over to the abbot. Why? He said, “All my success was killing me. It robbed me of everything and everybody I loved.” So he gave up everything but God, and devoted himself to a life of prayer. These days he just glows with the Holy Spirit.

Or that family in D’Iberville, Mississippi. I went on one of our mission trips. The organizers gave me a clipboard when they discovered I was no good with a hammer. They pointed me down the street and said, “Go talk to people, and listen to their stories.” One man invited me into the house he had gutted. Nine family members were living in that house when Hurricane Katrina hit it. The governor of Mississippi had banked this guy’s relief money and forgotten to send it. But somehow the man wasn’t bitter. He said, “We lost everything, but we have one another, and most important, the Lord still has us.” His face lit up when I mentioned I was a preacher, and he told me to sit down so we could talk about scripture. Is there a connection between his faith and his life? A life that really is life?

I think there is a connection, and it’s never as easy as any preacher wants us to believe. But the ancient insights of this New Testament letter raises the question of what we really value.

To the person who wants to be a billionaire, let me ask: “What would you do with all of that money?” Would you get a big house, build a tall fence, install a security system to keep your stuff safe? And would you spend every night worrying that people valued you only for your money? What kind of life is that?

And when I hear about Joyce Meyer, charging people $60 a seat, and lying to them that Jesus wants them to be rich, and then she flies on to her next speech on a ten million dollar private jet, I want to call it for what it is: it is an unholy pyramid scheme. It makes the very richest get richer at the expense of everybody else, all under the umbrella of “free enterprise.” What kind of life is that? It reminds me of the fortune cookie that my friend Andy opened one day at lunch. He cracked it open and found the ancient wisdom in four words: “Greed leads to poverty.”

By contrast, Timothy is given the Christian charge. Paul writes, “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 to set their hopes on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

And then Paul speaks this charge as well: “Do good, be rich in good works, be generous and ready to share.” This is the invitation for every baptized person, every week, every day. We do not live only for ourselves. We live for God and God’s entire world. That is the good life. That is the real life. When we look at the bank statement, we may have a lot or we may have a little. But when you get right down to it, here is the truth. We are only as good as the good that we do.

Do good. Be rich in good works. Be generous and ready to share. This is how we store up “the treasure of a good foundation for God’s future.” This is how we “take hold of the life that really is life.”

(c) William G. Carter
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