Sunday, September 26, 2010

Your Money or Your Life

[This was shared during worship this morning with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

1 Timothy 6:6-19
It may be an example of holy coincidence, what someone has called God-incidence, that on the Sunday following the premiere of the movie, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, our Bible lessons for the day warn us of the dangers to our very souls represented by the love of money. Gordon Gekko, the main character played by Michael Douglas in this long-anticipated sequel, is known for his tagline in the first film: “Greed is good.” Jesus, in our Gospel lesson, the prophet Amos in the first lesson, and the apostle Paul in the second, all tell us today that “Greed is not good.”

But more than that, they say, “Greed for wealth can rob you of life for all eternity. Watch out for greed!”

The most tempting thing for us to do when we encounter Bible passages like these is to ignore them, thinking that they don’t apply to us. We’re not millionaires or billionaires, after all. There’s little chance of our getting trapped in the snare represented by the greed for wealth, right? Don’t be so sure!

There’s a number that development experts and even the CIA use called PPP. It stands for Purchasing Power Parity. It measures the median household incomes of every country in the world. This is the average income and purchasing power of all nations' homes, measured in US dollars. The United States ranks 11th in the world in median household income: $46,000. If that seems high, it may be because the median household income here in Hocking County is $40,000, about the same as Canada, which ranks 27th in the world.

All through the list, there are countries where people enjoy comfortable life-styles, yet don’t rank that high: the United Kingdom is 35th, Japan is 40th, Saudi Arabia is 61st. The point is this: By the standards of the world, many of us in this sanctuary this morning are incredibly wealthy. While impoverished people may fall prey to making gods of money, ignoring Paul’s warning in our second lesson that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” it’s far more likely that those of us who get regular paychecks will do so.

Like the addict who finds that he needs a little more today in order to get the same buzz he got yesterday, the love of money can become an absorbing passion that pushes God clear out of our lives. God forbid!

Please pull out your Celebrate inserts and look at our second lesson. Read along with me silently as I read the first five verses:
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.
There is nothing wrong with wealth. The love of wealth though, can cause us to make money our god, even though it has no capacity to give us life beyond the grave. Greed for gain, rather than a consuming desire for God, can make us think that the money we have earned with the bodies and the minds God has given to us, is ours. But this isn’t true.

First Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. ”

All who are baptized and confess Jesus as their Lord have been bought out of sin and death through the death of Jesus on the cross. We belong to God. So does our money. In one of our hymns, we tell God that all that we have is “a trust, O God, from Thee.”

Last Sunday, during worship we prayed for those effected by the tornadoes that ripped through southeastern Ohio a week-and-a-half ago. As I greeted folks after worship, one of our members said to me, “Pastor, if you learn of anybody without a home, let me know. I have a place people could use if they need it.” When our desires are focused on God, greed is pushed from our minds in ways that cause a passion for God and God's will that supplants the greed for financial gain. God helps us then to use whatever wealth we do have for His purposes.

Verse 11 in our lesson says: “But as for you, man of God, shun all this [that is, shun greed]; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” The apostle Paul wrote the letter of 1 Timothy to a young pastor named Timothy in about 64AD. Paul meant for his words to be a primer on how to be a pastor. Shun the love of money, Paul tells Timothy.

It’s a tragedy when pastors become obsessed with money, when they confess Jesus with their mouths, but declare a greater faith in money with their lives. Pastors ought to be treated fairly by their congregations, of course. Paul says elsewhere in 1 Timothy, “The laborer deserves to be paid.” But, there are some clergy who seem to think that because they took a four-year Master’s degree after graduating from college, they deserve big bucks and fine things. This appears to be a bigger problem in the United States than it is in other countries where people are maybe, less addicted to wealth.

The Lutheran churches in Australia long ago instituted what I think is a great policy: Every single pastor, no matter the size of the congregation, receives the same salary, with adjustments for expenses like having families, living in more expensive communities, or extraordinary medical expenses. Each time this has been proposed at the conventions of Lutheran bodies in North America, it’s met defeat. In twenty-six years, I’ve never asked for a raise and I never will. This isn’t because I’m so virtuous—I’m a sinner like everybody else. It’s because I don’t want to give greed or the devil footholds in my life. I want to rely on the provision of the God I know in Jesus Christ and not on my capacity to shrewdly negotiate for or "guilt" people out of more money, which may in the end, only cause me to wander away from God, making me useless to God or to the congregation I serve as pastor.

Verses 12 to 15 say:
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 of 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 the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Before Pilate, the Roman governor, Jesus confessed that He was the Lord and King of the world, God in the flesh, making no attempt to deny that He had made this confession before. If we were baptized as infants, our parents and sponsors made this same confession at the baptismal font. If we were baptized as adults, we made this confession ourselves before water was splashed on our heads. When we were confirmed, we made this confession. And Timothy, like all other pastors over the past 2000-plus years, reiterated that same confession. Paul is telling us today to fight the temptations that exist within all of us to betray Jesus by fudging on our confession that Jesus is the only Sovereign of the universe.

This is the confession that Paul makes in a famous passage in Romans: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Keep this good confession not only with your mouth, but also with your life, Paul tells Timothy in today's lesson. His words are for us, too.

In verse 16, Paul says of Jesus: “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.”

Please notice: Only God is immortal; human beings die. Life is not our right, something God owes to us. Life comes only from the One immortal being in the universe. And new life only comes from Jesus Christ to those who believe in Him. "If anyone is in Christ Jesus," the Bible tells us, "there is a new creation: everything old has passed away…”

It’s our mission as people saved by the grace of God given to us through Jesus Christ to share this good confession with others. We are to be driven by love of God and love of others to tell everyone the truth about sin and grace, and to call them to make the same good confession God has used to save us from sin, death, and hell.

 Finally, read along with me the final part of our lesson, verses 17 to 19. Paul is back to talking about money. But now he tells Timothy what he should teach the people of his congregation about the proper use of money:
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.
The bottom line is simple, really. We can either be greedy for wealth or hungry for God. The dividends paid by wealth end at the cemetery, but those who “take hold” of the God we know in Christ, take hold of real life, a life of meaning here and a life with God in eternity.

In a very real sense, when it comes to being greedy for more than our daily bread, we face the choice given by villains in lots of old movies: “Your money or your life.” Today, our lesson from God’s Word tells us that whenever faced with that choice--our money or our life--God desperately wants us to choose life, the eternal life that only an immortal God Who has died for us and risen again for us can offer.

Money is nice to have, but money can’t give us life; Jesus can. Choose passion for Jesus over greed for financial gain.

Today—every day—choose Jesus.

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