Yes to materialism, sorta
Passage: I Timothy 6:6-19
Date: September 30, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Sermon titles are difficult for me. They are supposed to be clever, enticing, meant to draw you in. Well, by the time this sermon concludes, you may wonder if the title fits at all. That's OK. I had to get something into the bulletin.
First and Second Timothy and Titus are called the pastoral letters. Written to third generation Christian leaders, they tend to focus on pastoral care, on congregational well-being and nurture. While we do not know exactly to whom they are addressed, one likely faith community was in the large city of Ephesus, on the west coast of what is now Turkey. The intended groups were very small, still crowding into homes, for the most part. In some ways, these letters were survival instructions. Little did they know the threat to their survival in the persecution that was soon to come.
In the book of Acts, we learn that a man named Timothy had been a colleague of the apostle Paul, had served in his stead in several congregations, was trusted and respected, even though somewhat young. This letter instructs Timothy in how to lead. Our reading is near the conclusion, with some important last minute advice and encouragement. Listen. Listen for what the Spirit may be saying to you, to us. (6:6-19)
Last year, I was talking with a university student, and as we adults are want to do, I asked him what he was studying. He responded that he was a business major, and wanted to make a lot of money for himself and for his future family. Our market-driven consumer culture massively supports such personal goals. We assume the desire to get ahead as natural, almost God-given. We even get a bit concerned when people of responsible age seem somewhat unconcerned financially.
Yet, if a son in any of the families in Timothy's congregation responded like that young man, people would have hissed and booed under their breaths, and his parents would have been seriously shamed. So, before we ask what God's word might be here, we need to try to think differently. Come with me.
In the Mediterranean world of that day, people existed in an honor/shame society. One's duty in life was to maintain, to protect one's honor. Honor essentially meant status, community standing. Yes, it concerned economics, but also had more to do with reputation, family, offspring, and religion. One's honor embraced the whole of one's life, including one's extended family. Within that context, it was believed that the economic pie was fixed, finite, not expandable. Thus, if one increased in wealth, it necessarily meant that others had to decrease. Moreover, such a change threatened the community well-being. Thus, an honorable person derived contentment from preserving one's status, not from achievement or advancement. No Puritan work ethic here. On the contrary, a person would strive not to accumulate more, because more would be a threat to the delicate community balance; and the one who did it would be shamed.
Think into this a moment. It is very difficult to get our heads around. Most of us have some idea of what the stock market did last week, of how our investments are doing. To hear this scripture, we cannot go there. Try it again. In that society, how would wealthy people therefore be viewed? As immensely dishonorable. A fourth century Mediterranean proverb says: "Every rich person is unjust, or the heir of an unjust person." (N.T. World, p. 83)
Two Greek philosophical proverbs appear in our scripture: "We brought nothing into the world, so we can take nothing out of it;" and, "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil."
I have often heard someone say, "Money is the root of evil." We need to be clear: that is not what is said. Money then as now was a necessary part of life. People earned wages, and spent them. There was nothing noble then or now about extreme poverty. That condition does not breed contentment, but depression and resentment and desperation; for some, starvation.
From the very beginning, the Bible affirms the material in life: the Creator pronounced creation "good." Poetic images in the Psalms have mountains clapping for joy. God's and people's well-being are depicted in feasts. The human body, flesh and spirit together, is affirmed. What we celebrate at the table is certainly material: the loaf from the field and the cup from the vine, in Jesus' day, two basic elements of life itself. Yes, throughout our history, some people of faith have embraced lifestyles of utter simplicity, of poverty, as an act of singular devotion. But they were and are responding to Jesus Christ in their lives by choice. And even then, they do not deny that God "richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment." For our enjoyment-v. 17. Even as we wrestle with God in this text, I invite us to remember that: the material in life is gift, for our gladness. That harvest moon the other night, wow!
So what about money and its allure, and our faith in Jesus Christ? I laughed aloud at one Bible study internet connection last week. There I was, reading commentary on this, "The love of money is the root of all evils." And spaced every few paragraphs were full color attractive adds for new cars. Even Biblical study needs to be paid for, and there in its midst, my spirit is being enticed, tempted, squeezed, shaped to desire more, newer, better. It reminds me of that song, "Money Makes the World Go Round." What we know deep inside is how deadly that cute song actually is. Just say "Enron." Just say "foreign policy," any nation's foreign policy. Just say "credit card debt." Just say "corruption." Just say "shop till you drop." Just say "corporate power." Just say "minimum wage." Just say "farmworker." Just say "tourist sex trade." Just say "two jobs to make ends meet." Just say "farm subsidy." Just say "advertising, scientifically designed for preschoolers." Just say "gambling." Money. It can make us crazy in our society. We all know how much money we need: a little bit more than we have. Next month, you will hear all about the fact that Westminster does, too. For 2008, with a conservative budget, we will need pledges to increase by an average of 7 3/4%. A little bit more than we have.
So, what do we do with Timothy in our dramatically different day? Try this on: Beware, person of faith. Beware of how lethal our consumer society can be to our faith. Do not be ignorant about the power of money in your own life or in corporate life. Unlike Timothy's day, much of our self-esteem, our sense of independence and power is tied to our finances. Just as in Timothy's day, we are called in Christ to live as a counter-culture. We are commanded to run from those things which separate us from God and each other, those things which crush our spirits and make us into less than God intends, those things which dishonor us in God's sight. Beware of money's subtle powerful function in that. On the other hand, we are commanded to embrace intangibles, parts of spirit which build community and promote justice: things like goodness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. How would assertive gentleness be in our amazingly uncivil society?
And here is the crux: the command is not about our ethics, not even about how we use money. The demand on people of faith is not for behavior modification, like it's a nice thing to do, good manners. Rather, the invitation is to remember. Remember with overflowing gratitude that it is to Christ Jesus that we belong. That belonging alone makes us crazy enough to even want to live into God's love, God's values, God's way of life for us, as individuals and together. That belonging alone gives us life in "the only sovereign, King of kings and Lord of lords." Life's allegiance is not to Caesar and the empire's values, but to this one we know in Christ Jesus. It is from our belonging that we celebrate by fighting the good fight of faith. So this day, let us remember whose we are and to whom we belong. Amen.