Editor’s Note: Here is the text of a sermon I preached on 9/29/13 at Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Pelham, AL.
In his book, The Confidence Man, Mark Twain introduces us to a character. He is presented as a man of religion. A man who moves aboard a ship presenting himself to all and seeking to help them with their religious needs. Yet there is more to this character than a noble do gooder. Over the course of the story Twain reveals this man to be the most basest of con men preying on the religious instincts of the passengers to gain for himself. It is just this type of man that Paul is discussing here, and it is this type of man that has a long run in our stories as Americans. Think about the bible salesmen of Flannery O’Conor or that of the one played so well by John Goodman in O’Brother Where Art Thou? Just this week a friend posted one of those goofy memes that are so popular. This one had the smiling face of a popular TV preacher with the words: “if your preacher is making more money than anyone in the congregation, you need to ask if he is serving the congregation, or the congregation is serving him.”
In one my favorite history books, Walter McDougall makes the argument that the defining struggle of America has been between our love for Twain’s Confidence Man and our stated intentions of living like our Puritan founders. The primary struggle of our nation has often been whether we would bow down at the alter of Greed or God. This is a struggle that was renewed in my heart this year as I read Jen Hatmaker’s book: 7- an experimental mutiny against excess. In her introduction she asks several hard questions that she, herself, faced when her husband was called to pastor a church plant in Austin, Texas:
“How can I be socially responsible if I am unaware that I reside in the top 1% of wealth in the world?”
How many of us realize just how blessed we are to be Americans. How even the poorest American is better off than most of the rest of the world? She continues.
“We are the richest people on the earth, praying to get richer. We’re tangled in unmanageable debt while feeding the machine” Why…“because we feel we’re entitled to more.”
If that doesn’t stab you. She continues.
“What does it mean when half the global population lives on $2 a day, and we can’t manage a fulfilling life on 25,000 times that amount?”
Reading those words nearly brought me to tears as I silently remembered all the times I have complained about my job, and my ‘paltry’ paycheck. Yet the words that most troubled my heart were these:
“Would Jesus overindulge on garbage found while climbing out of a debt hole from buying things he could not afford to keep up with neighbors he could not impress?”
As she and her family struggled with the transition from a prestigious and well-paying job to that of church planters, Hatmaker states that God continually made one statement to her: “You have exchanged the purposes of my Kingdom for the American dream.”
This is not to say that trying to get a good job is important. This is not to say that learning to invest wisely is not important. That is not to say that providing a good life for your spouse, for your family is not a noble task. But as we take these jobs, as we invest, as we invest in our families, we need to do so members of the Kingdom of God, not simply as good little Americans. Hatmaker said this: “when the exhaustive exegesis of God’s word doesn’t create people transformed into the image of Jesus, we have missed the formula for truth.” This is the same thing that Bishop Jones said just last week.
In that desire to become like Christ, the AmericanEvangelicalChurch (which I love and consider myself a part of) has spent much of the last fifty years preaching on sexual sobriety and the importance of family. We have done so with good reasons, there are many passages about the importance of these. Yet if the 10 to 15 scriptures on sex are important; how much more important are the hundreds if not thousands of scriptures discussing the importance of true wealth. Now you might say I have heard countless sermons on prosperity and stewardship. Too many, in fact. But it is strange to me that we often preach on stewardship right before passing the offering plate. Now we will be passing the plate during the passing of the peace; and I encourage you to give freely to the work of this church. But as these passages speak to us, they are saying that this is only the beginning. Yes we are called to be faithful to the local church body; but there is so much more.
Now you might also be saying that I have heard many sermons about that much more. I guarantee if you were to walk out now, go home and turn on a sermon on the television or radio or internet, within minutes you could find a sermon talking about how God wants to give you more. Pressed down. Shaken together. In abundance. More than you could hope for or imagine. In theological circles we call this the Prosperity Doctrine. In other circles we might have more imaginative words for it. Yet here is the dirty secret of the prosperity doctrine, are you ready: they have a leg to stand on (just the one mind you). God as revealed in the scriptures is a god that blesses his people. He longs to bless His people. He really does believe in overabundance. He really does believe in spoiling his people with his goodness. Paul, himself in our passage says: “there is great gain in godliness” Yet there is a series of mistakes made by those who take these random verses, yank them out of context, and tell you that this means that God wants you to own a BMW, live in a mansion in the hot-new-suburb, and wear the best clothes.
This happens because they stop reading at the great gain part and say “hallelujah, pass that gain my way.”
First Mistake: Making an idol of success and prosperity.
We have confused ourselves about riches and success. We have decided that riches and prosperity reveal some innate good in the rich and prosperous. To be rich in America is seen to be tantamount as being a good person. Put a different way, if we are good: then there is no doubt that we will succeed (and by succeed we mean become rich and prosperous). Yet this is not true. When I am tempted to think this way, I remember Donald Trump. He is prosperous beyond measure; yet a year does not go by without discussion of his less savory side: his divorces, his cheating on spouses, business partners, and the like. There is this suit or that suit revealing him to be less than a good man. Likewise I am reminded of the many times I have had the privilege of working with the poor. Since I was a child my parents and my church life have brought me into contact with those less blessed than me; and I have found much blessing in being with them. Many of the poorest people I have met have so outclassed me on a scale of goodness that it is embarrassing.
In today’s age it has become fashionable to talk trash about the poor. We call them stupid and lazy. We talk about how they are takers; always draining the resources gained by honest, hardworking rich people. Yet the poor are not always stupid. Nor are they always lazy. Nor are they always the takers in our society. There are many times in which they are the givers and the rich are the takers. Take the lottery, please take the lottery. It is a reverse tax in which poor people pour in money to the government so that a bunch of rich white kids can go to college on the government’s dime. Here the poor are giving and the rich are taking.
Instead: we must come to know who God and the poor are they truly are, as Verses 3-10 say:
“Teach and preach these principles. If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
If we believe God is who He says He is, we do not have to worry about the gaining of possessions because we know him as abba, father, who will provide as we need.
This week my sister took my three year old nephew to the bank to open a saving account. She told him that the purpose of this account was so that he might save his money and occasionally use it for himself. Yet as they left the bank, he asked if other people could put money in his account. My sister repeated that the account was for him to put money in himself to provide for himself. He thought for a minute and said, “Poppa.” My sister was momently confused before he said , “Poppa (his grandfather) will put money in my account.” I heard this story and said, “this kid has it wired. He’s got this life figured out.” Just think, though, as my earthly father who though quite a good man (and my role model for life) yet with his own imperfections and problems can be counted on to give his kids good gifts; how much more so is our heavenly Father able to take care of his people.
Second Mistake: Overemphasis on the Here and Now.
If one of the main mistakes of Christians ages past have been to be so heavenly minded that they are no earthy good; then the major error of our time may be to be so earthy minded that we are no heavenly good. We cannot be so fixated on ourselves and our daily struggles that we miss the real kingdom missions going on around us. We must be able to keep one eye on God and one eye on the road as it were.
Instead: We must be ready to Fight the Good Fight and Make a Good Confession as verses 6:12-16 say:
“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 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. 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. ”
If we believe God is who He says He is then we do not need to worry about gaining possessions because He is the immortal King who holds the keys to life and death
The allusion to the public games is still carried on: Thou hast been called into this palaestra; thou hast been accepted as one proper to enter the lists with any antagonists that may offer; in the presence of many witnesses thou hast taken the necessary engagements upon thee, and submitted to be governed by the laws of the stadium; many eyes are upon thee, to see whether thou wilt fight manfully, and be faithful. Timothy’s faith was undoubtedly tried by severe persecution.
Ronald Sider in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger states:
“If Jesus is truly Lord and if we trust in a loving heavenly Father , then we can take courage to live without anxiety about possessions. That kind of carefree unconcern for possessions, however, is not merely an inner spiritual attitude. It involves concrete action.”
Jesus talks about the unconcern of the lilies and follows up with a call to give up all you have and give it to the poor.
Third Mistake: Confusing Means and Ends. (Augustine)
Augustine wrote that in this world there are means and there are ends. Dysfunction in life occurs when we use means as ends; and ends as means. For Christians people are always ends in themselves and never means.Possessions always a means. Therefore people must always come before possesions; and possesions must always be used for people (and never vice versa). Our highest value is people and our possessions are given to us to aid and advance the people around us. Yet many pervert and reverse the two using people as a way to possessions (or even worse as a possession).
Instead: We must be Generous and Ready to Share as Verses 17-19 say:
” 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.”
In a sense: This is Christlikeness- Acts 14:17 says:
“and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
Just as God has done for us; we are to do for the world.
The contrast between the two instructions seems to be this:
“distribution” refers to the distribution of funds that the rich might make personally to men in his presence, or community;
Word means liberal – in excess ; freely
whereas “communicate” refers to monies supplied to philanthropies or distant recipients, such as missionaries, with whom communication would be involved. Both terms undeniably apply to the giving of one’s money to support worthwhile Christian endeavor of all kinds.
As we show also in the words of the prophet Amos, God’s continued quibble with Israel was not that they were not prosperous; but that they refused to learn the important lesson of prosperity. He says:
“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs, from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp… who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils.”
We often read this lines and preach sermons condemning wealth, but refuse to put these verses in conjunction with the next:
“BUT are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!”
The problem is not with the beds. The problem is not with the couches. The problem is not with food or drink or songs. The problem is with the use of them: the lying and lounging, the gorging and getting drunk. The idleness. The irreverence. The use of these things as a distraction away from what is going on in the world. The use of these things to forget the troubles of others. The use of these things to tie up our energy and insure that we never get on with the work that needs to be done. It is not that there is not a time to eat or a time to sleep or a time to sing songs or drink wine. It is that in the eating and drinking, the lounging and entertaining, we lose track of time and lose track of what is truly going on. There is a time of rest, but that rest is for the express purpose of enabling us to serve, and serve well.
There is much bad thinking in us and in all churches. All this is for me. All this is for my goodness. For my priviledges. For my success. More sermons. More programs. More training. More conferences. More. More. More. More. Me. Me. Me. Me.
Yet if we are well and truly students of the word we come to realize as Jen Hatmaker put it: “As I reduce, He is enough. As I simplify, he is enough. He is my portion when food, clothes, and comfort fall woefully short… In my priviledged world where ‘need’ and ‘want’ have become indistinguishable, my only true requirement is the sweet presence of Jesus.” We need to learn that the best dreams are not about us and what we can achieve or what we do or what we can have.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many churches that have taken this message that it’s about me and perverted it; and there are just as many that have taken the message that it’s not about me and perverted that as well. How many of you have attended a church that focused only on the feasting? It was fun for awhile but over time it becomes meaningless and dull. All entertainment makes for a dull life. Here we need the words of Amos to remind us to grieve and give up our desires for security; to go out into the valley and comfort the afflicted.
Yet how many of you have attended a church that was all fasting? For a time it’s exciting. It’s meaningful. Look at us, we have meaning. We have purpose. We’re doing the work of the Kingdom. Yet that too becomes lifeless and dull as we burn out, and flame out. Here we need to hear the words of today’s Psalm:
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God…. Who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”
True maturity is realizing that the life of a Christian is about feasting and fasting; giving and receiving. You cannot have the one without the other. Here as in many places I love the words of John Wesley: “Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.”