1 Timothy 6:17-19
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.
There is one person here who knows my preaching better than anyone else, and that of course is my spouse. She has listened to me preach for more years than you have, and sometimes hears my sermon on Saturday night and Sunday morning! Back in September she missed a week of church, so the next Sunday she went by the rack where I put printed copies of my sermons, and she picked one up. She sat down before worship and began to read it. She told me that she thought, “Hmm. The Book of Revelation. Cindy doesn’t preach on that very often.” She read a little bit and thought, “This doesn’t sound like Cindy.” Then she looked to the top of the page and saw that, no, it wasn’t Cindy. It was Garvey MacLean, who had preached while I was on vacation. Jackie didn’t have any problems with what Garvey had written. She just knew it didn’t sound like me.
The same is true of biblical scholars and the writers of the Bible. When you study writings intently for many years, especially in the original language, you come to recognize not just the theological messages, but also the vocabulary, the speech patterns, the rhythm of the words. That is one of the reasons scholars doubt the authorship of the books we call 1st and 2nd Timothy. These letters say they’re from the Apostle Paul, but they don’t sound like him. They don’t feel like his writings. And some of the theology is different, too. They were likely written by people in the Pauline school of thought, students of Paul who wrote in his name as a way of furthering his teachings. Now, that doesn’t mean these letters are any less important. The Apostle Paul is not the only one who deserves space in our canon. The New Testament (or Second Testament) is made up of the writings that fed and nurtured the early church, regardless of authorship.
So this writing doesn’t sound like Paul in vocabulary and style, but it does sound like Jesus. By that I mean that these verses are consistent with the teachings of Jesus, because they warn about the misuse of money. Earlier in the letter the author talks about false teachers in the church—people inside the church who wanted the benefits of righteousness to be a little more tangible. They wanted to profit from the gospel. We know something of this in modern times as well, particularly among those who teach what we call a “prosperity gospel.” Prosperity gospel is well known among televangelists and mega church pastors who promise people that if you just give, God will bless you tenfold. “If you send us $1, God will give you $10. But don’t you want $1000? Wouldn’t you rather have $10,000? Just send in $1000 today, and God will bless you tenfold.” I know a man whose mother lost everything because she believed the promises of a man like that. But prosperity gospel goes deeper than just an appeal for donations. The prosperity gospel says that God bestows blessings on those who are faithful. So if you’re not wealthy, you’re clearly not being faithful. If you aren’t at least “comfortable” financially, then there is some sin in you. If you will just be faithful to God, these people claim, God will pour buckets of money on your head. Friends, I do not think that’s how God works.
In Jesus’ time, if you were rich, people didn’t assume God had blessed you. Within the context of the Roman Empire during the first century CE, riches were often acquired “through continuous cooperation with the Roman administration. Those who were rich, therefore, usually supported a system that oppressed the vast majority of the population.” In other words, if you had money, people might assume you had aligned yourself with the Roman Empire, against your own people, for your financial gain. “Being a counter-cultural movement, early Christians opposed this system and envisioned a more equal distribution of material resources. This is, for instance, conveyed in the story [in the Book of Acts] of how believers shared their possessions” and kept a common purse.
“On the other hand, wealthy people were appreciated as ‘benefactors’ in early Christianity. Luke mentions that many women who accompanied Jesus and his disciples ‘provided for them out of their resources’ (Luke 8:3). Likewise, the apostle Paul drew on the financial support of benefactors for his travels and missionary activities.
It is, therefore, inappropriate to [say] that early Christians criticized material wealth. Instead, of crucial importance is the attitude of the person owning it.” Therefore, our scripture says that those who have riches “are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share . . . so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
I like that phrase, even if I’m not absolutely positive I know what it means. The life that really is life. This summer our family made some college visits, which is an interesting adventure with a 7-year-old along for the ride. After a day of visiting three schools in upstate New York, he told his big sister that she should go to Hamilton College because “they have the most comfortable chairs, and you can just sit back and say, ‘aaah, this is the life!’” I don’t know where he got that phrase, except that I do know the feeling. When you’re on vacation on a beautiful beach, and the waiter brings your drink with the little umbrella in it, and your biggest concern is reapplying sunscreen . . . ahh, this is the life. Except that most of us can’t afford to stay there, and some of us can’t afford to go there in the first place, and some of us are too afraid even to dream about it because then reality is an even bigger disappointment. Is that the good life? Is that the life that really is life?
I think we can agree that real life is not just about accumulating, not “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” But what is it about? The book I’ve been reading during this series talks about “courageous vision.” We are called, as people of faith, to have courageous vision about our future, a courageous vision of what God wants from us. The author says that the life that really is life comes from having our values, our money, and our courageous vision aligned.
So think about it for a moment: what is your courageous vision for our church? And remember—vision means looking to the future, not the past. So the answer isn’t “to have as many people in the pews as we did 20 years ago.” Courageous vision should still be rooted in reality, and that means we define success differently now. So I will ask you again: what is your courageous vision for our church? (Give a moment, then ask for sharing.)
If we were to vote—which we won’t—I’m sure many of us would agree and would gladly affirm these courageous visions.
So what does it take to get us there? It takes money—and frankly, that’s the easy part. The money is there. (It’s still in your wallets, but it’s there!) What we need even more is courage—courage to expand, when we want to contract; courage to do things differently, when we’re fine with the way things are; courage to change, when custom is so much more comfortable. And I’m not pointing fingers here. Some of us recently attended a workshop on how to reach new people and it is challenging me to act in ways that I am sooo not comfortable with! But I have to consider what the experts say, even if it doesn’t sound like me.
It is time for all of us to think about the kind of legacy we want to leave here on Meetinghouse Hill: to figure out what is essential to we hold onto, so that we do not lose it, and what we must let go of in order to move forward.
In this series on money and meaning we have looked back and we have looked in. And now courageous vision demands that we look out, not in and not back. Courageous vision means we do what we can with what we have or what we trust God to provide. Courageous vision means leaning in to the mystery that we call God, and trusting that when we lean, we will not fall. Come, let us live the life that really is life.