Saturday, September 29, 2007

For the love of money...

Ok Ok I know I said that I wasn't going to blog anymore...but perhaps I was just feeling a bit overworked that day. It seems a shame to put in so much work on my sermons, and then only have them disappear into the ether once I've delivered them. So, even if I don't blog very often (in a diary format) I'll still try to post my sermons here. Enjoy!

1 Timothy 6: 6-19

For the love of money...

Once upon a time there was a ship which was going down in a storm. On board was a man who had been planning to emigrate to a new life, and who had brought all his money with him in cash - in a suitcase full of pound notes that he had stashed under his bed. As the announcement was made to man the lifeboats, the man took out his suitcase from under the bed, and realising that he would not be allowed to take any luggage with him, he stuffed all his pound notes inside his clothing. He put money up his sleeves, and down his trousers. He stuffed his pockets and his shoes. Every nook and crannie of his clothing was filled with money - and walking about like a Michelin man, he made his way to the lifeboat station.

The Petty Officer on duty at the station raised one eyebrow at the man as he got into the boat... he did look rather strange. But then the Officer had seen plenty of strange things in his life, so thought no more about it. He set about the task of letting down the lifeboat into the seething seas below. But horror of horrors - just as the lifeboat was about to safely touch the water, a massive wave swamped the boat. It twisted against its ropes, flipped over, and threw out all its passengers...including the Michelin-Money-Man...into the watery hell below.

Quickly, the Officer ordered the lifeboat to be drawn back up, righted, and then lowered back into the water. Once that had been accomplished, all the lifeboat's former passengers were able to scramble back on board. All, that is, except one. The Michelin-Money-Man was last seen disappearing below the waves, while desperately trying to remove his waterlogged money from all his nooks and crannies. But he was too late. His last thought, before dying, was a question... "I wonder, he thought. Did I own this money...or did it own me?"

How many people here have either read, or seen the film of "The Lord of the Rings"? Those of you who know the film - or preferably the book - will know exactly what I mean if I say "My Precious...we loves you my Precious!". I'm talking of course about the character Gollum - or Smeagal as he once was - before he became so obsessed with owning, and keeping, and touching, the precious Ring which forms part of the title of the whole story. Of course, being a story, the Ring itself was a magic object - filled with the evil power of the Dark Lord, Sauron. It was more than simply a piece of jewellery...it was a thing with a life of its own; and an ability to draw its owner into an intense relationship with it.

The Lord of the Rings is a Christian allegory. Its author, Tolkein, was a close friend and associate of C.S.Lewis - who of course wrote stories about another magical land, Narnia. I don't know exactly what Tolkein had in mind when he wrote about the Ring - but one very clear message is that it is possible for us to become possessed by our possessions - so that we no longer own them... they can start to own us.

And that is, of course, one of the underlying themes of Paul's first letter to Timothy. Paul commands his younger disciple that he must warn the rich people of his congregation that (in verse 9) "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". He goes on, "For the love of the money is the root of all kinds of evil".

And just as an aside - just in case no-one has ever pointed it out to you - that is one of the most often mis-quoted lines of the Bible. It is not money that is the root of all kinds of evil... but the love of money. Money itself is a thing...a useful thing for oiling the wheels of human society. But when we begin to love money, to desire riches and wealth... then we are on dangerous ground. We can so easily become (verse 9 again) "trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction"

There is of course no clearer example of the dangers of loving money than the terrible scenes we've seen this week on the streets of Burma. And it really shouldn't surprise us to see that Generals who have spent so many years stuffing their pockets with money would use deadly force to hold on to it. They are, in Paul's words, trapped by their senseless and harmful desires. They have failed to understand that they can't take any of their wealth with them - and that they have failed to grasp hold of life that is really life.

This teaching of Paul undercuts any kind of prosperity Gospel. Don't listen to those preachers on GodTV, or in numerous books, who try to tell you that God wants you to be fabulously wealthy. For Paul, the acquisition of wealth is anything but what God wants - rather it is a serious threat to Christian character and community. For Paul, the idea of Godliness is set up in complete opposition to riches. He wants us to find value in life not possessions. The idea that being a Christian ensured prosperity is seen by Paul as a false priority - with faith-threatening, and life-threatening consequences.

Paul tries, through this letter, to help us to develop a healthy perspective about our wealth. This is not least because, as he says in verse 8, "we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it". Instead, he invites us to find value in life rather than possessions. Or rather, "life that is really life" - as he calls it in verse 19. To help us, Paul develops some ideas about the concept of 'contentment'. Consider the opening verse of this passage: "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment".

Now, I am no Greek scholar - but with a good quality commentary, anyone can begin to get a grasp of some of the more important words in which Paul actually wrote. I'm told that the word that is translated here are 'contentment' is the Greek word 'autarkeia' - which, like many Greek words, has more layers of meaning than the English translation alone can communicate. 'Autarkeia' is a word that denotes contentment, yes, but also an attitude that cherishes simplicity, and which accepts the hand that we are dealt by nature or fortune.

And that's an important point. Jesus did command the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions before he could follow the Lord. But that is not what is required for all of Jesus' followers. Instead we are called to hold the things of this world lightly - to be content with whatever we have, and to be ready to let it go at any time. We are, in Paul's words from verse 18, "to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share". Being ready to share means being able to hold our possessions very lightly between our fingers... easily able to let them go when they are needed by anyone else.

There is a sense in which, as we read Scripture, it tends to read us, in return. I don't know about you, but I find this an uncomfortable scripture to read. As I read it, I find myself asking myself "Is this me? Have I fallen into this temptation?" I find myself squirming as I hear Paul's words echoing across the centuries. And I know that I will squirm even more uncomfortably in a couple of weeks when, I hope, I shall find myself in Uganda... experiencing, no doubt, the poverty of two-thirds of the world's population.

One of the ways that Christians have historically tried to come to terms with this portion of scripture is to use the phrase "all things in moderation". I don't know about you, but I go through all sorts of complicated justifications for the wealth that I possess which are along the lines of 'well, I don't have that much in comparison to some people. And compared to old Mrs Smith I really do live quite modestly. I'm only having one foreign holiday this year...the other holiday was spent in our old battered caravan...that's pretty moderate isn't it?'

But the trouble with that kind of internal argument is that that way lies madness! If we spend our whole lives agonising over every spending decision, and worryingly comparing ourselves to those who have more, or less, than us - then we stand a very good chance of making the concept of 'moderation' itself into a kind of god. No, the biblical basis for handling money is not 'moderation', but 'contentment' - autarkeia - contentment with whatever we have.

Consider what Paul also wrote to the Philippians (chapter 4, verses 11-13). "...I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me".

So let us be on our guard against letting the love of money lead us into destruction. But let us also guard against setting up any new gods... like the god of moderation. Let us, instead, hold lightly to what we have been given - and learn contentment in all the circumstances of life.

And if - because you are now holding lightly to what you have been given - you should want to give me some money to take with me to Uganda in two weeks... money that will be used to alleviate poverty, and bring hope to some of the world's poorest people... then let me encourage you to hold lightly on to your money in this direction!

Amen

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