September 29, 2013
19th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Timothy 6:6-19
"The High Road"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A guy is driving around Oklahoma and he sees a sign in front of a house: "Talking Dog for Sale." He rings the bell and the owner tells him the dog is in the backyard. The guy goes into the backyard and sees a Labrador Retriever sitting there. "You talk?" he asks. "Yep," the Lab replies. "So, what's your story?"
The Lab looks up and says, "Well, I discovered that I could talk when I was pretty young. I wanted to help the government, so I told the CIA about my gift, and in no time at all they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping. I was one of their most valuable spies for eight years running.
"But the jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn't getting any younger so I decided to settle down. I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security wandering near suspicious characters and listening in.
"I uncovered some incredible dealings and was awarded a batch of medals. I got married, had a mess of pups, and now I'm just retired."
The guy is amazed. He goes back in and asks the owner what he wants for the dog. "Ten dollars," the guy says. "Ten dollars? This dog is amazing. Why on earth are you selling him so cheap?" "Because he's a liar. He never did any of that stuff."
I recently presided over a wedding where there were a number of chairs beautifully ordered over the front yard. A great many of my 157 weddings thus far have been outside, and I'm good with using my teacher voice to include those in the back. But on that day, the acoustics were not doing me any favor, and despite my attempts, I found out later that not everyone heard me as well as they could have. Here's the funny thing. There were several empty seats between where it always seems "safe" to sit in the back, and closer up to where the action was taking place. I am guessing it was not wanting to look foolish or whatever else people might have been thinking, but whatever they were thinking, kept them from enjoying every cleverly written word and every poignant phrase that was uttered. As in life, I wonder how many times we are "cheated" of living life to the fullest because we are afraid of one thing or another, failure of one sort or another. Interestingly enough, the writer of 1 Timothy had some good ideas of how to live life to the fullest.
For those who haven't had time to brush up on your New Testament studies, a little background. 1 and 2 Timothy and the book of Titus were written to the great Paul's minister-in-training, Timothy. They were like online seminary courses of the day, but without the internet and without classes and without books. The rolls of papyrus included instructions for pastors and ministers on the organization of the church, leadership responsibilities along with encouragements to faithfulness and maintaining truth. Because of the setting being in the Middle East, I'm guessing that the ministerial instructions did not include how to shovel the walk or snow blow the sidewalks. But, what's so good about this morning's passage is that it applies to all of us!
1 Timothy 6:6-19 The Message
6-8 A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough. 9-10 But if it’s only money these leaders are after, they’ll self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith completely and live to regret it bitterly ever after.
11-12 But you, Timothy, man of God: Run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life—a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. Run hard and fast in the faith. Seize the eternal life, the life you were called to, the life you so fervently embraced in the presence of so many witnesses.
13-16 I’m charging you before the life-giving God and before Christ, who took his stand before Pontius Pilate and didn’t give an inch: Keep this command to the letter, and don’t slack off. Our Master, Jesus Christ, is on his way. He’ll show up right on time, his arrival guaranteed by the Blessed and Undisputed Ruler, High King, High God. He’s the only one death can’t touch, his light so bright no one can get close. He’s never been seen by human eyes—human eyes can’t take him in! Honor to him, and eternal rule! Oh, yes.
17-19 Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.
Thank you, Al. Right off the get-go, it is tempting for some folks to use this passage as a proof-text, as they call it, for what is called the Prosperity Gospel, or the health and wealth gospel. "A devout life does bring wealth." It's the idea that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one's material wealth. But Eugene Peterson's version of the Bible, called The Message, makes it so much clearer, that the "wealth" is not about shekels or dollars, but "the rich simplicity of being yourself before God."
I wonder how many people get the wrong impression of money - that more means better and better means more. We need money to live, and Paul reminds us - so plainly - that "if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that's enough." Way back in the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom said, "Wealth is by its very nature ad extra (a Latin term) - it is meant to go out from you, like a light that dispels the darkness."
That's the beauty of how God inspired the individuals that set up the gift we received, that for lack of a wonderful name, is referred to as the investment fund. Before we got the gift and invested it, we struggled to meet our bills, just like any other church. But the inspiration was that while we have an innate need to give - back to God some of that with which God has blessed us - we could use some of the investment interest to do good things for other people - in a giving fashion.
So we get to use some of that money to send people to places where they can receive more and different sorts of religious education. The second area we get to bless others is in the mission area, not to displace the mission basket in our offering plates, but to be able to do more in reaching out to others in God's name. The third area of blessing comes in being able to use some monies for things around our spiritual home, primarily because it is such a beacon in-and-of itself, especially at night, when we can get all the lightbulbs working at the same time! But we're working on that.
Just like at home, we still have heat and water and electricity bills to pay. But those are our responsibilities. And I try very hard not to forget that it is because of your generosity that I get to stay here as pastor of this herd - I mean fold. So it's fascinating - and telling - that Paul should say so much about money in a personal letter that aims to instruct a young pastor in effective ministry.
In the passage, Paul talks about "pursuing a righteous life," and "going after God." If you think about it, he's telling young Timothy about spiritual maturity. A good many of us - myself included - may do things like going to church, putting something in the plate, and sometimes, if it's an especially good day, the Holy Spirit may deeply touch us. But Paul is talking about a deeper sort of faith, one that can sustain us when the purse strings get tight, the days seem dark, when we get lost, when uncertainty wafts into our lives, when we get frustrated at the things we cannot change. And I wonder if there is a point in life when we lose fascination with the surface stuff, that we actually long for a deeper connection - and faith walk - with God. I wonder if this is the place where Billy Graham can put in his two cents, so-to-speak. He once said, "A checkbook is a theological document. It will tell you who and what you worship."
Paul tells Timothy, and so all of us, to pursue "a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy." Near the end of today's passage, he tells us "to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous."
Sr. Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun, with a few years to her credit, and she makes a great statement about taking the high road in life. "Fight the good fight," Paul says, "where it's not the fight to overcome the best of the competition ... but the fight to overcome the worst in ourselves."
Comic writer Erma Bombeck lost her battle with breast cancer in 1996. Before succumbing to the disease she wrote this: 1.5 million women are living today after bouts with breast cancer. Every time I forget to feel grateful to be among them, I hear the voice of an eight-year-old named Christina who has cancer of the nervous system. When asked what she wanted for her birthday she pondered and said, ‘Well, I have two sticker books and a cabbage patch doll. I guess I have everything!’ “The kid,” said Erma, “is right!”....That being said, can you stop today and thank God for whatever your two sticker books and cabbage patch doll might be?" It seems appropriate to do just what Ms. Bombeck suggested. So let us pray.
Gracious God of wonder, faith, love, steadiness and even courtesy, we are grateful for the blessings that you bestow on us. We sometimes forget just how rich we are, some rich of pocketbook, yes, but all of us rich in the ability to help others, to being able to do good and to even be extravagantly generous - with money or not. As often as we reach for our billfolds and pocketbooks this week, God, remind us of our richness in the simplicity of being ourselves before you. We are, every last one of us, grateful for the bread on the table and the shoes on our feet that is called "enough." Help us to bless others with our riches and to remember that you care more about our spiritual maturity than the balance in our checkbooks. For the sheer gratitude of being your children, all your people say, Amen.