Heads up: The sermon this morning is about money. Don’t blame me. It’s the lectionary reading of the day, and the Spirit says, “Stick with the text.” So, buckle your seat beats, as we explore the nature of money and its place in a life of faith. I’ll try not to step on your toes.
To set your mind at ease, you don’t have to protect your wallet. This is not a stewardship sermon asking for a pledge. That’ll come in October!
Our focus today is on the nature of true wealth – wealth that adds value and meaning to life and is not subject to the rise and fall of the stock market or the constant erosion of inflation.
Before we get to the text, let me share a story out of my recent past. When Kathy and I were dating, we got to a point where we started to think about the future. She had me over for dinner one night and, after dinner, she said, “Before I could ever get serious about someone, I’d have to see a financial statement and a credit report!” She meant it.
Understand, Kathy was a banker for thirty-seven years. She’d spent a lot of those years in lending making loans, and she knew the power of money to enrich or destroy people’s lives; and, particularly; how it can wreck an otherwise happy marriage. Her main concern wasn’t in knowing how much I had, but how much I owed – and for good reason: Debt is one of the biggest problems in our society today, especially among young couples.
I took her seriously. A few days later I dropped by the house and handed her a manila folder containing a full financial disclosure and a recent credit report. I said, “You can look these over when you have time.” She went over them with a fine tooth comb. It paid off. And it removed what could’ve been a stumbling block in our relationship.
In the grand scheme of things, money – or the lack of it – looms large. You either take it seriously, or you suffer the consequences. So, what does Paul tell us about the nature of true wealth? He begins,
“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we certainly can’t carry anything out. But having food and clothing, we will be content with that.”
(1 Timothy 6:6-8)
Whether you have a little or a lot, the question is are you content with what you have? Is it enough to suit you, or do you always want more … a bigger house—a larger nest egg—added security, in one form or another?
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One of my seminary classmates accepted his first call to a small church in North Texas. At the end of the year, he asked for a raise. Fair enough. He made a convincing case, and they increased his salary by $2,000. At the end of the next year, he asked for another raise. This time, the chair of the finance committee put the onus on him. “How much do you think you need?” he asked. “About $2,000,” he said. They split the difference and gave him a thousand. He shared this experience with a group of us later and said, “You know, no matter how much I make, I figure it’s always going to be about $2,000 less than what I need.”
It’s human nature: We want more than we can afford. Our appetites exceed our pocketbooks. So, we rationalize: “But I need it.” You convince yourself that whatever it is you want, you really need, and you need it so badly you can’t live without it.
In his book, Faith Quakes, Leonard Sweet tells of the owner of a WestVirginia country store. A salesman dropped by with what he claimed to be the hottest, best-selling product. “Everybody’s going to need one of these,” he said. The store owner wasn’t buying it. He said, “Mister, in this part of the country every want ain’t necessarily a need.”
We’ve all been there. Wants become needs, and needs become necessities of life. It’s an endless cycle. You can never have enough. Not only do you want more, you want the latest model with all the bells and whistles. (Did I just hear someone whisper, I-Phones?)
As a result, our lives are cluttered with an endless array of gadgets and miscellaneous stuff. Still, we want more. When are you ever going to be content with what you’ve got? Harry Emerson Fosdick got it right when he prayed,
“Cure Thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to Thy control;
Shame our wanton selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul.”
Another way we rationalize is to compare what we have with those who have more. “I may have a modest degree of wealth,” we say, “but it’s not a drop in the bucket compared to Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or the Walton family.”
Isn’t it interesting that when you compare your wealth with others, it’s always those who are richer, not those who are poorer than you? Try comparing your riches to the people of Haiti or Bangladesh. You may be a lot richer than you think.
The story is told of a little boy and his sister knocking on doors collecting anything they could to sell and make a little money. They came to the home of an old widow woman and asked if she could help them in any way.
It was a cold, blustery day, and she took pity on them. “Want you come in while I see what I can find for you?” she said. She showed them into the den where there was a nice warm fire. Their little feet left puddles of water where their shoes squished out the rain. As the children warmed their little hands and feet by the fire, the woman put on some hot chocolate, then gathered up a few odds and ends for their sack.
A few minutes later, she came in with a tray of hot chocolate and cookies. The children said, “Thank you,” and sipped their hot chocolate and ate their cookies quietly on empty stomachs. Out of nowhere, the little girl looked up at the lady and said, “You must be rich.” “Rich!” she exclaimed. “Me? Rich? Why I hardly think so. Why would you say that?” The little girl said, “Your cups and saucers match.”
The children finished their cookies and hot chocolate and walked back into the cold. As they disappeared down the street, the old woman thought to herself, “My cups and saucers match. I never realized just how rich I was.”
Let’s move on. Paul says,
“But those who are determined to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful lusts, such as drown men in ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6:10)
Take note: It’s the love of money, not money itself, that’s the root of all evil. On its own, money is neutral. It’s like a bottle of whiskey on the shelf or a loaded gun in the closet – money itself won’t hurt a thing. It’s what you do with it than can kill you. If you use it wisely, it can be a blessing; if you don’t, it can be a curse.
Here’s the problem: The love of money leads to idolatry. Jesus said,
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon.“ (Matthew 6:24)
The love of money leads to idolatry, and idolatry leads to death. Oh, you may live a long life, and you may have more toys than you know what to do with, but spiritually speaking, you’ll be dead in the water, searching, but never finding lasting peace, joy and happiness.
What’s worse, your love of money will not only poison your life, it will infect the lives of your children and grandchildren. God told Moses,
“You shall have no other gods before me … for I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me …” (Exodus 20:3-5)
No, it’s not money that’s the problem, but what you do with it – how you manage it and use it to glorify God or satisfy your own insatiable appetites. This is why Paul admonished Timothy:
“Charge those who are rich in this present world that they not be haughty, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on the living God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold of eternal life.” (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
I’ve been blessed over the years to have known some really wealthy people. Some of them, not all, had money to speak of. What made them wealthy was what they did with the money they had. For example:
• One single-handedly paid for a community-wide Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless. It ended up costing him several hundred dollars more than he’d expected. He didn’t complain. He said he just wanted others to eat as well on Thanksgiving as he and his family.
• Another bought a late model used car for her niece to drive back and forth to school.
• Another helped send a young man to seminary.
• Another made payments on a customer’s car when it was about to be repossessed.
• Another would get up before the crack of dawn every year the week before Christmas in order to catch the garbage truck as it came by, so he could give each of the men a crisp $100 bill. He did the same for the mailman—and who knows how many others.
• Another gave a large gift to an elderly woman who served his grandparents in years past.
• Then there were the men who formed the “No Name Club.” They made a pact in which they told the preacher that if he came across someone in need, he could call on any one of them, and they’d give him a hundred dollars to help, no questions asked. The only stipulation was that he was not to reveal their names.
I could go on, but you get the point: True wealth is measured not by how much you have, but by what you do with what you’ve got … by the generosity you show to others.
There’s an old saying, “There’s no trailer hitch on a hearse.” You can’t take it with you. The only treasures you get to keep are those you give away. Jesus put it this way:
“Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I had a vision the other day. It was sparked by a memorial marker I passed honoring a particular man of note. It caused me to wonder: What would it be like somehow to be able to look down from heaven and see what transpired in the wake of your death? Here’s what I saw:
• There’d be the initial grief of your passing and the customary period of mourning. You’d get to hear all the nice things people would say about you.
• In a relatively short time they’d settle your estate. Hopefully, there wouldn’t any fighting or hurt feelings or disappointment that you didn’t have more to leave behind.
Time goes by and you look to see what happened to your treasures. You find that …
• Your car was given to one of the grandchildren, who ran up a bunch of miles, then traded it in. It now sits in a junk yard being picked over for spare parts.
• Your books were donated to the public library. Most have never been checked out.
• Family pictures were boxed up and stored in the attic. Most have all but faded away.
• Your clothes were donated to Goodwill and have long since been worn out.
• Your fishing gear, including your favorite rod and reel, tackle box, waders and the old hat with all the hand-tier lures stuck in it is still in a corner of the garage. It serves as a sort-of shrine for the kids to pay homage to you when they come home for the holidays. Your son-in-law got your boat and motor.
• Your knick-knacks and all those souvenirs you collected from your travels were sold in a garage sale for pennies on the dollar.
It’s just a fantasy, of course. But if it were possible to look down from heaven after you’re gone, I think you’d see that this life and the tangible stuff that goes with it is largely inconsequential.
It’s like building a sand castle on the beach. You work for hours to build up the walls and towers and turrets, only to watch it washed away in minutes when the tide comes in.
The truth is only God is eternal. Only God is from everlasting to everlasting. Knowing God, praising God, serving God in word and deed are all that’s ultimately important. In the words of Isaac Watts,
Time, like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away; They fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day. O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, Be thou our strength while life shall last, and our eternal home.
In closing, here is my charge to you: Strive to amass a fortune. Just make sure it consists of true wealth, not the fleeting riches of this world. Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. As for the stuff of this world, take Luther’s advice:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.