(a sermon for October 16, 2016, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Timothy 6:6-19)
It happened just the other day, a truly “Murphy’s Law”-styled happenstance: waiting at the counter of one our local convenience stores and caught just behind this woman who was in the midst of purchasing a rather voluminous supply of lottery tickets! Understand, she was no casual player, but clearly an expert on matters pertaining to Mega Millions and other governmental games of chance; and not even the now growing line of customers behind her would make her rush the process!
First, there was five chances in the Powerball drawing: three with numbers selected by the store’s computer, the other two on the basis of carefully selected numbers: birthdays, anniversaries, the number of grandchildren, all of which she described in detail as she filled out the computer card. Then there were the Pick-3, Pick-4 tickets, and a handful of very carefully selected scratch tickets; chosen only after she’d surveyed every one of the cards on display, asking the clerk what each one cost and what their odds were for winning.
And this was taking… forever! Usually these kind of things don’t get under my skin, but this time I was in a hurry and I’m thinking (I’m sure along with everybody else in line!), good grief, lady! Will you just get on with this! But she was in no hurry; and the clerk, to his credit, was being amazingly patient until, finally, she plunked down some cash and headed out the door. “Hope you win this time, Laura,” the clerk called out as she left. And then, turning to me, he said, “Sorry about that… you know, that woman’s been here for an hour and a half! And if she wins anything, she’ll be right back in to buy some more tickets!” And then, as the clerk’s taking my cash, he shook his head and smiled, “You know the funniest part? Every time she’s in here she says the same thing: that if she ever did win the big money, she wouldn’t know what to do with it!”
I’ve been thinking about that ever since: a woman who, at least for all casual appearances, didn’t seem to be all that well-off financially; and yet was very directed in spending a fair amount of money on lottery tickets, even if she didn’t have any real vision of what winning any money would mean for her! Don’t misunderstand, I’m not seeking to be judgmental here; as the saying goes, I don’t know this woman’s life! Maybe it’s some form of addictive behavior; maybe, given this economy, it was an act of financial desperation; or perhaps more likely, it’s rooted in this vague dream we all have to some extent that if we only just had a little bit more than we do – a little bit more money, a little bit more time, a little bit more personal freedom – then… oh, yes, then… we’d be all set… at long last, happy and content!
Of course, the reality is that more – more money, more stuff, more of anything – does not even begin to guarantee any level of happiness or content; in fact, quite often the result is just the opposite! There was a family from my home town in Maine who won big money in the lottery a couple of years ago; enough that they are now essentially set for life. And that sounds great, but the truth was that in some ways their lives were made much more difficult because of the money: immediately this family was deluged with requests from all over the country for donations; and there were those, even in town, who decided that this family’s good fortune was the answer to some of the community’s financial difficulties (and in fact, they made a very generous donation to fix the school’s leaking roof!); but the requests kept on coming, to the point where for a while they were forced to literally cover their yard and home with “no trespassing” and “no solicitor” signs!
It’s an all-too common story; and though I haven’t heard much about this particular family since then, it does seem like every time you read about something like this, you’ll hear these lottery winners talk about how it was only after they’d won all this money that they could begin the tell the difference between what they wanted and thought they needed in life, and what really mattered.
That, friends, is a dichotomy of human life that exists throughout scripture: that the key to life does not exist in the gaining of wealth, success or power. In fact, as indicated very clearly in our reading today, there has to be a discernment between, on the one hand, the “senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction,” and on the other, the “life that really is life,” the “treasure of a good foundation for the future.” As Paul describes it, one way of life is exemplified by the “love of money, which is the root of all kinds of evil,” while the other centers on “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance [and] gentleness.”
You want the secret to winning the real lottery of life? Here’s Paul to tell us about that; that ultimately, “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.”
Now, wait a minute…nothing?!! That’s the great gain to be found in life? Admittedly, for any of us who yearn to just get a step ahead of the monthly bills, maybe to have a decent retirement; well, that’s just a hard pill of truth to swallow! I ask you, is there anything wrong, really… and this for the sake of contentment, mind you (!), that we get a little extra to go along with that godliness? Well, nothing… per se… but here’s the problem, as E.B. White once put it: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world, and a desire to enjoy it. That makes it hard to plan the day.”
And therein lies our dilemma as people of faith, friends, and the question put to us by the Epistle this morning: with what mind and spirit do we, as people of God, approach the world and claim our place in it? It’s a hard question, but an important one: do we exist out of a sense of greed and self-centered desire, or do we live from a spirit of wholeness in which we reach out to others in sacrificial love? Can it be said of you and me that we embrace something – or someone – greater than ourselves as being the true source of all that we have and can ever hope to be?
The truth is that as persons and as a people, we are torn between two ways of life. The thing is, we know all-too-well the gospel’s call to us; we understand Jesus’ words about we cannot love God and money; we get Paul’s words, as The Message translates it, “Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble,” and how going down that path, “some lose their footing in the faith completely and live to regret it bitterly ever after.” (Is that enough of a rebuke for you this morning?) If we are being honest with ourselves, we know that sometimes we are tempted by the notion that somehow happiness and contentment, along with things like love, acceptance, and joy can somehow be bought; even when most times we know full well that all we’re buying is trouble!
That’s always been a challenge for us, has it not; I think it’s wired into our DNA to want at least a little bit more for ourselves! But that said, I’d suggest to you that in these days when wealth and power too often become confused with privilege and even righteousness, we would do well to discover that true contentment and peace comes not from what can be gained from the world, but rather from what is found in godliness. Indeed, as Paul once said to a young pastor named Timothy he says to us as well: to “fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
Actually, one thing that’s very interesting about our reading this morning is that what’s being talked about here is ultimately not money! We see this in probably the most frequently misquoted bit of scripture that there is: it’s not, as so many assume it to be, that “money is the root of all evil,” but it’s “the love of money [that] is the root of all kinds of evil.” And that’s just it; it’s not having money or not having it, and it’s not even being rich or poor in and of itself; it’s about our attitude; it’s about what, at the very core of our being we value the most in life and living; and it’s how we make use of what we do have, however great or small it may be by the world’s standards.
The love of money, and all that goes with it, is the root of all kinds of evil, so, says Paul, “persue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” These are the things that truly matter; the stuff of enduring faith, and indeed, the quality of life to which you and I have been called by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And despite any and all conflicting messages that bombard us with their quick, easy and inevitably empty promises, this is the life worth fighting for in all that we do; so fight this good fight of faith that you might “take hold of the life that really is life.”
In a prior parish, there used to be this man in the community who every fall would bring us vegetables from his garden. I’m not sure exactly how it started, but he’d stop at my office to drop off these prize tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers, and he’d always explain that he had more than enough and just wanted to share; and, of course, I was always glad to accept that kindness! He was also leaving literally boxes and boxes of veggies at the food pantry that was operated out of our parish hall; but it wasn’t until years later that the women who ran the food pantry explained to me that at other, leaner times of the year this same man had often been among those who had come to get some help from us at our food pantry in the form of some groceries.
When I finally learned this, I felt badly that for so many years I’d so willingly and joyfully taken all the veggies this man would give me, especially given that he himself had been in such need. I never wanted him to feel as though “he owed us” in any way for the church’s outreach. But then I realized what I’d really known all along: for him, this wasn’t about payback, this was about happiness! One conversation was all it took to know that this was all about one man’s innate sense of giving and sharing; about being a good neighbor; about the joy of doing exactly what he’d been raised to do from the time he was a child: to look to the good of others before his own, and to do it with love, good will, and, dare I say, godliness; the godliness that brings with it contentment.
I’ve never forgotten that; and it makes me wonder how much – or perhaps more to the point, how little – it would take for me to have that level of godliness in my own life. Like most of us, I suspect, I know I have to really work at actually doing, as another Epistle puts it, what I know in faith is “good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2) And isn’t it true that sometimes, when life just seems to “pile on,” we end up having to fight for the sake of our faith all the harder… but that’s our challenge, beloved; that is our fight, to take hold of the life that really is life, living unto the truth of Christ which is our confession of faith. This is our task, and it is our calling as we go from this place today, to nurture and maintain a life in which God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment,” and to be generous, be ready to share and to do good as we go along.
It’s a hard fight at times; but it’s a good fight… and so I pray that each of us will fight that good fight of the faith. Fight it in your homes; fight it at work and in your times of play; fight it amidst the conflicting noise of division and hatred. Let us all fight the good fight with all our might, and take hold of the eternal…
…and may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry