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Perspective
I Timothy 6:6-19
The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
St. John's Lutheran Church, Atlanta, Georgia
September 30, 2007 (26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C)

Sometimes the lectionary editors take a subtle approach to connecting the different readings for a Sunday. Sometimes the common themes or storylines are not particularly obvious. This is not one of those Sundays. In the reading from the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Amos warns the nation of Israel that anyone who is enjoying prosperity and leisure should expect to be the first ones to face the deprivations of exile. The first epistle to Timothy reminds us, quite explicitly, that we cannot take our money with us when we die. Then, in the gospel lesson, Jesus tells us about a wealthy man who ended up being tormented in Hell while the poor beggar at his gate ended up in Heaven.

Apparently the lectionary editors knew that the Fall is stewardship season in most congregations. In choosing which text to preach from, my options for this Sunday were: a Hebrew prophet telling us that relying on wealth is bad; the Apostle Paul telling us that relying on wealth is bad; and Jesus telling us that relying on wealth is bad. So…I guess you know what today’s sermon is going to be about.

But which text? I chose the epistle text from First Timothy because I think that in mainline churches we generally do not pay as much attention to the epistles as we do other texts – this is certainly true in my own preaching. In general, it seems that most of us break the content of the epistles, and especially the Pauline epistles, into three categories. First, there are the texts that tell us not to do the things we already don’t think people should do. These do not get a lot of attention because we already think they are common sense.

The second category of epistle passages are the ones that tell us not to do things that we do want to do. Quite frankly, in my experience at least, nearly everyone either explains these away or skips right over them. Either way, you don’t hear a lot of preaching from those texts either.

Finally there are the texts that tell us not to do things that we don’t do, but that other people – often people we dislike, do. Now that’s a preaching gold mine right there. You can get any number of “amen’s” and “preach on’s” from a congregation by loudly calling out people’s sin from the pulpit – as long as it’s other people’s sin. For most congregations those passages are few-and-far-between, but the ones that do fit into that category can be quite popular.

Nevertheless, preachers generally tend to avoid the epistles as the primary source for their sermons. Even when the epistle text for a particular Sunday is not a laundry list of “do’s and don’ts,” when it’s one of Paul’s beautiful or impassioned theological teachings for instance, most of us opt for a story from the gospels that illustrates that theology rather than preaching from Paul’s often complicated and dry rhetoric.

I suspect that when we do so we are doing Paul, and the Early Church as well, a disservice. The epistles paint the most accurate portrait we have of what it meant to be a Christian in the time when the character of our faith was first taking shape.

First Timothy, for instance, offers us a glimpse of what the Church looked like in the time after the lives of the Apostles but before the turn of the first century. By the time First Timothy is written, probably by one of Paul’s students (but we’ll call him “Paul” since the Early Church associated his writings with Paul’s), Christianity has started to define itself apart from Judaism. Christian communities are scattered around the known world, and are struggling to develop a common identity without the benefit of apostolic guidance. Perhaps most importantly, Christians are starting to face persecution for their faith.

First Timothy, then, can give us insight into how the Early Church protected its identity and theological integrity. It can also give us some insight into what motivated our ancestors in the faith to risk their property, their prestige, and even their lives to follow the path of Christ.

The logic for taking such a risk had to run deeper than simply realizing that relying on wealth for happiness is a bad idea. Amos was already saying that 900 years before First Timothy was written, as our readings for today remind us. A person does not need to be a Christian to realize that money and luxury are dangerously seductive.

Yet Christians – then and now – can easily forget this piece of secular wisdom, and so “Paul” reminds us first of some basic facts of life. He says, “Those of you who think that following Jesus is your ticket to wealth and financial gain are looking in the wrong place.” He explains, “Here’s why that makes no sense. Godliness, seeking to be like God, reminds you that you were born with nothing and, when you die, you will again have nothing. You can’t take it with you. Paul even makes a bit of a play-on-words. The real “profit,” he says, in seeking to be like God is this: contentment.

The word translated as “contentment” here is actually one that Paul borrows from well-established Greek philosophy [/autarkeia/]. It is the Stoic virtue of peaceful satisfaction with a the simple pleasures of a warm home and a full stomach.

In other words, Paul says that people who think that their faith or their piety will somehow bring them wealth have failed to realize that one of the natural by-products of faith is realizing that wealth is impermanent and cannot bring us happiness.

In fact, Paul goes on to say, seeking to be like God teaches us that loving wealth – and by “wealth” he seems to mean any luxuries or resources beyond what is necessary for our health and basic necessities – loving wealth brings far more pain than happiness.

Again, this is common sense, even if most of us forget it from time to time. In nearly every job, there is a clear path for “progress” and “growth.” The major incentive for moving up that particular ladder is the chance to make more money. Yet each promotion typically attaches a price tag to that larger paycheck, and the cost is paid with less time at home with friends and family, increased stress, and all the health problems that go with both of those changes.

In addition, more money typically leads to a larger house, which requires yet another promotion to pay for the furniture and – here in Atlanta – another promotion to pay for the gas for the longer commute. This is why few employers ever list “happiness” in the benefits of a new job. It’s not usually part of the package.

The way Paul describes this experience is to say that some of us, in our “eagerness to be rich, wander away from the faith and pierce ourselves with many pains.” The more I thought about that image as I prepared this sermon, the more it fit. It’s as if the Apostle is describing how Christians, while trying to follow the path Christ laid out for us, can be so distracted by the pretty things that we see along the way that we’ll turn aside and plow through all sorts of thorns and briars hoping to reach them. We never seem to notice how cut up we get when we choose our own way, especially since there is always something else to distract us and draw us deeper in. A little more money. A more expensive vacation. A better car.

Still, understanding that none of those things will give us happiness, contentment, or peace isn’t a uniquely Christian realization. Paul is quoting in part from Greek philosophy and in part from common sense. That alone is not a compelling argument for any particularly Christian understanding of wealth and prosperity.

The next paragraph in First Timothy, however, goes beyond common sense. Paul continues his metaphor of a journey. He says, “Run away from all of those things. Run away from every billboard, TV commercial, and magazine ad that tries to convince you that things will make you happy. Run away from every piece of advice that equates “success” to money or power. Run away from anything that will tempt us onto the never-ending treadmill of consumption and greed.

Instead, Paul says, spend your energy chasing after love, faith, gentleness, strength, righteousness, and peace. The implication here is that you can’t pursue these things and money at the same time, since they are in opposite directions, and I think Paul is on target with that. If we look at a typical day, what percent of our energy is spent on things that net us some form of material gain, and what percent is spent on the things that nourish our hearts and our spirits? How often are they the same thing. How does putting our time into one keep us from the other, and how often does setting our course by the world’s standard for success take us away from the path Christ has set for us?

And it is at that question that we start to see how Paul’s “common sense” is about more than our own happiness, it is ultimately about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Today’s text moves from our own journey to the person of Jesus, who stood before the most powerful empire in the world and defeated it by loving its people enough to die for them, at their own hand. As career choices go, that is a very poor one. As a model for what really matters in the world, on the other hand, it works quite well.

But why? Why would it make sense for the most powerful being in the universe, God-in-the-flesh, to surrender all of that power and die for the sake of love?

Paul answers that question in the final paragraph, where he reminds those who are wealthy to plan for their future. When he does so, however, he is not telling them to save their money for a rainy day. Instead, Paul says to be “rich in good works” so that we may prepare for our ultimate future, the eternal life that is our “real” life.

In other words, Paul says, “As Christians, eternity is our reality, and we plan for that future with at least as much diligence as we plan for our retirement.” For some of us who are 401(k) challenged, that may be a bad example – so I’ll rephrase it to say that according to Paul’s standard, Christians plan for eternity with at least as much effort as we hope we will someday be able to put into our retirement.

Thinking of eternity as a tangible reality is easier said than done, and I’m not even sure that many of us – if left to our own devices – take this principle seriously at all. There are thousands of moments in every single day that remind us of our physical desires and our earthly needs. Yet how many things in our daily lives remind us of the unquestionable reality of our immortal souls and the unshakeable promise of an eternity in the presence of God?

For most of us, that ratio is about a thousand to one, and I doubt that many of us are going to leave everything behind to join the monasteries and convents where the ratio might be significantly better. With that in mind, we would do well to remember Paul’s metaphor of our lives as a journey…

…we are not there yet. We have not reached anything near the Christian ideal of piety and godliness. But every day we make choices about the direction we will follow that day. What will we chase after and what will we run away from?

I think that’s the real challenge in this text. It’s not just remembering that money won’t make us happy and we should be content with what we have. Anyone can figure that out. The challenge is finding a way to keep our perspective, to cling to the tangible reality of eternity in a world that wants us to believe that our life on earth is all we have.

That’s also easier said than done, and if we’re not careful we’ll turn Paul’s reminder of eternity into just so much mystical mumbo jumbo. The only way to avoid that is to carefully look at each aspect of our lives and ask ourselves, “Where are the places, who are the people , and what are the circumstances that cause me to remember what really matters? When is the presence of God real for me?” Once we’ve figured that out, we have to chase after those moments, leaping from one to the next as if they were stepping-stones across a stream. They are the only stable footing, and – even though we’ll stumble and get distracted across the way – they are the most certain path to real happiness…to what Paul calls, “the life that really is life.”

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