A sermon delivered by David Hughes, First Baptist Church,Winston-Salem, Nc., on September 26, 2010.
1Timothy 6:6-12, 17-19
If you keep up with movies, you know this weekend has seen the return of one of the most notorious figures in American cinema—Gordon Gekko. Twenty-three years ago Michael Douglas gave an Academy-Award winning performance as Gordon Gekko, a towering tycoon of Wall Street, in the movie Wall Street. Gekko symbolized all the glitz, and glamour, and yes, greed of the “good life” as defined by Wall Street. Gekko made millions of dollars a year, and lived life large—luxurious homes, beautiful women, chauffeured limos, and private jets. Now, after spending time in prison for insider trading, Gordon Gekko is back in the sequel, Wall Street—Money Never Sleeps, which is set during the 2008 collapse of Wall Street.
One of the most famous speeches ever made in a movie is Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” speech in the first Wall Street. Gekko is the largest shareholder in a struggling company called Teldar Paper, and he stands to address his fellow shareholders. Gekko declares that America is now a “second-rate power” because it runs itself much like Teldar Paper with high-paid executives who have no stake in the company and do little or nothing. It’s time, he says, to fire the current management of Telder.
Then comes the famous part of the speech. “In the last seven deals I’ve been involved with,” Gekko says, “there were 2.5 million shareholders who made a pre-tax profit of $12 billion. (Applause). “I’m not a destroyer of companies. I’m a liberator of companies!”
“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.
“And greed…you mark my words…will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA” (standing ovation).
Gordon Gekko’s speech didn’t just electrify Americans because Michael Douglas gave an Academy-Award winning performance. It electrified us because it was a stunningly accurate picture of our materialism. “When you cut through all the baloney,” says Gekko in effect, “we’re all trying to get all we can for ourselves. Let’s stop pretending in America we’re anything but greedy. And by the way, greed is actually good not only for you, but our American economy.”
Gordon Gekko actually did us a favor by so brilliantly exposing the culture of greed in America. Our nation was founded on the belief that you are what you earn through hard work. Our ancestor Europeans had said you are what your station in life says you can be. If you weren’t born into the right family, you were out of luck. In America, we replaced family rank with income rank. In this country, it’s your net worth that defines your self-worth. The good news is that ours is a more fair system. The bad news is that ours is a system that easily leads to obsession with money.
Obsession with material gain is nothing new, of course. It was alive and well in biblical times.
In 1 Timothy the Apostle Paul is mentoring his young ministry colleague Timothy. Paul is advising Timothy in writing about how he should provide pastoral leadership to the relatively affluent church in Ephesus. It would be easy for Timothy to get sidetracked because there are other pastor “wannabes” in Ephesus who are systematically delivering false teachings that are confusing the Ephesian Christians. And, says Paul, there are church leaders who think godliness is a means to financial gain (1 Timothy 6:5).
In other words, the church is far from sinless when it comes to greed. There have always been “prosperity gospel” preachers who have tried to leverage their spiritual leadership for financial gain. A typical pitch from a prosperity preacher might be, “God would like nothing more than to make you prosper. And if you’ll contribute generously to my ministry, I promise God will make you wealthy!”
In other words, greed is good. If you’re greedy, and I’m greedy, we’ll both live the good life in these United States of American, and all in the name of Jesus (who admittedly had nowhere to lay his head during his ministry, and no plot of his own to be buried in after he died, but we won’t talk about that!).
Paul wants to be clear as day with Timothy that this greedy road to a good life is actually a highway to Hell. And so he says to Timothy that one ingredient of the good life, Jesus style, is to learn how to be content.
Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.
Paul’s point of view is quite different from Gordon Gekko’s. Paul is reminding us that we came naked and without possessions into this world, and that’s the way we’ll leave. You can’t and you won’t take any of those hard-earned possessions with you. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy what God provides—in fact, Paul later says in this same passage that God richly provides everything for our enjoyment. But there’s no point dedicating every waking moment to our possessions because they are temporary at best. And besides, with all due respect to Gordon Gekko, all the possessions in the world don’t satisfy the deepest longings of our soul.
In a television interview, Barbara Walters asked Ted Turner, “What does it feel like to be so wealthy?”
He said, “It’s like a paper bag. Everyone sees the bag. Everyone wants it. Once you get the bag, you discover the bag is empty.” (Stephen Arterburn, Winning at Work Without Losing at Love, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994. p.141.)
Money can do so many things. But money makes one promise it cannot keep—it cannot satisfy the deep places of our soul.
But money can drive us into ruin, which is why Paul tells us that those who live the good life know when to run away, and when to run after.
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith.
Years ago Kenny Rogers sang a country song called The Gambler that contained the following lines:
You got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run.
Paul is saying much the same thing to Timothy. You’ve got to know when to run away from something as fast as you can, and when to run after something as hard as you can. Paul understands that greed, or the love of money is a lucrative foothold for the Evil One in our lives. The reason money can take us down is not because it is evil in itself, but because the Devil can use it to mastermind an unfriendly takeover of our souls. And don’t forget – the Devil, like money, never sleeps!
I heard something recently on the news that I have yet to verify. Even so this tidbit of information stopped me in my tracks. Evidently scientists have determinedthat shopping ads we see on television prompt the release of the same chemicals in our brain as does watching pornography. And you thought television commercials were harmless!
I actually experienced this chemical rush of excitement this past week when I learned through a television ad that a local men’s clothing store would give me a thousand dollars of free clothes if I just bought one (very expensive) suit from them. Then I calmed down when I realized I didn’t need a thousand dollars’ worth of clothes, even free clothes!
Paul says if you feel the downward pull of money operating on your soul, don’t walk—run away. In the meantime, run after righteousness, godliness, faith and gentleness. Be aware that many a greedy person has run after money, only to be pierced with many griefs. By the way, in the aftermath of the greed-driven meltdown of our economy in 2008, someone should ask Gordon Gekko if he still thinks greed is good for America!
Paul concludes his mentoring of Timothy with a word of instruction to the wealthy that actually applies to us all—we live the good life as we develop the spiritual discipline of generosity. After a reminder that the wealth of this world is uncertain—surely as we climb out of the worst recession since the Great Depression we don’t need to dwell on that point!—Paul advises those with means to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way, Paul says, we lay up treasure for (ourselves and)…take hold of the life that is truly life.
If one “sacred rhythm” of the good life involves running away from greed and running after godliness, another calls for being rich in good deeds and generous in our giving. Yes, we give to help those who have less. Yes, we give to build the kingdom and resource our church.
But the most important reason we give is to grow our own souls. There’s something about being generous with deeds and resources that both satisfies and expands our souls.
I started my sermon with a speech from one cultural icon . Now I want to end it with a word from another- Stephen King, the celebrated author of horror fiction, who occasionally weaves Christian themes and concepts into his writing. In 2001, Stephen King delivered the commencement address at Vassar College, two years after being struck and severely injured by minivan as he took a walk one day. As he reflects on this accident that almost took his life, King says the following in his speech:
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing you are not going to do, and that’s take it with you. I’m worth I don’t exactly know how many million dollars…and a couple of years ago I found out what ‘you can’t take it with you’ means. I found out while I was lying in the ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood…I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in a ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard…We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life’s backstage truths: We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke…And how long in between?…Just the blink of an eye.”
King went on to discuss what the graduates could do with their earnings in the time they had their eye-blink:
“…for a short period…you and your contemporaries will wield enormous power: the power of the economy, the power of the hugest military-industrial complex in the history of the world, the power of the American society you create in your own image. That’s your time, your moment. Don’t miss it.”
But then he added:
“Of the power which will shortly fall into your hands…the greatest is the power of compassion, the ability to give. We have enormous resources in this country—resources you will soon command—but they are only yours on loan…I came here to talk about charity, and I want you to think about it on a large scale. Should you give away what you have? Of course you should. I want you to consider making your lives one long gift to others, and why not? All you want to get at the getting place…none of that is real. All that lasts is what you pass on. The rest is smoke and mirrors (emphasis mine).”
After announcing a gift he was making to charity, King closed with these words:
“Giving isn’t about the receiver or the gift but the giver. It’s for the giver. One doesn’t open one’s wallet to improve the world, although it’s nice when that happens; one does it to improve one’s self. I give because it’s the only concrete way I have of saying that I’m glad to be alive…”
Now, who do you think comes closer to reflecting the good life as God intends it—Gordon Gekko, who says “Greed is good?” Or Stephen King who says, “All that lasts is what you pass on. The rest is smoke and mirrors?”
I don’t know about you, but I’m putting my money on Stephen King.