A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
September 29, 2013
Psalm 91:9-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19
Some of you, at least, are aware that I am an avid amateur photographer. I am of the school that believes a picture doesn’t convey a thousand words but tens of thousands. A really good and creative shot captures my imagination and gets my blood running.
Having said that, I have an idea for a picture that I shared recently with our Wednesday night group. I’d like to take a photograph of a funeral hearse with a U-Haul trailer attached. A really good picture needs no caption, but I can just see it, can’t you? “Well, I’ll Be…”
The Apostle Paul is finishing up one of his letters to his young friend and colleague Timothy. Whether Timothy ever relished getting these letters we do not know. It could be he dreaded receiving them, if for no other reason than they are just filled with advice. It is human nature for us to accept advice… shall we say, grudgingly?
I wonder if that’s the way Timothy felt. But regardless of how Timothy may have felt about it, Paul evidently sensed some kind of responsibility toward his younger charge, and he fulfilled it with great zeal by writing him on more than one occasion. We have possession of only two letters, but I can’t help but feel that Paul wrote him more often than that. To Timothy, it might have felt as if he was receiving a subscription of Paul’s letters… they came to him like clockwork.
Yet, I doubt very seriously that Paul ever thought his letters would make it into holy scripture. As far as he is concerned, he is simply conveying his thoughts to his young friend. Timothy is still a bit wet behind the ears, you know, and Paul feels as if he has some experience he can share with him – advice that will hold him in good stead for many years to come – if, of course, he does what Paul tells him to do.
Generally, when we give advice, it is based on experience. And when we share these cautions with others, it is with the hope that they will not make the same mistakes we did. Every parent in this room knows what I mean. We try to spare our children the errors we have committed, but eventually we know they will have to discover some things on their own… things we simply can’t teach them.
Perhaps Paul is not only trying to help Timothy prosper in his ministry, but keep him out of jail as well. Paul, you are aware, knew something of jail cells. He certainly graced a few in his lifetime.
So, what did Paul say to Timothy?
The first word of advice that Paul gives his colleague, at least as he begins to wind down his letter, is contentment. Paul says that contentment is a worthy virtue, especially when it is combined with godliness. This is where Paul reminds us we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out of it. We all know that. We… do… all know that, don’t we? Yes, of course we do. But do we live like it?
The interesting thing is, when we are content with our godliness, that is when we find ourselves getting in trouble. What do we mean? Well, a godly life is one that finds us continually wanting more and more, not of possessions, but of the rich experiences that deepen our faith and give us a true sense of the eternal. Another interesting thing is, the more we seek this kind of life the more content we will be with the things we possess. The more content we are with the things we possess, the more our lives take on a different tone from most others. And the more that happens, the more trouble we find.
Joseph Heller, the author of the novel Catch-22, was once hosted at a party by a known billionaire. One of the other attendees at the party commented to Heller that his host made more money in a single day of hedge-fund trading than Heller had made from the sales of his book. His reply? “Yes, but I have something that he will never have: enough.”1
Enough is not a theological word, as far as I know. But it’s about as biblical as it can get. The problem is, we seem never to have enough.
If you really want to get depressed, read the letters to the editor of any local newspaper. What will they tell you? They will tell you that people are scared. People are scared of what waits around the next corner. They are afraid democracy is going to crumble They are afraid that Al-Qaeda is going to win. They are afraid their annuities are going to disintegrate. They’re afraid that someone else is going to get what they themselves deserve to have. They are afraid because they never have enough.
Why else would people stand outside in line in a pouring rain to get the next version of the iPhone? Why else would Congress be so deeply divided, not just over foreign policy, but over the issue of how healthcare is going to be disseminated to those who do not currently have it? Why else would we have created a political system that is governed less by conviction than by powerful, moneyed special interests?
Is it because some people never have enough?
Last week, a friend told me of a conversation he had had at lunch earlier that day with an acquaintance. This other person has a fairly intimate knowledge of the goings on of a famous television evangelist. He told my friend that this TV preacher makes – are you ready for this? – $80 million a month from the sales of her books alone. I don’t watch TV evangelists, but I think I’m pretty safe in assuming that those who ply their trade in this manner tend to pay more attention to those passages of scripture that deal with end-times than those scriptures like this one from Paul’s letter to Timothy. My cynical side says that if she really is making that kind of money, she surely doesn’t want Jesus to come again any time soon.
When is enough enough? Think of that the next time you buy a burger, and realize that the person who is waiting on you is working for minimum wage. The next time you buy a piece of clothing, look for the tag that tells you where it was made. I’m not saying you should buy only that which is made in America (good luck in finding that), but if it says something like “Made in Bangladesh,” at least stop for a moment and offer a prayer on behalf of the person who toiled to make that piece of clothing for you, and who did so at the barest salary imaginable.
If, at this point, you are thinking, “I didn’t come to church today to be preached at or to be made to feel guilty for the way I live,” then I would humbly say to you that you would be missing the point. The point is, we need to examine, at least from time to time, how things are in this world in which we live. It’s not scripture, but it’s pretty close… the admonition that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” How do you think the Creator of this world, the One whom we worship this morning, is thinking about all he sees and witnesses in the things that are going on in his world?
Rather than feel guilty, or angry, we need to try to see with God’s eyes, if for no other reason than, as Paul tells his friend Timothy, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” and those who give in to this “have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
So what do we do about that? Paul uses the word pursue. Pursue, of course, is an active verb. It’s got sweat all over it, and means to chase after… doggedly, like a detective or a bloodhound. Look for, yearn for, work for, pursue… “righteousness, godliness, faith, love endurance, gentleness.” How do we do that, that is, if we choose to follow Paul’s advice? In our world today, where there is an ever-growing divide between rich and poor, how do we focus our attention on more eternal realities?
Do you want to know what always helps when we’re looking for guidance like that? Consider what Jesus had to say, and look at what Jesus did. He spent his time among the common folk, not that much unlike you and me, and many of his stories and teachings had to do with money and possessions. So what did he say?
The biblical text we are looking at today is accompanied in the lectionary by Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, found in the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Are you familiar with it? It’s the story of the rich man who walks by, and ignores every day, the beggar at his gate. The only attention the beggar receives is from the dogs who come to lick his sores.
When Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, the three synoptic New Testament gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – had not yet been written… at least as far as we know. Yet, if Paul was aware of any of them, it would have been Luke’s gospel, if for no other reason than Luke was a traveling partner of the apostle. There’s even the possibility that the two of them collaborated on the stories about Jesus that found their way into the gospel.
Prior to the writing of the gospels, the stories surrounding Jesus, as well as those that were told by Jesus himself, were passed on orally. Luke may have even asked Paul his advice as to how to frame some of the stories, or the order in which he put them down. In other words, Luke’s gospel may have been Paul’s gospel too. If so, it could very well be that Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus was known to Paul, as well as Luke, and served as the backdrop to his comments in the letter he wrote to Timothy. In fact, what Paul said to his young protégé may very well have been his commentary on Jesus’ story.
In the parable, both the rich man and the beggar die. And while the beggar is taken to heaven, according to the way Jesus tells his story, the rich man finds himself in hellish torment, begging God to send Lazarus the beggar down from heaven to “dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames” (vs. 24).
When that strategy doesn’t work, the man finally begins thinking of someone besides himself. About time, isn’t it? He has five brothers who are still alive on earth, and he doesn’t want them to suffer his fate. So send Lazarus to his father’s house to warn his brothers (he’s still giving orders, isn’t he?). No, that isn’t going to happen either. “They have Moses and the prophets;” he is told, “they should listen to them” (vs. 29).
You and I, as well, have Moses and the prophets. And, we have Jesus and the Apostle Paul too. The biblical record is as clear on this issue as anything else could possibly be. True wealth is found in relationship, with God and others, and not in what we own. If we are to have the life that really is life, as Paul puts it, we do well to listen to what our scriptural forebears have to say to us.
I realize it’s at this point in the sermon where you’d like for me to offer a solution to all this. You may even want me to tell you how you can pretty much continue with things the way they have been, live as you’ve been doing, and still feel good about it from a Christian/biblical perspective. I can’t do that, if for no other reason than these scriptures – both the gospel parable and Paul’s advice to Timothy – call for a very personal response on the part of all of us to an issue that each of us tends to ignore.
You see, we’re the rich ones – each one of us – even those of us who don’t know how we’re going to have enough money at the end of the month to pay the bills, even those of us who may be laboring at two jobs in order just to get by. By all earthly standards, we are the rich. We all live with, as Walter Breueggemann says, an “imagined scarcity.”2
So I’m not going to presume to tell you how to respond to all this, except to say that it really is true: we have nothing – nothing – that belongs to us that we cannot and should not give back to God. Then, God will give everything back to us again so we might share it with others. If that is the definition of contentment, then so be it. I do believe it leads to the life that really is life. Don’t you?
Lord, help us to be content with what we have. Help us to be quick to share what we have. Help us to see with your eyes, that our part of the world might be better because we take seriously what it means to follow you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1Kristin Swenson, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, September 21, 2010, p. 20.
2Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004, p. 4).