Monday, September 27, 2010
September 26 sermon: The High Life
Texts: Jeremiah and Timothy
Pink Floyd song from Dark Side of the Moon. Always loved it. “Money, So they say, is the root of all evil today.”
We get pretty impressed with money don’t we? I remember when we used to live in LA, there were a lot more opporunities to be impressed with wealth than there are in most places in the world. Every once in a while I’d be at a stop light, and a bright colored Lamborgini would roll up next to me. Wow! I’d think to myself.
Sometimes Lara and I would for a cheap date just go driving around in Bel Aire or the Hollywood Hills and go looking at all the spectacular and beautiful multi-million dollar homes. We’d pretend that we had to choose one to live in on each twisty street we’d drive down. .
Money is really easy to love. If you acquire enough of it, you can trade it for things like Lamborginis and houses in Bel-Aire. We see on shows like “Cribs” and on commercial for the latest and greatest cars that these are the things we should really be spending our time and effort trying to figure out how to get. But, as Admrial Ackbar says, “It’s a trap!”
Experience in FPU over the past few weeks. Learned about how the love of money is a societal ill that infects most of us and leads us to pretty irrational and bizarre behavior.
I’ve never been rich, but I’ve tasted what is was like to be rich. I spent a summer with a friend from Colombia who was very wealthy—I’m talking about multiple homes all over the country that we went to and from accompanied by bodyguards with machine guns and caravans of BMWs. But, every corner we rounded brought reminders of the disparity between wealth and poverty. In Columbia, like most of the world, there is not much of a middle class. There is simply the rich and the poor.
I thought I was living the “High Life” for sure. But Paul puts it this way to Timothy—don’t go after wealth thinking that is the High Life. There is a higher life that we are called to, and anyone who’s willing to give their life can have a piece of it. You don’t have to be rich or powerful. You don’t have to be cultured or of good “stock.” In fact, all of these things make it harder. Money is tough to part with.
Our anonymous English parable says it—A fool and his money are quickly parted. So, hang on to it for dear life, right? I don’t think so. I think the parable is true—we foolishly throw our money at all kinds of things: but perhaps the most foolish things we throw our money at are the things that can’t be bought.
We try to buy respect. We try to buy admiration. We try to buy a sense of accomplishment. We try to buy happiness…love. This doesn’t work. We know it doesn’t work, and yet we do it.
When I was in seminary in Los Angeles, I worked at a bookstore called “The Bodhi Tree.” It was a bookstore that specialized in books and materials from a variety of religions, gurus, and the like. We sold all kinds of ridiculous contraptions that were supposed to give you more mental balance. (and trust me, some of the customers who frequented our store could use all the help they could get.) But one particular evening while I was at the cash register, a lady started piling up books and incense and crystals and all sorts of things for me to ring up.
About $400 later, I came to the last item she unabashedly placed on the counter. I looked at her face to see if there was any trace of irony there—there wasn’t, and so I rang up the $1.50 bumper sticker that said “Simplify.” And there wasn’t one, but two of those stickers. I tried not to laugh, and offered to help her to her car with all the merchandise. She refused, and I noticed that a driver had been waiting at the door who hurried to pick up her bags.
Yes, we even try to buy simplicity, don’t we? I’ve noticed that the magazine “Real Simple” touts simplifying your life, but when I look in it, I just see a bunch of stuff you can buy that has clean lines and looks really modern. There is a lot of white stuff in “Real Simple.” What I have learned from owning a white leather couch is how “Not Simple” owning one of those actually is.
Paul talks about another route to simplicity. It’s called “being content with what you have.” I knew a girl in college who thought that “being content” was a negative thing. She was a driven person who equated “contentment” with “settling for second best.” The problem for her is that she, as the U2 song goes, “Still hasn’t found what she’s looking for.”
But, Paul commends contentment. He says that there is a “great gain of godliness combined with contentment.” What is it like to be content? My experience of it has never felt like “settling.” Instead, it feels like being in on a secret. Have you ever had those flashing moments of insight when you notice the intricate beauty of something quite simple and perhaps even overlooked? I think that is the kind of contentment that draws us closer to God.
See, God is there. God dwells in those moments. Remember the story of Elijah going up to a cave and listening for God. The hailfire comes down from the sky, but God is not in the hailfire, and the earth shakes, but God is not in the earthquake, and then a breeze. And God speaks to Elijah through the breeze in a “still small voice.”
Jesus calls his disciples to the upper room and they share a meal as they must have done countless times before. Except at that meal, he pointed to a simple loaf of bread and a cup of wine and said—this is my body and my blood. I am in this meal. Turn your attention to it, and remember me when you do this.
Paul lifting up contentment as a virtue has something to do with our possessions possessing us. He remarks to Timothy that we are penniless when we come into the world, and we will be penniless when we leave it. In other words, you never seen a hearse pulling a Uhaul.
Instead of getting bogged down in the ties that bind us to the earth, we should seek the ties that will bind us to heaven. Paul says, very memorably, that he “love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” We grow into one of those stubborn weeds that just won’t come up. We’re too occupied with grasping the tangled and expansive underground web of roots that wealth connects us to.
Since we can take nothing with us, we should invest in hope in this life through the grasping of eternal life. Paul says, “shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Now that’s the high life. If we’re too busy grasping and grabbing, our hands aren’t free to take hold of the promise.
In our Old Testament reading today from Jeremiah, we hear the account of what would seem to be a stupid real estate decision by our prophet. In 588 B.C. during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Jeremiah found himself imprisoned in the royal palace of King Zedekiah of Judah. He had been charged with desertion and treason and insurrection. And on some level, the charges had merit. Jeremiah had been forcefully pleading for Israel to turn from their ways. He saw the gathering storm of Babylon coming from the north. He spoke God's word of judgment and divine condemnation of social injustice and idolatry. So, King Zedekiah had good reason to lock Jeremiah up in the palace. Jeremiah simply didn't tow the royal line.
But then in Jeremiah 32, with war raging and despair undoubtedly growing, Jeremiah gets a new word from God. And this word is different. This word is in regard to some family business. A plot of family-owned land needs to be purchased. And by the right of redemption, a law found in Leviticus 25 which prevents the loss of family property, Jeremiah's cousin, Hanamel, asks the prophet to buy the family field in Anathoth. It is an absurd request. It is not the time to invest in real estate. It is not the time to invest in the future. It is a time to panic about the present. War is raging. Terror is threatened on all sides. Exile is coming. For Israel the future looks bleak.
But Jeremiah doesn't watch the cable news. Jeremiah doesn't listen to the prophets of doom on talk radio. Jeremiah knows that neither King Zedekiah, nor Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, nor corporate executives or Pentagon officials, none of these really run the world. Jeremiah knows that it is God who runs the world. It is God who gets the final word and God's final word is not destruction. God's final word is never destruction. God's final word is renewal. God's final word is always renewal.
The new Covenant, articulated only a chapter earlier, lays it out clearly:
"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah." (Jeremiah 31: 31).
It won't be like the old one, says God. They didn't get that one. They didn't understand. This time...
"I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people...for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more." (Jeremiah 31: 33, 34b)
So, in the spirit and the promise of the future, Jeremiah buys the land; land where houses and fields and vineyards will, yet again, flourish. Jeremiah invests in hope. He displays God’s plans for his people by the way he uses his money.
How would your spending habits change if that was your primary objective? If the money you spent had the potential to communicate God’s great love and redemption for the world, wouldn’t you make these dumb kind of investments too? If your decisions with money really did have that kind of effect on the world? Don’t you think? Look at the front of your bulletin. Would things be different if you were reminded of Jesus every time you opened your wallet?
Okay, so not many people use cash anymore? Well, think if your Mastercard weren’t your Master but instead was a tool of your real eternal master? You know, “There’s some things money can’t buy, and for everything else” your Master will provide. What if your Visa card really was everywhere you wanted to be—except the most important one? And you know, “it pays to Discover” the real life that Christ offers to us. You really shouldn’t leave home without it.
One of the most memorable lessons from my high school Sunday school teachers was when my high school Sunday school teacher handed everyone in class a $100 bill. He did it when were talking about money and it’s grip on us. He challenged us to think beyond ourselves by trusting us to do something great—like give it away. I remember the look in his eyes. He was investing in hope. When I looked at Benjamin Franklin on the front of that bill, it was as if Jesus was staring at me. I took the $100 bill to church with me, and I thank God that through my teacher’s lesson in receiving a gift, I learned a lot about giving that day.
The head of the camping program reported to us this past month at our DMT meeting—Karen was there too. He told the story about Camp Cavett, a camp that our church provides for children with special needs, some of whom can’t walk or get around very well. Usually, these kids who are so physically disabled only get to watch their friends go up in the ropes course and cheer them on, but our camps director has always been planning an addition that would even give an opportunity to those with the most crippling conditions.
He told the story about two young girls who were carried up the stairs inside the climbing tower, and then strapped on to this new swing they’d had installed just this past year. They would hook them in with harnesses, and then they’d get to go sailing out over the trees. Randy recalled seeing one girl sailing through the air with her arms outstretched and reported to us that she felt free of her disability for the first time.
Experience of the High Life—this past week at Bishops’ retreat. Rapelling and Swing. Thrilling! It most likely took some expense to build—and we give it away because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.
Don’t set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Become rich in good works, “so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.”