Storing Up True Riches

1 Timothy 6:6-19

The Beatles said it best – “Money can’t buy me love.” That’s right –
Say you don’t need no diamond ring
And I’ll be satisfied
Tell me that you want those kind of things
that money just can’t buy
For I don’t care too much for money
For money can’t buy me love
Now, I realize that diamond rings are helpful when it comes to love. After all, I’ve bought a few in my time for the one I love, but no matter how costly these trinkets may maybe, they can’t buy lasting love. And, despite what the Pharaohs, who built great pyramids in Egypt, thought, you can’t take it with you either! No, their bodies remained a moldering in the grave, while grave robbers and archaeologists took all those goods. Sometimes we forget this fact of life, but even as we didn’t bring anything into the world, we can’t take anything out of it either.
So, if “money can’t buy me love” or even happiness in the next life, can’t it at least buy me a little happiness in this life? I realize that it takes at least some money to live in this world, but how much is enough? Paris Hilton, Tiger Woods, and Lindsay Lohan, all have millions of dollars at their disposal, but are they happy? Bernie Madoff made a lot of money, but in the end he found himself in prison, and he also made a lot of other people unhappy by stealing their money. Madoff’s antics seem to prove the point of a famous statement that first appeared in this letter. Yes, the author of this letter said quite boldly that money is the root of all manner of evil. Therefore, he said – beware of the temptation to make the pursuit of riches your goal in life. It will only bring evil upon you. Of course, the fact that the author mentions the possibility that the pursuit of riches might have a negative effect on the spiritual life of the wealthy, suggests that there were at least a few wealthy people in the church, and that they were being tempted to abandon their faith.
1. Futility of Chasing the Money
We read this passage of scripture at a time of economic crisis. The gap between the richest and the poorest members of our society is as great as it has ever been in our history. The middle class, which is the backbone of modern society, is shrinking and is in danger of disappearing. Many in our society wonder if the American Dream is still possible. The other day I heard an economist say that not only is the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest greater today than at any time since 1929, but the most recent economic expansion was built largely on the use of credit cards and borrowing from the equity of homes. Now that the housing bubble has burst, there isn’t much left to stimulate the economy. We simply don’t have enough money to make the kinds of purchases that would spur job growth, and so the American Dream is in danger of extinction.
It’s in this context that we hear this word of warning written by an experienced pastor to a younger one. The author suggests that happiness will be found in contentment rather than in the pursuit of riches. After all, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10).
I realize that in the grand scheme of things, I’m pretty well off. I may not be wealthy by worldly standards, but when compared with much of the rest of the world, I’m pretty rich. So, maybe I ought to be grateful for these blessings that come my way.
Now, the love of money may be the root of many kinds of evil, but having no money can be just as destructive to the soul as having too much. Speaking in the 19th century, before the end of slavery, Frederick Douglass declared that “the want of money is the root of all evil to the colored people.” As Ralph Wood writes of Douglass’ observation:
He saw that humiliating, hopeless poverty reduces human beings to bestial creatures. Even black freedmen, he declared, “were shut out from all lucrative employments and compelled to be merely barbers, waiters, coachmen and the like, at wages so low that they could lay up little or nothing. Their poverty has kept them ignorant and their ignorance kept them degraded.” (“A Passion for Lesser Things,” Ralph Wood, The Christian Century, 1995).
Although this text was part of last week’s lectionary reading, it’s appropriate for consideration on Reconciliation Sunday, because it reminds us that there are all kinds of barriers and walls that separate us from each other. Some of these barriers are ethnically and culturally imposed, but others are economic in nature.
As I reflected on this text and the day upon which we read it, I thought of the invisible wall that runs along 8 Mile Road. There’s an invisible barrier that separates one of the poorest cities in the country from one of the richest counties in the nation. That wall has been in place for at least a generation, but isn’t it time for it to come down?
2. Seeking True Riches
If money can keep neighbors apart, is it possible that the love of money can be a barrier to discipleship? As we observe both Reconciliation Sunday and World Communion Sunday, where does a message of contentment fit? Should we all hear the message in the same way?
Consider for a moment the way in which this passage may have been heard in an earlier day, such as the Middle Ages. Back then people believed in what was called the “Great Chain of Being,” where everyone’s place in society was predetermined. If you were nobility, then that’s who you were, so you might as well enjoy the benefits. If you don’t, know one else will! But, if you were born a serf, then that’s what you were called to be. You couldn’t change your status, because God had already predetermined your fate. So, in that setting, the message was, be content with your lot in life, because you can’t change it. That’s just the way things are. Or, is it?
Maybe the point isn’t being content with one’s lot in life, but instead to recognize the spiritual dangers of pursuing worldly wealth. Verses 6-10 and 17-19 contain a word of warning about the impermanence of wealth. It is also a meditation on the spiritual dimension of the way in which humans try to accumulate and use wealth. The danger is that in pursuing riches, our hearts can grow cold toward God and toward our neighbors.
Now, this passage isn’t all that radical. Unlike Jesus, this early Christian leader doesn’t tell us to give away everything we have to the poor in order to be disciples of Christ. Instead, he warns us about being held captive by its attractiveness. Despite its lack of radicalness, the message is powerful, because our culture continually tells us that we should want more and seek more, in part because if we don’t the economy will collapse. So, even if money can’t buy me love, a trip to the jeweler will considerably enhance my relationships and maybe even aid the economy!
3. Fighting the Good Fight
Standing in between verses 10 and 17 is a call to “fight the good fight of the faith.” You can skip verses 11 through 16 and not miss a beat. But, what this middle section does is refocus our attention on the things that really are important. These verses lift up the true riches in life – righteousness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. These are the things that really matter to God. By attending to these values we will find happiness and contentment in life. These traits enable us to build what Martin Marty calls “cultures of trust.”
In order to build cultures of trust, we need to find ways of counting on each other. It means recognizing that we’re not in this alone, but we must be willing to risk our lives into the hands of God and our neighbors. That calling is undermined when we pursue our own agendas at the expense of others. This is, I think were our Disciples identity statement fits in. According to this statement, we are called to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” We have been called to join together in creating true community, to pursue justice, and to develop a deeply-rooted spirituality. Another way of putting this is that we have been called to attend to the common good, and this commitment to the common good is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we’ve been called upon to live out and proclaim.
So how can we pursue true riches and make a difference in this world, which God loves so much that God sent his son into the world? Well, we can start by contributing some of our wealth to the Reconciliation Offering, so that the walls that divide us can be removed. This offering is used to promote our Church’s commitment to being an “Anti-racist, Pro-reconciliation” movement through education and by funding development opportunities. As Sharon Watkins reminded us at the Pastor’s Conference, this is our calling as a church. But, even though this offering is a first step in the right direction, it’s not the last step.
We can live out this calling every day when we consider the words we use to describe others or when we reflect on the barriers that divide us and then work to remove them. Those of us who participated in the revival at Northwestern Christian Church had an opportunity to do this very thing when we shared in worship with this Black Disciple church in Detroit. Our participation in Motown Mission is another way we can break down the walls that separate communities from each other. And in a couple of weeks Heidi Michael will share with the congregation the fruit of her time in Washington, D.C. In that presentation, Heidi will share ways in which we can build bridges and tear down walls. I know that she is very excited about having this opportunity to share what she learned while in the Nation’s capital.
The message of the Gospel is one of salvation, but salvation isn’t simply about what happens in the next life. Salvation includes the life lived now, because salvation is about reconciliation. And, the message of reconciliation affects the way we live with God and with our neighbors. In Christ the old attitudes and stereotypes have been washed away, and now we have the opportunity to look at the world through new eyes. And although money can’t make you whole, if we’re willing to part with some of it in our Reconciliation Offering, we can participate in making the world whole, which is the point of World Communion Sunday!