November 1, 2015

1 Timothy 6:17-19
Psalm 24
Luke 12:16-21

“Free From the Money Trap”

We are going off the lectionary this month – setting aside the Scripture readings assigned for these last few weeks of the liturgical year so that we can talk about money. I’ve occasionally heard people say that they don’t go to church very often, but every time they do go the preacher seems to be talking about money, asking for money, appealing for support for one thing or another.

Although it’s unfortunate that some people have been turned off of church because of a sense that the church is always asking them to give more money, I would also suggest that they may have missed the even bigger “ask” on those Sundays. The church (well, Jesus, actually) is asking us to give our whole selves, our whole lives, including every choice and decision about money, for God’s purposes.

We do have an offering every Sunday, and add to that at times an appeal for a particular mission or ministry or extra thing. And we are invited on a regular basis to serve God through our monetary giving as well as our time and talent. But our offerings are just the beginning – a sign of our commitment and our willingness to give our lives for the love of God and our neighbours.

I heard recently about state churches in some European countries and a system in which church members are automatically signed up, when they join a church, to pay church taxes. And other organizations, of course, have membership fees that you are required to pay when you sign up.

By contrast, our church has no minimum fee for participation. When we pass the plate on Sunday mornings, it is for a free will offering, not a collection or a tax geared to income. We are free to give as we are called and able. We are free to give, unless of course, we are enslaved to other pressures and temptations that keep us holding on to our resources for ourselves.

This month the Stewardship Committee will be helping me out with Sunday worship as we explore a theme based on 1 Timothy 6:18-19 – “Live Free: Take Hold of the Life that Really is Life.”

The Rev. Janet Long tells about the jokes that were shared in her community when one of the banks leased space in front of a funeral home and constructed a drive-through ATM. The old images of hearses pulling U-Hauls (filled with the stuff people can’t live without) gave way to hearses pulling through the ATM on the way to the cemetery. But, the old saying reminds us, “You can’t take it with you.”

Funny, though – we act like we can take it with us. We act like money is the ultimate goal. We work for it, wait for it, and worry about it.

We know the truth about money’s ability to trap us. When we let money own us, it gets a firm grip on us, and we think we can never have enough. It grabs hold of our values to the point that it defines our worth. It grasps us around the neck, claiming that it will give us all we need and want. We may set a goal and reach it – but then we raise the bar and want more. We are convinced that no amount is enough.

At times, we resemble the rich young ruler who came to Jesus, wondering what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. The first step, Jesus affirms for him, is to live according to the commandments. Make his priorities about loving God and loving his neighbours. But next, Jesus tells him that he must part with his money and possessions. Sell what you have, and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow me.

Maybe it would have been easier if he didn’t have much to part with. But this man had plenty, and he went away sad. It seemed like too much for him to give up.

Jesus told us the truth about money: you can’t serve God and money. If you’re all about your balance sheet, you won’t be inclined to discover the blessing of giving yourself away, offering your life for God’s purposes.

Simply having money isn’t the problem, of course. Poor people aren’t necessarily good disciples, and rich people aren’t necessarily bad disciples. Think about our Gospel story this morning, for example, one of Jesus’ teaching stories about money.

The rich farmer had so many crops that he decided to build bigger barns to store all of them. He said, “I have enough for myself to last for many years. I will eat, drink and be merry and enjoy all of my crops.” But the farmer died that very night. God said, “Who will own your crops after you die?”

It makes me think of people who work, and work, and work in order to maintain a certain standard of living for their families. And because they work, and work, and work, they don’t have any time to actually spend with their families and their children. They neither enjoy the fruits of their labour, nor give it away for the sake of others who do not have the bare necessities. They are enslaved to an image of what the good life will include, and like the farmer, they miss out on actually living.

Consider for a moment some of the most joyful, peaceful, fulfilling moments or experiences in your life. My guess is that you are thinking about your wedding, or the birth of a child, or a time of celebration with friends and family. Maybe you’re remembering what it felt like to sing or make music in beautiful harmony, or to hike up to the peak of a mountain and look out at the view, or to run like the wind for the sheer thrill of it. You may be picturing a beautiful sunset, a Christmas Eve Church filled with candles and carols, or a happy home filled with family, friends, and food.

Most of these memories didn’t depend a lot on money. Indeed, if you have some of these memories and moments in your life, it probably means that you have let go of the pursuit of money and things long enough to appreciate being alive, and having relationships, and enjoying God’s good creation, and loving God and your neighbours.

There is a verse in 1 Timothy that is often misquoted. You might have heard people say, “Money is the root of all evil,” but that’s not what Paul writes to Timothy. Money itself does not cause evil. It can be a good tool to do good in the world when it is used wisely and shared generously.

But Paul did advise the younger Christian leader, Timothy, that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” He told Timothy and the Christians in his community to try to be content with what they had… “for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

Given the Western, consumerist society in which we live today, and all the messages with which we are bombarded trying to convince us that our happiness is based on having, and owning, and consuming the best and the latest things… it may be even more challenging for us to avoid the temptation to love money… to avoid allowing money and possessions rule our lives… to live free of the money trap.

But the advice that Paul gives to Timothy is perfect for us as well. Instead of storing up our money and things in bigger barns to ensure our security… Instead of turning away from Jesus sad because his call to give up our things seems too hard… Paul invites us to allow ourselves to be set free by beginning to share what we have: “As for those who in the present age are rich,” he writes. And yes, that’s all of us “middle class” Canadians, as the politicians like to say. “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

The first command is about our state of mind: Set our hopes, not on riches, but on God. And the second command is about what we are to actually do. Paul continues: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

The advertisements that tell us that we need certain clothes, or perfumes, or vehicles, or gadgets in order to be happy and fulfilled? They’re lies. We know that. We know that true joy, and peace, and contentment comes from knowing God and serving God, following Jesus and discovering a life of meaning and purpose as we give our lives away for the sake of love.

The Stewardship Committee will invite you during this month to consider your offerings for the ministry and mission of our church. But don’t give more just because the bottom line of our budget needs it. Consider giving more because you are free to do so, and because you want to set your hopes, not on the uncertainty of riches, but on God who provides you with everything that you need. Amen.