“Taking hold of life”
1st Timothy 6:6-19
A sermon by
Andover Newton President
Saturday and Sunday September 28-29, 2013
All Saints Parish
I want to thank you for the invitation to come and be with you here at All Saints. This is a fine church with a great history and I’m honored to come on this beautiful fall weekend.
I’m taking my scripture reading today from 1Timothy, which is one of the “Pastoral Letters” of Paul. Timothy was a close co-worker of Paul and he was in Ephesus serving a church that Paul had begun there a few years before. Paul is writing to offer advice on issues that are playing out in the young church, knowing full well that Timothy will likely read portions of the letter – if not the entire missive – aloud to the congregation. They were new to this faith and struggling with what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. That’s why there is such an interesting interplay here of Paul’s words to Timothy, calling him to be a worthy model of ministerial leadership, because his words were clearly oriented to the congregation through Timothy. I invite you imagine that we are that congregation and Paul is speaking to us, Christians still in formation.
Our focus is on the end of the letter. Paul has been cautioning against the risks of a group of false and rather greedy teachers who had appeared in Ephesus and were beginning to have a troubling influence on the church. Paul makes a transition at verse 6 to try to share his concerns about this threat and at a deeper level his thoughts on a Christian view of money. The false teachers provided a vivid contrast for Paul to make his point, as they were looking to get paid for their teaching and thereby sustain their comfortable lifestyle (imagine a group of slick traveling Bible salesmen in polyester togas and patent-leather sandals I). Paul wants folks to measure these teachers carefully and examine the implications of their outlook on material possessions. He says they aren’t merely interested in a living wage, but have fallen in love with money and in the process lost perspective on what’s truly important.
Paul says our goal with respect to material things ought not to be self-aggrandizement, but godliness and contentment. The word “godliness” only appears a few times in the Bible, but most of us have a hunch what it means. When we say that someone is godly we pay them about as high a compliment as possible and … not surprisingly … we don’t use it much. Someone could be a hard worker, a conscientious parent, a dynamic preacher, or a talented teacher, but to say that they are godly is to saying something far greater. It suggests that there is something holy about their lives. We can believe that Mother Theresa is holy, but not us. Yet this is exactly what Paul wants Timothy and those new church members to pursue! For him, godliness means having a genuine faith-relationship with God and, through it, a way of living that is distinguishable from the prevailing societal norms.
In this context of godliness Paul also includes the idea of contentment. I think it is a terrific word and worthy of our careful consideration. In Greek philosophy contentment was defined as an attitude of “self-sufficiency,” meaning detachment or independence from money and possessions. As only he could, Paul borrows and shapes this idea, and offers it as a marker of a true Christian disciple. He shows that contentment is a virtue that grows from within, out of the core of one’s faith. Contentment, he believes, offers us one of the most meaningful perspectives on money and material possessions.
For Paul the goal in a life of faith is to constantly seek this meaningful relationship with God, who is our source of grace. It is in such a relationship we are able to discover a humble gratitude for all we have been given and thus open the doors to contentment. It’s gratitude and contentment that gives us the best possible perspective on wealth and possessions; they can animate our approach to charity.
In essence Paul says: “Look folks: you need to get your spiritual priorities straight, and if you do you’ll have no trouble figuring out the challenge of money in your life. If your priorities are clear just about everything else will fall into place.” The path to contentment starts with our relationship with God. There the faithful heart can honestly confess what it really needs to be sufficient and expose those things that are clutter and excess.
Old Testament wisdom teaches things have no lasting value and thus can provide no real meaning to our lives. Contentment cannot grow from “things,” which is still a rather countercultural idea for us to contemplate in our consumer-driven society. The truth is that without a spiritual perspective we can easily be consumed by a society that says you can never have enough money or stuff or toys (or, the newest toys, electronic screens – just think of how much time we spend “screening” our lives!). Christian hope takes us beyond this trap of material things and those things that screen us off from what’s essential to a boundless eternity, and so oriented, Paul argues, eternal values will change our thinking about temporal things.
Paul says an eternal orientation opens the door to the pursuit of the genuine markers of faithful leadership. He wants Timothy, and by implication the entire congregation, to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. And, at the climax of his letter, as a summary statement of all that he has said about godliness and contentment, Paul urges his listeners to simply “Take hold of eternal life.” So important is the idea that he concludes the letter by repeating that admonition in his last line saying, “Take hold of the life that is truly life.”
I can’t think of a more meaningful challenge for us as people of faith than that: “take hold of the life that is truly life giving, and distance yourself from the things that rob you of life.” Get your priorities straight.
Of course, some people instinctively know what their priorities are. A few years ago the classified section of the newspaper in rural New Mexico contained this ad: “Farmer with 160 irrigated acres wants marriage-minded woman with tractor. When replying, please show picture of tractor.”
On a more meaningful level Goethe once said: “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
It is one of our greatest challenges in life, isn’t it? What are your priorities like? I don’t mean your priorities for paying the bills or getting a good education for the kids. I mean the genuine markers of your life; the beliefs and values that are expressed in the things you do. The way you hope people describe you when you aren’t around. Have you spent much time thinking about that? Most people haven’t. Most of us just go from day to day caught up in our routines, and in our free time move rather rudderlessly, without ever asking ourselves what we should be doing if we were really living out our faith in ways that matter. What a tragedy it would be to have gone through our whole lives and at the end of it, look back, and realize that we spent far to much time, money and energy on things that were pointless and valueless.
So what should you spend your life on? What priorities should you set? While there are many reference points in the Bible there are few as straightforward and clear as in 1st Timothy. Here is the bottom line on how to set priorities and how to live with purpose: Make eternal things priority. Jesus was unequivocal: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you. “
This is the time of year when most churches start thinking about their stewardship efforts and I understand that this is true here at All Saints. I think it is enormously valuable that we have the blessing of this lesson in mind before we jump into stewardship campaigns. We need to decide about our relationship to God before we hear a single word about the budget. One of the great demons that haunt the church is the tendency to become obsessed with fixing the hole in the roof and neglect tending to the hole in our souls. It does us no good if we have the best roof and the driest sanctuary if we are oblivious to what happens in that sanctuary. And folks involved with pledge campaigns will only raise a fraction of what they might if they only appeal to my frugalness and sense of responsibility about that hole, but neglect my journey to faithfulness and my search for meaning in life.
Here’s a confession: I don’t really like the word “stewardship” – it is only mentioned a few times in the Bible and the context is usually one that is, in my mind, a tad suspicious. What I like about stewardship is that it is focused on preservation of something that we hold in trust for others. I think that’s an ideal theme for our approach to the environment, for instance. But when it comes to helping me reflect on the place of wealth and possessions in my life, “stewardship” is only a small fraction of what I ought to be thinking about. I think we need to have a far greater focus on our entire life of faith, and what we are creating with our lives and our money, not just what we are preserving; what we are investing in well beyond what we are conserving. That’s why I prefer the ideas of grace and gratitude to help me sort through these priorities; they are more missional than they are institutional. As a person of faith grace is the first part of my testimony: it is the mind-boggling free gift of love I have received, not something I have earned. And from a grace-filled heart I am able to see the world around me and my place in it far more clearly.
You see, all our living as people of faith ought to be in response to that first gift of grace. We give our most generously out of gratitude, not obligation. We don’t need someone to beg, plead or cajole us about giving our money – we need them to inspire us. I don’t need to know how much the budget gap is to decide about my gift to the church, I need to know that I am a recipient of God’s love and reflect on the gap between what and my wallet.
Martin Luther once said, “There are two conversions for the Christian, the conversion of the heart, and the conversion of the pocket book.” If we are really converted in our faith then it involves ALL of who we are. Sadly, far too many Christians have left their wallet out of the baptismal ritual and too many churches leave faith out their discussion of money.
The poor and the marginalized, the sick and the forgotten, don’t want to hear that I am a good steward of God’s resources. They need to see that I feel so blessed and that I’m so grateful that I will do everything in my power to share that blessing with them. When the environment is being destroyed and the levels of consumption in our economy reveal a level of moral obesity that is shameful, stewardship is not enough. Where is our sense of sufficiency? At what point will we finally say “No thanks, I’m good. I have enough. I am content?” A faith-based sense of contentment will do more to save our environment than any of us can imagine.
Two of the greatest people I ever met were Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Their greatness was due in no small part to the fact that they both had a crystal clear sense of priorities and an unwavering commitment to embody those priorities. It was the basis of their moral authority and the reason they inspired us. There was godliness in them, wasn’t there?
Faced with the staggering number of children living in poverty in the richest nation in the world, Marian said: “We do not have a money problem in America. We have a values and priorities problem.”
And when Dr. King reflected on the levels of hate and prejudice in America he called for a revolution. Not a violent armed revolution, but a peace-filled revolution in our priorities; a reevaluation of our values, and a fundamental transformation of our way of living that promotes a transfer of power from the few to the many. “Our ultimate measure,” he said, “is not where we stand in times of comfort and convenience, but where we stand in times of challenge and controversy. ”
Two thousand years ago Paul admonished Timothy and through him the members of that fledgling church in Ephesus; “Take hold of the life that is truly life,” he said. I think Paul’s admonishment is as alive and relevant for us today as it was for that small church half way around the world. We all need to take hold of our lives and align them with things eternal – align them with the things that will make our lives an eloquent expression of joy and gratitude for the grace we have received.
You and I need make decisions, not excuses. We need to count our blessings, not our troubles. We need to look at what wealth we have, each in our own way, and ask ourselves whether we are pursuing a life of godliness and contentment. We have to ask ourselves if as people of faith we can, in the silence of our most prayerful moments, open our hearts to God and say, “God, today I did something beautiful for you ; I took hold of the life that is really life.”
When that moment comes, we will know joy as we have never known it before.