Sunday, September 26, 2010

Living the Good Life

Sermon preached on Sunday, September 26, 2010 based on 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your most recent note. I will be sure to forward it on to the other members of our community. It may also help to post it on Facebook so that it can reach as many people as possible. However, I have a feeling that there will be some strong reactions to your words, so I just want to clarify a few things. I want to be prepared with some responses when people share their questions and concerns with me.

So of course the biggest argument will be: what’s so bad about money? (This is not my question; I’m just stating what I think others will ask). I mean, as much as we may not like to admit it, it does make the world go around. You said we should be content if we have food and clothing, but it takes money to get those things, right? And let’s be honest, money can be a lot of fun: it can provide us all kinds of entertainment—sports games, theater, movies, books, concerts, television; it take us to different places all over the world; help us relax on vacation; makes life easier with gadgets, appliances or just getting to and from where we need to go in a timely and comfortable manner.

I also think people might not understand what you mean by “storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future,” by doing good and being generous. Isn’t that what 401(k)s, pension plans, and retirement portfolios are for—creating a good foundation for the future? I think some might argue that working hard in order to make a lot of money or investing in endowment funds also sets a good foundation for the future by helping to assure that the next generations of our families and communities are cared for. I don’t think that’s exactly what you mean, but I have a feeling others might be confused about that.

And lastly, I really love the phrase that follows your statement about the future: “so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” It’s beautiful, but could you explain it in a bit more detail? What IS the life that really is life? How can we recognize it?

Yours in Christ,


Dear Timothy,

I knew there was a reason I liked you—you ask great questions! I think you are right that there could be strong reactions to what I wrote before, but I wouldn’t worry about that. Truth and wisdom are often hard for people to accept, and let’s face it, Christ never said that following where he leads would be easy—just the opposite, in fact. Besides that, it’s hard for most people to break away from the status quo. There’s a sense of safety and security in going along with society’s established norms, and a feeling that contentment will come with achieving what our culture labels success.

But see, therein lies the problem. We are placing our hope for security and contentment in the wrong places.

In answer to your first question, there is nothing wrong with money itself. People who say, “money is the root of all evil” are misquoting me. If you read my letter closely, you’ll see that what I said was, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” You are correct when you say that we need money to obtain necessities like food and clothing and shelter—and for some of life’s pleasures, as well. The problem starts when our focus is on being rich, when we make money or worldly goods the central hope or desire of our lives. One needs to look no further than reality television to see what craziness ensues when the potential for a large sum of money is on the line. People risk bodily harm, public embarrassment, the ruin of relationships—sometimes even their lives—to try and get rich. A book called The Day America Told the Truth states that in one survey, 25% of people asked would abandon their entire families in exchange for 10 million dollars. 16% would leave their spouses. 7% would kill a stranger. See, that, Tim, is a problem.

Even for those who wouldn’t go to such an extreme can struggle when the desire for money gets in the way of time spent with loved ones or prevents us from being in the world in the way Christ calls us to be. We believe all the books and the advertisements and the workshops that tell us that money will solve our problems. If we just had more money, we wouldn’t be as stressed, wouldn’t have to worry so much, would be so much happier. And it is somewhere along these lines where many who are already blessed with a bigger bank account falter, by “setting their hopes on the uncertainty of riches,” as I said in my last letter, instead of God. Actually, this is not limited to those who already have money. Many, many people have fallen into the trap of spending money they don’t have yet, putting themselves into debt with the presumption that the money to pay it back will be there in the future.

I hope that if we have learned anything in the last few years, it’s that the security of money can be gone in an instant. Many people found that 401(k)s and pensions are no guarantee when the market crashed right before they planned on retiring. Stable, secure jobs suddenly were uncertain or gone. A huge bank that “could not fail” was allowed to collapse. Houses bought as a secure investment were suddenly worth less than the money owed to the banks holding the mortgage.

All this is to say, Tim, that our focus should not be on making money but on serving God. Jesus tells us to strive first for the kin-dom, and all our needs will be given to us. I’m not saying that retirement portfolios or savings accounts or investments or even higher incomes are bad, per se; what I want to make clear is that we should not work so hard to lay the foundation of our future with them that we neglect generosity, compassion, the pursuit of justice and righteousness, godliness and good works, cultivating relationships, which lay the foundation for the future of God’s kin-dom and our eternal lives with God. Does that make sense?

And as for what I am suggesting with the phrase “the life that really is life,” I think in some ways that is up for each of us to answer, but be sure it has little to do with money. During his ministry, Jesus often took phrases or ideas which were common and turned them on their heads, so let me do likewise with the phrase, “living the good life.” Usually this brings to mind images of big houses, flashy cars, private jets, expensive toys, maybe a swaying hammock on a pristine beach somewhere. Actually, that last one doesn’t sound so bad! But what if living the good life—living the life that really is life—meant receiving an adoring smile from a child who trusts you because you’ve given him time and attention. Or holding an elderly woman’s hand while she dies to make sure she knows she’s not alone. Or using your God-given gifts and talents to make the world more beautiful, more peaceful, or simply ore interesting. Or taking a walk with someone you love on a crisp autumn day and listening to the sound of leaves crunching under your feet. Or pushing your body further than you ever thought possible. Or reciting the words of the 23rd Psalm in a time of despair and knowing without a doubt that God is with you as your comforter and protector. Or being part of a church where you can be honest, and share, and step outside your comfort zone to take a risk in safety and love. Tim, I’m sure you and the members of your community could add more of your own, based on how each of you find joy and contentment and connection to each other and to God. It is not about being rich in money or possessions, but being rich in love, faith, godliness, endurance, gentleness, and righteousness. This is what it means to live the good life, the life that really is life.

I hope this makes things more clear.

Grace be with you,


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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gay is Not An Insult

This Monday we had our first middle school youth group meeting of the new program year. There were eight kids there, in grades 6-8. Due to some struggle with being heard over multiple conversations going on, I decided to quickly insert "Rules of Engagement" into our plan for the night. We looked over the youth covenant that hangs on the wall, and then tried to lay out some practical rules for how to follow the more general thoughts of confidentiality, support, respect, etc.

One I made sure was up there was "gay is not an insult." I've noticed through Facebook pages and overheard conversations that kids in this town--like many across the country--use the word "gay" to insult each other. It usually has very little to do with sexuality at all; it's just a generic way to tease someone, and it's often used among friends, usually as a synonym for "stupid." However, I absolutely refuse to have that occur in my youth groups, and I think it's especially appropriate to spell it out as our church begins the Open and Affirming process.

A couple minutes after I'd written that rule on the notepad, after we'd gone on to add another couple rules amidst much joking and horsing around, one of the kids (who clearly had not been paying attention) looked up and said, "But gay is an insult."

I paused a moment, and said conversationally, "No, we shouldn't be using that word to insult each other." He pushed a little harder, saying politely, "But it is." So I replied, "Not in here it's not." "He seemed a little confused, and said, "No, there's another meaning to it."

It finally dawned on me that he wasn't trying to argue values; he actually had heard the word used that way enough that he concluded there were just multiple meanings. One meaning refers to sexuality; the other means stupid.

This shouldn't have been news to me. I had a similar experience in middle school. The word we used was "queer"--but with the local accent, it sounded like "qwaih" (as in, "you're wicked qwaih"). It wasn't until I went to high school that I realized what we had been saying. On a break home, my sister used that word, and I called her on it. I asked her how to spell that word. (Let me just say that my sister is extremely intelligent). "Q-U-A-R-E," she replied. That was logical--that's what you'd assume if you took the accent away. I corrected her, we argued, she looked it up in the dictionary. Bingo. We'd been using a slur without even realizing it. As far as I know, she never used that word that way again.

I realized this was a great learning opportunity for these eight kids. I quieted the others down, and gave a short explanation as to the history of why that word was used as an insult, and why we shouldn't use it that way. They seemed to get it. I felt a little bad for putting that one kid on the spot, but I thanked him for saying what he had so that we could talk about it.

I plan on bringing the topic up again later this year, because I think it's a really important subject worthy of some quality time.

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