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A Wonder-full Life: Looking Out

Text: 1 Timothy 6:17-19

You might think, from many of Jesus’ teachings about money, that it’s a sin to have any to spare. Remember the Parable of the Rich Fool, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the warning: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God,” or the story of the rich young man, whose obedience to the commandments Jesus so loved that he told him: “You lack just one thing. Go, sell all that you have and come follow me” — to which the man went away sorrowful, because he had many things? 

Yes, there are many stories, teachings, and accounts of personal encounters with Jesus in the New Testament that bear out the truth that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” as Paul writes to Timothy, just a few verses before the passage that Heddy read for us this morning.

(I once used a password containing the phrase “root of evil” for my credit card once, as a reminder to be thoughtful about my spending!)

Yet alongside these stories and teachings, there are nearly as many accounts of wealthy persons whose generosity made possible the spreading of the gospel, from Joseph of Aramathea (who gave up his pre-paid funeral plot for Jesus’ burial), to Mary and Martha (who frequently hosted dinners for Jesus and his disciples in their home — and it may be Mary who anointed Jesus with an alabaster jar full of expensive perfume), Cornelius (the well-to-do centurion who was among the first gentile converts to Christianity), and Lydia (the “seller of purple,” a merchant who was the backbone of the church at Philippi).  And there are a host of other examples.

But neither can we say that, just because these saints were wealthy, it’s okay for us to be wealthy. Over and over, what we see in these stories is how they used their wealth to bless others, aligning the use of their material possessions with their most deeply held values.  

This past week’s study materials (both what we did as a group on Wednesday and in the take-home handouts that were available last Sunday) included exercises designed to help reflect on the idea of cultivating a “courageous vision” wherein we dedicate our resources to the people and things that really matter the most to us. This is not only about how we share or give, but how we spend and save (considering whose livelihood is enriched by our purchases and our investments, and whether the business practices of those we support are doing their best to protect the earth and to treat their workers fairly). The “courageous vision” is also about how we earn our money, remembering that we are exchanging our life’s energy for this paycheck.  Are we operating out of our passion and giftedness, so that the reward is not just material, but emotional and spiritual, as well — a sense that we are called to this work that we do?

I was reading another book this past week, about tailoring your worship style to the perceived needs and lifestyles of people in your broader community. And I came to a chapter on “Educational Worship” — an approach that is supposed to resonate with a significant number of people in our surrounding neighborhoods. I read that the goal of this type of worship is to “change your mind” as opposed to “alter[ing] your behavior.” And remembering what I said here in worship a few weeks ago (about the purpose of preaching being ultimately to “help people do what God wants them to do”), the idea that people don’t really want that filled me with a touch of sadness, as did these words: “They [that is, the people drawn to this type of worship] are less interested in shaping their lifestyles in particular. There is a critical distance between theory and praxis. Those who are affluent continue to be affluent; those aspiring to affluence continue to strive for success; and those who are poor continue to be opportunistic.”

What I believe is that loosening the hold that wealth and the pursuit of wealth has on us — that is, changing both our attitudes and our behavior, living out a “courageous vision” — will bring greater internal peace, a sense of freedom, and a change to the world around us, as others, and the cause of justice, are impacted by our actions.

Heddy told me she was inspired by one exercise we did last week, in which we considered what we might change if we knew we were going to die — without disability, just simply departing the earth — in five years, or again, if our time was just one year, or yet again, if we had just one day left to live. After this reflection, Heddy decided to ask her children and grandchildren what they would want among her possessions. When her son replied that the only thing he wanted was a plaque specially made for his grandfather by the appreciative workers of the coffee plantation where his father grew up, Heddy decided to give it to him right away rather than hold onto it. And she remarked to me how free that simple act of generosity made her feel.

There’s a series on Netflix that one of our members recommended to me recently, and Albert and I decided to check it out this week, and have found ourselves hooked. It’s called Messiah, and is a thought-provoking take on how the “powers that be” might respond if someone resembling Jesus, in methods and teachings, were to suddenly appear on the public scene today. I do not wish to give away much, except to describe one episode, in which this figure, who is called Al-Masih, confronts a conservative Texas federal judge in court during proceedings in a political asylum case. “Today you sit in the seat of the fortunate,” he says. “Just remember what put you there: fate. What is fate but the hand of God?” And he sits down. The next day, the judge delivers an out-of-character decision which grants mercy where he normally would not — and we learn that he has been unhinged, his perspective altered, by the protagonist’s provocative words, as he is reminded of his own mortality — that no amount of  money or power will change the inevitability of his death — so he does the right thing, the courageous thing, instead of taking the heartless course.  

(An aside here: We aren’t finished with the 10-episode season yet, and I don’t wish to make comment on the more controversial aspects of the show, particularly since I haven’t finished it yet. For now, I am entertained and intrigued by the vulnerability and the transformation that I see in various characters portrayed in this very fictional story).

In the book which inspired this series (and which our Wednesday group has been reading together), at the beginning of the chapter entitled “Looking Out,” author Maggie Kulyk quotes prominent 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt, who said: “Life engenders life. Energy creates energy. It is by spending oneself that we become rich” (Integrating Money and Meaning, p. 129). 

Who are we looking out for? How would we answer that? Are we “looking out” for the proverbial “number one?” Are we “looking out” for others? Or are we “looking out” for justice? Marcia McFee relates this phrase, “looking out,” to another expression, “selling out,” referring to profiting from the perpetuation of injustice (whether it’s something “new” — engendered in our own time — or “already in place” — an injustice that’s been going on for generations, which by virtue of our privilege, or as the character Al-Masih put it, “fate” — has resulted in a benefit to ourselves at a “cost” to others — whether we see or acknowledge it, or not.

Cultivating a “courageous vision,”  doing a sort of excavation, both of our souls, and making a deeper assessment of the impact our habits make on the world around us, then taking brave steps to bring our financial activities (i.e. earning, spending, storing and giving) and our life’s energy (the time we have left) more into line with God’s dreams, is a path to wholeness, and living from the heart. I pray that seeing your relationship to money as central to your spiritual path might help create a more balanced, healthy and “wonder-full” life, for you, your family, our community, and the planet.  Amen.