"The life that really is life"-A sermon for Proper 21, I Timothy 6:6-19
When I was in seminary…I had two good friends from my college days…who are still good friends…who happened to also end up on the east coast for graduate school at the same time themselves. Neither was perusing theological education…instead one was studying law and the other business…one at Georgetown Law School and the other at Columbia Business School…and, of course, I was studying to be a priest at Virginia Theological Seminary. Well the three of us spent a lot of time together…particularly in my first two years in seminary…it was a tremendous blessing to have friends from home close, if you will, to connect with and spend time with outside of the seminary community. They sort of kept me connected to the world beyond my own studies and honestly made me feel a little less homesick.
Additionally, I had another friend, among others, that was in seminary with me named Martin Megni, who was already ordained a priest, from Malawi, Africa. Martin was continuing his theological education in the States and lived across the hall from me in my dorm and over time again we got close. Martin would share with me the blessings and challenges facing the church in Malawi. And one struggle, in particular, that’s perhaps somewhat universal was always money…though rich in land and natural resources, the Episcopal Church in Malawi served a population that was profoundly impoverished, under resourced, and under employed. Church goers certainly contributed in terms of time, talent and treasure in meaningful and life-giving ways to the ministry of the church…but still the church struggled to expand ministry, plant new congregations, pay clergy a living wage, and maintain church infrastructure. And so Martin and I would dream together about how that might change…how they could develop income and new revenue streams to support mission and ministry…perhaps taking advantage of land and natural resources to develop micro-businesses that could produce income through agriculture and other goods they could create and then bring to market…with the profits supporting both those who did the work with a living wage and support the mission, ministry and expansion of the church’s own good and Godly work.
Well one evening I brought these musings to my two friends in law and business school and over weeks, perhaps months, we began to devise a working plan if you will…honestly not much more than what came from my conversations with Martin…but anyway we began to dream…and we got excited…perhaps you could even describe it as passionate. The dream looked something like my friend in business school taking stock of available resources in the church in Malawi and devising business plans for new income generating operations. My friend in law school working to create contracts to sell items created by them both locally and overseas and working with the government and other entities to be sure all flowed well and was legal…institution building if you will. And me…I suppose my role, as I remember it, was to help use the financial resources to build communities of faith and create healthy relationships between the church and its new enterprises and generally pastor all those involved…the CSO…the chief spiritual officer. Three 20 something graduate students saving the world one diocese at a time…it felt good…perhaps totally unrealistic and very paternal…very western…very colonial even…but I do think, during those energizing conversations, our hearts were in the right place. We dreamed big beautiful dreams and were inspired. Wanting to partner with those very different from ourselves…wanting to do good in the name of God…wanting to make the church impactful and relevant…wanting to use our gifts and education and comfortable lives and resources in positive…even transformative ways.
Well I remember one evening…trying to move the conversation forward…believing the dream could be something real and tangible…I remember asking my friends, “So when are we going to start…now…or when we graduate…when?” And at this point one of my two friends said something like…and he was just being honest, “Well probably not for a while…I mean we need to finish school and then get jobs here…make money…be sure ourselves and future families are established and secure…we can’t really do this until we have means and security first for ourselves…before we can really help anyone else…after all this is going to require some serious money so we got to make some first.” And that my friends (meaning all of you) was more or less the end of the conversation. We indeed did all graduate…established families…have enjoyed success in our careers of choice…my two friends have become immensely successful in law and banking, and I have been blessed to lead and grow a vibrant college ministry and then plant a church…but the dream…well it was invigorating at the time…at least for us.
The truth is the whole idea that emerged at that particular point in our lives was likely both unrealistic and, as noted, fraught with many holes and problems on a lot of different levels…further I think the path I have followed personally since…has mattered and furthered the mission and ministry of the church and, surely, my two friend do a lot of good in their lives, as well, they don’t just make money. And most certainly none of our lives have led to ruin or destruction…as best I know…but still I tell this story with our New Testament lesson from I Timothy in the background, in which the letter’s author writes fairly forcefully, “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.” And I wonder…speaking for myself…I just wonder…how human desire for personal gain and professional accolades and material comfort and the envy of others and most of all a perception of security that comes with plenty of money, even perhaps more than enough money, has led many, perhaps even some of us, perhaps even me, to wander… at least for a time or a season…to wander from our faith…from God’s call on our lives…which has then perhaps indeed led to some sort of pain…maybe even an unrecognized pain…like some good work, some dream that was not followed through on that could have made a difference in other people’s lives…or a nagging guilt of not stepping forward in generosity when we should have done so…or following a professional path in life, that left some dream behind, that now feels boring or monotonous or even meaningless. I just wonder about how money leads to wandering…not down a path of discovery or creativity or generosity…not down a path that reflects something of the character and nature of God or God’s love…but down a path so often paved with fear and anxiety that leads to ambiguity or boredom or isolation or missed opportunities or just maintaining the status quo…even if the status quo is less than God might dream for us or for God’s world. The path might lead to more money…but perhaps not much more than that. As Nelson Rockefeller is often quoted as saying when asked how much money is enough money, he responded, “A little more than I have.”
Now whether we are talking about our relationship with money or lost opportunities left behind in younger days, I am not trying to induce guilt here…including for me…on the whole we are a generous lot here at St. Julian’s that are good at dreaming big dreams…which is why we even exist…after only 7 years…we are 300 strong…in our own building…with a permanent campus on the horizon…and most importantly we offer vital worship and ministries that make a difference in people’s lives for good and for God. And truth be told this passage sort of goes light on challenges that money poses for the faithful. Unlike say Jesus…who for instance tells the rich young ruler that he must sell and give away everything he owns, the author of I Timothy writes, “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. 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.” This in my mind provides ample room for at the very least responsibly enjoying the fruits of our labor…so long as one recognizes that all we have is a gift from God…and thus in gratitude shares of all we have freely and generously in the building of God’s kingdom…so long as one recognizes that money does not make one superior to another…and thus whatever one’s bank book looks like we are to regard all equally and love all entirely…this is practicing humility…so long as one recognizes that no amount of money provides security in a world full of uncertain futures…thus as the great hymn says, “All of our hope on God is founded”…but with that said the focus here seems more a call to generosity…than a call to poverty. I also note that I grew up hearing the old adage, “Money is the root of all evil”, which, of course, comes from this piece of scripture…except that’s not what it says. Instead it reads, “For the love of money is a root for all kinds of evil.” A root…not the end all be all root that necessarily corrupts all to ruin and destruction…but a root…one of many that hopefully feeds us…but nonetheless a root that can, can lead a person lacking spiritual maturity, one without other roots planted firmly in God, can lead one to all sorts of terrible choices and ends. And I think we would all agree with that.
So now I feel I have gone too soft on the real challenges that money poses for the faithful. The truth is, not all, but most of us enjoy a comfortable life, not easy, but most days we have enough which is so much more than what most of people in this world have…we are blessed…but I don’t want us to feel guilty about this, nor do I want to let us off the hook, as I began, for the ways money can lead us to wander down an overly consumption oriented, self-interested path. Instead what I want to say first…is that matters of faith and money are complicated, and we should not be afraid to talk about them together…because this is the very place where we should think about both together…and only together can we just begin to discern the mind of God on these matters for us…individually and as a church. Secondly, I want to say that how we spend, save, and share our money as individuals and as a church matters…big time…it is moral matter…it is matter of faith. It speaks to our trust in God’s provision in our lives. It speaks to how we value the church, Christ’s Body, as a part of God’s redemptive work in the world. And it speaks to how we truly care for and value other human beings. Every budget…from church, to corporation, to household is a moral document…that says a whole lot about what we believe…what we value…about where we place our faith.
And so I suppose together we are called to continue, to even double down, on this work of dreaming, of visioning together about who God is calling us to be and then what that looks like as a church actually doing mission and ministry together…and then from the gifts given uniquely and differently to each person, we are called to breath this dream, this vision into life…whatever that costs…whatever that requires…that we might take hold of the life that really is life…together. Amen.