Sunday, September 25, 2016

Money, money, money

A Sermon preached on Pentecost XIX, 25th September 2016 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Amos 6:1a, 4-7, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
For the third time in September, our readings focus on the topics of money, wealth, and how to use them rightly. So clearly, somebody expects us to talk and think about this theme. Let me start by quoting those well-known Swedish theologians, Abba: 

“Money, money, money
Must be funny
In the rich man's world
Money, money, money
Always sunny
In the rich man's world
All the things I could do
If I had a little money
It's a rich man's world.”

So is it always sunny in the rich man’s world? Not according to Amos. He sees black storm clouds on the horizon for the idle rich, for “those who lie on beds of ivory” for those who indulge themselves while others suffer and are in need. They “shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.” (Amos 6:4, 7) Then in Jesus’ parable, the future was anything but rosy for the rich man who “was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” (Luke 16:19) He ends up in Hades, where he is tormented every day, and there is no escape. 

But according to Scripture the risk for the rich is not just a future threat. Too often passages like these have been used as – to quote Karl Marx – opium for the people, a means of keeping the poor and disadvantaged quiet by promising them a reversal of fortunes in the future. But Amos is not talking about a distant heavenly future. If Israel’s society does not change for the better, he warns, if injustice and corruption and abuse do not stop, if the powerful do not follow God’s will, Israel will easily fall to one of the rival powers in the neighborhood, because it will be rotten to the core. And it did, for just 12 years after Amos’ death, the northern kingdom of Israel ceased to exist. 

Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus is also more than just a retelling of a traditional reversal of fortunes story. I did wonder by the way, when reading the passage, whether it was the inspiration for the Charles Dickens story, “A Christmas Carol,” in which it takes three ghosts – of Christmas past, present, and future - to change Scrooge’s mind. But Jesus is not just interested in changing in individual behavior; he wants the whole society of Israel, and through their example the whole world, to return to the standards of the Old Testament – to the godly way of life described in the books of Moses and the Prophets. He wants all the Lazarus’ to be treated fairly and justly in this life, not just the next, and he wants the powerful and the rich to take responsibility for them. In a turn of phrase that with our hindsight sounds ironic, and that Jesus with foresight meant that way, he is however skeptical that this will happen: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31) We know from history that the Jewish leadership chose a path of violence and that their society in Palestine also fell when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans about 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. 

In the Letter to Timothy, the potential for personal ruin and destruction is also not something for the far future, but instead a very present danger.  “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires,” he is told. (1 Timothy 6:9-10) Money becomes an addiction, an object of desire in itself, a cause of irrational longing. When John D. Rockefeller was asked how much money is enough, he is supposed to have answered “Just a little more than I have.” 

None of the readings actually says that money or wealth is bad as such. Money can be as much a gift from God, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17) as our other talents and their fruits. Everything we receive is a gift and comes with strings attached: that it be used to the glory of God, and for the greater good.  Even Mr. Rockefeller eventually came to this realization: “I believe the power to make money is a gift of God … to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind,”[1] he later said.

Our annual stewardship campaign begins next weekend. I am not going to invoke divine warnings of disaster, threaten you with eternal damnation, or the visit of ghosts to change your attitude to money. For one thing, unless you have been hiding it very well, we have no Rockefellers in this congregation, and no idle rich. Though to be clear, from a global perspective we are all relatively rich. For another, unlike the anonymous rich man in Jesus’ story, I believe that you all have been and are being transformed by someone who rose from the dead, by Jesus’ resurrection, but also by his life, example and the loving sacrifice of his death.

Anyway, what we are asking you to support with your pledges, is not a story of ruin and destruction, but a story of growth and renewal. We want you to continue to “invest” in a bright future for this church and for the community this church serves. Just three years ago, it was uncertain whether this church would survive. What helped us come out of a period of conflict and division much stronger than before, were qualities similar to those that Timothy is called to pursue. Faith, love, endurance, and gentleness, coupled with remorse, a willingness to ask for forgiveness, and to forgive, as well as generous giving – of money, and of your time, your energy and your talents. 

We have many things that we will continue to do: worship, formation, fellowship, and outreach. We have some things we need to finish doing: the renovation and renewal of this building. And over the next few weeks we will develop new ideas together about how we can better fulfil our mission as a Christian community within Wiesbaden and beyond. These are – in Abba’s words – “All the things I could do, if I had a little money.”

As Paul tells Timothy, we set our hopes not on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. It is fascinating and also horrifying to see how little society has changed. Amos’, Paul’s and Jesus’ criticisms could be – and are – as much an indictment of modern culture as of 8th century BC or 1st century AD societies.

Yet, while the love of money may well be the root of all kinds of evil, its proper use, to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, and to share, can be a form of Christian service. In fact, if in our use of money, in our giving, we allow ourselves to be guided on the one hand by gratitude for the one who provides us with everything, and on the other by love and compassion for all our fellow human beings, money can even offer us spiritual opportunities. Despite its lures, we can take hold of and live by the life that really is life: eternal life that begins now and not in some far distant future.

[1] Interview in 1932

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