August 2, 2015
“Tis the Gift”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
1 Timothy 6:6-19
6 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 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. 10 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. 11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. 17 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. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 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.
Sometimes the Bible makes us uncomfortable. Well, it makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I wish the words said something different.
Sometimes the Bible is hard to understand, and from where I’m standing, sometimes it is hard to explain.
Sometimes it is offensive. But I think that is ok. It is when we are offended or challenged that we know what our most closely held beliefs are, and perhaps those beliefs are holy, but sometimes they are not.
We so often approach the Bible as an answer book.
When I was a teenager we used to play a kind of spiritual magic trick – you have a problem, you blindly flip open the Bible to any page, and put your finger down and read what it said, and perhaps the magic would work and you would get the answer you needed. It didn’t really work.
But sometimes we approach the Bible with the same kind of attitude.
Instead we need think of the Bible as asking us questions, asking questions about our lives, our assumptions about God and other people. Without a doubt, this is the harder path to follow, but this is the path of discipleship.
It is much easier to think of God as the divine butler in the sky, who wants us to be happy, and will give us what we ask for, and answer all our questions, and tell us what to do when we need guidance.
Far more often, discipleship, following Jesus, looks like a wrestling match.
There is this remarkable account of Jacob, the father of the whole family of God’s chosen people, who was in a desperate situation. He is traveling with everything that he owns and everyone that he holds dear.
He gets word that his brother, Esau, whom he had wronged terribly, is coming to meet him with 400 men. The night before he meets his brother, he is desperate and alone; when the morning comes, everything that he loves may be gone. And all night long he wrestles with God.
He has prayed already, but this struggle is something different, and he comes out of the experience changed, physically disfigured, unable to live life as he had before, and yet he had a new name, a new understanding of himself, a relationship with God that is unique, and he has a purpose.
And when he meets his brother the next day, he finds compassion and forgiveness, and he says to Esau, when I see your face I see the face of God because you have welcomed me.
There are moments along the path of faith that we are walking, that look like this – and that should look like this – that look like struggle and redemption and renewal and new understandings.
Sometimes I wish the Bible would say what I want it to say – it would be so much easier to be a preacher. But we are saved from that, thank God; it is God’s words, and not ours. And we are saved from making God in our own image, a God who likes the same things and the same people we do, and thinks all the things we do and say are right and good.
Sometimes when the Bible talks about wealth, it unsettles us – it challenges us to examine our lives, and we might have to wrestle with what God is saying to our hearts through God’s word – and that is not always a bad thing.
So let’s take a look at this passage. The Bible, and Jesus specifically, talks a good bit about wealth and poverty and economics.
And here we find here Paul writing about money to Timothy who is ministering to the church in Ephesus, and reading between the lines, we can tell that something is off. Paul writes about real concerns, real complaints – he writes with love and conviction.
His goal is that we have the life that is really life – at the moment, for the church in Ephesus, the way they view money is standing in their way. He is not saying that money bad, but the attitude some have about money has hardened hearts, squelched generosity of spirit and openness to God and others.
I came across a TED talk recently entitled “Does Money Make You Mean?” by Paul Piff, an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior who has been studying this topic for years.
In one study they looked at how strangers behaved playing monopoly where one player was given far more money and advantages.
They looked at how well people obeyed traffic laws when they were driving expensive cars versus inexpensive ones, how likely people were to take candy that was reserved for children in another study, how likely they were to cheat to win a cash prize, how likely they were to give money away to a total stranger who needed it.
In sum, all the studies showed what God tells us – money has the tendency to make us hard-hearted.
But the good news of the studies was, that small nudges that remind us of the importance of community or empathy or cooperation, or hearing accounts of those who struggle in this world, changed everything. People were more generous, more compassionate, more open, just as willing as anyone else to help out a stranger.
The good news is that our souls are malleable, but we need to be reminded to be open and generous, to do good and to share, to be kind and empathetic. Which is exactly what Paul is saying. Hear his words again: “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.”
Take hold of the life that is really life.
I actually picked this passage because it is a passage that many Christian spiritualties go to in support of a particular discipline, or spiritual practice – the discipline of simplicity.
Spiritualties are like bridges; they get you from one place to another. They get you from where you are to where God is. And there are a bunch of spiritualties for whom simplicity is one of the most visible and profound ways we draw near to God.
The Franscicans, the Ignatians, and the Shakers, among others, all have lived and continue to live out this idea of simplicity.
So we look at this passage not so much about what it says against wealth but what it says about choosing the life that is worth living.
Have you ever packed for a trip, taking out of all your possessions, a small numbers of things – and realizing that that is really all that you need? It is kind of freeing. It is freedom. That’s the idea behind the discipline of simplicity.
Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit priest, told the parable of a wise man sleeping under a tree on the outskirts of a village when a villager came running up to him yelling, “The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!”
The night before he had had a vision where he was told he would find a wise man who would give him a precious stone which would make him rich forever.
The wise man pulled out a stone he had found on a forest path and handed it to the villager saying, “I found this and you can certainly have it.”
The villager gazed in wonder at the largest diamond in the world. He took the stone and walked away. But the villager could not sleep that night. The next day at dawn he shook the wise man awake and said, “Give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.”
When I was a teenager I caught a glimpse of what this looks like in the life a friend. I was on my first mission trip and a stranger named Bill came along and we were soon friends. He had a baseball hat that his father had given him and it was well-loved and I thought it was just so cool.
I asked Bill to help me break in my brand new hat so we ran it over with a car, scraped the rim on concrete, washed it many times. But it never really achieved the distressed look we were going for.
And at the end of the week Bill gave me his hat, one of his prized possessions. He gave something he owned to every single person on the trip, out of his pretty meager belongings. I’m still awed by the gift and by the faith the person who gave the gift.
Richard Foster, a theologian who writes a good deal about spiritual practices, writes that the discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward change: “Simplicity is the only thing that sufficiently reorients our lives so that possessions can be generously enjoyed without destroying us.”
He shares three important parts of simplicity:
To receive what we have as a gift from God;
to know that is God’s business, and not ours, to care for what we have;
and to have our goods available to others.
If what we have we receive as a gift, and if what we have is to be cared for by God, and if what we have is available to others, then we receive the freedom that comes with simplicity.
It is the freedom that is sung about the old Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts”:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.