Rich

Sermon: Rich

Text: 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19

Date: November 17, 2019

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

“As for those of you who in the present age are rich…”

I can’t help thinking of that iconic scene from the movie “Taxi Driver” when a young Robert deNiro (portraying Travis Bickle) is practicing being a tough guy. Do you remember it? “Are you talking to me? Are you talking to ME? Are YOU talking to ME?”

I don’t think many of us like to own that word “rich,” maybe especially now that there are a few prominent Americans who seem to exult in that word in an obnoxious way—e.g. “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m really rich.” I doubt any of you have said such a thing, even the more well-heeled among us. It’s considered tasteless. We may, therefore, tastefully shy away from that label “rich.”

Yet we know, logically, that on a global scale we are—collectively—that very “r” word, “rich.” None of us are living on $2-5 a day and desperately wondering where the next meal is going to come from. So rather than becoming defensive or assuming that the text from 1 Timothy doesn’t apply to us, let’s just own it. “As for those of you who in the present age are rich…” Are you talking to me? Well, yes, I suppose you are. As deNiro’s character Travis goes on to say, “I’m the only one standing here.” So let’s attune ourselves to the wisdom the Word has for us.

Some of the words we heard from our text today sounded a note of caution about riches, as if they should come with a warning label. [Some] “people who are trying to get rich fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.” [1 Timothy 6:9-10] Impaled themselves with a lot of pain—sharp words! True, though, don’t you think? Characters like Mr. Potter in the “It’s a Wonderful Life” movie as well as many folk we have known or know of in real life who make riches their life’s goal are often miserable in spite of their success.

Mary Brown loaned me this great book while we have been musing on integrating money and meaning during this month-long “Wonder-full Life” worship series. The book is The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Life by Lynne Twist. I want to share some of the stories and insights from that book with you this morning because they dovetail so beautifully with the biblical passage. Without going into a lot of detail about the back story, the author had an opportunity when she was working for a non-profit called The Hunger Project to meet with one of her (s)heroes, Mother Teresa. Author Lynne describes how moved she was to be able to talk with her privately in a little room in the mission house where the sisters were engaged taking care of orphaned infants. Mother Teresa affirmed Lynne’s work as a fundraiser for such an important cause as ending hunger. She modestly described herself as “God’s pencil” and told Lynne that she could see in her eyes and by her work that she, too, was “God’s pencil.” The two women were deeply engaged in this intimate, meaningful conversation when they heard a scuffling noise and loud voices coming down the hall.

In Lynne’s words: “First I smelled them, then I heard them: a middle-aged couple, a man and a woman, both very tall, very large, very heavily perfumed and clearly very rich. The woman came first, pushing ahead of her husband, moving aggressively toward our small meeting table. She had diamond studs in her ears and one in her nose. Her arms were covered in lavish bangles, many laced with precious stones. She was heavily made up and was wearing a blue and white sari covered with opulent gold and silver brocade and embroidery. She was very overweight and her flesh bulged through the open midsection of her taut sari.

“Her husband was bigger, wider, and flashier than she was. He wore a turban with a topaz set in the center just above his forehead, and white brocade kurta. He had a ring on every finger of both hands. In the quiet of this hallway, they seemed to me like monsters as they barged into our tranquil and intimate scene. With no greeting at all to either me or to Mother Teresa, the large, loud woman shoved a camera into my hand as she and her husband pulled Mother Teresa from her chair and situated her against the wall between them. Then they pushed in like giant, grotesque bookends on either side of Mother Teresa and demanded a photograph.

“We didn’t get a picture. We need to have a picture!” the woman complained loudly, and she motioned for me to snap a photo with her camera. I was livid. The beauty of my moment with Mother Teresa shattered in the rage I felt now at these rude and opulent intruders. As I snapped the photo, the tall woman fussed at Mother Teresa to look up toward her for a second shot. Mother Teresa was bent over at the neck from old age and osteoporosis, but without hesitating the woman put her hand under Mother Teresa’s chin and forced it up. Shocked that anyone would treat Mother Teresa that way, but wanting them gone, I snapped the second photo. The woman then snatched the camera and she and her husband, without so much as a “thank you” to Mother Teresa or me, disappeared in a noisy rush down the hall and away.

“Mother Teresa returned to her chair by the table and continued as if nothing had happened, finishing her thoughts on the topic of our earlier conversation.”[1] Lynne could hardly hear the rest of the conversation because she was consumed with rage and hatred for the couple. It took a while after the meeting concluded for her to calm down and realize that Mother Teresa had had no problem with the wealthy couple. To her, they were children of God, no less and no more than the destitute, abandoned orphans in her care, and she had treated them with love and respect and then calmly returned to her meeting. Later that evening Lynne wrote to Mother Teresa confessing her unbridled rage and asking for her counsel. Weeks later she received an answer with a gentle admonishment for her lack of compassion for the couple. Mother Teresa pointed out that while the vicious cycle of poverty is well-known, what goes almost completely unacknowledged is the “vicious cycle of wealth.” “There is no recognition of the trap that wealth so often is, and of the suffering of the wealthy: the loneliness, the isolation, the hardening of the heart, the hunger and poverty of the soul that can come with the burden of wealth.” She reproved Lynne for extending little or no compassion to the wealthy, while they need as much compassion as anyone else on earth. “You must open your heart to them and become their student and their teacher,” she said in her letter. “Open your compassion and include them. This is an important part of your life’s work. Do not shut them out.”[2]

After receiving this wisdom, Lynne changed the way she was doing her fundraising work, recognizing that sometimes money and a lifestyle of privilege cut people off from the richness of ordinary everyday life. She started noticing that wealth can distort people’s relationship with money and widen the gap between their soulful life and their interactions around money; she noticed how frequently spiritual and emotional deprivation accompanied plentiful material comforts. She would probably say Amen to this line from 1 Timothy: “Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.”

The text, fortunately, does not address those who are rich in the present age with simply a message of doom. There’s a warning, to be sure, but also an invitation: if the rich can somehow manage not to become egotistical and haughty, if they can manage not to put their hope in their wealth but rather in God, there is great blessing in doing good, being rich in good works, and sharing generously. By doing such things they will be taking hold of life that “really is life!” Their giving will benefit those who receive their shared resources, and will also benefit them, soul-wise speaking-wise. There’s no doubt that early Christian leaders counted on having wealthy people in the community who acted as benefactors. Jesus’ ministry and Paul’s benefited from people who had more than they needed and were willing to share it for the good of the mission. If they hadn’t had these benefactors, it’s likely the Christian movement would not have spread as fast or as far as it did. And of course, the Christian movement is still dependent on those who voluntarily and joyfully share their wealth, whether the amounts are large or small.

The global Church does have a rather sketchy history with money; Christians are not immune from the attractions of wealth. From the selling of indulgences in the Middle Ages to the selling of promises of prosperity among a segment of preachers today, there has been and is more than enough manipulation and corruption to go around. I have an atheist relative who is quite cynically convinced that it’s all about the money, this whole church enterprise. He thinks it’s all a racket. I wish there was zero evidence to back up his belief, but unfortunately there are plenty of terrible examples of misuse of vulnerable people’s gifts inside the worldwide church. No wonder some churches and preachers avoid talking about money at all.

Yet for those of us who have experienced giving, we know at a soulful level that the opportunity to share the wealth is one of the many things–one of the many activities–that God richly provides us for our enjoyment. Let me tell you another great story out of Lynne Twist’s The Soul of Money book. Lynne was out fundraising again for the Hunger Project. She had received a huge ($50,000) check from a large corporation, but felt uneasy about it because it felt like a way for the company to buy its way out of guilt. She went from the meeting with the CEO of the corporation to a Harlem church basement to speak again about the Hunger Project to folks from a very different social strata. Lynne made the request for support wondering if it was the right thing to do among people of less means. After a pause, a woman in her late sixties or early seventies stood up. She stood erect and addressed Lynne: “Girl, my name is Gertrude and I like what you’ve said and I like you. Now, I ain’t got no checkbook and I ain’t got no credit cards. To me, money is a lot like water. For some folks it rushes through their life like a raging river. Money comes through my life like a little trickle. But I want to pass it on in a way that does the most good for the most folks. I see that as my right and my responsibility. It’s also my joy. I have fifty dollars in my purse that I earned from doing a white woman’s wash and I want to give it to you.”[3] She walked up the aisle and gave it to Lynne—a bundle of five, ten, and one-dollar bills. She gave Lynne a big hug as well. Others in the audience followed her lead; Lynne eventually had to open her briefcase to receive all the small dollar donations. Lynne couldn’t stop crying as this scene of generosity unfolded before her, people coming forward with a strong sense of integrity and heart as they shared what they had. Their offerings buried the big check underneath. Lynne actually ended up returning the big check because she didn’t feel like the company’s money was really aligned with its values the way the money and values were in harmony in the Harlem church basement.

Lynne later framed a great deal of her thinking around what she learned from Gertrude: that money is like water. She writes, “Money flows through all our lives, sometimes like a rushing river, and sometimes like a trickle. When it is flowing, it can purify, cleanse, create growth, and nourish. But when it is blocked or held too long, it can grow stagnant and toxic to those withholding it or hoarding it. Like water, money is a carrier. It can carry blessed energy, possibility, and intention, or it can carry control, domination, and guilt. It can be a current or currency of love—a conduit for commitment—or a carrier of hurt or harm. We can be flooded with money and drown in its excess, and when we dam it up unnecessarily, we keep it out of circulation to the detriment of others.”[4]

As I think of this metaphor of money being like water and think about the wealthy couple in the earlier story, in their roundness and rudeness, I wonder if their retaining too much of their wealth for themselves affected their spiritual health the way too much water retention in the body hurts a person. One of the causes of painful water retention in the human body is chronic heart failure. Chronic heart failure: switch from the literal to the figurative and you find wealth retention causing painful puffiness of spirit and lack of ability to move freely, humbly and gratefully about the creation.

There isn’t always a cure for chronic heart failure in the physical realm, the body. But there is always a cure for heart failure available in the spiritual, soulful realm. One of Christianity’s most promising promises is that we can become a new creation any given day. Grace is never a trickle, it’s a continuous, everflowing stream that cleanses, nourishes and creates growth. Opening our hearts to the grace of God flowing in and through us makes it possible for us to reform any unhealthy practices we may have had around our wealth and begin again. The perfumed couple encountering Mother Teresa were no doubt there because they were giving to support her mission; perhaps that donation, and the picture of themselves in contrast with the humble saint became the medicine they needed to make a new beginning. God only knows. But we know that God wants them and all of us to experience abundant life by being rich in good works rather than putting our hopes in worldly, transitory riches.

Recognizing the connection between money and spiritual health, we might audit all of our money activities—earning, giving, spending, and storing—to judge whether these money practices are aligned with our heart’s deeply held values. Is the way we are earning money ethical? As money that flows into our lives flows out through giving, are we giving to people and organizations whose values and visions align with our own? Are we giving joyfully, or with trepidation, out of a sense of gladness or guilt? Are we confusing giving with controlling? Is our spending on things we need and want honorable? Do feel a need to hide what we spend, and if so, why? Are we storing wealth we don’t need immediately in institutions whose principles and practices are in harmony with our values? It’s useful to consider all the money activities (earning, giving, spending, and storing) in an overall look at how money is flowing through our lives.

“As for those of you who in the present age are rich…” Beloved rich people, listen up. Here’s a wise word from Sarah Bernhardt: “Life engenders life. Energy creates energy. It is by spending oneself that we become rich.” God has already richly provided us with everything we need. Now let’s take hold of what is truly Life, emulating our generous God whose giving knows no ending, and imitating Christ who freely poured himself out for us.

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[1] Twist, Lynne The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Life New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003, p. 32-34

[2] Ibid, p. 36

[3] Ibid p. 101

[4] Ibid p. 102-3

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