1 Timothy 6:17-19
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
November 12, 2017
God wishes, today’s scripture says, that each of us would “take hold of the life that really is life”.
The world that God made is a cause-and-effect world in which we reap what we sow and we obtain gain from that in which we invest.
To take hold of “the life that really is life” is to invest our energy, talents, time and, yes, money in the purposes of love: love of God, others and ourselves.
Last Sunday, we considered applying our financial assets to loving God by doing Him justice. We do God justice when we return to Him the first portion of what we make (the tithe), grant Him the right of first refusal on all the rest, and use the wealth we retain to honor Him and to develop His most precious possession, a friendship with us.
Next Sunday, we will consider applying our financial assets to loving ourselves by enhancing the deepest dimensions of the life He has given us.
This Sunday, we consider our applying our financial assets to loving and helping others.
Today’s scripture addresses the “rich”. Compared to those whom the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote this letter, and compared to over 90% of the people in the world today, we all are the very rich. This scripture gives us three commandments, and one big promise.
The first commandment is that we repudiate being “haughty”: that is, being scornfully arrogant, disdainfully proud snobs who are so stuck on themselves that they cannot give of themselves to better the world and to bless their neighbors. Their thinking themselves better than everyone else keeps them from recognizing the claim their neighbors have upon them and the obligation they have from God to those neighbors. In the narcissistic vortex of their self-absorption, they forget that they exist in order to pass along God’s love.
The second commandment here is that we refrain from setting our hopes on “the uncertainty of riches”, but set them “rather on God”. In other words, we are to hang our aspirations for happiness and fulfillment, not on the accumulation of wealth, which in the changes and chances of this life is an unpredictable attainment and a precarious possession, but instead on the constancy of the grace of a God who is a sure bet and a treasure forever.
The third commandment here is “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share”. When in our giving we practice altruistic liberality, lives are saved; communities, uplifted; and the face of Christ, revealed to those who don’t yet know Him.
Moreover, in this altruistic liberality, gifts come to the givers as well. When we open our hearts and our wallets, we experience the truth of Christ’s saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” and we become happier, more fulfilled people. In other words, as we bless others, we ourselves are blessed. After all, what we keep, we lose in the end; but what we give, we retain in the richest sense, both in this world and in the one that has no end.
Yet, how many Christians believe in all this so definitively as to become truly “rich in good works”? A few years ago, a book was published entitled Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give More. It tries to come to grips, it says, with “the pitifully small charitable donations of the richest Christians in history”.
In the past century, as American personal disposable income quadrupled, the percentage of wealth donated by American Christians actually declined. Today, only 12% of Protestants and 4% of Catholics tithe, or return to God 10% of their income. The mean average of American Christian giving is under 3% of income.
If just this nation’s “committed Christians” (defined in the book as those who attend church at least a few times a month or who profess to be “strong” or “very strong” Christians) would all tithe, there would be an extra half-a-trillion dollars a year to support the church’s work of loving others: enough, for example, to fund 150,000 new indigenous missionaries, to make 5 million more micro loans to poor entrepreneurs, to supply food and shelter for all the refugees in Africa and Asia, or to sponsor 20 million desperate children around the globe.
This shortage in American Christian giving is not only a loss for the needy and the spiritually at risk, but also for the Christians themselves. Remember that it is only those who think of others as much as themselves, who place their hope on a God who “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”, and who readily share what they have, who eventually “take hold of the life that really is life”.
Jesus said He came that we may “have life and have it abundantly”. That abundant life is a life of love that enriches those who love even this side of heaven.
I think of ESPN producer Lisa Fenn who some years ago did a story about Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton, two disadvantaged high school students in inner city Cleveland. Crockett and Sutton were teammates on the Lincoln West High School’s wrestling team. Crockett is blind and would carry Sutton on his back. Sutton is a double-leg amputee, and would direct Crockett’s steps.
When Fenn finished the piece on them, she couldn’t forget about that boy who could not see and that boy who could not walk – and how they took care of each other. She took it upon herself to see to it that they got to college, raising donations, making contributions herself, and insuring they were well fed every day. Thanks to her efforts, Crockett became a bronze medalist in judo at the Paralympic Games in London; and Sutton, the first member of his family to graduate from college.
Years down the road, Sutton asked Fenn, “Why did you stay with us all this time?”
As she later pondered how best to formulate her response, she wrote, “I grew up on the other side of Cleveland, the white side…My parents scrounged up the money for private school to protect me from the public schools and ‘those people’… [These two boys, who had been emotionally abandoned many times, opened up to me and opened up my heart]…
“I stayed because I would not be next on the list of people who walked out and over their trust…I stayed because we get only one life, and we don’t truly live it until we give it away. I stayed because we can change the world only when we enter into another’s world. I stayed because I loved them.”
We give ourselves to others, and subsequently our money for others, because that’s what it means to love – and loving brings the biggest return on investment of any investment we could ever make.
This week, therefore, I ask you to pray about what you, in a faith promise, full of hope because of this scripture’s promise, might pledge in financial support of this one church in its work to love God and neighbor. Next Sunday, you will have an opportunity, at the close of worship, to submit your promise to love in the way that this scripture commends as one smart investment. Let us pray.