Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
November 5, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon
Proverbs 22:1-9; 1 Timothy 6:6-12
“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.”
1 Timothy 6:9
Every once in a while, an occupation gets a new name. Do you remember when waiters and waitresses became servers? When garbagemen became sanitation workers? When secretaries became administrative assistants? When hospital orderlies became patient care specialists?
There are all sorts of reasons for changing the name of an profession. Sometimes it’s to more accurately reflect new duties. Other times, it’s to give the job something of a prestige makeover. But there’s one occupational name change that’s had me scratching my head, of late.
You can see it on certain TV commercials, or glossy, full-page ads in expensive magazines. It seems a whole lot of people who used to call themselves financial planners have now morphed into “wealth managers.”
Now, doesn’t that sound hoity-toity? But that, I suppose, is exactly the point. Financial planners who market themselves as wealth managers don’t want to spend their time on humble tasks like helping clients build a budget or figure out how to pay off credit card bills. No, they want to spend their time moving large sums of money around for the high rollers.
I expect their customers rather like the new label: because, if you need a wealth manager, that must mean you’re wealthy. (Sometimes, the prestige makeover thing upgrades the customer’s self-image, too!)
This whole idea of wealth management is problematic from a spiritual point of view. The Bible, you know — along with the teachings of nearly every other major world religion — treats wealth with a certain highly-developed caution. The sages of centuries past have learned that, whenever we try to manage wealth, it’s just as likely to turn around and manage us.
It’s as though money is spiritually radioactive. Like uranium, it can generate energy for good and useful purposes, but it can also destroy. Money can turn on the lights, but when highly concentrated in one place, it can be a deadly poison.
Jesus himself puts it rather bluntly. Just after instructing his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, he issues this solemn warning: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” [Matthew 16:26a] Elsewhere, he famously says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” [Matthew 19:224]
All of a sudden, this wealth-management thing is looking kind of problematic, isn’t it? From a spiritual standpoint, trying to manage wealth is something like putting our head into the mouth of a lion or flying an airplane into the eye of a hurricane. The thing we’re trying so hard to manage does so easily end up managing us.
Now, about this time you may be saying to yourself, “Thank God I don’t have to worry about that sort of thing: because I’m anything but rich!” But, don’t be so quick to pat yourself on the back. Consider what our sermon text from 1 Timothy 6 has to say: “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.”
Notice what the text says. It casts the net pretty widely. It doesn’t just say, “Those who are rich fall into temptation and are trapped….” No. It says, “Those who want to be rich…”
Ah, now that’s a different matter! Because who — in this consumer culture of ours — doesn’t aspire to be rich? The frightening thing here is that the Bible’s saying you don’t have to be rich to subject yourself to spiritual danger. It just says you have to daydream about it with some degree of regularity. And who among us has not done that?
“Lead us not into temptation,” says the Lord’s Prayer. After we unclasp our hands and open our eyes, though, it’s not so easy to keep that thought in mind, when we live in a consumer culture like this one. Advertising is everywhere: those not-so-subtle messages encouraging us to spend, spend, spend — and when we’re done spending, to borrow, borrow, borrow so we can spend some more. (“What’s in your wallet?”)
Many of us, in this seductive culture, find ourselves in a permanent state of temptation. There’s a famous Greek myth about that: the story of a man named Tantalus. Let me tell you about him.
Tantalus was a human being, the illegitimate son of Zeus. Being the son of a god, he was of course a king on earth: but he was not a nice person. Tantalus did some truly awful things. The first of his offenses was stealing ambrosia — the food of the gods — from his father’s table on Mount Olympus and delivering a take-out order to some people on earth. Far more seriously, he also murdered his own son, cut him up into little pieces and served him to the gods as a stew. Most of the gods got word of this dreadful recipe and passed over Tantalus’ casserole dish at the potluck — except for the goddess Demeter, the earth-mother, who did take a bite, and was not amused, to say the least. (It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!)
When Tantalus died, Zeus condemned him to eternal punishment. He made this son of his stand in water up to his neck. Just over his head, Zeus placed a branch laden with succulent fruit. Whenever Tantalus got thirsty and stooped to take a drink, the water receded. Whenever he reached up for a piece of fruit, the branch lifted up out of his reach. Permanent cravings, but no satisfaction: that’s the sad tale of Tantalus.
His name, of course, has given us the word “tantalize.” To be tantalized is to be tempted, with no hope of satisfaction.
What you and I need to do, 1 Timothy chapter 6 is saying, is find a way to untantalize ourselves. The sad fate of Tantalus truly doesn’t have to be our own.
In the Greek myth, Tantalus was confined in a small space — trapped in his enchanted pool of water. But the same need not be true of us. We have the ability, with God’s help, to resist temptation. We have the ability — any time we want to claim it — to walk away from the consumption lifestyle.
It’s not easy. Not with all those advertising messages buzzing around our ears. Not with all the social pressure a lot of us feel, to “keep up with the Joneses” (as the old saying goes). But, we can do it. We really can.
There are two particular steps you and I can take.
The first — no surprise, with the holiday coming up later this month — is to practice thanksgiving. But not just once a year. Gratitude is a spiritual discipline, you know. The more you and I intentionally make time in our lives — in our prayer life, in particular — to thank the Lord for what we already have and enjoy, the more effectively we immunize ourselves against the spiritual illness that is overconsumption.
We have an adversary, who’s trying to cultivate in us a spirit of unease, of incompleteness, of perpetual longing for more. To practice thanksgiving is to execute a sort of judo move that throws our opponent off balance. You know how judo works, don’t you — that Japanese martial art? In judo, you take advantage of your opponent’s momentum. If your adversary rushes toward you, you don’t respond with force on force, with a collision of one body against another. No, in judo you step aside and use your opponent’s own momentum to your advantage. The regular practice of gratitude is a judo move in just that way. It’s a lot harder to let desire dominate our lives when we’re filling our empty places with gratitude.
The second step — also no surprise, with Stewardship Commitment Sunday coming up next week — is to practice generosity. To commit ourselves to generous giving, in support of the work of Jesus Christ, is truly countercultural, in some beautiful and powerful ways. It may not seem that way at first — in fact, a suddenly higher level of generosity can bring on feelings of fear, fear of not having enough — but take my word for it, if you take the risk, those feelings will quickly dissipate. They dissipate because generosity brings joy of a deeper and more sustainable sort than any fleeting act of consumption could ever do.
The trick is, that joy may not be so obvious the first time around: because the deepest joy comes from generosity sustained over time. A multitude of psychological studies have confirmed this: that generous people are happy people. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re generous because they’re happy (which is the conventional wisdom). It means just the opposite: they’re happy because they’re generous!
In order to experience such deep and abiding joy in the Lord, you and I need to take a leap of faith: faith that the Lord will bless us in and through our giving. Indeed, God will do it: because our Lord’s promises are trustworthy, and true.
Let us pray:
So often our senses are dazzled, Lord,
our desires inflamed
by incessant voices that tell us our lives are incomplete.
Teach us, instead,
through disciplines of gratitude and generosity,
that it is only your love in Jesus Christ that makes our lives complete:
the love we experience most fully by giving it away.
In the name of our generous Lord Jesus we pray, Amen.
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.