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What brings all this to attention this morning is a report on NBC News last Sunday night. The broadcast began with the devastation of Hurricane Wilma in Cancun and Cozumel, the threat of the hurricane to Florida as it continued its inexorable advance, then more bad news from the war in Iraq, the world-wide concern over a possible horrible epidemic brought on by this new strain of bird flu, then finally a story that noted that retailers have begun their Christmas merchandising earlier than normal this year because they figure that once the reality of what it is going to cost us to heat our homes hits us this winter, everyone will be afraid to spend anything. This annual gathering of the unneeded for the unneedy has to begin NOW!!! Ah, the almighty dollar...and never more almighty than at this time of the year.
Now before you begin squirming in the pews, thinking that this is going to be one more sermon bashing you about the fact that you have more than you need while there are poor people in the world who are starving, let me ease your mind - that is not what this is about. Nor will this be an appeal to give money to the church - you know what you ought to be doing and I expect that you will do it. Consecration Sunday is two weeks from today. Rather, I want us to look at what the Bible says about money with an eye toward a proper use of what we have been given to get us to the exalted stage of "Godliness with contentment" of which the Apostle Paul speaks. Emerson once said, "Things are in the saddle and riding mankind," and we know that ought not to be. By the grace of God, perhaps we can come up with a plan to reverse that this year.
The first thing to say is that the Bible does not teach money as either a virtue or a vice. It is simply a medium of exchange, the oil that lubricates the wheels of society. Jesus never equated holiness with being broke. Christianity does not now and nor ever has advocated poverty. There is no special virtue in being poor, and certainly no happiness in constantly struggling to make ends meet.
I recall reading of the fellow who was annoyed when a definitely intoxicated man boarded a bus at a late hour and slumped into the seat right beside him. The passenger's apprehension increased when the drunk asked thickly, "Got any money?" Seeking to head off a "touch," the man replied brusquely, "No." Giving him a long look, the inebriated one leaned forward and intoned loftily, "I should try to get some if I were you. You would find it very useful."
We know that is true. Money can do all sorts of wonderful things. Besides feeding and clothing us, it pays for schools, hospitals, churches, missions, scientific research - the list is endless. Money can be put to fine and noble uses.
Of course, we know that the opposite is also true. I have a fascinating book in my library called Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on our Civil Religion, which, by its title, says a mouthful about our values. It was written by Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper's Magazine. In it he noted that some years ago, he made a study of about fifty families that had accumulated substantial holdings prior to 1900. Following the descent of the money through the lines of inheritance to the year 1960, he noticed that with relatively few exceptions, the lives of the heirs were marked by alcoholism, suicide, drug addiction, insanity and despair. Only a handful achieved, or even bothered to attempt, distinction in anything. For the most part, he says, "they squandered the spoils in gestures of spectacular dissolution."(1) Sad.
We have always heard that "Money can't buy happiness." In some ways having money apparently contributes to UNhappiness. Lapham writes, "Among both men and women the incidence of marital infidelity rises with an increase in income. Of the married men earning $20,000 a year (and this book is about 20 years old, by the way), only 31% conducted extracurricular love affairs; of the men earning more than $60,000, [the figure was] 70%."(2) Hmmm.
Jesus knew that having money can create problems. He regarded money and possessions as the primary obstacles to a relationship with God. Think of the Rich Young Ruler who was so possessed by his possessions that he could not bear to give them up even for the sake of eternal life.(3) Or remember Jesus' story of the rich man who selfishly ignored the plight of the starving Lazarus and ended up consigned to eternal torment.(4) Or recall the Lord's words about the wealthy farmer who figured he had it made - he would build big barns to hold all his goods, then eat and drink and take his ease; he was secure. But the Lord said, "You fool, this night shall your life be required of you. Then to whom will all this belong?"(5) Or that line that is so-often quoted: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."(6) Money can create problems, and apparently, the more you have, the more problems there are.
Enron, Worldcom, Tyco. Billions of dollars looted by avaricious executives. How many yachts does one person really need? We are talking about greed of unprecedented proportions. Remember the name Ivan Boesky? Convicted of insider trading back in the '80's. Boesky blamed his predicament on a too passionate love of money, "a sickness I have in the face of which I am helpless."(7) The Romans had a proverb: "Money is like sea-water; the more a man drinks, the thirstier he becomes."
Our scripture lesson addresses the problem. "Godliness with CONTENTMENT is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction," and a glance at any newspaper will verify it.
"Godliness with contentment." Where does such contentment come from? I believe the only way we will ever become totally content with what we have is to come to the realization that we do not HAVE anything. We are stewards, managers, of that certain portion of this world's goods over which God has given us TEMPORARY charge. And I emphasize the word TEMPORARY. Someone asked when Howard Hughes died, "How much did he leave?" And the response was, "All of it." Alexander the Great inherited one empire and conquered another. The wealth of both East and West was his. Yet he asked that at his death his hands be left unwrapped and open for all to see that they were empty. We are temporary stewards.
The key to contentment in that role I think is found in one ancient but dishonored word...TITHE. As you know, the tithe is ten percent of income. The concept of the tithe goes back to the earliest pages of the Old Testament and was God's way of reminding us that we are here as managers - ownership belongs to God. The deal was that we could keep ninety percent of the proceeds of our efforts for our own use - we were told to return just ten percent. It was not that God needed the money - it was all God's anyway and God could take every penny in a skinny minute. The tithe was simply a reminder of the source of our wealth. It was an extremely generous offer. Unfortunately, people then and now have done all they could to steal that ten percent from the "Boss" and the result is the feeling of discontent with our lot that leads to the troubles we experience.
Christie and I were at a pre-retirement seminar at the beginning of this past week put on by the Board of Pensions of our Presbyterian Church (USA). It was an incredibly valuable experience for those of us who are looking forward to that eventuality in the not-too-distant future. It dealt with a wide range of issues - housing, health, relationships, and, of course, finances. I was intrigued to note that at the beginning of the section that dealt with Savings and Investments, the instruction was "Pay your tithe...FIRST."(8) Good advice. For retirees or anyone.
Now, I realize that when most folks hear the word TITHE they automatically think of giving to the church. But if you recall, I said at the beginning of this that giving to the church is not what this message is about. (I will be pleased to preach about that some other day.) The TITHE is the subject; the object is that phrase from our lesson - "Godliness with contentment." Setting aside the tithe is not simply a financial issue, it is a spiritual issue - this is God's standard, and this is GOD's money, not ours. The question is will we be obedient or not? If we are, we will find contentment. We are always more content when we know we are doing what we ought to do.
Now, I am painfully aware that most folks would prefer to get Godliness with contentment in some other way. After all, the most sensitive nerve in the American body is the one attached to the pocketbook. According to statistics, American households give away only about two percent of income per year for charitable purposes about half of which goes through religious organizations for the work of God in the world.
As you know, my interest in tithing is not new. I believe in it; I practice it; I advocate it. I give my entire tithe to the church; other charitable contributions are over and above. I plan to continue that. But for those of you who have not been able to get to that yet (and I have talked to a number of you who have said that you want to do better), I am going to suggest something that might lead to the "Godliness with contentment" that our lesson talks about. I am going to suggest that you set up a separate TITHE ACCOUNT with your bank. As you make deposits to your regular account, make one to the Tithe account. Then as opportunities for giving arise - to the church or United Way or Red Cross or hurricane relief or whatever - you will have the funds available and ready to put to work. I will suggest (against my better judgment) that at least half of it go to the church - no other organization does so much of lasting good; the rest measure out as the Lord leads.
You are, no doubt, familiar with the name of William Gladstone, one of the great Prime Ministers of England in the last century. Gladstone kept his tithe in a separate account and said, "The greatest advantage of making a little fund of this kind is that when we are asked to give, the competition is not between self on the one hand and charity on the other, but between the different purposes of religion and charity with one another, among which we ought to make the most careful choice. It is desirable that the fund thus devoted should not be less than one-tenth of our means; and it tends to bring a blessing on the rest."(9) Indeed.
The one question that always comes up concerning tithing is do we base it on the gross or the net? Before taxes or after? The best response I have heard is this: "Suppose God were to change the plan for one year and, instead of asking for a tenth, were to give you an extra ten percent based upon the income which you received last year. What figure would you suggest to God to describe your income? That is the amount upon which you can reasonably be expected to tithe."(10) In other words, be as fair with God as you would expect God to be with you.
One of the things that has struck me over these past months of televised tsunamis and hurricanes is the comment that is heard from the victims of the disasters over and over and over again. As they stand there, looking over the devastation of their property, tears in their eyes, and microphones thrust in their faces, they say, "At least we still have our lives." Somehow THINGS lose importance when we are confronted with ultimate questions...life and death. If Godliness with contentment is our goal, we will keep money and possessions in perspective.
As one commentator has it,
Money in itself is neither good nor bad; it is simply dangerous in that the love of it may become bad. With money a man can do much good; and with money he can do much evil. With money a man can selfishly serve his own desires; and with money he can generously answer to the cry of his neighbor's need. With money a man can buy his way to the forbidden things and facilitate the path of wrong-doing; and with money he can make it easier for someone else to live as God meant him to live. Money is not an evil, but it is a great responsibility. Money brings power, and power is always a double-edged thing, for it is powerful to good and powerful to evil.(11)At no other time of year are we confronted more with questions about money. As that news report reminded us, in these weeks leading up to Christmas we are deluged with opportunities get rid of it - not only to merchants but to beggars, to bell-ringers, even to the church to take advantage of a tax break by the end of the year. And the result, of course, is the best chance ever to feel guilty about it. No need...if we handle what God has given us properly. Set up an account to give God what belongs to God; use the rest wisely. Then the answer to the question, "Will there ever be enough?" will be YES.
1. Lewis H. Lapham, Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on our Civil Religion, (New York, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), p. 106
2. ibid., p. 185
3. Mark 10:17-22
4. Luke 16:19-31
5. Luke 12:13-21
6. Mark 10:25
7. Lapham, p. 217
8. The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), "Growing Into Tomorrow...Today: a Pre-Retirement Seminar" Revised August, 2005, p 3-25
9. G. Ernest Thomas, Spiritual Life Through Tithing, (Nashville, Tidings, 1953), pp. 40-41
10. Quoted by Thomas, p. 38
11. William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon: Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1960), p. 152