Nothing In, Nothing Out, But What About In Between?
I Timothy 6:3-12
Today is Dedication Day at Orlando’s First Presbyterian Church and so I’m going to preach about money. I don’t do it often, but I’m going to do it today. It’s like the panhandler in New York who approached a man on the street and asked him for ten dollars. The man, surprised at the size of the request asked the beggar how he expected to obtain gifts on that scale? Said the panhandler “I am putting all of my begs in one asking|” Well, that’s what I’m about today. I am putting all my begs in one asking.
But I want to do that in the right way. I do not want to be coercive or manipulative in my approach. I heard about a preacher at stewardship time who, before the service, was speaking to the church organist. He said, “When I finish my stewardship sermon I’ll ask for all of those in the congregation who want to make a pledge to the church budget to stand up. In the meantime, you provide appropriate music.” The organist asked, “What do you mean by appropriate music?” The preacher said, “Play the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’”
Well, I do not want to trick you into pledging. I do not want to force you into giving. I do not want to plunge you into guilt about stewardship. But I do want you to know what the Bible says about money. It’s actually very good news. To show you what I mean, I want us to focus on the sixth chapter of the first letter Paul wrote to his young “son in the faith”, Timothy.
The first thing that Paul says to Timothy is that money itself is not good or evil.
Money is lifeless. It has no value in and of itself, and it plays no role in determining our worth and value as human beings. Paul puts it this way, “We brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything out of the world.”
We understand that. We enter this world possessing nothing but the breath of life and we leave without even that! I heard about the time a town’s wealthiest citizen died and a curious man was trying to find out from a local attorney how much the wealthy man had been worth. “How much did he leave?” this nosy fellow asked the attorney. Replied the clever attorney, “All of it.” Nothing in, nothing out. We come into this world with nothing and we leave with nothing. Therefore, money is neutral when it comes to determining our worth as human beings.
And money is neutral in determining morality. The widow, you will remember from Scripture, offered her mite, her last bit of money, as an offering to God in the Temple. Judas, on the other hand, received thirty pieces of silver for selling out his Lord. But notice, please, that neither the widow’s mite nor the traitor’s silver were in and of themselves morally good or evil. Money itself has no virtue or lack of virtue.
But Paul is careful to note that if we have enough money for food and clothing, then we shall be content. So while money is not that which determines the value of our existence, it is necessary for us to have some money in order to experience some of the contentments and comforts of life. The message is that working in order to obtain money in life is a part of our experience between birth and death. Poverty, you see, is not a Christian ideal. Sometimes you may encounter some wonderful, well-meaning people who will imply that as Christians we ought to wear sackcloth and sandals and give away everything we have, living what might be called a monastic life. I am sure of their sincerity, but I am not sure of their theology. The New Testament offers no such call. Instead we are told to work to earn money. And then we are told to keep enough money to be able to maintain ourselves in contentment and comfort.
So money matters. It is useful. But it is not the most important thing in life. We come into the world without it and we shall leave without it. What is important, according to Paul, is that between our coming and our going, what do we do with the money that is ours while we are here.
Now the second thing Paul says to Timothy is that the love of money makes money evil.
Paul acknowledges in his passage that money matters, but then he warns us that it can matter too much. Listen to what he says, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge man into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evil; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.” In other words, there are some people who, when they are successful at gaining money, begin to put their faith in money rather than in God.
You have heard the name Horatio Alger. He wrote many, many stories, most of which were variations on a single theme. They always featured a downtrodden individual who by dint of hard work raises himself up, makes a lot of money and lives the rest of his life on Easy Street. In a sense Horatio Alger’s stories were a reflection of his own life. He was born in poverty, and his childhood was further marred by asthma. He had a severe and cruel father whose beatings led young Alger to stuttering. However, the boy worked hard at school and ultimately worked his way through Harvard. He then worked for twelve long years before he had his first novel published. But that novel was a success and from then on he produced seven novels a year. The theme of all those novels was the same: If you work hard enough, you will have money, and you will end up on Easy Street. But the fact is that Horatio Alger died flat broke and miserable. The reason he died in such abject circumstances was that he came to believe his thesis so completely that he put his ultimate confidence in what he himself could do and earn with hard work. In the end that was not enough.
So Paul says that when people put their faith in themselves and in their money it leads sooner or later to ruin and destruction. We know, for example, that alcoholism and drug abuse and suicide are more common amongst the affluent than they are amongst the poor. That’s because money leads people to focus so much upon themselves that they literally bring themselves to the place of self destruction. Let me express it this way. If you take a pane of glass you can see clearly through it, but paint one side of that glass with silver and you can no longer see through it. It becomes a mirror. All you can see is yourself. That’s the way silver and gold can narrow our focus and keep us from seeing things clearly in life.
Leo Tolstoy has a story about a man who inherited his father’s small farm. The day after he had buried his father and claimed the inheritance he encountered a mysterious stranger on the farm who said to him, “I’ll give you as much land to add to this small farm as you can walk around before the sun sets tonight.” The man saw this as a great opportunity. So he started at his father’s grave intending to walk six miles in each direction, thus chopping off for himself a six mile square. But when he got to the end of the first six miles, he felt so fresh and strong that he decided to up it to fifteen miles. He would thus get so much more land. He then turned and headed out fifteen miles to the east, followed by fifteen more miles to the south. Of course, he was hurrying so much that he took no time for food, water, or rest.
As he turned west for the last fifteen mile leg the sun was getting low in the sky. He began to run. His breath was growing shorter. His chest was constricting. Closer, closer. He could see the finish line ahead with the mysterious stranger standing there. He reached the spot just as the sun set, but then he had a heart attack and fell dead, right beside his father’s grave. Tolstoy, then has the mysterious stranger speak these words. “I promised you as much ground as you could cover in one day—six feet long and two feet wide.” The man destroyed himself in pursuit of the things of this world. That’s what Paul means when he says that the love of money makes money evil.
But the last thing Paul says to Timothy is that the love of God makes money good.
In other words, if we use the money we have as an expression of faith in God, then we are going to experience what Paul calls the “life which is life indeed.” The secret, he tells Timothy is to “aim at righteousness” and “to be rich in good deeds.” George Fox, the founder of the Quaker tradition, defined righteousness like this “Righteousness is to have a thirst for the love of God and a thirst to love others.” Righteousness is a double thirst. It is the desire to love God and to love others in God’s name.
The two philosophers who contributed the most to the rise of communism were Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx. They were wrong in just about everything they said, as we are seeing now. But they were never more wrong than when they said that no Christian could ever care about anyone else—they were so intent on reaching heaven, that they were willing to trample on anyone else to get there. What a fallacy! The fact is that only a person who loves God can understand that the way you love God is to love others in God’s name. That’s what Paul was driving at when he told Timothy to aim at righteousness and be rich in good deeds.
That’s what we do in this church. We aim at righteousness and we are rich in good deeds, but even at that, we are not yet all that God wants us to be. I love the story about the black preacher. Black preachers are the best preachers of all because of the way they work their congregations. And this preacher was warming up to his subject, taking his congregation with him. He said, “Brothers and sisters, this church ought to get up and run.” An old deacon down in front, backing his preacher up, cried “Amen, get up and run.” The preacher with a little more “oomph” said, “Brothers and sisters, this church ought to rise up and fly.” “Amen,” cried the deacon, “rise up and fly.” Building to a fever pitch the preacher then thundered, “But brothers and sisters, it will take money to make this church run. It will take money to make it fly.” The old deacon slumped down and said, “Amen, let’s walk.”
Well, my beloved, I don’t believe we are called to walk in this church. I believe we are called to run and fly. We aren’t here to maintain, not in a city where more than 50% of the people owe no allegiance to Jesus Christ. We aren’t here to hold the ground we’ve already won; we are here to advance the kingdom of our Lord. We are not here to survive, we are here to succeed in the cause of Jesus Christ. And in order to succeed, it’s going to require the very best we have to offer. There’s a little poem that says it for me:
So give to the needy
Sweet charity’s bread
For giving is living
The angel said,
But must I keep giving
Again and again?
My peevish and pitiless
Curt answer ran.
“Oh no,” said the angel
Piercing me through
Just give till the Master
Stops giving to you.
May the Lord bless the gifts we shall give to His church. And may He bless this simple witness which I offer in his name.