Tag: money

Who Do You Trust?

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The epistle reading for today is Colossians 1:15-23. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae contrasting the good news of Jesus with the claims of the first century Roman empire.

In their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, authors Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat contend that Colossians contrasts the violence, inhumanity, and corruption of the Roman empire with the new imagination of Christian community centered around Christ.

As a Roman outpost, Colossae participated in the emperor cult which asserted that the emperor was the son of god and the deity around which the universe revolved. The Roman empire was also the undisputed example of political organization and military might. From Rome’s dominance came what was ironically called the Pax Romana — the Roman peace. However, the Roman peace was secured with overwhelming violence against those nations and city-states Roman legions pacified by force.

Paul challenges the ideas of the emperor’s supremacy, the empire’s legitimacy, and the Pax Romana with the assertion that Christ is the image of God, the creator of all things, the sustainer of the universe, the first-born from the dead, the head of a new community called the church, and the true prince of peace.

The point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was to contrast the misplaced confidence they formerly had in the Roman empire with the new hope they found in Christ. Prior to following Christ as Lord, the Colossians had placed their trust in the Empire for their security, happiness, and fulfillment.

Today millions have misplaced their trust, too. If Paul were writing the letter to the Colossians today, he might contrast the trust we place in power, money, and technology with the supremacy of Christ.

Power is still the currency of international relationships. Mao Zedong said, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That philosophy is shared by virtually all of the nation-states on the world stage today. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on earth, countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others project the power they have in order to influence international events. Just as the Roman empire used its military, economic, and political power to shape the course of history, nations continue to be seduced by the promise of power today.

The second member of our illegitimate trinity is money. China is relocating 325-million peasants — rural farmers — into newly-created cities. Why? Because China’s economy, according to the IMF and other economists, doesn’t have enough consumerism. The key to growth in the Chinese economy in the near future, economists say, is creating a new class of consumers who will buy TVs, refrigerators, cell phones, and cars. In a world where one billion people live on less than $1 a day, money is a seductive force, often coupled with power.

However, a new player has entered the arena as a close partner to power and money. Both power and the quest for money are being driven by technology. We now have the technology to instantly deliver books, newspapers, and magazines to personal computers, tablets, or mobile phones. In  2007 Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the iPhone and revolutionized the mobile phone industry. Today over 5 billion cell phones are in service, and 1 billion of those are smart phones.

The NSA surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden showed us that the US now possesses and uses advanced technology to track every telephone call, email, and cell phone location everywhere in the world; scan those communications for suspicious links to suspicious characters; track users by location; and, know who everyone everywhere in the world is talking to and what they are talking about.

Technology is our Pax Romana — both the new security savior and cyber weapon in our war to be safe from terrorism. Our trust in technology compels us to give out our credit card information, our personal history, our family and friend connections, the schools we attended, our workplace, our daily routines, even where we eat, shop, and travel. Why? Because we cannot live without the always-on, always-available world at our fingertips. We depend on technology for friendships, for commerce, for security, and even for our faith (yes, there are online churches and faith groups). Increasingly, we give away our own privacy in pursuit of friends, followers, page views, and search rankings.

But power has not brought peace, consumerism has not brought satisfaction, and technology has not brought with it the authentic life we yearn to live.

We have separated our faith from our function as human beings, believing that we, too, can place absolute trust in power, money, and technology. By doing so, we are letting those things shape us.

Paul reminds us that we ought to be shaped by the radical good news that this world system, whether the Roman empire of the first century or the internet of the 21st century, are not the legitimate gods of this world. They are the pretenders, the interlopers, and the pale substitutes for that which is real.

If you want to know God, Paul says, look at Jesus. If you want to know who the creator of the world is look at Jesus. If you want to know who keeps the world turning, look at Jesus. If you want to know who’s in charge of everything, even the things that are not acting according to God’s plan, look at Jesus.

If you want to know where real peace comes from look at Jesus.

Despite the fact that misplaced trust in power, money, and technology are found in every culture on every continent, Paul says the good news about Jesus is also ubiquitous.

The question then becomes: Who do you trust? After all, the Roman empire is no longer a world power, is it?

Sermon: Wall Street and the Apostle Paul

Here’s the sermon I ‘m preaching tomorrow from 1 Timothy 6:6-19, titled “Wall Street and the Apostle Paul.”

Wall Street and The Apostle Paul

1 Timothy 6:6-19 NIV

6But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9People 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. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

11But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

17Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

Wall Street Meets The Apostle Paul

We’re in Paul’s first letter to young Timothy again today.  Remember last week we talked about Paul’s instruction to Timothy’s church in this letter; and his encouragement for Timothy and his church to pray for everybody when they gathered, and everybody included the emperor and all who were in positions of governmental leadership.

Well, today we have another timely topic straight from this letter of Paul to Timothy.  The entire letter of 1 Timothy is, as we noted last week, instruction to Timothy on how to handle various situations in his church.  Today we come to the topic of money.  And we find out that human nature hasn’t changed that much.

In a kind of Wall-Street-meets-Saint-Paul mashup, Paul speaks not only to first century concerns about how Christians should deal with money, but also 21st century concerns.  I’m picking on Wall Street today a little because I was horrified when the chairman of Goldman-Sachs said that his investment bank was “doing God’s work.” And, amazingly he said that in the midst of the world’s financial crisis, right before his firm paid millions of dollars in bonuses to some of the same people that helped create the crisis.  But, my point is that Goldman-Sachs illustrates the very thing Paul is telling Timothy to avoid — the love of, and misuse, of money.

But, we really can’t pick on Wall Street too much today because Paul is writing about Christians, not Roman citizens in general.  Paul could no more control the greed of first century Rome than we can control the greed of those who deal in millions each day on the world’s financial markets.  Interestingly, some of the richest people of Paul’s day were politicians, so things haven’t changed.  But back to this business of Christians and money.

Of course, Jesus said a lot about money and possessions to his followers.  Jesus said things like “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” and “don’t worry about what you’re going to wear or eat because God clothes the grass of the field and feeds the birds of the air.”

And, Jesus indicated that we are to be good stewards — “give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”  Of course, everything is God’s which was Jesus’ point that day, I believe.

But here we come to some really practical advice for how a young pastor is to deal with money and with people who have money, people who are rich.  So, let’s take a look at Paul’s advice to a young pastor on the subject of money.

The Gospel Isn’t A Get-Rich-Quick Scheme

We have to go back and pick up a couple of verses that precede what we read in today’s lectionary reading for this to make as much sense as it should.  Here’s what Paul has said before verse 6 —

“If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” – 1 Timothy 6:3-5 NIV

The first thing Paul wants Timothy to know is that the Gospel isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme.  Apparently there were those who were teaching and preaching false doctrine, and thought that because they were preachers, they deserved to get rich.

And, we have the same problem today.  I recently watched a YouTube video of a Baptist pastor explaining to his megachurch congregation that their church didn’t really own its own private jet, as the local TV station had reported.  “No,” he said, “we just lease it.”  And of course, from time to time they had to charter other private jets to fly the pastor various places in the world.

Then there was the incident when the head of a major missions agency was flown to London for the premiere of a movie.  The tickets cost about $12,000.  Of course, the movie had a Christian theme, but it still boggles the mind.

Rich preachers and ministries have even attracted the attention of the United States Congress.  Conservative Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, in 2007, announced an investigation into the finances of six major TV evangelists — Bennie Hinn, Paula White, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland.  Only 3 of the 6 replied, and the others cited constitutional arguments against complying with the Senate Finance Committee’s request.  It is the same Eddie Long who is now in the news accused of inappropriate physical relationships with young men in his congregation, traveling on worldwide trips where they stayed in luxury hotels.

Creflo Dollar, appropriately named, preaches a gospel of prosperity, and drives a Rolls-Royce.  He said, according to Bloomberg BusinessNews,

“But when your church congregation — 20,000 at that time — come to you and say, “Pastor, we want you to drive the best,” I’m not going to turn that down. It would be a dishonor to the people that gave it to me.”

And even mainline churches are not exempt.  The famous Riverside Church in New York, where Harry Emerson Fosdick preached, the church founded by John D. Rockefeller, lost their pastor last year because some members of the congregation didn’t think he should make over $600,000 per year.

So, this isn’t just a first century problem.  It’s a human nature problem.

The Real Source of Contentment

Paul says that the real source of contentment is “godliness.”  That’s the great gain that Timothy needs to look for, not an increase in his 401K.  Paul goes on to say that if we have food on the table and clothes on our backs, then that’s enough.  Of course, it isn’t in today’s world, but Paul is talking about the necessities of life, the basics.  Which sounds very much like Jesus’ reminder that God clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds.  Again, food and clothes, and we’re content.

And why should we be content with food and clothes?  Two reasons:  1) we didn’t bring anything into the world; and, 2) we aren’t taking anything out.  And in verse 17, Paul says,

“17Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

Again, echoing the words of Jesus, “Put your hope in God,” Paul says, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

Who Are These Rich People Paul Is Talking About?

But we need to pay close attention here, because there is something we must not miss.  We must not miss the people Paul is talking about.  Paul says, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant or put their hope in wealth…”

Remember that Paul is telling young Timothy how to manage the church, how to deal with church folks.  Paul is talking about rich church members in Timothy’s church.

And guess who that includes?  Us.  All of us.  Me, you, your neighbor sitting beside you today, the choir, everybody here.  We’re all rich.

Of course, we may not feel that rich.  But compared to the first century, we are extremely rich.  And compared to the rest of the world, we are absolutely rich.  And that’s what Americans are known for — being rich.

When I was working in China a lot, the factory in Nantong that I was working with sent their chief electronics engineer to the United States for a 3-week trip.  It was my job to pick him up at the airport, and then spend the next three weeks traveling with him in the U.S. to visit our customers.

I remember picking him up when he arrived at Chicago’s Midway airport.  I had flown from Nashville to meet him there, and I had hired a car to take us to our hotel.  That’s pretty standard practice out of Midway, and you usually get a Lincoln Towncar.  But that night we got a stretch limo for the same price.

When Mr. Gu got in the limo, he looked at me and said, “America, number one!” And then he asked me to take his picture sitting in the back of this luxurious car.

So, that’s what we’re known for around the world.  When I was in Hong Kong, I ate at a restaurant called Dan Ryan’s.  Dan Ryan’s was a Chicago-style restaurant that served good ole American food.  After a couple of weeks in China I was ready for something familiar, and Dan Ryan’s was famous for barbecued ribs.

But as a disclaimer to their Hong Kong patrons, the restaurant had this warning printed on its menu — “We serve American portions.”  Which meant, “sit back because you’re about to get a lot of food!”

So, we’re the rich church members Paul is talking about and talking to.  What should we do with our comparative wealth?

Rich in Good Deeds, Generous, Willing To Share

Here’s what Paul says to Timothy about his rich church members:

18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

We’re to do good with what God has given us.  Now that sounds pretty simple, but let me tell you a story to put a human face on how hard this might be.

Chris Heuertz and his wife are the International Directors of Word Made Flesh, a Christian organization that ministers with the poor in 11 developing countries.  On a visit to India, Chris and his wife were in the home of an Indian family.  Sujana, one of the daughters in the family,  noticed Chris’s red-checked shirt.  She said that she had stitched a shirt just like that in the factory where she worked.

She asked Chris if she could see the label.  Sure enough, it said, “Made in India.”  With some pride, Sujana explained that her factory made his shirt.  Then she asked Chris how much the shirt cost in the United States.  It was a shirt Chris bought at The Gap.

Embarrassed, he told her it cost $40.  Forty dollars was more than Sujana made in an entire month.  She earned less than $1 a day, working 10-hours a day, 6-days a week.  And it took her income combined with her brothers and sisters, and her mother and father to eke out a meager livelihood in their village.

Chris said he recalled the words from Isaiah, “The plunder of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?”  Those words from Isaiah 3:14 convicted Chris of his misuse of money.

Chris decided that he would buy stock in The Gap, hoping it would go up, so he could give the profits to Sujana and her family.  Unfortunately, the stock went down, and Chris lost money.

But then he decided that he would impose on himself a Personal Retail Equality Tax — he called it a PRET tax — everytime he bought clothes from a store that he knew Sujana’s factory supplied. So, he added 12% to the purchase price of each item, then banked the money.  At the end of each year, Chris sends the money to Sujana’s family.  This has enabled them to move into a home with indoor plumbing and to send some of their children for further education.*

My point in telling that story is this — how we handle what we have, our wealth, demonstrates our contentment with godliness, or our attachment to our stuff.

I like Paul’s advice to Timothy — “tell people to be rich in good deeds, generous, willing to share.”  That’s good advice to us rich Christians.

* This story is from Friendship at the Margins by Chris Heuertz and Christine Pohl.