Going Deeper 9-30-19

From our Epistle reading, 1 Timothy 6, these words: “But 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.  Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For 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.”  Thus far our text.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
For legalistic preachers this collection of texts is right in their wheelhouse, especially as they anticipate the approach of budget-setting in their congregations.  With these Scriptures in hand, they can try again to improve the financial giving of their members, seeking to get more and more people to reach the level of tithing… which for the wealthy is really not that big of a deal, while for young families and singles and others it can involve huge sacrifices!  
There is plenty of fuel here for fire and brimstone, and I would be doing you a great disservice to ignore these challenging texts.  As a matter of fact, I believe most preachers actually end up soft-pedaling here, with their goal of moving folks toward tithing falling short of the kinds of radical teachings we have heard, especially in our recent Gospel readings from Luke.
Here is a summary of what this section of Luke covers: Jesus starts off suggesting that His followers ought to invite the poor and the outcasts to their feasts rather than their elite friends and family in hopes they might return the invitation.  In the story of the rich ruler, in chapter 18 Jesus told him to sell all of his possessions and redistribute the proceeds to the poor, and soon after that a rich tax collector named Zacchaeus is moved to give away half of his possessions to the poor and make a generous restitution to those whom he had defrauded in order to get rich.
Not a whole lot of support for the theology of tithing here, is there?  Jesus in truth teaches something much more radical… the sacrificing, the letting go, of everything. 
Just like last week, the words of the prophet Amos offer a stinging indictment of those who have accumulated and/or maintained their wealth by exploiting and/or ignoring the poor.  Listen again to these words from today’s reading: Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria…  Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!  Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.  
For Amos, “the ruin of Joseph” points to the lack of both righteousness and justice… which are very closely and importantly tied together.  Those who seek to live lives which reflect a right relationship (righteousness) with God must see that this goes way beyond performing the rites and rituals of their religion, including worship and tithing.  Caring for all our fellow children of God is our calling.  In his letter, James will go so far as to say that this is true religion: “to take care of orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping oneself unstained by the world.”
For God’s children to enjoy a life of luxurious ease while the people around them lacked the basic necessities was—and continues to be—an unacceptable situation.  The Bible is quite clear on this throughout both the Old and New Testaments.
Which brings us to our text from 1 Timothy.  I will let this Scripture speak for itself.  But please note—it is the love of money, not money itself, which is a root of all kinds of evil.  When understood in the right context, wealth can become a tremendous blessing, affording those who receive it the opportunity to manage it in such a way as to be a great blessing to others.
So that is the direction I’d like to head from here.  In truth, these texts all speak judgement on self-centeredness.  That ultimately is what sin is after all, being turned in on ourselves.  Someone once quipped that sin is “I” disease, as in “it’s all about me, myself and I” disease.  That truly is a horrible way to live… horrible because of its negative impact on us, and also because of its horrible impact on others.
It is easy to become legalistic here.  And as always, we do need to let the Law do its work, which is making it clear to us how far we almost always fall short of practicing the kind of radical generosity/stewardship the Scriptures call for.  For many of us, these words might create within us an experience of guilt and perhaps even shame.
But, as always, I am going to tell you what you can do with your guilt and shame… the same thing I do with mine: leave it at the cross.  Let go it.  That’s no way to live.
And it is also, at least in my view, no way to preach either.  I could try to capitalize on any guilt or shame you might experience as you hear these texts, telling you that it is time to shape up lest you might be shipped out.  I could try to tell you that real Christians tithe—which strikes me as missing the point.  In light of what we have heard today, 10% is truly inadequate.
If we really were going to fulfill the Law, or if we were truly 100% Christ-like, we’d practice a much more radical kind of stewardship than tithing.  We would consider selling all we have and giving it to the poor, or at least would follow the example of Zacchaeus and give away half of our personal wealth.  Or maybe we would even conclude that we need to follow Jesus’ example and sacrifice our very lives for the good of others.   
The probably with legalistic preaching and teaching is that it works... sort of.  People can be manipulated by guilt, but we’ll never be transformed by it.  True transformation happens within the context of a love-saturated, grace-based, gratitude-producing relationship with our Abba Father, our Savior and Brother Jesus, all inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God.
In that context, we can hear and heed Jesus’ calling to follow Him, and to increasingly practice His kind of self-sacrificing, radically generous, compassionate serving of others rather than ourselves.  We come to see this as truly the best way to live, the most meaningful and truly joy-producing way to live.  The truth is, if we are not growing in our understanding and practicing of a radical kind of stewardship, then we’re missing out on the joy of compassionate generosity.  
Finally, please understand that I am calling us to grow in our stewardship of the time, talent, and treasure God has entrusted to us.  There is so much more ministry we can do here at Zion as more and more of the members of this family in Christ manage their gifts in ways which reflect the heart, mind, and spirit of Jesus.  But my hope and prayer is that this happens organically, not because you feel guilty or ashamed of fearful.
Guilt and shame are gone, covered by amazing grace.  In gratitude for grace and moved by the unconditional love and mercy of God, I invite you to choose to join together in following Jesus.