Monday, September 27, 2010

Taking the blinders off of our faith

Tomorrow we will resume regular blogging activities, and resume our focus on the daily lectionary.  But for today, I thought I would share with you the message I shared at Good Shepherd yesterday.  The scripture references, which really should be read first, are 1Tim. 6: 6-19 & Luke 16:19-31 and can be found here:
As always thanks for reading, and I would love to here thoughts, feed back or anything else. . . .

As I was preparing for our worship service this morning, and specifically this message, one question kept going through my mind.  I had lots of thoughts about what to say and important points that I wanted to make, but they all seemed disjointed until I began to look at this one question.  The question is a simple one: (holding up a dollar bill used during the children’s sermon) Why do we want this?  What is so important and valuable about this piece of paper? 
Of course our answers might vary a little bit – I might want to be able to afford to buy one thing, and you another.  One of us might think first about providing for their family while another would think about financial ‘security’.  If we were to be given a million dollars this morning, what we did with it might vary a bit from person to person, but I think all of our efforts would be intended to get us to the same goal . 
I think the reason we strive after, work for and focus on money is because we need that money to get whatever our definition of a ‘good’ or full or ‘whole’ life might be.   Simply put we all want to get as close as possible to our own definition of the good life (whatever that looks like: financial security, a nice house, fashionable clothes, a fast car) and it seems pretty hard to get anywhere close to this good life (and the things in it) without some cold, hard, cash.
But God has a different economy and in 1Timothy 6, we get the privilege of reading the words of a older disciple of Christ – who had lived his life for Christ – to a young disciple just starting out.  And the author is trying to clearly communicate that money is not the means to the ‘good and full life’ that we all, instinctively and innately seek.
It is easy, I think, to read passages from Luke – like ours this morning – and passages from 1Timothy and start to think that money or wealth is inherently bad – I don’t think this is what is being said at all.  This  much is clear, just by reading the end of the 1Timothy passage, which is advice to those in Timothy’s congregation that happen to find themselves in a position of plenty – there is no condemnation, no unilateral call to sell all of their possessions and sell them to the poor.  Instead there is simple advice  to them about how they might ‘take hold of what is truly life’
There are two ‘sound bites’ or well known phrases from the 1Timothy passage: ‘you didn’t bring anything into the world, so you can’t take anything out of it.’ And, ‘The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil’
From those two phrases it is tempting (or maybe even obvious) to think that the passage is all about money and the dangers of it.  When you add in the parable from Luke 16 about the ‘rich man’ and Lazarus it is even more tempting to think the whole sermon is going to be about money and the dangers of it.
Well, I don’t think the 1Timothy passage is ‘all about’ money and this sermon isn’t either.  The passage from 1Timothy and this message, instead, are all about what we see and what we focus on.  Or rather what we are able or unable to see because of where our focus is. 
Our passage begins with an interesting statement: Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy with what you already have.  Money is not an ‘evil’ and can sometimes be a source of profit.  But, it seems, only when combined with being satisfied with what you already have. 
The contentment with what we already have is a critical component to what we are to learn and understand about wealth and money  - and happiness.  Because if we are happy, content or satisfied with what we have then there is no reason to focus on, worry about or be motivated by the accumulation of money.
And it is that ‘accumulation’ part that is key.  It is the amassing, hording or excessive accumulation of wealth (or I think by extension the things that you buy with that wealth) that is the danger. 
It is the focus on becoming ‘rich’ that according to 1Timothy leads to temptation and ‘stupid and harmful’ passions that lead down the path to ruin and destruction. 
When money is your goal, you will cause yourself lots of unnecessary pain, and you may even lose your faith.  But if your goal is to follow and serve God.  To become an ambassador for Jesus Christ in this world, and you happen to have material wealth here are the words for you:      
Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. 19 When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life.
These are words – I think – for all of us.  Because comparatively we are all ‘rich’.  And in today’s passage seeking after wealth has a very clear point of demarcation: striving after more than you need (defined literally as food & clothing).  So if we have more than that – more than food to eat and clothes to wear we are, to some degree at least, rich.
As the richly blessed we are reminded of the dangers on putting our hope anywhere but in Christ.  And we are then encouraged to be rich in generosity with what we have been given, to be rich in doing good things for others and to be rich in sharing.  We are told that this – not money or things or ‘security’ or anything else – is the way to live into a full, whole and ‘good’ life.
But how do we do it, how do we become rich in doing good, in sharing and in generosity?  I believe it begins with what we are focusing on.  Are we focusing on God or on other things? 
When we focus on something like wealth, popularity or status, accumulating things acquiring titles and positions  - or even good things like our careers, school, friendships, anything but Jesus Christ its like we are putting blinders on.
That’s a phrase we use ‘putting blinders on’ but is important to understand what it means.  ‘Blinders’ are pieces of material put around the eyes of horses, so that all of their vision – except what is right in front of them -  is blocked out or blinded.  All they can see is what they are focused on and what’s straight ahead of them.
When we are focused on money or fame or power, or any good thing but Jesus Christ, eventually it gets us into trouble because that is all we can see.  But when we focus on God, when we focus on Jesus Christ and put him squarely in our line of sight and at the center of our lives the Holy Spirit removes the blinders from our eyes and allows us to see the connection we have with our brothers and sisters – God’s children – around us. 
With the blinders off – and our eyes open to the world as God sees it isn’t hard to see the need in our personal relationships, in our communities and in our world.   With the blinders off we can see the many places where the gifts God has given us (material, personality, skills) are needed and where we have the opportunity to serve others by sharing what God has given us.
We see the dangers of not ‘seeing’ those around us in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke 16.  When we read this parable, I think we – I know I do – read into it some sort of value judgment on to the characters in the story.  We think or assume that Lazarus did something to ‘deserve’ his place in heaven at Abraham’s side and that the rich man too was deserving of his place of suffering and torment. 
This is not what First century hearers of this parable would have assumed.  On the contrary, wealth in the ancient world was often viewed as a sign of divine favor, while poverty was viewed as evidence of sin.  The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that, during his earthly life, he did not even “see” Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home.
The first time the rich man ever really sees Lazarus is when, from Hades “he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side” (verse 23)
In that way he is like those who pass by the man in the ditch in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. They “see” and cross the road. The Samaritan is the only one who “sees,” “has compassion,” and crosses the road to help the wounded man. The rich man, in his stepping over Lazarus, is like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan parable.
This sequence of seeing, having compassion, and acting is a common one in the Gospels. In Luke 7:13 Jesus “saw” the woman weeping at the death of her only son, he “had compassion for her” and brought her son to life. When the father “saw” the prodigal son “still far off… he was filled with compassion” and ran and embraced him (Luke 15:20)
Matthew and Mark repeatedly tell us that Jesus himself, when he “saw” the crowds, had compassion on them and healed, fed and taught them (Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; Mark 6:34; 8:2) 
In the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:14-46, what makes some blessed is the fact that, though they didn’t realize it, in seeing the poor and helping them they saw and helped Jesus. By contrast others never really did see Jesus suffering and in need because they never really saw the poor.
God calls us to focus on him, putting a relationship with Jesus Christ at the very center of who we are.  And when we do this the Holy Spirit removes those blinders that have been covering our eyes so that we can see the work in our own lives, in our communities and in the world that needs done.
The Good news of the gospel this day is that by focusing on God we begin to see the world around us as God sees it giving us incredible opportunities to become rich in sharing, in doing good and in generosity.  And that is a wealth that leads to a whole, full and very good life.

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