09.25.2016 Preaching Text: “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Timothy 6:9)
One of the things that surprised me after my father died a few years ago was how I suddenly reevaluated his life – and mine. Which is to say that, in my grief, I came to appreciate him in a new way.
Specifically, I saw clearly what a positive effect he had had on me and my family. Which is not to say I didn’t appreciate him before but that I experienced a deeper, more spiritual sense of who he was.
Born into a family of pastors (his father and both grandfathers included), he knew the Great Depression and its effects well. Not that he was starving or went without basic necessities. But his family did have to take in boarders so that he could go to college.
After moving to New York following college (and before the war), he would frequently “dine” at Horn and Hardart’s Automat restaurants. I myself remember going into Manhattan as a teenager and putting a few coins in the slot and getting my meal. (There would be a whole bank of little windows that displayed various food items, similar to a vending machine.)
But unlike me, he would eat only the free bread and butter, and nothing else. For the rest of his life, and well after he had become financially secure, he would never lose his fears about money.
Returning home after the war, and due to the widespread scarcity of housing at the time, he couldn’t find an apartment in New York. My mother’s family, however, had “connections” in nearby Connecticut, so they moved there. My father was never really happy about it.
Back when I was in divinity school, a fellow student asked me where I was from. I told her. She said, “Oh, it’s so beautiful there.”
I responded by saying, “Yes, it’s sort of like living in a commercial. On the surface everything looks great, perfect even, perfect lawns, perfect people, etc., but underneath it all – oh boy!” My mother once told me there were some 65 chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous in our town alone!
Not too long ago, Linda and I drove down there to visit my mother. After only a few short hours, my mood became decidedly dyspeptic! Observing this change in my demeanor, Linda wisely suggested we quickly get out of town. Was I ever happy to get back to the Cape!
One of the things that’s always bothered me about my hometown is its air of entitlement. To live in the town, for many, signifies that you’ve really made it in life. In high school, in fact, we used to refer to this sense of entitlement as, borrowing Huey Long’s famous phrase, “every man a king.”
After my father died, I became especially grateful that I had escaped this sensibility – because of him. Because he came from a Christian family, he always looked with skepticism on the pretensions of the very wealthy. And he instilled it in me.
It still amazes me how alluring and seductive my hometown can be, as my divinity school classmate’s comment suggests. But, as I say, my father’s experience growing up in church led him to question its sense of reality. And for that I’m most grateful.
This is not say, of course, that all wealthy people are so “affected.” Far from it. I met many remarkable people in my years there, people who had worked hard and striven to honor certain values and morals that in some ways enabled them to become “successful.” They never let this success go to their heads.
For a time, in college, I did temp work during the summer. I mostly worked at low-level positions. I remember one job in particular, in a mailroom at a Fortune 500 company, where I’d make photocopies and deliver the mail.
The thing I noticed was that the people with whom I seemed to get along best either worked at the low-level jobs or in the executive suites. It was the middle-management crowd with whom I had the most difficulty. I surmised, rightly or wrongly, that the executives had nothing to prove, while the middle-management types were restlessly competing to gain access to these same executive suites.
In any event, my point is that wealth and success are often a problem, though, as I say, not always. In our current partisan political culture, we tend to be quick to lump people into one category or another, summarily demonizing the wealthy as we go.
But notice what Paul says in 1 Timothy. After talking about how wealth tempts people, how it traps them in “harmful desires” that “plunge” them into “ruin and destruction,” he says this: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil…(italics mine).”
Notice he doesn’t say “money” is the root of all evil, but “the love of money.” And we know this. Think of all the people with means we’ve known who’ve used their money in ways that benefit others, many of them in this church.
Of course, as with any human power, money can be used for sacred or profane purposes, in ways that honor God and in ways that don’t. So too money can be acquired by many means. It isn’t always, as some assume, illicit.
Money is, nonetheless, as Paul warns, a great temptation. It tempts us to substitute the security and protection it affords with the genuine security and protection only God affords. Thus it is one of the most commonly used idols.
If you stop and think about it, though, it’s really no different than using any gift from God in ways that set us apart, not just from others but from the Divine.
Money is, in a sense, like anger. Too often, that is, we use it wrongly. Then again, we know Jesus got angry, and that righteous anger has its place. Properly directed anger is healthy, which is why God gave us its power. The problem, again, is that we’re prone to use that power in ungodly ways.
Some of the most generous and unassuming people I’ve ever known were wealthy. And some of the most egotistical and self-absorbed people I’ve ever known were too.
The temptation to misuse money is powerful, which is why Jesus talked about our spiritual relationship to it more than any other subject. But, to be clear, its misuse is not necessarily any greater than, say, misdirected anger, or any other human power that temps us toward idolatry and away from God.
In looking back, I’m grateful to my father for helping me navigate around the perilous shoals of temptation amid the sea of money, power, and status for which my hometown is renowned, and for teaching me that what really matters, in the end, is Christian character. Amen.