Summit Presbyterian Church
September 26, 2010
Luke 16: 19-31; 1 Timothy 6: 6-19
Rich Christians in an Age of Advertising
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is one of several places in the Bible where we are warned - or comforted - of a coming great reversal. A turning of the tables. During their lifetimes, the rich man dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day; Lazarus, the poor man, lay at his gate, covered with sores, and longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table. At their deaths, Lazarus is in the blessed company of Abraham and the angels; the rich man is tormented in Hades. When the rich man asks for relief, Abraham tells him: "Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony." "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones," says Mary when she is pregnant with Jesus, "and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." The prophet Isaiah cries out: "Tell the innocent how fortunate they are, for they shall eat the fruit of their labors. Woe to the guilty! How unfortunate they are, for what their hands have done shall be done to them." The stories and prophesies are not predictions of what is destined to happen: the fate of the rich man would have been different if he had listened to Moses and the prophets. And the Bible also speaks of a future where no one goes hungry and all the nations are healed. But these stories of a great reversal tell us news we need to hear: good news, but sobering. God cares about the poor. God cares about the poor, and holds the rich responsible. Therefore, justice and care for the poor needs to be at the center of our Christian discipleship. Ron Sider's book, "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" addresses that. A 2010 title might be: "Rich Christians in an Age of Climate Change" -- for there is no better example of where the rich and relatively rich have caused the problem -- granted, unintentionally -- but where the poor will suffer first and foremost. More than ever, we need to listen to Moses and the Prophets and Jesus.
But those are not the titles of my sermon today, and I will not be preaching on what theologians call God's "preferential option" for the poor, at least from now on. My topic is God's care and concern for the rich and those who want to be rich (which I think can safely include all of us) -- and the advice Paul has for them in the letter to Timothy. Advice that may be the most counter-cultural - counter to our culture - in scripture. "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment," says Paul: "for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these." How counter to the 100s even thousands messages we receive each day - depending on how you count. Messages that say we we should not be content with what we have. Messages that come through television commercials, ads in the newspapers and on the sides of facebook pages; email messages, billboards and building signs, product placements in films & TV shows, environmentally friendly shopping bags that advertise stores, radio announcements, catalogues in the mail, and so on. By definition these ads encourage us to be discontent with what we have, because their purpose is to sell us something we don't have. These things- home products, food products, clothing, experiences, and so on - aren't necessarily evil. They may even be good, or necessities or sorts. Buying them keep the wheels of our economy turning so people have jobs. But advertisements - and the culture they shape, and the economy they fuel - teach us to be discontented. Even if we get rid of our TVS and turn our eyes from the billboards, we hear those messages. It's he sea we swim in: there's no such thing as too much. Having more - or at least new and improved - is the road to contentment. There's only gain in gain. No wonder nearly all of us wish to be rich - or at least a little richer.
But what a false road that is. As Paul says, "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." Doesn't that sound like it was written in 2010! In the last decade especially those consumer desires tempted many of us to overspend, encouraged and enabled by banks and credit card companies. When the bubble burst and the banks encountered near-ruin and destruction - because of their harmful desires - we saw the result: people losing homes and jobs or facing oppressive debt -- including people who spent only modestly. But more often the ruin and destruction we face from these desires is more subtle. It's the ruin that comes from disappointed hopes, from chasing something that's not real. For everything that's advertised to us promises more than it can deliver. That snazzy red sports car that promises to recover lost youth. The beautiful bedroom set or luxurious bed that promises a happy marriage or a cure for insomnia; those pictures of shiny new kitchens inhabited by happy children who eat their vegetables -- to name a few big ticket items that have even become cliches. But it's not only big ticket- items that make big promises. I"m wondering if you remember that ad campaign from the coca-cola many years back. The one that suggested drinking coke would bring world peace: "I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony." But as we know, our body ages and dies no matter how great our car; couples get divorced in the most well-appointed homes, often arguing over the cost of the bedroom set; anxious people have sleepless nights on the thickest of mattresses; children whine about their dinner even in kitchens with sub-zero refrigerators. And everyone drinking coke hasn't led to harmony between nations -- only to a rise in the worldwide incidence of diabetes. Yes, Paul says, in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
So Paul's words to Timothy also apply to us: shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith of the faith; take hold of eternal life -- a life to which you were called and to which you made the good confession. As for those in this age who are rich, says, Paul, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good words, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that is really life.
The life that is really life: that is the life that God promises us, if we can turn from our idolatry of possessions and lifestyle and place our hopes on the one true God. The one true God whose love is steadfast; the one true God whose son cbame to us, and in whom there is always forgiveness; the one true God in whom there is eternal life, and who does not disappoint. This God does not call us to a life of deprivation, God wants us to rejoice in the created world: as Paul says, this one true God provides us with everything for our enjoyment. But enjoying what God has richly provided for us in this wonderful creation is different than loving our stuff or setting our hopes on a bigger house, a better salary, or a more comfortable lifestyle. It means learning the meaning of enough; it means letting go of our attachment to household and other idols. It's hard; it's journey for all of us; it's extremely counter-cultural; but it is the way to the life that is really life, a life God wishes for all of us, rich and poor.
So let's listen to what Paul advises those of us who in this present age are rich: to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. And if we truly and deeply learned to do those things: Lazarus would not lie hungry at our gate. Everyone can have enough. Humility, good works, sharing, generosity, worship of the one true God: this is the foundation of for the life that is really life, for us and for all people. May we all gain it.
Join me in prayer. We praise you, Oh God, you who are the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. You alone have immortality and dwell in unapproachable light; to you be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.