two scriptures to read: 1 Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31
A few weeks ago I got the chance to visit one of my favorite places in the whole world: Costco. Every month or so my wife and I compile a big list of things we need from Costco. I usually am able to convince one or both of the girls to go with me, you know samples can be a compelling argument to a 5 and 2 ½ year old, and we load up and drive up on the 75 to Costco. I love Costco so much. There’s just something about it. The food, the household supplies, the hot dogs, it truly is a magical place for strange people like me.
I think I love Costco so much because of the feeling I get when I’m done shopping there….I am out in the parking lot loading up my SUV filled with 600 rolls of toilet paper and 3000 rolls of paper towels, the feeling I get is one of deep satisfaction, contentment, a feeling that this one trip is going to meet the needs of our family for a long, long time. I mean we once bought a box of trash bags from Costco that lasted two years. We didn’t need to buy trash bags for two entire years, that purchase was a purchase which satisfied…
I know it sounds a little silly to admit this aloud to you all, but hopefully you know me well enough by now to know that silly and strange are just part of who I am.
I bring this up because it relates to our texts this morning, and for this sermon I wanted to focus a little bit on each of the readings, the first reading from 1 Timothy 6 and the second reading from the Gospel of Luke.
First from Timothy. Timothy is a short Epistle, a letter, in the New Testament. Church tradition holds that St. Paul wrote this letter to Timothy, one of his younger colleagues, in order to give Timothy some guidance on how to organize a church community. The reality is that Paul most likely didn’t write this letter himself but the letter’s authorship is neither here nor there for us today.
In the section we heard read this morning the author is giving Timothy and his community some instructions on faithful living. The passage begins:
“of course there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into this world, so that we can take nothing out of it, but if we have food and clothing we will be content with these.”
One thing that I’m just so amazed by, struck by and challenged by, is that these spiritual reflections ring just as true today in our life and our world as they did over 2000 years ago. We still need this same instruction because we still struggle with the same human drive to accumulate, to build, to amass.
When I was a kid growing up there was this shirt brand called No Fear, which was super popular. I loved No Fear shirts. They were edgy and cool, kind of grungy and a little bit skater, all these things that I desperately wanted to be but wasn’t. I remember going into a store in the mall, which itself seems like a strange and foreign concept today, and looking at all the No Fear shirts I couldn’t afford to buy. I was sitting there looking at all the shirts when I saw this one which I still remember to this day. It was a simple black shirt with this sayings: “He who dies with the most toys, still dies…..No Fear.”
I wanted that shirt so badly. I was coveting that shirt so badly. I mean the irony of that is just too much to miss, coveting a shirt which essentially is pointing out that we came into this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing, focus on being content with what you have, offer it all to God for service of God’s will.
Contentment is tough though. It’s a tough spiritual practice to take on and to cultivate. It seems like we are really prone to coveting, to desiring what others have, to seeing all the areas in our life where to lack and to focus on those instead of focusing on the abundance of riches and blessings we experience, each and every day. Maybe you don’t struggle with this, that’s awesome, you have a spiritual gift my friend, you have had great gain of Godliness through the power of contentment.
But for those of us who do struggle with this, I, for one, take comfort in the fact that Christians, even going back to the first and second generation, struggled with this too. So much so that they needed a letter with some spiritual reflection and teaching written just to them, addressed to them personally as a community, offering them some hope and a different way of life.
I think this is good news, great news actually, that although the writer of Timothy didn’t live in a world with Amazon Prime or a world of Instagram Influencers whose lives look picture perfect for all the world to see. But still, although the writer didn’t live in this world, the writer still addresses this same spiritual concern we should all be aware of- wholeness, fullness, the abundance of life doesn’t come from the things we own, the things we have, it doesn’t come from rearranging the external circumstances of our life- that can only be found when we experience God’s lifegiving love, God’s unbelievable and unconditional and underserved love for us, inside our heart of hearts- peace, contentment, serenity is an inside job turned out.
That’s tough though, at least for me. I still have this tendency to want to gain satisfaction and contentment from all the stuff I have around me, from the big old box of trash bags and toilet paper rolls from Costco, and not from that which is eternal but intangible, that which is always present and yet of which I remain mostly unaware- the ever beating heart of God for me, for us and for this world.
One of the spiritual practices that helps us to cultivate that heart of contentment, that life which is whole and rich connected to God’s life-giving presence, is the practice of making a gratitude list. See gratitude is the spiritual remedy to coveting. Whenever you start to covet, to look with desire upon someone else’s’ stuff or life, gratitude is just what you need, because gratitude draws you back into you, back into your life, instead of living in the fantasy of someone else’s life. And I’ve lived long enough to know that living in the reality of the present, even if it’s hard and difficult, is always better than living in a fantasy, because the present reality is all, we, have.
So whenever we might be particularly envious of another person, when our coveting is causing us great discomfort, perhaps we can find some time, to take out a pen and a piece of paper, and simply make a list of what you are grateful for. Make a list of all the things in your life you can give God thanks and praise for. Even if you can’t write it down, just take a moment and go through a list in your own mind.
For your breath, this quiet force which surges through your body, in and out
For the beauty of this world that we get to move around in. for the anticipation of this new season and all the changes we experience.
For the people in our life who love us, especially when we don’t deserve it. For the people in our life who love us with a love that is truly unconditional.
For the gift of a church, a place for us to come for prayer and community. A place where all are welcome, no matter who we are, what we’ve done, what we believe or don’t, a place of compassion, wholeness and accountability to the call of Jesus.
Here’s the thing about the list, even if you can’t find much to be grateful for, and there are those life moments, there are those times when things around you seem to dark that there isn’t much light shining through, even in those moments there is probably at least something we can be grateful for.
Gratitude and contentment are powerful because they bring us back to our own life, back into our own self, to the moment we are currently inhabiting, but at the same time they draw us out of that smaller self of desiring what we don’t have, and into our bigger self, our true self, our spiritual self, of seeing what we have and what we can share with others. Contentment, leads to gratitude, which in my experience leads to generosity.
This brings us to our second reading for today, the reading from Luke’s gospel. The story for this morning from the gospel is a parable, a story which Jesus tells us about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. It is a challenging text where the rich man passes by Lazarus every single day, sitting outside the rich man’s gates, asking for help, and the rich man ignores his cries of help day in and day out. The story goes that the rich man dies and goes to hell because he ignored the cry of the poor.
There are a couple things which are just fascinating about this story. First, the fact that Jesus chooses to name the poor beggar but leaves the rich man unnamed. Man, I love Jesus to much. That is like such a bold and counter cultural thing to do. See back in the day, well not too much unlike today, the poor homeless beggar would have been a non-person, an invisible person, while the rich person would have been someone who everyone would know by name or reputation. Think about our world, think about all the wealthy people who have been gone for year but whose names we still know- Procter, Gamble, Dater, Rockefeller, Carnegie. But Jesus flips this upside down, naming the poor, homeless beggar, Lazarus.
Alright, so the next thing that stands out is that this rich person ends up in hell, which is metaphorically depicted here as a place of torment, for what reason? For not acting in love. For not serving with compassion. For ignoring the needs of the poorest around him. He didn’t end up there because he didn’t believe the right thing. He didn’t end up there because he didn’t say the right prayer. He didn’t end up there because he couldn’t recite the right creed. He ended up there because he didn’t act beyond himself.
The rich man was blind to the neediest around him. He didn’t even try.
I think that this is what Jesus is getting us to consider in our own lives of faith, to ponder these question: who do we see? Who do we see? Are we living fully present in each moment as we move about this world, enough so that we are attentive to those around us? Are we living with a heart of compassion which is big enough to start with acknowledging the person who others ignore? Are we seeking to see and serve Christ, the presence of the holy, which dwells in each and every single person we meet?
In order to do this we need to be living that life of contentment and gratitude which leads us into Christian service, which leads us into lives of generosity, which leads us into living lives of life-giving love.
This story from Luke is an unsettling one for me and for people throughout Christian history, it’s another hard story that Jesus shares with us that can work on our hearts from the inside out. One of the things that can bog us down is when we start to think about the overwhelming needs that exist in this world, all the people who are hungry, all the people who are poor, all the people who are homeless. Sometimes these thoughts can lead us to withdraw because we don’t think we can really make a difference.
The reformer, Martin Luther, once preached on this passage and he said “we can’t feed every beggar in the world, but we can feed the one at our gate.”
Who is outside our gate? I tell you, our church is in a neighborhood where people are hungry, there are poor people in this community. I am so proud of us for serving our neighborhood through the pancake breakfast, for our support of the food pantry and all the other ways you all serve the beggar at our gate, but what are we missing, are there ways for us to not only serve but be in relationship with those who other ignore or push aside?
Let’s continue to dream together, to pray together, to serve together in love. And may Jesus, who sees the beauty and fragility of every human person, who sees us completely and wholly for who we are, may he work inside our hearts to give us eyes to see all people in this world. Amen.