September 29, 2019
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 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. 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. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.
As for those who in the present age are rich, 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 works, 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 really is life.
Contentment & change. Ambition & generosity. The wisdom of the ways of tradition and the reforming movement of the Spirit. These tensions come to mind for me almost every autumn. The start of the school year, the beginning of a new choir season, the anticipation of new episodes of my favorite Netflix shows like the Crown, Sabrina, and a new season of the Expanse, all these things have a way of making me reflective. This time of year brings up the question of what needs to remain the same, and what needs some shaking up in my life. A few weeks ago Eric discovered that right around the corner from our apartment was a community garden, the Remington Village Green. I was fresh back from Scotland, where I had been able to spend hours in the garden, surveying how, over the decades the space has been transformed from desolate heather to a place with woodlands taking root, gardens blooming, and birds finally having a place to live and raise their young. So when I came to my garden plot in Baltimore, with depleted, compacted soil, I looked at the plants struggling to grow and knew it was time to care for the soil. I spent a week researching, and started to gather two hundred pounds of materials. I got some composted cow manure and worm castings, a mix of leaves and grass clippings that had been cooking for a few years, and went over to see our friends at Veteran Composting, to pick up a bag of their black gold, enjoying how right it felt to be using compost that we had contributed to through our cans here at the Church. I unloaded the trunk of my Prius, and stood at my plot. The stunted plants left over from the past season were weathered and stunted, and as I gathered my tools, I found myself hesitating. I knew this was the right course of action, I had prepared for this moment, but I found myself unsure if this was really the best idea. There is something difficult about uprooting was it already there. I took a deep breath. I knew what my goal was; helping the soil to be healthy, to put this plot on track to be healthy for years to come. I knew the values of the community garden, and my task before me fit into what we want to create in the space. So I started to pull. I broke up the tired, compacted soil, spread out the amendments, and started to combine the old with the new, mixing the tired dirt with sources of new life. In pursuit of helping my little corner of the garden burst forth with a little slice of Heaven, I took comfort in knowing that sometimes for growth and health, we have to shake things up a bit.
I think this kind of transformation is what the author of first Timothy is trying to bring about through this letter. Scholars are fairly certain that Paul didn’t write this letter, but in the ancient world, writing in the name of another was common to reflect the wisdom of teachers who were no longer with us, but whose values and insight were needed for current struggles. The author is trying to repair the church in Ephesus, to bring new life to the tired relationships between people, and equip leaders to do what needs to be done to partner with Jesus’ continuing mission in the world. In our reading, which comes towards the end of the letter, there are instructions for those experiencing wealth, about how to keep focused on being good stewards of what God has entrusted to their care, while also acknowledging that being generous can feel like uprooting what we’ve planted. For the author, it all comes down to what is the motivating force in our lives. When folks who discover themselves to be experiencing wealth are also utilizing their resources for furthering God’s purposes in the world, and set their minds, not to their own enrichment, but God’s goals in the world, the author shares that there are spiritual gifts that can be cultivated and grown. In pursuing Jesus’ commandment to love God and neighbor with all of who we are, with everything we have, there comes a way of living into the fullness of life that is a deep blessing. Reading texts like our passage from this morning can be particularly difficult in our context, but also illuminating. The writers of our scriptures had a wide-range of understandings of how to relate to money and wealth. Jesus in the Gospel’s doesn’t seem to have a lot of patience for the rich of his day. It was difficult to be someone experiencing wealth without having hurt our neighbors in ways that wern’t particularly loving. The writers of proverbs on the other hand saw financial stability to be the result of pursuing God’s wisdom and wholeness. Then we have this text, where it all comes down to what the goal of the wealthy is. The pursuit of wealth, not financial stability, is seen as a potential danger, while money is understood to be able to be morally neutral. Our goals, our values, determine if wealth is a destructive force in our lives, or a tool for furthering God’s desire for our world. There’s a tension between being content with having enough to survive and thrive, and an invitation, when we have much more than we need, to empower ourselves and others to live life in a new way.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about money lately. As you may know, our Elders, who make up our governing board, called our Session, have been working diligently on our budget and ministry priorities for 2020 for the past six months. Budgeting can be an incredibly boring and uninspiring process, and often it can suck the life out of a church when we have to make hard choices to be able to continue our ministry. But I also know that it doesn’t have to be this way, and so last year, I started exploring how we could create a budget in a way that was focused on partnering with what God is doing among us and in our world. For the past six months, we’ve utilized a process known as design thinking. Instead of looking at income and expenses, we started with the experiences and goals we have for people in our community and the world around us. Then, we spent time focusing on what was most vital at this time, in this place. This process allows us to focus on how to be good stewards of the three most valuable resources we ask of one another to be held in trust by this community; our time, our energy, and our financial resources. Only after we had determined how we wanted the world to be different, what we hope folks can experience, how we can grow and flourish, and the relationships we want to cultivate and strengthen, only then did we start to look at numbers. By centering on what God is calling us to do, who we are called to be, and the people we’re called to love more fully and deeply, we were able to start to answer the question “what is possible if we partner with God in this place?” At the heart of this process are our deepest values as a family of faith. God is calling us to be a part of what she’s doing in our midst, and it has been thrilling to see what our Elders have discerned. Not surprisingly, our elders prioritized creating an intergenerational children’s and family ministry, caring for creation, supporting the health and wholeness of children across our globe, getting to know young families from the Montessori school who lease our classrooms downstairs, creating community for LGBTQ+ folks, continuing to deepen our relationships in Woodbourne-McCabe, creating interfaith partnerships that can overcome the hatred that is tearing this nation apart, and sharing the liberating power of the Gospel in the lives of folks who have recently experienced incarceration, and to folks who are seeking a progressive faith community. We can do the amazing things that we have energy and passion for, especially when we tap into what God is already doing among us. For the past six months, we’ve been taking stock of what is motivating us, what we are pursuing, and while that often means we are invited to change, we also can find ourselves re-connecting to the deepest and truest parts of who we are. I am excited for our elders to share this with you at our congregational meeting after worship on November 3rd, gathered around tables for a potluck. But I am also aware that this kind of shift in our life together, while rooted in our readings of scripture, our prayer, and our values, can cause us to pause and wonder; do we really need to change?. The kind of transformation we are being called to requires being rooted in what is truest about who God is, and who Jesus invites us to be in the world. So, over the next few weeks, Leigh and I will be preaching about the Mission of God, and our part in it. We’ll be exploring how we, as a community, can be a part of offering our resources of time, energy, and money to move the world from how it is, to how it should be, not out of a sense of should, or of guilt for having resources, but instead motivated by the fires for justice and transformation Jesus has kindled in our hearts, and that the Spirit fans the flames of. What has been surprising for me in this process has been that, while our ministry does take money to accomplish, there is a kind of contentment that is emerging, a recognition that we are enough, when we dig deep and focus on how God is calling us to tend to our little part of the world. Our spiritual gifts are enough for the ministries we are called to. Our skills and energy are sufficient to do amazing things, if we can focus it on the goals and dreams, the relationships that we are called to pursue.
Beloved, there is always going to be a bit of tension between contentment and change when we risk aligning more fully with God’s call on our lives. And yet, when we are rooted in what God has provided, when we take stock of who we have been created to be, when we are honest about the gifts each of us have been given and that are gathered in this community, there is also an incredible peace. Sometimes we’re going to have to uproot, amend, and change, but when we can see where we are going, can stay focused on our call, we can take a deep breath, center ourselves, and step forward into God’s dreams for us.
Last Tuesday, with the soil mixed, I started to plant my garden plot. I’ve got the entire fall, spring, and summer crops all planned out. I know when I need to sow the carrot seeds, the garlic, when to start my tomato plants in the heated sprouting trays in our windows, when to harvest, how to feed the soil that will feed the plants, that will feed Eric and I. If I’m a good steward of the little plot of earth entrusted to my care, it’s incredible what can come from the soil, not only from my labor, but through the miracle of God’s provision through creation. Just yesterday, what was a tired, languishing plot of land was covered in new seedlings and life. So friends, let us prepare the soil of this community, of our hearts. Let us help the seeds of the Gospel germinate in our minds and let the roots of truth transform us. Let us bring about the Reign of Christ’s love by being Good Stewards of our imaginations, and see what it is possible to let God grow in this place through us, as we seek to love God and neighbor with all of who we are. May it be so. Amen.