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Sermon: Is Wealth Meaningless?

Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:12

Peter was known as a bit of a lad in the office where I used to work. But one day, his world was turned upside-down. His girlfriend became a Christian. She joined a local evangelical church, and invited him to the Sunday night youth group.

Knowing I was a Christian, he talked to me about the experience on the Monday morning.

“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I thought you Christians were not supposed to be worried about wealth and possessions. But we went to the home of the old boy who ran the group, and he kept going on and on about how much he loved his expensive new three-piece suite. How do you square that with Christianity?”

You can’t, can you?

Peter had a point. And maybe behind it for me is a thought that we as Christians have more of a problem with wealth and materialism than we like to admit.

And so in a week when our time in Ecclesiastes brings us to this trenchant passage about money, I think we need to consider the subject. Is it possible that we are not as distinctive from the world as we might be? Is it even possible that rather than hearing the biblical admonition not to love the world, we are more like spiritual chameleons, adopting the local colour with ease?

Make no mistake: we cannot dismiss this as just some stereotyping of Surrey residents. The statistics support it. Measured by property prices, we live in the wealthiest county in the UK. We have the second highest ratio of multimillionaires, beaten only by the concentration of Premier League footballers in Greater Manchester. I can assure you that my children have noticed it. They ask me why their school friends have multiple foreign holidays every year, while we always stay in the UK. I’m not complaining about being on a stipend, which technically is a living allowance and not a salary – I knew what I was letting myself in for. (Although I confess I’m touched when Mark observes that ministers do one of the most important jobs in the world, so they should be highly paid!) I just want you to know how obvious it is.

And if we do merge in with the local background, then consider this: I think I have told you before that in my first few weeks here, one of my colleagues raised this question: ‘Is the Gospel against Surrey?’ Does the Gospel stand against the values espoused by so many people in this wealthy county?

I would have thought it does. I am aware that there are a number of people in our congregation on very limited, fixed incomes, and if that is you, I promise you I do not have you in mind. I also know that there are people here on considerable incomes, who are also generous. I am privy to some wonderful stories of generosity in this congregation. But generally it is always a danger for Christians that we accommodate to the culture. Partly that may be out of a desire to be accepted, but it is also partly because we find that culture attractive anyway.

So do we need to hear the force of the Preacher’s words in this passage, that wealth is meaningless? Hear chapter 5, verse 10 again:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.

One of the extremely rich members of a past generation – and I confess I can’t remember whether this was Rothschild or Rockefeller – was once asked, ‘How much money is enough?’ He replied, ‘Always just a little bit more than you already have.’

Furthermore, increased wealth is to some extent an inbuilt factor in Christian conversion. John Wesley noticed the phenomenon called ‘redemption and lift’. Finding Christ led to a reduced spending on bad habits, making for more disposable income. Not only that, imbibing Christian values of hard work led people to earn more money. Put these effects together and conversion helped people financially. Indeed, as Wesley’s own fame increased and he sold more books and pamphlets, he noticed that his own annual income rose from £30 (remember we’re talking about the eighteenth century!) to £120. However, he calculated that throughout those years he only needed £28 on which to live, and therefore he gave away any income he had over that amount.

I shall come a little later to some of the thoughts about how we might handle the financial blessings many of us have, but that was Wesley’s approach.

All around us we find the trappings and the temptations of wealth. I am fast thinking that there is a local catchphrase. I have heard it so often in this village: ‘You should go private.’ Whether we’re talking healthcare or education, there seems to be a local assumption for many: you should go private. More than one person who knows we have a very bright son has told us we should send him to the Royal Grammar School at Guildford. If we’re lucky, they have a second thought along the lines of ‘Oh, I suppose you can’t afford that.’ There can be occasions when there is no alternative but to take the private route, but around Knaphill I find many people who treat that option as an easy default.

All this happens in a world where at Addlestone we host one of the three hundred food banks in this country, where our denomination has contributed to the ecumenical report by the Joint Public Issues Team called ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’, which forcefully exposes the demonisation of the poor in our society. In the USA, a film has just been released called ‘A Place at the Table’, which documents the fact that 49 million people in that nation including one in four children – don’t know where their next meal is coming from. How appropriate is it for us to drink in Surrey values, especially in the light of this, let alone what is happening elsewhere in the world?

Some people deal with this by downsizing and simplifying their lives. A dear friend of mine quit as a director of his company, and he and his wife moved to a hamlet in the West Country, where they got involved in the local community in various ways. However, that approach isn’t possible for everybody. For some Christians to do that would involve denying the position of responsibility they have been given at work, and their sense of calling to it.

How, then, might Christians respond and live distinctively within a culture that ignores God and worships Mammon instead? I would commend a passage such as 1 Timothy 6 as a great antidote to the perils of caving in to our culture. In the face of people who have wandered from the faith into deep distress due to their love of money (verse 10) he urges ‘godliness with contentment’ (verse 6). He then commands the rich to be generous, while at the same time remembering that God provides us with everything for our enjoyment (verse 17).

So what kind of Christian lifestyle might we pursue if we were content with the basics God gives us? It will look different for each of us – there is no uniform response – so if you are looking for a very simple ‘We should all just tithe’ sermon, I’m sorry. But let me offer the following thoughts.

I said earlier that I am paid a stipend, not a salary, and that the key difference is this: theoretically, a salary is ‘the rate for the job’ (or, perhaps, simply the result of a power struggle in bargaining between employer and employees). A stipend is a living allowance. It is meant to be enough so as not to be in want, and to free me to concentrate on my calling without the need to spend a lot of time elsewhere, supplementing my income. Now while that is a rather idealistic description and the reality can be somewhat harder, let me ask this: what if we as Christians prayerfully determined what would be a reasonable level of income for ourselves (including savings) and gave money away that would otherwise take us above that standard of living?

You could say I am suggesting something that is a variation on Wesley’s approach. You’ll remember I said that he continued to live on £28 a year, whether his income was £30 or £120. His motto was ‘Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.’ Is that an approach that commends itself to us?

I said also this wouldn’t be a simple ‘We should all tithe’ response, but tithing needs a mention. The tithes of the Old Testament were rather more complicated than some people like to make out, and the simplified version that is often preached – ‘Give ten per cent of your income to the church’ – doesn’t do that justice and also puts a disproportionate burden on the poor and lets the rich off lightly. However, back in the late 1970s, the American Christian social activist Ronald Sider suggested a variation that tried to address this problem. He called for Christians to adopt the principle of what he called the ‘graduated tithe’. People started out at a base level of giving a certain percentage of their income – say, the ten per cent. However, as their income increased, not only would their giving increase pro rata, they would also increase the percentage of their income that they gave away to the church and to the poor. Alongside that, he proposed other lifestyle decisions, like only buying a new suit no more frequently than every three years. If you want to read more about his ideas, pick up his book ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.’

Let me commend another practice to you. I believe this won’t be entirely new to some of you. I call it the ‘Bob and Kay Fund.’ Bob and Kay were a couple – both now sadly deceased – who were great friends with my parents. Bob had been an executive in the advertising industry but quit that to be the publicity and appeals director of the Shaftesbury Society. I know of at least one occasion when Bob and Kay were generous to my parents in difficult times. When pressed about it, they said they kept a special fund into which they put money, in additional to their regular giving to their church. They then used that sporadically to meet specific needs they came across. Is that something you could do, perhaps administering it out of a separate bank account?

What about our homes? I have heard it said that many people in this area are ‘asset rich but cash poor.’ Hospitality is one of the sadly unsung spiritual gifts in Scripture. Are there ways in which you could be more hospitable, and not just to your close friends?

Whatever giving you do, I recommend this question: am I doing this as a sign of my desire to build for the kingdom of God, and to play an active part in the kingdom community, that is, the church? Or am I just putting something in that I regard in a similar way to the subs I pay to the golf club, the tennis club or the fitness centre?

A final story: Martin Smith was the lead vocalist of the Christian rock band Delirious? Even if you don’t follow Christian rock, you may well know some of their songs, such as ‘I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.’ They sold huge numbers of CDs – at least, by the standards of the religious scene. Also gaining royalties as the main songwriter, Smith earned a very comfortable living. The band toured the world and occasionally made the pop charts.

It was on a visit to India, though, that Smith had his heart broken by meeting a young girl through an outreach to prostitutes and their children. He realised that these girls witnessed things they should never see, and would almost certainly soon end up in prostitution themselves. As a father himself, this distressed him hugely. He and the band set out to support Christian outreaches to them and their mothers.

But at a later date, he realised that he needed to build his own recording studio. He then had an attack of conscience. Could he really do this when the need in India was so great? The money he planned to spend on the studio would fund ten workers with the Indian poor. What should he do?

He built the recording studio. It was central to his calling to make music to promote Jesus Christ, and therefore he concluded it wasn’t greedy to do so.[1] Hence that’s my last point: in the use of your wealth, consider God’s calling on your life.

How, then, will you and I determine to use our resources in a way that makes our wealth meaningful rather than meaningless?

Sermon: Where Is Our Security?

Mark 10:17-31

I hate this passage! Sell all your possessions – is that what it takes to enter eternal life? I remember many years ago hearing Ronald Sider say, “What ninety-nine per cent of Western Christians need to hear ninety-nine per cent of the time is, ‘Sell all your possessions and give to the poor’.” And to read this only two weeks after we bought a new television! Surely that Sony has damned us to hell?

So what do I make of this story? What can I offer you before the flames start licking around my flesh?

I propose to think about it in the three phases of the story: firstly, considering Jesus and the man, secondly thinking about Jesus and the disciples, and thirdly Jesus’ reaction to what Peter says.

Firstly, Jesus and the man. Matthew calls him ‘young’ and Luke calls him a ‘ruler’; all we know from Mark is that he is rich. It would be easy for us to be cynical, especially since we know how the story ends. But he seems to have a genuine question, and Jesus treats him with dignity and respect. No – more than that – we read that Jesus ‘loved him’ (verse 21). That doesn’t suggest Jesus detected any hypocrisy. I think we must take the man’s enquiry as a sincere one.

Well, how many sincere enquirers would we turn away from the church today? Very few if any, I would suggest. Churches are often so desperate for new members that they will soften the entry requirements or rationalise what people say in order to get them in and swell the numbers.

Not Jesus. Far from lowering the bar, he raises the bar for the man. The man has kept this, that and every commandment, even one that isn’t in the Ten Commandments – ‘you shall not defraud’. Surely he has covered all the bases? What more could someone do? Isn’t he better than so many of the people who came to Jesus?

But even this man, with all his lofty moral conduct, still lacks one thing. It’s his attitude to his wealth. He needs to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor before following Jesus (verse 21).

He has kept that extra commandment, ‘You shall not defraud’, with its implication about defrauding the poor, because they are usually the silent victims of wealth accumulation. But while he hasn’t gone out of his way to make life worse for the poor, neither has he shown any real concern.

And it’s ironic to contrast him with those Jesus talked about in the preceding four verses in Mark. He spoke about little, vulnerable children, who in worldly terms owned nothing yet in his eyes lacked nothing for the kingdom of God. Here is a man who has everything the world can give and yet has nothing that the kingdom of God requires.

Why? Because the critical issue for him is one of trust and security. His money and property are what help him to sleep at night. For all Jesus’ words of warning about wealth, he didn’t completely reject all the rich people of his day. He benefitted from the largesse of some rich women who supported his ministry (Luke 8), and his body would be laid in the tomb of a wealthy man.

Furthermore, it’s illuminating that the man asks, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (verse 17). He doesn’t ask about the general conditions for everybody; his question is specific to his own situation. And Jesus picks on the way he trusts in his riches.

The question for people like us, then, is what our attitude to money and possessions is. Do they become the things we rely on? Is my security in the pension I will receive (even in economically uncertain times)? Is it the house we own? Are we free to give to the poor?

A minister I know told me earlier this year that he has thought for many years that the decline of the Methodist Church means it is futile for him to rely on that pension when he retires. So he plans to quit this country in a few years’ time and spend the rest of his ministry working as a Christian in Muslim lands, having the courage to find appropriate ways of sharing the love of Christ there. His security is not in money but in God.

And that is the question Jesus posed to the man: where was his security? It couldn’t be in his moral conduct, because everybody falls short somewhere. In his case, it was his finances and property. But the kingdom  requires that we put our trust in God. So where is our security?

Well, that’s a huge challenge. And when I hear something like that, I’m tempted to respond after the manner of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army: “Doomed, doomed, we’re all doomed!”

Which isn’t too far from the second conversation, the one between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus tells them it will be hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God, harder even than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle (verses 23-25). And they respond, “Then who can be saved?” (verse 26). It’s their ‘Doomed, doomed, we’re all doomed’ moment.

We’d like something to break the tension. Something to let us off the hook. Some little indication that Jesus is being mischievous or ironic. So people talk about the ‘eye of the needle’ as describing a gate into Jerusalem. However, there is no record of that until the ninth century AD. Is there any hope in this passage, or are we all doomed? Is God lighting the blue touch paper and retiring while we burn?

Thankfully, Jesus replies with the essence of the Gospel:

“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (Verse 27)

Discipleship is possible through God. Faith is possible with God. Obedience is possible with God. It is no use relying on our goodness, the Gospel only works because God makes the impossible possible. He makes it possible for selfish, self-centred other-forgetting people who are entirely bound up with themselves (get the message?) to be forgiven, put in the right with him through Christ – and transformed into entirely different people over a period of time, thanks to the Holy Spirit.

We need that sense of inadequacy and desperation that we can’t make it into the kingdom of God. But the story doesn’t stop there. God steps in with the Gospel. He does the impossible.

However, that Gospel does not stop with the forgiveness of sins, as some Christians would have us believe. That is central, but it is not the whole message. A Gospel which then requires us to follow Jesus, with all the challenges that involves, also does the impossible in turning us inside out.

Don’t get me wrong. To hear the Gospel proclaimed as the forgiveness of sins is wonderful. It is exactly what we need to hear. But when that is the limit of the message, it is in danger of becoming ‘cheap grace’. I can be forgiven and just wait for eternal life. In the meantime, I can live however I want.

But Jesus is not recruiting people by simply offering them a ticket to glory, he is calling them to enlist in the cause of God’s kingdom, which means following him. So as well as forgiveness there is transformation. God is making all things new, and he wants to include us in that.

So it may be hopeless for us, but there is always hope with God. He challenges us deeply about our security, but provides all we need in order to be different. We need not walk away, like the rich man did. We can instead walk with Jesus. Good news? I think so.

Which brings us to the third conversation, the one between Jesus and Peter. Because in the light of this, Peter issues a plea: “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (verse 28). In other words: we’ve done what you’ve asked us to do. We haven’t walked away, like the rich man. We’ve sized up the cost and paid it. we’ve made the sacrifices and are depending on God as we follow you, just as you’ve taught us. And it’s quite a sacrifice they’ve all made: home, family, business – all left behind. It’s rather like Peter is saying, “We’ve met the tough conditions you’ve laid down: what’s in it for us?”

And Jesus’ response is broadly to say, don’t just conceive of discipleship as being about what you’ve given up. Sure, there will be persecution, he says, but you will be amply rewarded in this life and in the life to come (verses 29-30). Your heavenly Father knows what you have given up, but there is more to discipleship than sacrifice. Certainly, it requires sacrifice, but God does not overlook that.

I wonder whether you ever feel like your efforts and sacrifices for Christ are not noticed? Do you sometimes wonder whether what you have done at great cost to yourself or your family was a waste of time and effort? Do you ever despair that you have sweated so much in following Jesus and yet you feel there is so little to show for it? Perhaps you feel like Joseph in the Old Testament, languishing in an Egyptian prison having accurately interpreted dreams, but forgotten by the man who was vindicated by what he said? In my experience, plenty of Christians feel like all they do has been forgotten by God.

If you are one of them, then Jesus says something to you that is similar to what he said to Peter. All that you put in for the kingdom will be rewarded, a hundredfold in this life and eternal life in the age to come.

Why can he say this? Ultimately, it’s because of the Resurrection. One of my favourite Bible verses – and also most challenging – comes at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection. His conclusion is nothing to do with sweetly waiting for the age to come, it’s this: ‘Nothing you do for the Lord is ever in vain.’

Now I frequently feel like what I am doing is in vain. I am seeing no fruit and precious little encouragement. I throw that text back at God sometimes when I’m exercising the spiritual gift of moaning!

Seriously – you might be shocked if you knew the number of ministers who at some point or another had seriously considered quitting the ministry. Put it alongside other Christians who find discouragement, apathy and hostility littered regularly across their way and it really isn’t surprising that many Christians do think their efforts are worthless.

But the text is true. The Resurrection is the promise that God will vindicate what is right, that truth and justice, beauty and love will prevail. It is what drives us on. It is what makes our efforts and sacrifices ‘worth it’.

And in the meantime, while God’s age to come clashes with the present evil age, there will still be some reward, even if it is mingled with suffering and opposition.

So in conclusion, I don’t know who you find yourself identifying with in this story. Sometimes I am with the rich man, struggling to find my security in God rather than in the material blessings of this world. I need to be reminded that in Christ God gives me true and lasting security, and everything else that seems so solid is a dead end. Sometimes when I think all is lost I am with the disciples, who need to know that God makes both the forgiveness of sins and the power to live a radical new life possible. And on other occasions, when I’m tempted to give up the effort needed to keep on keeping on, I’m with Peter, learning from Jesus that God has not forgotten me and will specifically remember what I have done for him and fulfil his purposes.

Who are you? What do you need to hear from God today?