sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 01/26/2014
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IN my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.
Sam Polk, founder of Groceryships
When he was a kid, Sam’s father would say to him, “Imagine what life will be like when I make a million dollars.”
Sam says when he grew up, money made him feel powerful. It was like a drug. Kept him from having to deal with the pain of the powerlessness he felt as a child. His first $40,000 bonus thrilled him. Now millions weren’t enough. He wanted a billion.
Money’s like that. You get a raise, and it feels great for about a month. And then, it’s just your salary. And you want more.
Sam said when he realized what he’d become a wealth addict (which he compared to being a drug addict willing to do anything – in his words, “walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma, [anything] to get a fix”), he finally had the courage to walk away. To, in the language of Ecclesiastes, stop “chasing after the wind.”
But it wasn’t easy. He said he was terrified of running out of money. Of not being able to get enough in the future. He’d wake up at nights panicked. He still buys lottery tickets sometimes.
But over time, it’s gotten better. As Sam describes it, he started to realize he had “enough.” And that if he needed more, he’d be able to get it.
Sam’s describing the same dynamics we see in Ecclesiastes, isn’t he? Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.
That money is, like so many other things “under the sun,” just vapor. (Remember, meaningless better translated vapor.) A thing we think will satisfy us, make us feel powerful, give us the power to do what we want to do, protect us, make us happy, and on and on. But when we get it, we realize the main thing that it does is make us want more. Its satisfaction is elusive, fleeting, insubstantial, not very long-lasting. Nonetheless, sometimes, we become willing to abandon our selves, our values, our integrity, so that we can have more. So that we can have enough. We’re chasing after the wind. Miserable. Running over whoever gets in our way.
So what are we going to do about money? This massively addicting bit of vapor that we have to deal with every day. It’s not like we can just go home, flush all our money down the toilet, go cold turkey, get clean, and avoid going to banks and atm machines.
(On the other hand, I suppose something like that is a valid option – after all, Jesus did tell the rich young ruler to sell everything he had, give his money to the poor, and follow him.)
Seriously. What are we going to do about money?
How many of you, if offered a 3.6 million dollar bonus at work tomorrow, would gladly accept it?
How many of you, at the same time, believe that Sam is on to something in his realization that money promises more than it can deliver, and that any one of us could get caught in the same addictive relationship with it that he found himself?
How many of you would say, in fact, that you’ve already felt something of that desperate, anxious pull of more money? That you know can identify with the temptation to sacrifice all kinds of things that you know are good and healthy – say, rest, time with your family, spiritual pursuits, helping others, etc. – in order to get more money. Not because you’re greedy, but because…
Well, because you need it. Because the opportunity to get more may pass you by if you don’t take it now. Because although you might have enough now, today, you’d feel a lot better if you had more for tomorrow. Because someday you’d like to have enough to really enjoy life. Because you’ll be respected more if you have more. Because others will judge you if you don’t go after it. Because you’ll feel more in control if you had more money. Because you could prove someone wrong if you had more.
As we continue our series, Satisfied, we’re going to take two weeks to explore how the wisdom of Ecclesiastes would reshape our relationship with money. Let’s read the first part of chapter 3.
3 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
9What do workers gain from their toil? 10I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 14I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
This passage doesn’t have the word “money” in it at all; nonetheless, it’s all about money. Verse 9 is our first clue. “What do workers gain from their toil?” In our modern world, the first answer that would come to mind is, “a paycheck.”
We’ll spend some time unpacking this, because it’s not immediately apparent in our first reading of the passage, but here’s what Solomon is driving at: satisfaction comes from trusting God for everything that we need, and trusting money for none of it. Our relationship with money is healthy when we see it as a gift from God, not as a reward for our labor. And our relationship with God is healthy when we fear the loss of him, and not the loss of money.
Solomon, the author of this book, Ecclesiastes, understands how immersed we are in our materialistic view of the world. As we talked about last week, it’s no small task to disrupt our current entrenched and dysfunctional perspective so that we can receive a new, life-giving one.
We tend to trust in ourselves and our resources to get for ourselves what we need, and trust God will reward us for our productivity and good resource management. God helps those who help themselves, right? We see money as a reward for our labor, an affirmation of our worth as human beings. We fear the loss of money, and when it happens, we think we are out of God’s favor. Not realizing along the way that our double fisted preoccupation with self-dependence and the accumulation of money has caused our hands to be closed to every good gift of God long ago.
So Solomon gets to work.
He describes our lives, the varied experiences which fall on different ends of the spectrum in our lives. Birth and death. Weeping and laughing. Mourning and dancing. Scattering and gathering. Tearing and mending. War and peace. He’s really just laying out the full spread of human existence out for us to look at, without flinching, without avoiding any of it. Saying, basically, “Look, we’re all going to experience all of this, or a least a lot of it. Some of it we’ll be excited about, some of it we’ll wish we could avoid. But it’s all part of the package. It all comes and goes in its time, like birth and death.”
It makes for a beautiful song. A song that is usually played as a plea for peace, it’s last line being a time of peace, I swear it’s not too late.
But that’s not the heart of the Ecclesiastes passage. At its heart is this message: There is a lot you can’t control. Just like you can’t control the seasons. The sun will shine and it will be warm and summer, and then fall will come, and then it will be bitterly cold in winter, and then the spring will come and the ground will thaw and birds will return and soon it will be summer again. Your power is real, but it’s also limited. You feel this sense of agency in your life – which is all well and good, and true, up to a point. But step back for a second and look at the big picture. Forces larger than you can wrest that control from your hands. You are laughing now. But the day of weeping will come, and you can’t avoid it. You are in mourning now. But a day of dancing will be here eventually. You were born. You will also die. Regardless of your best efforts between now and then. (See Ecclesiastes 9v11-12 if you’re not convinced…)
And then Solomon asks,
What do workers earn for their toil?
This is the big question. “So what does all the money you earn buy you?” This is the reality check that pokes the hole in money’s balloon. Can it buy you a pass on death? Can it buy you peace and laughter and dancing and love without ever having war or tears or sorrow or hate? Can it buy you life that goes on and on without ceasing?
We know that’s the answer.
We just don’t like the answer.
This is the burden God has laid on the human race.
We’re made in the image of God. Which, in part, means we have will and agency. We have desire and ability, the capacity to exert power. But our ability, our capacity, our power is limited. We can only do so much. Get so much. Control so much. And it’s never enough to fulfil our desire.
But we want control. So badly. We’ll do anything to feel like we have control. We’ll listen to anything that tells us it can offer us a sense of control.
This is the burden God has laid on the human race.
We have this incredible gift to do, to get, to plan, to achieve, to organize, to create. Yet, we have this one task that we must do before any of that matters. We must learn to wait on God. We must rely on him.
We are creatures who imagine we can be gods. We desperately want to eliminate our neediness and dependency. We hate powerlessness; we’ll trade away our best shot at joy even for a shot at feeling powerful. At least, that’s what Adam and Eve did. And it’s what we who follow in their footsteps have so often done.
This is the burden God has laid on the human race.
The word for burden might also be translated painful effort or grievous task.
It is a painful effort to let go of control.
Yet it’s the only way to a satisfied life.
The writer says God has made everything beautiful in its time.
Control is all about what’s going to happen. Ensuring we have a say in how it all turns out.
Everything beautiful in its time means being fully present right now, right here, to what is before us. To the gift that God has for us to enjoy.
We aren’t in control when we are receiving a gift, are we?
Yet, that’s how God invites us to live, moment after moment after moment.
And then it says God has set eternity in the human heart. The Hebrew word for eternity is olam. It is that which is outside of birth and death. It is outside of the created. It is not “under the sun” like everything which is vapor. It’s that reality we experience when we step, for a moment, outside of time.
We’ve tasted it, felt it, haven’t we?
You know how sometimes time can fly by, like when you’re having a great time with a friend. Or how it can drag on and on, as slow as molasses, when you’re waiting for news. Or for your number to be called at the secretary of state?
But sometimes, when you are most alive, when joy has filled up your very being – an experience of awe, or powerful love, or pure beauty, or you’re right in the midst of doing what you were born to do with full focus and effortless competence – and it’s as if time has simply ceased to be and everything is just now. That’s olam. Eternity. What the New Testament writers in Greek call aeon zoe, eternal life or the life of the ages. It’s the kind of life, the experience of timelessness that God enjoys always.
God has set that in our hearts. The unending, ongoing, God-inhabited, love-soaked experience of joy that is only accessible as we receive what he has for us, moment by moment, day by day.
It was a painful effort for Sam to leave his multimillion dollar Wall Street job. To face the wounds inside of himself. It was terrifying, anxious work. But it is giving way to real satisfaction. To the liberating experience of enough.
If you’re chasing after the wind, you’re running away from the eternity in your heart.
I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God.
There is nothing better for people than to rejoice (a better translation of “be happy”) and do good.
Rejoicing is just a way of recognizing and celebrating the goodness and beauty of God’s gifts now. Whatever they may be.
Rejoice and do good. Do that thing that flows from your joy in the gift. What is it you would do that flows from the joy of the gifts God is giving you? That will always be a good thing. Do that good thing.
Eat the food God has provided you as a gift. Drink the drink God has given you as gift. See the good in the work God has given you to do. Rejoice in the beauty of what God has given to you now, today. Do the good that flows from that joy.
The one who lives in this way has access to the eternity God has set in his heart.
Compare that to the life that seeks control. We see only the danger, the bad, the threat all around us. If we see anything “good,” it’s only the good that’s off in the distance, that we might be able to get if we get enough money, if we play our cards right. If we have any joy, it’s the momentary joy of succeeding in our goal, but even our joy is like vapor. It’s fleeting, not lasting, and it can be taken away by the seasons changing. And we “do good” far less than we’d like. Far too often, we are doing what seems necessary to get ahead, to make ends meet, to get enough money.
Oh, right, money. We started all this by talking about money.
Pull out some money, if you’ve got any.
Look at it.
What’s your relationship with that money? What is it to you?
Is it something that’s going to help you get something? Do something? Feel something about yourself? Make something happen?
Or is it a gift from God, an expression of and container of his love for you?
When you look at it, do you think to yourself, man, I wish I had more of this? Man, I don’t know if this is going to be enough. I wonder how I’m going to get more?
Or do you think to yourself, wow, God’s sure taken care of me of me well. Look, I’ve got extra! Hmm, I wonder what joy he intends for me with this?
Now think about all the money you have, savings, debt, investments, cash and your current income, salary, what have you. Your financial status.
When you think about that, if it’s like a good, solid amount, do you think, I’ve worked really hard for that, made some good decisions with it. I feel pretty good about myself. I think others would think pretty highly of me, too, if they could see it. Or if it’s not a pretty picture, do you think, oh man, I hope no one ever finds out the true picture of my financial situation. That would be embarrassing.
Or, instead, do you think – if you feel like you’ve got a lot - God’s really provided a lot for me. It’s a joyful thing and a privilege to figure out what to do with all this gift. Or, if you are in a place of need – God promises to take care of me as I depend on him. What a joyful thing and a privilege to be in a place to watch him come through on my behalf and glorify himself.
Let me say again what I said earlier.
Satisfaction comes from trusting God for everything that we need, and trusting money for none of it.
Our relationship with money is healthy when we see it as a gift from God, not as a reward for our labor.
And our relationship with God is healthy when we fear the loss of him, and not the loss of money.
Let me add one last thing.
Every promise money makes is a false promise. Money can’t promise anything. Because money is “under the sun” just like every other created thing. Like all the vapor, it only has substance and power when it is an expression of and container of God’s love.
Only God can make promises that he can keep. Because he is uncreated, above the sun. He isn’t subject to the seasons; he’s the author of the seasons. His promises can be trusted.
Everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.
Unlike money, God has substance and power. Unlike money, he loves us. Unlike money, if we have him, we have everything. Unlike money, if we don’t have him, we have nothing.
Let’s make our lives a response to him and his love.
Next week, I’ll tell you the joke about Shamus, the 1 pound coins, and the 5 pound notes, and we’ll have fun learning how to get right with money and get right with God. Oh yeah, and maybe we’ll get to the slinkys next week too! (I’m kind of excited about the slinkys.) For now, though…
A practical suggestion:
Put your money in its place. Re-gift 10%.
Figure out how much money you have. The kind that’s available to spend. Not locked up in investments or whatever. Just your most liquid accounts. Include savings accounts if they are the kind you can get money out of pretty easily. Figure out what 10% of that is. Now take that amount and figure out some fun ways to give it away. If it’s a lot, maybe give it away over the course of the year. If it’s less, maybe you can do it all this week. If you want to get more bang for your buck, do it prayerfully in cooperation with God. But the main point is having fun giving it away. Give it to someone you know who it would bless because they have financial needs of some sort. Give it to someone it would bless because it would surprise them and make their day. Give it to a cause you really care about. Adopt a compassion child. Give it to a student for the 30 hour famine. Buy a present for someone who’s really been wanting something but wouldn’t ever spend the money for it. Give it to the church. Give it to another church. Talk with your family about what do with it. Or your small group. Or have fun all by yourself thinking of how to give it away. Whatever you do, take 10% of your money and let it become a gift again, a sign that all of it was gift in the first place.
If you don’t have any, or worse, you’re in the hole, then take 10% of your week’s work hours and give them away. Say, 4 hours, if you’d work a 40 hour week. Give them away to someone. Babysit their kids. Shovel their snow. Clean their bathrooms. Help at compassion ministry. Go help with the homeless ministry in Ann Arbor on a Friday night. Come clean the church.