sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 02/02/2014
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When I lived in Northern Ireland, there was always a bit of tension between the Irish locals and the British soldiers who would be stationed there. The story going round was about a sergeant who’d been assigned his new posting at a base there. He heads down a local pub in town with the soldiers in his squad, hoping to have a little sport with the locals.
They look for the oldest, drunkest Irish guy. And there, at the end of the bar, they find Séamus. Séamus looks to be pushing 90 with most of his sheets to the wind. The sergeant tells his men, “Watch this.” He puts a new, shiny coin, a 1 lb. coin on the bar in front of Séamus. Then he pulls out an old, crumpled 5 lb. note, and sets it next to the shiny coin. Turning to Séamus, he said, “Which do you want, Séamus? Look, you can have this shiny coin here, or this old, dirty piece of paper.” Séamus looks up from his Guinness, picks up the coin, bites into it, and says, “Aye, Mister, I’ll have this coin, please.” Giving it to him, the soldiers can hardly contain their laughter. They proceed to go from one Irishman to the next, trying the same joke, always getting the same hilarious results. One after another, to a man, takes a shiny new coin instead of a crumpled note.
In a corner table, a young American woman (probably there in Ireland to track down her ancestors), saw what was happening and is horrified. She felt bad for the way the Irishmen were being taken advantage of. Later in the night, after the soldiers have left, she goes up to the Irish guys and says, “What are you doing? Don’t you know the 5 lb note is worth 5 times the 1 lb coin?”
“Oh no, Love,” said Séamus. “Of course we do. But if we took the 5 lb note, they’d stop playing the game.”
The point is, when you’re anxious about money, when you imagine it’s the thing that might actually give you control over your life, protect you from the Scarcity monster, money stops being a gift and becomes something you have to chase, something you’ll never be able to get enough of, something that you will never be satisfied with.
But, if you can relate to it as the gift that it is, not unlike Séamus and his friends, then there is joy in the receiving and you don’t have to worry and fret and chase. Because you know that the giver has more to give, and loves to give.
Of course, God, the true giver is nothing like the sergeant and his men. He’s not playing a game with us, having a laugh at our expense. He’s providing for us because he delights in us. Our every breath is a gift, each moment of life alive with his presence is a gift, all created things having the capacity to be both expressions of and containers of his love for us to receive and enjoy.
This is the essential lesson of Ecclesiastes. Everything under the sun is fleeting, it’s vapor. Everything in creation, everything bound by time is not ultimately under our control. We can’t ensure anything. All we can be sure of is that it futile to depend on ourselves or the vapor around us, and that our true hope is depending on God, the uncreated one above the sun who loves us.
At the same time, God has placed eternity in our hearts, he’s placed within us the capacity to receive every fleeting thing, all of the vapor, as a gift from his hands. To right now, recognize that this breath, this place, this body, this moment is, in some way that by his grace we might recognize, an expression of and container of his love. Only God’s love can give substance and meaning to the moment by moment reality of our fleeting lives. If we learn to receive it and live out of it, we can be connected to him and sustained by him, and one day, as the resurrection of Jesus bears witness to, join him in his substantive life.
We’re going to talk more about money today. About how we get right in our relationship with it and God in light of Ecclesiastes’ wisdom. First, though, I want us to look at another passage from Ecclesiastes that furthers the discussion we were having last week about money, even though money isn’t specifically mentioned.
Listen to Ecclesiastes 9:
9 So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. 2All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.
As it is with the good,
so with the sinful;
as it is with those who take oaths,
so with those who are afraid to take them.
3This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. 4Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
5For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
6Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.
7Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
11I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
12Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.
Here’s what this has to do with money. Money cannot do anything for us that it promises to do. As we talked about last week, the promise underneath every promise money makes is that it will give us some measure of control. The author of Ecclesiastes is saying nothing under the sun can offer us any control. We can’t know any particular thing about what will come in this life. No one knows what’s coming around the corner; no action you take now can guarantee any particular outcome in the future. The only guarantees come from God’s promises, and our only security comes in our relationship with him.
We’re a lot more like Slinkys, in other words, than we’d like to be. Specifically, we’re like the bottom of the slinky. And the sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we can get on with living life with joy that comes from depending on God alone, week by week, day by day, moment by moment.
Wait, Slinkys? Yes, Slinkys.
Watch this. Carefully.
[Hold slinky, letting it stretch towards the floor, suspended until it’s stable, and then release it from the top...]
You’d expect that it would all start to fall when you release it, wouldn’t you? But did you notice that the bottom of the slinky, just for a fraction of a second, doesn’t move at all after the top is released? It just hangs there, seeming to defy gravity.
Why doesn’t the bottom of the slinky fall? How does it hang there, suspended in midair with nothing holding it anymore?
Well, there are various ways of understanding when it will fall based on the math of waves and such, but the simplest, and purest, and I think, truest explanation, according to the physicists, is that the bottom of the slinky doesn’t know. It doesn’t know that the top has been released. The information takes a while to get to it. And until it knows, it stays suspended, as if it’s still being held up.
We, and essentially everything else under the sun, are in a similar condition as the bottom of the slinky. Cancer could be forming in your body. Blockages might be developing in your arteries. But you don’t know about it yet. Somebody somewhere else might be getting in their car and heading towards the road you are about to drive on, water might be starting to freeze, a tire might be slowly losing air in your tire right now, and a car accident is just waiting to happen. But you don’t know. There might be a secret meeting in a skyscraper in the financial district in Manhattan happening right now, and decisions are being made that will cause your savings or your employer’s solvency to completely disappear on Monday afternoon. Heck, the sun itself may have ceased to exist 2 minutes ago, and we, right now, have no idea. Not until the light stops arriving in 6 minutes.
And even so, what could we do about it? I mean sure, we do have some power; we’re not as helpless as the bottom of the Slinky. We could avoid smoking and other things to lower our risk of cancer. We could eat better and exercise to keep our heart healthy. We could drive cautiously and carefully, keep our cars maintained. Keep our money in gold bullion under our bed. But still. Still.
Ecclesiastes says, basically, that’s great, but that can get you only so far. And what then? Our control is ultimately limited by finite information, finite processing power, and finite resources. We chase more information, more processing power, more resources – but it’s a chasing after the wind. Something will always be just out of our grasp.
Ecclesiastes says, chase all you want, but you won’t find satisfaction. So don’t look for satisfaction or security or control there. Instead, rest in the gifts that are present to you right now, in this moment, like the staggeringly wonderful bottom of the slinky, suspended in defiance of gravity, the force that shapes everything on planet earth, only by its ability to be content with what God has given it now.
7Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this fleeting life that God has given you under the sun—all your fleeting days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
So, coming back to money now with clear eyes, recognizing it only has fleeting power in our fleeting lives. How are we to relate to it? What are we to do about it?
Step one. Receive money as a gift from God, an expression of and container of his love. Give thanks for it. Delight in it. Enjoy it. Everything you’d do with a gift when you receive one from someone who loves you and knows you well. Do what seems good to do out of the joy that comes from receiving God’s love and resting in his promise of continued provision.
There is no step two.
Most of us haven’t spent our whole lives practicing step one with respect to money. Most of us have at some level, at some point
Depended on money or chased after money for security
Related to money as if it said something about our value as people
Come to understand money as reward for our labor
Fixed our heart’s desire on money
Bought money’s lies and listened to its false promises
Let ourselves become fearful or anxious about losing money
All of which is just another way of saying we’ve related to money not as a gift from God, but as one of our gods.
Because we really can only depend on God.
God is our only security.
Our value as people comes from the fact that we are made in the image of God.
God is the true reward for our labor.
God is our hearts true desire.
God is the only one who speaks truth worth selling everything to possess, and offers promises we can take to the bank.
The loss of God is the only loss we should ever fear.
This is why Jesus says:
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
By hate and despise, Jesus isn’t referring to an emotional response, necessarily. He’s simply meaning we’ll treat it as if it doesn’t matter, as if it has no life to offer us. So, we’ll either love God, depend on God, trust God’s promises, want more of God, find our value in God, fear losing God and see money as vapor that only has significance to us so much as it is an expression of and container of God’s love. Or, we’ll love money, depend on money, trust money’s promises, want more money, find our value in money, fear losing money, and see God as something fleeting and insubstantial that only has significance to us so much as he helps us get more money.
So maybe the real question we need to ask now is this: if we’ve got things flipped around, how do we set them right? How do we get right with money? How do we turn our money from our god into a gift from God? How do we let God be our God again?
Well, this is where we do what Jesus tells us to do. We repent, and trust the good news of God’s kingdom.
Repenting just means we turn around. We stop going one direction and we start going another. We stop chasing money and we start chasing God.
This step will be different for every single one of us, because we are all at different places in this particular area. Some of us are full on money addicts. Maybe Jesus instruction to the rich young ruler is what we need to hear.
Sell your possessions. Give to the poor. Come follow me.
Some of us are maybe at other points along the dependency continuum, and so the Holy Spirit has a specific next step of discipleship for you that isn’t quite so radical because you’re already moving in his direction.
Maybe, for example, what we need is to start practicing some of the disciplines God has given to the people who are learning to be his people again, after he’s set them free from slavery to Egypt.
Tithing for example. Giving 10% of all the gift that God gives you back to him in the form of cheerful giving to the church.
I think there are at least two reasons tithing goes to the church, and not just generosity towards one good cause or another.
One is that you don’t have control over what that money does; you’re putting it in the hands of people who are doing their best to figure out what God wants done with the money. So that helps us get freedom from using money as a form of control; it puts it back in the gift category.
The second reason is that when you give it back to God through the church, the giving becomes then a form of worship. A way of saying, in a way that means something to us, you’re good, God and I trust you and I want to give you a tangible expression of my love for you.
20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
If you want God to have your heart, rather than money having your heart, then invest your treasure in God’s kingdom. Your heart will follow, like a dog on a leash. (Jesus seems to place it in that order on purpose, as if he knows something about our hearts and their connection to money. You want to love God? Yes, I see that you do, but it’s hard, what with how wrapped up your heart is in other things. Well, try this. Give your treasure to God. Your heart will come along.)
The truth of the matter is that we are stewards of all this vapor. Our money, our bodies, our talents, our time, our stuff, our influence. It all belongs to God. Everything created under the sun has been given to us image-bearers to steward. We were just made to be high priests in this temple of his, this place he’s chosen to dwell called earth. So it all belongs to him, all of it. A tithe just represents that we acknowledge that, that we remember where it comes from and who it all belongs to in the first place.
1. Start tithing, at least until Easter. (If you already are, add 10% to your 10%, bringing it to 11%.) Just see what happens in your heart. See if God maybe finds ways to reinforce to you the good news of his promises that he loves you and that he’ll provide for you. Because he longs for you to have life, and have it to the full, and he knows what you need.
Even if you fail, even if you don’t have the faith or wherewithal to follow through, let the attempt reveal to you where your heart is at with money and with God, and let Jesus show you the next step he wants you to take.
2. Hang up a slinky somewhere in your home or office. Somewhere that it can serve as a reminder to receive the vapor of this moment as a gift, a container of his love and expression of his love. And as a reminder that you’re control is limited, but that’s Ok, because there is wonder and beauty in depending on God to be present to you right now, even when things seem to be falling apart all around you, and you don’t see anything to hold you up in the midst of it.