Putting Our Trust in the Right Place
1 Timothy 6:6-9 Luke 16:19-31
September 26, 2010
The most powerful image arising from this morning's readings is probably that of the rich man suffering in the flames of Hades. He is distraught to realize that he made the mistake of counting on his wealth to take care of him both in his physical life and in his life after death. As he looks back over his life he recognizes where he went wrong. He recognizes Lazarus, currently being comforted by Abraham, as the beggar who used to lie outside his door. Still in the privileged mindset, he wants Abraham to send Lazarus down to Hades to give him some relief – a mere drop of water off his finger would help immensely. But he doesn't realize just how far he is from Lazarus and from the comfort Lazarus is enjoying in Abraham's presence. He doesn't realize how far wrong he went in trusting his wealth to do for him whatever he needed done.
Now most of us probably don't enjoy the kind of wealth that the rich man of our story enjoyed, but we all have to face the decisions he faced as to where to put our trust. And it is easy to imagine that if we only had a bit more money, then we would be just fine. All we can think of is the here and now, making ends meet in a tough economy, paying off our bills on time and providing for ourselves and our loved ones. But the letter to Timothy has a bit of advice and truth that we might have missed. “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.” Godliness and contentment. Hmm, are godliness and contentment really enough? Are they enough for us to be satisfied with our lives? Are they enough to ensure that we are living as God would have us live? It is of such interest to me that the answer to our deepest heart's desires might very well be right here, right now, under our noses. So much of our time, so much of our lives are spent looking around for what we are missing; could it be that we already have it all? Could it be that we already have everything we really need?
One of the most wonderful aspects of my spiritual growth leave this summer was having time stretch out before me each morning. Often it felt as if anything at all was possible. But as I look back the choices Gary and I made each day, I realize that mostly we chose simplicity over complexity. Eggs, bread and tea were the perfect start to the day. And we didn't need much to happen in the course of our explorations, either. A good walk with the natural world spread around us was plenty. The challenge, then, is to come home and be content with similar simple choices: good food, being nurtured by our environment, and sharing it all with loved ones. Everything else is extra – icing on the cake. If being content with what we have is such a positive way to live, then why do we struggle so much? Why do we work so hard to gain more?
There are balance points in our lives, places where we see the beauty of “what is,” and recognize the fact that we do not need to go anywhere in order to achieve our dreams. I think sometimes we see our dreams as huge impossibilities that loom on the horizon taunting us all the time with the paucity of our lives. But what if we saw our dreams as having been fulfilled already? - maybe not all of them, but certainly the ones that have us longing for meaningful connection with others, wanting to live in security and having all that we need in terms of food and clothing – the basic stuff of life. If we recognize that we are, perhaps, already content, then it becomes much more feasible for us to turn some attention to our relationship with God.
… I invite you to close your eyes and think about all those things you might wish you had; let them flash in front of your mind's eye. Now imagine for a moment that you have absolutely everything you ever wanted. Feel what this feels like. Settle into it, knowing your every heart's desire has been granted. Does all of this make you happy? Do you feel content now? Maybe. Maybe the things you crave are not really “things,” and so there is a certain contentment that comes from finally having them. But chances are this contentment will not last, especially if what you want are things, more material possessions.... Now, change the picture in your mind's eye. Change it back to the reality of your life, of what you actually have. Think of the simple things that are present in your life – favorite foods, an outfit you feel beautiful or handsome in, friendships that nourish you, a home that shelters you. Can you sense the contentment that is right here for you – right in the midst of what already is true?... If it doesn't come right away, look a little deeper into your life and seek out those things that make a positive difference for you every day.... Let this contentment seep over you, really feel it in all of your being. And even if it is not 100% true for you, let the part that is true, be enough for right now. What is it that you feel underneath the contentment? What holds the contentment up, strong and steady, what gives it a foundation, so to speak? For me, when I do this exercise, I begin to recognize a sense of gratitude. I am grateful for what is, grateful for the simple pleasures of my life. At base, I am grateful, even though there may be aspects of every day that are not welcome, that invoke stress and disappointment. The gratitude, when I focus on it and invite it into my life, becomes more powerful than anything else.
What if gratitude could be the basic underlying tenet of your life? What if we stopped striving for more and better, and simply centered our thoughts on our gratefulness for what we have already, in our hands and hearts? Luke's gospel does not say that it is bad to have wealth. It doesn't say we shouldn't have money. It simply says we need to recognize that there is so much more to life than material riches. Even if you are wealthy, you still need to do good things out in the world. You need to be an asset to those around you. If you have money, then you are expected to do something positive with that money, something that makes a real difference in terms of spiritual priorities more than material ones. The bottom line is that when we focus on bringing spiritual fulfillment alive in us, we come to recognize what is truly important when seen from God's perspective rather than the narrow view of people around us. Some of our choices may seem foolish to others, but if they bring contentment to us, if they help us to feel really good about ourselves and the impact we have on life around us, then we know we are on the right track.
The tricky part of this, as the rich man discovered after his death, is that we tend to make our judgments based on what we see and know and experience here in the material world. It is hard for us to imagine anything else, just as it never occurred to him that by ignoring Lazarus, the beggar at his doorstep, he was alienating himself from the only true source of security. Matthew's gospel has the injunction “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The last line here gives us a glimpse as to why it is so important to look at things from a spiritual perspective when we are gauging wealth and riches – it is no less than our hearts that are at stake. When we center our lives around the kind of wealth that is based here on earth, then we have not taught our hearts anything of value for the long term.
None of us really knows what life after this life will be like. We don't know if there are actual streets lined with gold bricks, or if Abraham, Moses and St. Peter will be there to greet us. For some people, not knowing what is to come – if anything – is enough for them to dismiss any thought of living for more than today. My sense of this is that our lives will be fuller and richer if we live as if our lives counted for something, if we lived as if what we do here and now does make a difference in the long run. Living with no thought of anything larger than us, with no concept that there might be a broader perspective than ours, is ultimately very unsatisfactory. It is too small, too insular. It does not encourage us to be the very best we can be. Living a life that attempts to take God into account necessarily takes everyone else into account as well. It opens us up to a life that is encompassed by riches we cannot measure in the world's terms. It makes it possible for us to experience contentment that is simply not available to folks who are constantly striving to prove themselves to a cynical and materialistically-driven world. Living a life that focuses on spiritual priorities reminds us that gratefulness is a wonderful foundation on which to build a meaningful life.
God of all good gifts, may we embrace our lives with open hearts. May we experience the richness of a life lived in your love, limited only by our own imaginations. Amen.