True Wealth and Riches
Sermon by The Reverend Neil Bramble Chapman
There are many ways in which one can become rich. If you are like Richard Branson, you have a good eye for business, excellent entrepreneurial skills and are able to put your great ideas successfully into operation. Or just think of the wealth and fame that footballer’s enjoy these days. Some are almost as famous and rich as many film or pop stars and in many ways they are businessmen with their name and face being worth as much as, if not more than their football skills. Think of David Beckham or Michael Owen. Then again, your chosen path to riches might lie in working as hard as you can all your life and by living a simple frugal life, you are able to leave £1m to your favourite dog charity. It has been known that some recluses have amassed such a fortune that when their will is made public people are surprised to learn that they were so rich.
But at the end of the day, where does true richness lie? You will not be surprised, given that this is a Christian Sermon and not a business enterprise lecture, that my answer will be given in terms of Christian Discipleship. The way of the world very much speaks of being rich in terms of the acquisition of wealth and that in doing so we will also find happiness. This was an argument with which Paul had to contend and here in his letter to Timothy, a young Church Leader, he suggests a different route to richness. Infact, he suggests a different kind of richness entirely, which is based upon being generous, being content with what we have and in being faithfully obedient to God.
In Chapter 1 of his letter to Timothy, Vs 3&4, Paul instructs Timothy to speak out against the false-teachers of the age. Many of these people were called Sophists, who were highly educated philosophers and would seek to entertain and amuse their audience in debates by using long and complicated words. In the process, these debates would spread confusion and untruth, often leading to factions and divisions within the church. Now you might think that you may have heard one or two sermons that fall into this unfortunate category, with Preachers and Ministers, yes even Ministers, using long-winded, interminable, innumerable, labyrinthine words and sentences, which seek to confound and obfuscate the meaning of a particular construct, but nevertheless make the aforementioned orator appear acutely perspicacious and distinctly sagacious, but what they have neglected to do is expunge and expurgate all the obfuscatory confabulations and simply resulted in being consummately pleonastic in an heterogeneous phraseology, which acts as a stupefacient.
In other words, they don’t get to the point and send everyone to sleep!!
In Paul’s time these false teachers brought about quarrels, envy, strife, maliciousness, suspicions and factions. He argues that the false-teachers have not themselves understood the truth and so mislead and misdirect others in their teaching. What is this truth that they have failed to understand? It is the Truth who is Jesus Christ. They do not know Jesus as the Christ and are too wrapped up in their own sophistry to notice Him. The words of Abraham in our Gospel reading ring true here. The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers to change their way of life before it is too late. Abraham’s response speaks to many who are intent on living their lives their own way rather than listening to God. “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Paul argues that possessions, wealth and earthly richness will not lead to the truth and suggests another path to true riches. In vs6-7 he says, “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it.” I grew up near to Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, the burial site of the Saxon King Redwald. In this huge grave, it was discovered that he was buried in a ship, accompanied by a great deal of his wealth and possessions. This shows us how wealthy he was and also reflects the Saxon theology, that a person was aided in their journey to the afterlife by being buried with tools, weapons and food. However, given that we have managed to dig it all up, it shows that even the great King Redwald could not literally take any of his riches with him after he died.
Paul continues to teach contentment, simplicity and obedience to God, by saying in vs 11 “you, man of God, pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” Yet as we know all too well today, there is no easy way to this contentment. Many people experience a great deal of restlessness as opposed to contentment and discover the hard way that wealth and possessions do not necessarily make one iota of difference to how we are as a person and how happy or satisfied we are with life. We can be surrounded by the most beautiful objects, the greatest art woks, the fastest cars, live in huge mansions, but still be empty inside. The acquisition of wealth and possessions may temporarily affect our standard of living or may make us feel better for a short period of time, just think of how many times you have done a bit of so-called retail therapy, the effect soon wears off! Ultimately, possessions have no lasting effect upon our lives and makes little difference to our spiritual lives and our relationship with God, although we can experience the “Holy” and “Transcendent” through beauty, but that is for another sermon!
Paul urges us instead to choose a path of discipleship, of obedience and of dedication to God. But this we know in itself to be a lifelong journey of pilgrimage, along whose path there will be hardship and difficulties, times of pain and struggle as well as times of joy, celebration and spiritual growth. In my own Christian Pilgrimage, there have been times of great spiritual blessing, richness and growth, but these have been tempered by times of turmoil and barrenness. Often these barren times are described in terms of being a desert experience, and for good reason too, for they feel to be times which are arid, desolate, spartan and lonely, they are seen as times of struggle, doubt and despair. Yet one thing we must remember about the desert is that in the midst of all the sand, one may find an oasis of plenty and delight.
The desert experience of the Christian is not unusual, nor is it necessarily totally barren. Indeed the Desert Fathers of the Early Church deliberately chose to travel into the deserts of Egypt and Syria to gain Spiritual nourishment and maturity, to deepen their faith and relationship with God. This developed out of the Old Testament prophetic tradition where Prophets such as Elijah dwelt in the desert, and the Israelites came to regard the desert as a place of renewal and purification. The Desert Fathers developed this thinking into as pattern of living where they could strip away the corruptions of daily life and devote themselves to seeking a pure relationship with God, unfettered by normal distractions. They learnt to face the deepest human tensions and fragilities in solitude. Desert monasticism grew in popularity following Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity soon after he became Roman Emperor in 324 AD. Up until this point the supreme symbol of Christian Detachment and devotion had been Martyrdom, but when this was no longer an option, desert monasticism took its place.
It would have been a had life in the desert with temperatures in the day regularly reaching 40 degrees Centigrade and at night falling below zero. They would have lived in isolation, faithfully learning to endure the desert and all its trial and temptations, often in boredom, depression, starvation, frustration and hunger, trying not to take easy refuge in the delusions and hallucinations of dazzling spiritual dramas of angelic voices and visitations which such conditions would often produce. One desert hermit, Simon Stylites, who from 423 AD to 459 AD, spent 36 years on top of a pillar and he died at the age of 69. Quite an unusual life to say the least, but it showed his devotion to God and his spiritual discipline. Overall the Desert Fathers regarded the desert as a place for overcoming the illusions of this world, for purifying the desires of the heart and a place for learning contentment and true richness.
Finally then, our own desert experiences should not then be seen as something to be struggled with and resisted, but perhaps they could be regarded as a blessing to us. For where was it that the Hebrew people received the Ten Commandments, but in the wilderness and where was it that Jesus resist the Devil and overcame Temptation, but in the desert, where his calling and vocation were also strengthened and clarified during this time. We must remember that as with any desert there are places which are described as an oasis, and it will be the same in our spiritual pilgrimage, we will find a place of rest and refuge, an oasis of spiritual refreshment in the midst of the barrenness.
The dark times of the soul, the apparent barrenness of these desert experiences which, if we are honest, we all share, should not be feared, but should be embraced as a potential time for spiritual growth and development. With the Desert Fathers, we should welcome these experiences, hard as they might be at the time, as a time for purification, for learning true contentment, for discovering true richness and real dependence upon God. We may discover that it is only through these seemingly barren times of the desert that we begin to fully know the Truth and move into a deeper relationship with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.