Pursuing the life that really is life
A sermon on 1 Timothy 6:6-19 by Nathan Nettleton, 27 September 1998
Real life is found in a trusting relationship with God, but the greatest obstacle to that is a culture of trusting money and we will only be able to avoid that if we fight it together.
There is a fundamental shift taking place in our culture. For the last few centuries we thought we were on the road to paradise. Since the so-called enlightenment, the explosion of knowledge and technology seemed to guarantee that it was only a matter of time before we solved all the worlds major problems. Medical science would eliminate disease and perhaps even death. Either capitalism or socialism, depending on who you listened to, would eliminate poverty and injustice. Tolerance, understanding and communication would eliminate war. We were discovering the power of knowledge and it was only a matter of time before we found all the answers and lived in a state of perpetual blessing.
For those of us in western democracies at least, the optimism probably peaked the 1950s and early 60s. Even outer space was no longer beyond our reach and every day there were new breakthroughs and discoveries in realms previously inhabited only by science fiction. There was almost full employment and people had access to standards of living beyond the wildest dreams of earlier generations.
But the bubble has burst, hasnt it? It now seems that for every technological breakthrough there has been an unforeseen and dangerous side effect. There is more war now than ever before. Two thirds of the world is malnourished. The best promises now about unemployment are to get it down to 5%, one person in twenty, and we know they wont deliver. And on that front, were still the lucky country. Rates of family breakdown, substance abuse, suicide and mental illness are spiralling out of control.
Most people my age and younger now have no expectation at all that increased knowledge will solve all our problems. They do not trust anyone who claims to know the truth. They do not trust the institutions around which our culture has been built, including the church. But they hunger for spirit and mystery. They hunger for genuine relatedness. And they hunger for authenticity, for what Paul in our reading calls life that really is life.
So as the world changes rapidly around us, where do we find life that really is life? And does the church have any role to play in the emerging culture, or is it just a hospice for a dying generation - turn out the lights as the last one leaves?
There is no doubt in my mind that the general public perceives todays church as being part of the problem, not part of the solution - a product of an era that has all but destroyed the planet, its cultures and its people, and a bastion of conservatism belligerently resisting change on any meaningful scale. And there is also no doubt in my mind that for the most part they are right. The church as we know it contributes more to the problem than it does to the solution.
When I look at the church, even at this congregation, I do not see a significant body of people who are living in glorious liberty from the prevailing currents of death and despair at work in the world. I mostly see just another group of people living lives of quiet desperation, stuck on the treadmills of underwork or overwork, of high stress, of increasing alienation from family, friends, even self, of trying to stay afloat in a sea of redundancies, burn outs, and breakdowns, of trying to find some sense of security as all the givens of our culture are turned on their heads. And for most of the people I see, church is just one more source of pressure to knuckle down and perform, one more source of time and energy demands on a people with little to spare. I see very little evidence that the church is functioning as a doorway to freedom and life that is really life for these people.
In most peoples minds, their best chance of breaking free from all this and getting the life they want lies in money, a sudden windfall - the ability to buy their way out of trouble and into some peace of mind. Thats why weve built one of the worlds biggest casinos here in Melbourne. Thats why Australians gamble more dollars per head than any other nation on earth. Because were looking for freedom, for security, for life that really is life. Of course the witness of those whove won big lottery prizes is that if you think your life is stuffed now, wait to see how bad it can get after you have a big win. Many of them are back in the same financial position they started in within ten years and they are left friendless, familyless and spiritually and emotionally crippled. Paul said to Timothy, those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
But it doesnt matter how many times we hear statements like that, it will never out-shout the billboards and the commercials all around us that constantly shout at us that true happiness is just another purchase or two away. If we just have one of these, or we just wear one of those, or we just have a holiday over there, not only will we be happier, but well be seen as attractive and successful by others and that will attract more happiness. But woe to those who cant keep up, who cant afford the next purchase, who have not invested wisely so that theyll be able to maintain their lifestyle in retirement. They will be written off as losers, as failures, as misfits. Woe, woe, woe.
I suspect that most of you are not that different from me in that you find all that stuff impossible to resist alone. I mean, Ive obviously not gone for the big income as anyone who can read the churches financial report knows, but I still get caught up in the urge to have one of the newest thing, or even more to give in to busyness, to taking on this, that and the other projects so that Ill be seen as important and successful and productive and indispensable. Caught up in building the image of myself as the young hot-shot who can really make things happen and who any church would be lucky to have.
And while in the progress of grooming my own public profile I may actually do some valuable things for others, at the end of the day its really about pandering to my own ego and creating some sort of future security, and the whole charade crowds out any time and energy that might have been available for following Pauls advice here and pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Our pursuit of security and contentment, whether we observe it at a global level in the mad accumulation of economic restructures and technological breakthroughs, or on the personal level in the mad accumulation of consumable possessions or accolades and accomplishments, our pursuit of security and contentment actually undermines itself by keeping us from facing the authentic components of life that really is life.
We brought nothing into the world and we take nothing out of the world, but if we can be content with good food and clothing and presumably shelter, then we may be able to get off the treadmills and begin to combine these with godliness. For life that is really life, life that has authenticity and integrity is found only when we find the source of life itself and that source is in God. Life that is really life is life that is deeply rooted in an intimate living relationship with Jesus Christ, for it is Christ who gives life to all things and Christ who provides us with the richness of true enjoyment of life. Thats easy to say of course, but the reality is that fear of the future in a bewildering storm of change keeps us chained to the treadmills in case the world leaves us behind while we pause. And the church mostly carries out its social prescribed role of patting us on the back while we keep treadling and telling us that were model citizens and productive contributors to the general good of society.
Well its all a lot of bulldust. You know it is. I know it is. But the trouble is were not so sure we know what to do about it. We feel the hunger for life to be different, for things to be better. We all do, everybody does, otherwise the casino would go out of business. And here we are huddled together in a seemingly outdated institution whose message contains whispers of promise and hope, but when we look around us at one another we see only mirrors of our own unsatisfied hungers and our own fears that maybe well never find anything more than another encouraging pat on the back as we go under. And unfortunately the church as we have inherited it is not very well placed to do much more than that because long ago it traded integrity for acceptability and now its one of the crumbling bastions of an era that will die with the last of the baby boomers.
But..., and before you all go out and slit your wrists, but... we dont have to be the church as we have inherited it. We have choices. We can stop playing those games and really fight the fight of the faith.
There is a place for an authentic community of faith as we go through this massive transition and into the unknown world of the next millennium. And if my own needs are in any way representative then I think I know what the primary role of that community of faith will be. I said before that on my own I find it pretty much impossible to live out of step with the overall direction of the surrounding greedy hedonistic culture, to break free from it enough to embrace the values of Jesus Christ. What I need more than anything else from a community of faith is a group of fellow travellers who in their common commitment to the life of the Spirit can actually create a small counter-culture in which each of us is strengthened and sustained and affirmed in our pursuit of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness - indeed of life that really is life.
It still wont be easy, but it might make it possible. And Yes, Ill admit that in some ways thats escapist, that it puts a wall up for our little group and hides behind it so that we can do our thing sheltered from the big bad world. Yes it is that, but its not a refusal to face the world, and those of you whove known me for a while know that I am not one who has refused to engage with the world. It is a realistic acknowledgement that in a world that is now consuming itself to death, we will not be able to engage it without being swamped and consumed by it unless we have places of refuge under Gods sheltering wings where we can learn to to dance to a different tune. Few us are going to be strong enough to pick up the new tune if its being drowned out by howls of derision and accusations of treachery.
Most of us will only be strong enough to break free of the shackles of our grasping hard-hearted culture if we can do it in the company of others. Funnily enough, that seems to have been what Jesus had in mind all along. Now the question we need to face up to over the coming weeks and months, and perhaps the question we need to be asking ourselves as we fill in those church vision questionnaires this week, is what are the things we need to be devoting ourselves to together that will enable us to become that kind of community of faith? What are the things that will enable those extremely counter-cultural values to sink deep roots into our communal soul so that they begin to bear fruit within this group and create a viable alternative for others wishing for a way out? What things will enable us to function as a doorway to freedom and life that is really life for ourselves and then for other people? Im quite sure that an hour a week of happy songs and cheery handshakes is not going to be enough to get me through. Those days are gone and if we dont catch up with the new needs, so will we be.
God has called us from death to life, to life that really is life. And if we heed the call together we just might be one of the communities that can survive the traumatic collapse of the old world and carry the faith, ever new, into the unknown new world that is breaking open before us.