Luke 16:19–31, 1Timothy 6:6–19
Our Gospel reading today is a well known parable by Jesus which most of us know as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. So let me begin by telling you about a “Sunday School teacher who told his class about the story of the rich man and Lazarus. He highlighted the good end of Lazarus and the bad end of the rich man. He pointed out how one man went to hell and the other man went to heaven. He also pointed out how rich one man was and how poor the other man was. After the teacher taught his lesson he said to the class, ‘Now which would you rather be, the rich man or Lazarus?’ One boy raised his hand and said, ‘Well, I'd like to be the rich man while I'm alive, and Lazarus when I'm dead.’”
And all God’s people said, “Amen!”
Truth be told, I think that’s what we all really do want and hope for. The best life now, followed by an eternal home in heaven with God forever. Our hopes and our dreams for ourselves – and for our children – is that we live a life that is blessed. Nothing wrong with that. The bottom line is that we want to be happy. We want to live a life without regrets. Would you agree with me on that? Yes?
Okay. I want to talk with you today about a life lived where we can talk about being happy. And the first thing I want you to think about is thinking about what it means to be happy.
Now – being happy means different things to different people. So it’s kind of hard for me to stand up here and say this or that or the other thing will make all of us happy. No. It’s different for everybody. And that’s why before we dig into this parable about the rich man and Lazarus, I want to take a quick look at our reading from I Timothy.
The very opening line of this reading tells us, “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” Let me suggest right there that maybe – just maybe – what you and I are looking for is NOT happiness at all. “Wait Randy! What do you mean I don’t want to be happy? Of course I want to be happy, doesn’t everybody?”
Well – let me suggest to you that what I think you really want in this life is contentment. Right? Think about it. Paul is writing here to his young protégé Timothy, and he doesn’t say a word about wanting Timothy to be happy. The word he uses is contentment. “…there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”
Let me remind you that happiness is an emotion. Happiness depends on things happening. So I need a lot of good things happening at the right time and in the right way in order for me to be happy. But contentment – contentment – is a way of being. Satisfied. One resource I read this week says that, “The Greek word for ‘contentment’ carries with it the notion of sufficiency — ‘enoughness.’” Now I know that that’s not a word – spell checker didn’t like it, but I really like it. Enoughness. “It implies satisfaction,…. In other words, people can be happy, but what they should really be pursuing is contentment.”
A number of years ago, one of our elderly members was hospitalized. And although she did recover, we didn’t think she was going to. But she was in the ICU with several of her family members there – she started talking to me. And we all heard her say this. And unable to open her eyes fully, and speaking in a just audible voice, she said, “Pastor, I just want you to know that my favorite sermon of yours was the one you preached about stuff.”
And we chuckled a little bit about that. Now, you remember my sermon on stuff don’t you? Of course you do. Actually, I’ve preached more than one sermon on stuff. Because most of us – including me – have way too much stuff. We are often focused on our stuff. That we build houses and other places just to store all of our stuff. And most of our time is used taking care of all of our stuff. You remember that?
But here is an elderly woman – expecting to die – wanting to die – preaching to me. “Remember your sermon on stuff, pastor. Life is not about stuff or having more stuff.”
Especially when you reach the end of your life, and you look back. It seems to me that life is not about acquiring wealth. It’s not about hoarding money or having the things that money can buy. No. Life is not about stuff. It’s about contentment – being satisfied – happy – can I say that? – with what you’ve got. A satisfaction that leads to contentment.
Now, you ask most people what it is that would make them happy, this is unscientific of me to say this, but I would bet that some people – maybe even many people – would say having more money.
There’s nothing wrong with money. It’s a tool. But that’s all it is. You need money – I need money – we all need money to use as a tool to buy the things we need. Food, shelter, clothing. It’s a tool that God gives to us – that God gives to me – so that I can take care of my needs – pay my taxes – and share what I have with others.
But what I want to point out to all of you today is that all of our readings today are warnings. They warn of the danger of loving money. Of falling in love with money. Of falling in love with wanting to have more money. Again, our reading from I Timothy says, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Please notice that it doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil. But the love of money. The love of money.
And I would guess that if I were to ask you today, what would you rather have – contentment – or a lot of money? And for our purposes today, answering “both” is not an option – and that’s not to say that you can’t have both – but if you had to choose, what would your choice be? Perhaps the better question would be, “Which would you rather pursue?” And since I look at my role as your pastor to be an encourager – let me encourage you to pursue contentment. It is a choice. Choose to be content. Choose sufficiency. Choose to be satisfied. Choose enoughness.
I came across an article this week on MSN.com. An article entitled “25 Happiest, Healthiest Cities in America” that listed Fargo, North Dakota 6th. Fargo! And whereas most of the other cities were noted for the number of folks who ate healthy, or worked out, do you know why Fargo ended up so high on the list? It was the only one listed with this as the reason. And let me give you a clue. A lot of Lutherans live in Fargo – in fact a whole bunch of Lutherans live in the whole state of North Dakota.
Fargo was indentified high on the happiness scale due to “very high scores in regular church attendance. Fargo's fans say the city's strong sense of community, which shows up in high scores for regularly attending religious services, makes up for [the cold winters.]”
“It's also a big clue to the town's warmth,” says Stephanie Tollefson, 35, a pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, which welcomes some 5,000 worshippers weekly. [Can you imagine 5,000 people every weekend?] “People say a generous heart is a happy heart, and I see that here. The more you connect with other people, the more joy you get back,” she says. “And the more joy you have, the more you want to give back.” In Fargo, she says, “people genuinely seem to want to belong to something that's bigger than just themselves.”
It really does boil down to attitude. For instance – going back to the Gospel reading about the rich man and Lazarus – notice that the rich man is not condemned for being rich. I want to be absolutely clear about that. But it seems to me that the rich man in this parable did lose sight of what it means to love God and love his neighbor – he lost site of what it means to connect with other people – specifically in this case the poor man named Lazarus.
As I shared with you a few weeks ago when the parable of the Rich Fool was the parable of the day, what was true of the rich fool seems to be true of the rich man in this parable. Both of these rich men kept everything they had for themselves. They lived as though God did not exist.
So what can we learn from all of these readings today? May I suggest to you that the life that really is life is not going to be found in accumulating wealth just for the sake of accumulating wealth. And what any of us do with our money – what any of us do with the wealth that is ours – is our choice. The rich man in the parable Jesus told apparently did not choose very well.
So although we don’t live in Fargo, North Dakota – we do know something about living in cold weather – but I sense here in this place a great sense of joy and contentment. And if it’s true that a generous heart is a happy heart, well, then I see that here as well.
So let me ask you a question. Are there people in your world – needy, hurting people, who need your attention? Maybe they’re within our own families. Or next door. Maybe it’s a fellow student at school, or someone that you work with. Maybe it’s a homeless person on the streets of Buffalo – or a child who goes to school hungry – or maybe your focus right now is on building a school in Haiti where kids can have a meal, an education, and a church where they can learn about Jesus. These are the Lazarus’s lying at our gates.
The bottom line is, if what you really want is contentment – if you are looking for real joy in your life – I guarantee you – living your life in such a way so that God is glorified – and for the benefit of others – that’s the real secret to a successful – joy-filled life of contentment.
In fact, may I be so bold as to suggest that God’s great desire for us is that we live a life of contentment, not happiness.
And by the way, we’re likely to be very happy when we learn this secret.