Second Sunday in Lent, Year B: March 1, 2015
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Corbin, KY
The Rev. Phillip Haug
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Mark 8:35
I have often wondered how a million dollars would change my life. Have you?
As a child, I connected with the outside world by listening to the radio. I still remember an early game show: “The Sixty Four Dollar Question.” Such shows were modest indeed by current standards. Contestants anxiously awaited increasingly difficult questions. The last, and most difficult question, was the sixty four dollar question.
Years later, the show was resurrected by television. Time, inflation, and sponsorship had reached new heights. So the show was appropriately entitled “The sixty four thousand dollar question,”
In the late nineties, and not to be outdone by simple inflation, ABC took their lead from the success of a leading edge British show and aired an even grander prize in “Who wants to be a millionaire?” Host Regis Philbin started with easy multiple choice questions that gradually became more challenging.
In 2002 the show was syndicated with Merideth Vieira as host for eleven seasons. The show continued in 2013 with Cedric The Entertainer as host, to be followed last Fall by Terry Crews.
The format is simple. Contestants take turns answered a string of fifteen questions. In the 2000 season, five contestants captured the million dollar prize. In some seasons no one does. This popular show has won seven Daytime Emmy Awards.
Contestants are posited as the winners of this game, no matter how much, or how little, they win.
They are chosen by a process of interviews which are more concerned about the entertainment potential of their stage presence that what they know.
NBC offered up a show in December 2005 that did not require the contestant to know anything. The most intellectually challenged could easily play Deal or No Deal. It was a resounding success.
Today, versions of the show are broadcast in more than 80 countries. In the American version, Host Howie Mandel leads contestants through a succession of chance opportunities. Prizes range from a paltry one cent to an intoxicating million dollars. Contestants are periodically offered a deal to settle for a fixed amount or to risk continued uncertainty – among widely differing possibilities.
Like many gambling opportunities, this one is sheer chance. The big difference from the lottery or other games of chance is that the player risks nothing but the opportunity to win a larger prize or of being left with a smaller one.
Like flashing lights and clanging bells of a Las Vegas casino, the whirl and splash of the “game” is intended to hook greed and so impel contestants to take risks they might not otherwise. Friends, family, and the audience chip in to egg the contestants on. It is the fantasy dream come true: easy money with no risk of real losses.
More often, the risks we take do have real consequences. As a nation we have come through a period of gambling more than ever. Families by the millions have bet their credit worthiness and financial well being on an uncertain future, all the while reducing their rate of savings to a trickle. Ten years ago in 2004 there were 1.6 million bankruptcy filings.
That is more than one for every 200 people or for every 79 households. In 2005, the rate did not improve, rising to one for every 60 households. While this spike was fueled in part by legislation which reduced bankruptcy protection, research by the Federal Reserve indicates that household debt was at a record high relative to disposable income. The economic recovery has helped. Last year, filings fell below one million, though 1.4 million cases are pending.
As a nation, we Americans set ourselves up for financial hard times. We happily lived with the illusion of material abundance while having too often settled for spiritual poverty.
No one is immune from the mania for more. Several years ago a friend of mine was elected bishop of Atlanta. His good fortune fell to naught when the Standing Committee found out that Bob had declared bankruptcy — after the election and while preparing to move from a prestigious parish in Richmond, Virginia. He simply had not said anything about his perilous financial position.
The real enemy may be greed, but Greed has allies – envy and pride among them – that seek to break us and break up relationships.
Jesus challenged his disciples with a painful spiritual truth: “Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
This is a hard saying, but somehow we know it is true. We know of Albert Sweitzer, Mother Theresa, and others less notable, but no less heroic in their sacrifices for others.
Have you ever asked yourself how far you would be willing to go to “save your life,” and what you might be willing to give up to “lose your life,” from a biblical perspective?.
Millionaires are among the fastest growing segment of the population in the United States. In their ground breaking book “The Millionaire Next Door” authors Thomas Stanley and William Danko point out that in America, 80 percent of millionaires have acquired their wealth on their own within their own lifetimes.
They did it the old fashioned way by living within their means and investing in the future. Many have done so by starting and running small business enterprises. In the main, they live simply, buying their clothes at WalMart, wearing Timex watches, and driving modest cars.
Not everyone is disposed to such self discipline and a million dollars is, of course, not what it was in the not too distant past.
But what about ten million? Most of us would notice such an increase on our balance sheets. James Patterson and Peter Kim,. in their book, The Day America Told the Truth, asked Americans what they would give up to acquire ten million dollars. Here is what they heard:
Would abandon their families — 25%
Would abandon their church — 25%
Would become a prostitute for a week — 23%
Would give up American citizenship — 16%
Would leave their spouse — 16%
Would lie and let a murderer go free — 10%
Would kill a stranger — 7%
Would put their children up for adoption — 3%
To such Jesus affirms “What will it profit a man – or a woman – to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their life”
Ancient proverbs affirm that “the greedy person stirs up strife, but whoever trusts in the Lord will be enriched.” (Proverbs 28:25) And “Those who are greedy for unjust gain make trouble for their households.” Proverbs 15:27
In his letters to the Corinth and to Ephesus, Paul says the greedy will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:10, Ephesians 5:5). So how will we contend with our own inclinations to be greedy??
One way is to get to know those who have achieved mastery over their own greed. Some we might meet in history books, others we might know personally. Spend some time with them. Certainly such mastery did not come easily. For the way is narrow, and few are they who find it.
For example, consider Bill Bright of Campus Crusade. Bill died at the age of 91 in 2003. He committed his life to forming leadership for Christ on college campuses. In 2011 Campus Crusade was active in 191 countries, had 25,000 missionaries and an annual budget of $490 million. Money magazine has repeatedly found it to be “the most efficient religious group” in the country.
What few people know is that Bill led by example: both in his spiritual life and in his personal finances. Although at the head of a financially sound and powerful institution, he drew an annual salary for himself of $20,000 per year – modest indeed considering the impact his life had on so many tens of thousands of young people and the resources at his disposal.
For many years I served on the board of the South American Missionary Society – an organization with roots in Great Britain that serves Spanish Speaking people in Central and South America. It was my delight to work with other board members, several of whom practiced what they called “double tithing.” That is, they gave ten percent to the work of their local congregations, and another ten percent to missionary work – mostly to the work of Christ among the poor. Such freedom is infectious, and is at the heart of the small independent society’s capacity to support upwards of fifty full time missionaries – more than The Episcopal Church..
Like many others, I find it refreshing and instructive to go on a spiritual retreat from time to time. I need not go far. I usually going to a Trappist monastery near Bardstown. The accommodations are simple and spare: single rooms, each with a bed, chair, desk. and no more.
There is a spacious church, a chapel, a well stocked library, and extensive grounds with miles of trails which you may walk at any speed you might chose. A few places are set aside for the rare conversation: a reception area, some small rooms of two or three chairs, the chaplain’s office, and a gift shop.
At such monasteries, the labor that sustains community life is carried out with quiet dignity, out of sight from the curious.
Are such simple surroundings enough? Well, they are more than much of the world possesses. It takes little imagination to surmise one could live well for a long time without the clutter most of us accumulate.
What more could anyone want: add a second chair for visitors, perhaps a few books, a computer connected to the internet, some recordings — yet all these are in areas available to community –no one need claim them for their own.
One visitor, pondering these matters asked himself “If I knew that everyone in the world would have enough if I had only this much, would this be enough for me?” The answer was a clear “yes.”
The world and TV has the corner on the seven deadly sins: Pride, greed, gluttony, sloth, jealosy, envy, lust.
But a life committed to Jesus has the corner on the seven fruits of the spirit” Love joy, peace, longsuffering, patience, goodness, self-control.
The scriptures commend life of faith and faithfulness as the best game in town.