You don’t have to raise your hands on this one. But I do wonder how many of you spent some time this week fantasizing about that Powerball lottery. What would you have done with $250,000,000? What dreams would you have indulged? What unthinkable thoughts did you think?
Well, now, I, being a really good Baptist boy, who, despite his Kentucky upbringing, has never so much as visited a racetrack, I do not gamble. I did not fantasize about winning the Powerball lottery. For one thing, I remember enough mathematics to be aware of what the odds were, and figured that there are other ways to throw away my money. No thank you. I didn’t spend any energy whatsoever dreaming about what I would do with a quarter-billion dollars. I did not even think about traveling around the world and staying in luxury hotels. I did not for one moment indulge in notions about a new house and a new car, new clothes and maybe even a new computer to replace the one that died the other day. No, I didn’t for one instant even calculate that this works out to getting $684,931.51 every single day for an entire year. Nor did I stop to figure out that even if I lived to be a hundred years old, I would have to spend six and a quarter million dollars every year just to use it all up. I wasted not one second on such fantasies.
But I’ll tell you what I did fantasize about. I thought about what it would be like if one of you won the Powerball prize. See how pastoral and compassionate I am? I hoped that one of you would win the big prize, and then tithe it! Wow! The pastor of the Powerball prize winner, who would, next Sunday, drop in the plate, casually and with studied nonchalance, a check made out to Takoma Park Baptist Church .. that’s Takoma with a “k” in it .. for $25,000,000. That I did dream about, and I wasted a few idle moments imagining what this church would do with twenty-five mill. Is the roof leaking? So what! Tear it off and build a whole new roof. Is the carpet worn; is it stained? Never mind, rip it up and replace it. In fact, don’t worry about the roof or the carpet or the pew pads or the broken stained glass windows. Let’s just take our new wealth and build a whole new church building. How would that be? Seating for two, three, four thousand people, right on this corner. Oh, I dreamed a big dream.
And it gets better. Did we struggle to buy a new van? Never mind. Get another one while you’re at it. Get a big highway bus too. Get a fleet of vans, with liveried chauffeurs to drive them. Chump change when you have twenty-five million to work with!
And I began to think about how we could satisfy everybody’s desires. The music folks want more workers. Okay, fine. Get them an organist, get them a percussion section, hey, get them a whole orchestra. We can afford it! The older folks want an elevator? Right. No problem. Glass bubble, air conditioned, with Muzak playing, “Lord, lead me on to higher ground.” No problem.
And missions and ministry, too. How about tuition free after school enrichment for 200 children, how about our own missionary airplane to take supplies and people overseas, how about tearing down these houses out here and building a senior citizens’ home, and it won’t cost you anything to live there? How about that? Oh, I really got it on fantasizing about a church with a financial windfall. I was so sorry to hear that some guys in Ohio won the prize; I can’t understand why they won’t take my urgent evangelistic phone calls!
Lots of fun to dream. And then, you know what? I sat down and thanked the Lord that it didn’t happen! That’s right, I sat down and thanked our gracious God that it did not happen. Because there is an incalculable spiritual danger in having too much. There is a destructive, corrosive, deadening effect when you have too much. And so, strange as it sounds, I thank God none of you won the Powerball prize. My prayer was and is just about like the prayer of the poet of Proverbs:
“Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’, or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.”
What a wonderful reading of the human condition! What an amazingly accurate insight into what happens to us! There’s a spiritual issue about being too rich, and there is a spiritual issue about being too poor. What should we ask for, then? Enough. Just enough. Let’s look more closely at what Proverbs teaches us.
First, the writer of Proverbs prays, “give me [not] riches ..or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’”
The issue about wealth is that it leads us to a set of illusions. Having too much leads us to conclusions that are not true.
First of all, we think that whatever we have, it’s ours. Ours to keep, ours to use for whatever we want. And that’s not true. It’s not ours. The Bible says that the earth is the Lord’s and its fullness, for He made it. But when you have too much, you think it’s yours. In my experience, the more people have, the more they want. The more they own, the more they want to accumulate. If you have too much already, the odd thing is that you want still more.
More than that, when you have too much, you begin to believe that might makes right. If you’ve got wealth, you’ve got power; and power corrupts. Power destroys. If we have too much, it isn’t long before we start believing that we can do with it whatever we want. And once we get to that point, morality goes out the window, love disappears, and we become selfish, shriveled, scanty shells of what God has called us to be. People who have too much all too often use it to crush others.
More than that, if you have too much, you forget that there is value in working for something. If you have too much, and things come too easy, you forget that Rome was not built in a day, nor is everything an instant pudding, add water and you’ve got it. You forget how much joy there is in striving for something. The other day I went to see the religious liberty exhibit at the Library of Congress. It has lots of material on the American experience of a free church within a free nation, as opposed to the older European idea that churches should be supported by tax money. In that exhibit I was interested to see a part of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia; in that book, Jefferson comments about the church in Virginia in colonial times, supported by the British government. He says that tax support “contributed mightily to the laziness of its ministers.” Right! If you want to see me kick back and do absolutely nothing, win the next Powerball prize and tithe it, because when you have too much, there’s nothing to work for, nothing to strive for. No goals, no aims, no dreams, no hopes. Really, no excitement. It would be a boring, grim business, to have too much! Too much robs us of the joy of working for something.
In a nutshell, the issue about having too much is that we lose sight of our need for God. Those who have too much easily forget that it came from God, that God can take it away, and that God’s will is that we should use what we have in order to bless others. “Give me [not] riches .. or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” How right the author of Proverbs is! If we have too much, we get very full of ourselves, we forget God, we deny that we need God, and we write Him off as an irrelevant relic of a bygone age. Better to pray, along with Proverbs, “give me not riches.”
But, and I find this most interesting, the poet of Proverbs also encourages us to pray that we not have poverty. “Give me not poverty”. He is not some spiritual do-gooder, eating bread and water and thinking himself extra holy. He is not some pious poser, trying to impress you with how saintly he is because he gets his clothes at the thrift store and puts cardboard in his shoes. There are people who have to do these things; and it’s sad. But the Bible does not suggest that they are spiritually better than those who do not have to. The Bible tells us that we need to pray for enough, because poverty too is a spiritual issue. Not having enough also tears down our spiritual health. “Give me [not] poverty ... or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.”
How did we ever get the idea that poverty was somehow spiritual? How did we ever invent the notion that God blesses us with poverty? But for centuries of Christian history, young men were told, if you would follow Christ, go, sell all you have, and enter the monastery. Young women were admonished, forget the jewels and the luxuries of a home; embrace Lady Poverty and go to the convent. For generations people were told that there was something uplifting and wonderful about being poor.
And some of us have our stories too. Our stories are true, I do not doubt that. But there’s something we miss, something we don’t see in them. You know the kind of story I’m talking about. We’ll say, “Oh, I was one of ten children, and my papa worked two jobs just to keep bread on the table, and my mama scrimped and saved and made us clothes out of feed sacks. But we hardly even knew we were poor, because we were so blessed with love.” You’ve heard those stories? Maybe you’ve even told them?
All right, that’s fine. But what about the stories you never hear? What about the other stories? What about the stories that go, “My papa dropped dead at 45 from working so hard, and my mama was disabled and we had to beg from the neighbors and move every year so we could stay a jump ahead of the rent man?” You don’t hear those stories. You don’t hear those stories because the people that lived them are so spiritually starved they aren’t in church, or, if they are, they know there’s no inspiring story to tell. For them, there was no benefit in being poor. It was degrading.
And then, what about other stories that might go, “My papa went to jail for stealing when we were little, and my mama had lots of boy friends, and said that was the only way she could feed us.” You aren’t going to hear that story in church, are you? There’s no inspiring testimony there, is there? But I’ll tell you what it does teach us. Exactly what the Scripture says, “.. I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.” Let’s not romanticize poverty. Poverty drags people down. Poverty erodes people. For every person that can testify that their family rose above poverty and was rich in love, I will give you ten families, a hundred families, for whom poverty was deadening, dulling, and dreadful. Ten families, a hundred families, for whom poverty was the grim reaper that took away everything, including their self-esteem, and including their relationship to God. This is not what God wants for us, too have too little, any more than He wants us to have too much.
Yes, it is right to pray that we not live in poverty. It is right to pray for a job, or for a better job. It is right to pray for an opportunity to advance. I like what old John Wesley preached in the Eighteenth Century: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Not a bad formula. By the way, while we were away, I learned that four people related to our church got new or better jobs; I need to go away more often! In fact, while I was away, the church itself got a windfall of nearly $50,000. I really do need to go away a lot more! But, you see, God wants to bless us. God wants us to rise from too little. God wants us to have enough.
It is right to pray that we be delivered from poverty. It is spiritual to ask for deliverance from poverty, lest we be tempted to cut corners, lest we cheat and be less than what God calls us to be. “Give me [not] poverty, or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.” It is right to pray for enough.
But the key word is “enough”. For, you see, Proverbs hits it right on the mark. “Feed me with the food that I need.” Feed me with enough. Enough. Not too much, lest I forget that I need God. Nor too little, lest I forget that God needs me. But enough. How much is enough?
Jesus taught us to pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He didn’t teach us to pray, “Give us this day the Hostess bakery, so I can have it all.” He taught us to pray for enough for today. Nor did He teach us to pray, “Give us this day one little old stale cracker crumb.” He taught us to pray, “Give us our daily bread”, our enough. It is right to pray for enough, for people who have enough have time for the things of the spirit. People who have enough create schools, support churches, buy books and art, listen to music. It’s right to pray for enough.
The Apostle Paul exclaimed, “My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Your every need, yes. But not your every whim or your every fantasy. But He will satisfy our needs, He does not want to leave us destitute.
“Feed me with the food that I need.” Feed me with enough. Enough so that I can share with others but not feel smug and self-righteous about it. Just enough.
Enough so that I can invest in the community where I live and can help shape it and mold it into a growing place for its children. Enough.
Enough so that I can freely and joyfully give a tenth to my church, letting it redeem lives and help the poor and send the good news abroad. Enough.
Enough so that I can support things beautiful; enough so that I can be a little lavish sometimes, just for the sake of celebrating ... like Robert White spending money on annual plants out here so that there will be color, even though perennials would be more economical but less colorful. Lord, give us enough to live a little! Enough.
God wants to supply enough. Trust Him for it. God wants to supply our daily bread. Pray for it. Pray for enough. Pray for courage enough to overcome life’s obstacles. Pray for strength enough to work diligently for what you receive. Pray for grace enough to get past the mistakes you will make. Pray for insight enough to read your own heart. And most of all pray for enough of His presence to lead you neither to deny Him nor to profane Him. Just give us this day our daily bread. Give us neither riches not poverty; just give us our enough.