Last Sunday we had a guest preacher from Africa—the Rev. Champion Chasara, pastor of the Harare Baptist Church, and President of the Baptist Convention of Zimbabwe. The Missions Commission had a dinner last Saturday evening at the home of Roy Ann Carney in honor of Rev. Chasara and the Executive Secretary of the Baptist Convention of Zimbabwe, Rev. John Mazvigadza. Later Linda and I were privileged to host Rev. Chasara in our home to spend the night with us. We had made all the usual preparations that we make to get ready for any visitor—cleaning and picking up and putting things away (actually Linda did most of the cleaning, but I helped straighten up and put things away). We didn’t discuss it at the time, but Linda and I both had the same anxiety in getting our house ready for our guest. We were both almost embarrassed by the amount of “stuff” we have in our home, by the abundance of our material possessions. Now, we would not be embarrassed for you to come to our house, even to spend the night. Many of you have been in our home, and you know how we live. We have a nice house in a nice neighborhood, but ours is not an opulent lifestyle. In fact, our lifestyle is not much different from yours. We do not live extravagantly compared with most of the people in this church and community. But compared with the way that most people in Africa live, we live like kings and queens. You do too. All of us do.
According to the World Bank, the per capita Gross National Income for Zimbabwe is about $500 a year. That’s the average annual income for people in that southern Africa nation. $500 a year, and it has been declining every year since 1996. There are some poorer countries in Africa—Ethiopia and Burkina Faso and Rwanda and Burundi, and others. But Zimbabwe has severe economic difficulties. Pastor Chasara told us that the unemployment rate is over 60%. The World Bank figures 64% of the population lives below the Zimbabwean national poverty line. Other factors have made economic life in Zimbabwe extremely difficult—a prolonged drought, the AIDS epidemic, and political turmoil surrounding the contested recent national elections. Pastor Chasara lives in a small house owned by his church, adjacent to the church building. I think he said there are four rooms. Several of his grown children live with him and his wife because they cannot afford their own homes. A granddaughter lives with them much of the time. Frequently, they host guests who are traveling through Harare and who need a place to stay. Pastor Chasara has no automobile. He either walks or takes the bus wherever he goes. Only a few of his church members have cars. Pastor Chasara does not have a computer. A family in our church donated a computer to him last Sunday but it was too big for him to take back with him, and we are now trying to figure out a way to ship that computer to Zimbabwe.
Sitting around the table in our kitchen on Saturday night, we asked Pastor Chasara if there was anything he needed that we could give him to take back to Zimbabwe. He mentioned the computer, and a VCR, and some suitable clothing for pastors to wear on Sunday morning. I went upstairs to my closet and I pulled out ten shirts and ties, four pairs of shoes, four sport coats, two pairs of pants, two belts, all in almost new condition. We gave him an extra suitcase to take everything back with him that he could fit in it. I’m hardly going to miss those clothes, and we’re not going to need the suitcase, because we have so much. Most of us have more stuff than we need. We have been richly blessed with material possessions. Compared with most of the people in the world, we are rich. Even Americans who lived below the American poverty line are rich compared with most of the rest of the world.
Jesus said, “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Why? Because rich people much choose between two masters—God, or money. Make no mistake about it: money can be our master. The lead story on the late night news last Tuesday was the lottery, The Big Game. That was the lead story. The expected payout of The Big Game was $350 million. Even the news reporter had bought lottery tickets for herself. The luster has worn off, but a couple of years ago the most popular show on television was the Regis Philbin quiz show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I’m sure a lot of people watched the show to see if they could answer the questions, but if that’s all there was to it, “Jeopardy” would be the number one show on television. I suspect the real appeal of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was the secret fantasy of “that could be me winning a million dollars.” Most people I know would like to have a million dollars. I sure would. The danger of money is not that it is bad, but that it can become the most important thing in our lives.
When I was in high school I began to feel that God was calling me into the ministry. During my senior year we had Youth Week at our church, and I was selected to be Youth Pastor. I went to a big church with several thousand members, so it was an honor to be selected to be Youth Pastor. During my week as Youth Pastor I went with the Senior Pastor to make hospital visits, and to attend Deacons’ Meeting, and I even got to sit with him on the platform on Sunday morning and read the scripture. After that experience, I began to feel that God was calling me into full-time professional Christian ministry. There was only one problem. I knew that most pastors didn’t make a lot of money. And that really began to worry me. I even went to the Youth Minister of our church to talk with him about it. The Youth Minister was a seminary student. He worked at the church part time. He lived with his wife in small apartment across the road from the seminary campus. He didn’t make a lot of money. Seeing how modestly he lived only reinforced my apprehensions about going into the ministry. That was the main issue that almost deterred me from following God’s call on my life—money. At that crucial juncture when I was trying to decide my life’s work, money almost became my master, instead of God.
How many times in your life are you tempted to make a decision on the basis of money, rather than God? Even today I find that struggle still going on in my own life. The struggle is couched in different terms. It’s not money, per se, that has a pull on me. Rather, it’s financial security, or maintaining my standard of living, or providing for my family. Those are all legitimate concerns. The Bible teaches that we should provide for our families. We should handle our finances responsibly. We should work hard to meet our material needs. The problem comes when financial security or maintaining our standard of living or providing for our families becomes more important than God. Jesus said, “no one can serve two masters.” It’s all a matter of priorities. God first, then my family, then my work. Many people in America reverse the priorities—work first, then family, then God. I don’t know anyone who would say, “Money is the most important value in my life,” but I know a lot of people who act like it is.
Art Agnos was mayor of San Francisco from 1988-1992. During his tenure as mayor, he got a call from a top executive at the Chevron Oil Company asking if he would meet with a delegation of visiting Russian government officials. Crude oil had been discovered in a new region of Russia, and Chevron was hoping to win the contract from the Russian government. They had brought a group of Russian officials to their corporate headquarters to convince them that Chevron was the right company to do the work. To demonstrate their political clout, Chevron thought it would be beneficial to set up a meeting with the mayor.
Mayor Agnos hosted the Russian delegation in San Francisco’s City Hall. After the usual pleasantries, one Russian representative asked Mayor Agnos an unexpected question: “Do you have any advice for us in our negotiations with Chevron?” The mayor replied with an equally unexpected response: “Yes, get all that you can.” The Russian asked him to explain. Agnos said, “Well, in the American system you are about to enter a process that we call bargaining and negotiating. Don’t accept their first offer. Your goal should be to get as much as you can for your country and your people. That’s what we do here; it’s the American way.” The people at Chevron were furious. The mayor received several heated calls from Chevron executives. They were incensed over his advice to the Russians. They even accused him of being unpatriotic in not supporting American business interests. Agnos replied, “I believe deeply in American values.” That’s why he gave them the advice that he did.
It is a principal value of American capitalism to get all that you can. That’s the American way. But for the Christian, unbridled capitalism is not the highest value. If our number one priority is to get all that we can, money has become our master instead of God.
Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The imagery was deliberately ridiculous. Everyone knows that it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Does that mean that it is impossible for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom? If we trust in our riches to save us, then yes, it is impossible. Even a million dollars will not save us. Even winning the lottery will not make us right with God. It is impossible for a rich person to save himself or herself. But nothing is impossible for God. God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
In 2 Corinthians 8:9 Paul wrote: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus showed us that everyone is rich in the kingdom of God, but it is a spiritual richness that has nothing to do with bank accounts or stock portfolios or material things. It’s a richness of spirit that comes from a right relationship with God.
When Pastor Chasara arrived at our house last Saturday night, he had
big brown suitcase, about the size of a Great Dane, but it was light enough
to pick up with one hand—there was very little in it. When Linda
and I took Pastor Chasara to the hotel downtown last Sunday afternoon,
his big brown suitcase weighed about sixty pounds, and he had two other
suitcases that we had given him crammed with clothes and shoes and a VCR
and various other things to take back with him to Africa. I don’t
know how he was going to get everything on the plane, but I have no doubt
that he did. We were glad to give him what we could, and we wished
he could have taken more, because we have more than we need and he and
his people need so much. You see, God has already started working
in our hearts to make us more generous and less materialistic. That’s
the hope we rich people have of ever being a part of God’s kingdom.
We can’t do it ourselves, but God can work in us to change our hearts and
our attitude toward material things and ultimately our behavior as well.
For we know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich,
yet for our sakes, he became poor, that we through his poverty might become
Bruce Salmon, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
April 21, 2002
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