This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, May 31, 2015.
Reading: 1 Timothy 6-10, 17-19
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear that together, we might be inspired to not only speak but to live your Word in the world starting today. It’s in that most holy Word’s name—Jesus the Christ—we pray. Amen.
The “American Dream.” It’s built on the principle that if you just work hard you can “make it,” providing better opportunities for yourself and your progeny. If you put your “hand to the plow” you can have just about anything you want. For me the dream was always about being married, having kids, a dog, a big house with a white picket fence, and two cars in the driveway. We often view people who acquire these things as people who are “living the dream.” It’s the American dream—it may be slightly different for each of us—but we were all—in some way shape or form—raised to believe in this dream.
Historian John Truslow Adams, who coined the term, called it “the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world.” It has inspired millions of people from every corner of the globe to come [to the United States] in search of liberty and opportunity. But the financial crisis, housing bust and Great Recession have caused more of us to worry that the American dream is out of reach.
For the vast majority of Americans, there is a sense that achieving the American dream is becoming more difficult,” [writes] Mark Robert Rank, Thomas A. Hirschl and Kirk A. Foster in a new book, Chasing the American Dream.
In a study conducted last year by USA Today, the cost of living the American Dream—for an average family of four—is $130,357 a year. That figure is based upon a median budget for owning one car and a house, taking one family vacation, buying clothes and food, paying your taxes and average health insurance premiums, supporting your children through school and contributing to a college fund, and putting a little away for retirement. $130,000 is a lot of money, especially “in a country where the median household income is about $51,000. Add one more child and [a second] vehicle and you could easily reach $150,000.”
To live the dream, the average American has to spend nearly three times their annual income; and, the reality is that many of us do. Our homes, education, vehicles, even our groceries are often bought on credit. It’s an alluring promise to get what you want now and pay later. “It’s an illness that is brought on by promises of ‘six months same as cash,’ or a 20 percent discount if you use your store credit card. It’s basically the idea that you can enjoy something today and pay for it tomorrow, and it feeds on our desire for instant gratification.” The numbers are, quite frankly, scary. The average US household owes $7,281 in credit card debt alone. If you were to look at only those households that owed a debt, the average would nearly double to $15,609. The average household mortgage debt is $156,706; and, the average household student loan debt is $32,956.
I could go on and one with statistics such as these, but the point is this: We have become a credit-crazed society. Even those of us who are not in debt up to our ears know that most Americans spend money with very little self-discipline. We look at our W-2 at the end of the year and wonder, “Where did it all go?”
This is the American nightmare, and it leads to debt collectors and personal bankruptcy—not to mention tremendous stress.
The pursuit of the American Dream has become, for most of us, a nightmare that leads to a great deal of stress, anxiety, and fear. It’s a nightmare that is having a detrimental impact on our personal health; and, it strains our relationships not only with our neighbors but also with God.
In our reading for today, Paul warns Timothy, “people who are trying to get rich fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal (1 Timothy 6:9-10, Common English Bible). Perhaps, writing to our context today, Paul might say, “People who are trying to pursue the American Dream by living beyond their means can easily fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction. The love of money and the stuff it buys is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have really hurt themselves because they have made the American Dream their goal.”
What dream are you striving to make real? What dream are you investing all your time, energy, and money in? Is your pursuit of that dream building up your faith or tearing it down? Is it bringing joy into your life or is it a constant struggle and nightmare?
Our struggle to pursue an unfeasible American Dream is ultimately, I think, a spiritual issue. Paul’s right. When we set our sights on wealth or seek to live beyond our means to live the American Dream, it’s really easy to fall away from faith. If, for no other reason, than we run out of time. Let’s face it: working two jobs just to make ends meet doesn’t leave much time for personal prayer and devotion, nor time to gather with the community of faith.
Paul makes a very important distinction that I think needs to be made. Money and the American Dream are not inherently evil. That being said, money and possessions, when they become our primary focus, when they become the things we ultimately pursue, that is from the devil. However, you understand the devil—whether it be a real being or the personification of evil—I think this temptation to pursue the things of this world in place of God is his work.
Here’s what the devil knows: If he can get you in debt, he can make you a slave. If he can convince you to spend all you have, you’ll never offer your tithes to God, never help the poor as you could have, and never use what you do have to accomplish God’s purposes. If [the Devil] can tempt you to become a slave to creditors, you will not know simplicity, generosity, or joy. He will have neutralized your effectiveness for the Kingdom and choked the gospel out of your life.
When the pursuit of the American Dream becomes a nightmare, our opportunity to live the Gospel becomes difficult if not impossible. Jesus’ words are absolutely true, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24, Common English Bible). Don’t let money, possessions, and the American Dream be the desire that dictates what you do; “instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness” (Matthew 6:33, Common English Bible) and you’ll never be lacking. Live the simple life by doing good. Be rich in good works. Be generous and share with others. When you do these things you will be securing yourself a treasure where moth and rust cannot destroy. Do these things and you will find life that truly is life (see 1 Timothy 6:17-19 and Matthew 6:19-21). Do these things and you will truly be living the dream: not the American Dream per se, but God’s dream. The path to joy isn’t found in money or possessions, it’s found ONLY in God. It’s found by living a simple and generous life after the Way of Christ.
The sect of Christians called Shakers were known, among other things, for their simplicity. You may be more familiar with the name as the description of a style of furniture than a religious group. Shaker furniture lacked the flourishes of other styles of furniture made at the time, but it was beautiful and excellently crafted. The Shakers also were known for their songs and for dancing and for joy.
Perhaps the best-known Shaker song is “Simple Gifts,” written by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. This song, which was sung as the people danced and worshipped, captures the invitation to simplicity:
‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come out right.
Over the next three weeks, we’ll be talking about ways we “simplify our lives, how to better enjoy what we have and give more generously, and how to handle our money and possessions in the way that God intends—and in doing these things, we will find joy.” We’ll find, in the words of Paul to Timothy, “life that truly is life” (see 1 Timothy 6:19).
Lord, help me be grateful for what I have,
remember that I don’t need most of what I want,
and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity.
 “Price tag for the American dream: $130K a year,” by Howard R. Gold, USA Today, July 4, 2014 <http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2014/07/04/american-dream/11122015/> Accessed May 30, 2015.
 Ibid. It should be noted that these numbers are consistent with a recent United Way study here in Connecticut which determined that a family consisting of 2 adults, 1 infant, and a preschooler would need an average income of $64,689 to meet a basic survival budget and $111,632 to find some sense of stability (“ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (Connecticut)—Study of Financial Hardship” published by Connecticut United Ways <http://unitedwayalice.org/documents/14UW%20ALICE%20Report_CT_Lowres_3.23.15.pdf> p.30).
 “Card Debt Statistics: 2015” by Tim Chen, NerdWallet.com <http://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/credit-card-data/average-credit-card-debt-household/> Accessed May 30, 2015.
 Adam Hamilton, Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity, Revised and Updated (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), p23-24.
 Hamilton, Enough, p27.
 Hamilton, Enough, 31-32.
 Hamilton, Enough, 33.
 “Prayer of Contentment” by Adam Hamilton in Enough, p6.