Sept. 30, 2007 I Timothy 6: 6-19 Prayer: Dear Lord, We pray that you be with us during our worship time this morning. Go with us into the study of your Word so that we might understand it more fully. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen. A lotto trouble In 2002, Jack Whittaker was the 55-year-old owner of a water and sewer pipe-laying business in Hurricane, West Virginia. He had a wife named Jewell, whom he’d loved for nearly 40 years. He had a 15-year-old granddaughter named Brandi who spent a lot of time at their house because her mother was fighting cancer. He got up at 4:30 just about every morning to dress in his all-black work clothes and get to his business that employed 100 people. Most of those mornings, he’d stop by a convenience store on his way to work and buy two biscuits with bacon. And when the Powerball Lottery rose into the hundred-million dollar range, he’d buy a ticket. That was what he did on Christmas Day, 2002. And on the day after Christmas, Jack Whittaker won $314 million, the largest undivided lottery jackpot in history. You may remember seeing him on TV or in newspaper photographs, promising to tithe 10 percent of his winnings, promising to donate millions to his family’s favorite pastors and to build big new churches, promising to set up a foundation to help people in the relatively poor state of West Virginia. ―I just want to thank God for letting me pick the right numbers … or letting the machine pick the right numbers,‖ he said as he claimed his check. (April Witt, Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2005) Mr. Whittaker elected to take the money in one lump sum. After taxes, it came to $113 million. And apparently, everyone in the world knew it. People wrote him letters and called his house, begging for money. He had to hire three people to open the letters, and a private investigator to check out their stories. His privacy disappeared. One morning he was talking to the cook at the convenience store who made those bacon biscuits when a young man ran in, upset. ―I need a job!‖ he yelled at Mr. Whittaker. ―Well, you come down to my office, and I’ll see what I can do for you,‖ Mr. Whittaker told him. But the man yelled, ―No, I need money right now!‖ That was part of the problem – what the windfall did to people who somehow thought they deserved a cut. The other part was what the windfall did to Jack Whittaker. For by New Year’s Eve, just one week after he won the lottery, folks in Hurricane, W. Va., began to get a glimmer of how most of that money would be spent. On New Year’s Eve, Jack Whittaker plopped $50,000 on the bar of the Pink Pony, a strip club. He was so drunk by the end of the night that the general manager had to put him in a limousine to go home. Mr. Whittaker began to spend lots of nights in the Pink Pony or in other bars, asking waitresses to strip for him. He drank and didn’t come home at night. He was sued for fondling women at a gambling casino. He was arrested for driving under the influence. After 40 years of marriage, Mr. Whittaker’s wife Jewell kicked him out of their house. He was caught for DUI again. She changed the locks on the house. And it wasn’t long before the lottery poison began to spread beyond their household. Mr. Whittaker bought a $123,000 house for the convenience store cook, bought her a new Jeep and gave her $44,000. She moved into an upscale subdivision with her boyfriend. But when neighbors discovered her boyfriend was a former sex offender, they shunned her, and she eventually moved out. The foundation Mr. Whittaker set up to give out charitable donations closed after nine months. But the worst was yet to come. At the first press conference after her grandfather won the lottery, 15- year-old Brandi said she wanted a blue Mitsubishi Eclipse. She got it. But she also got several other new cars. She got a round room in her mother’s new house built to look like the inside of the genie bottle on the 1960s ―I Dream of Jeannie‖ television show. And she dropped by her grandfather’s office every single day to pick up hundreds of dollars in cash, sometimes up to $5,000. Brandi began using all that money to buy drugs. Before long, she was a crack addict. She dropped out of high school. She developed a virtual entourage of 19- and 20-year-old boys. She’d buy them expensive gifts, and let them drive her cars while she scored drugs. Three of them were arrested for robbing her grandfather. But more simply took their places. Finally, one young man overdosed and died in the Whittaker house. The young people of Hurricane hated Brandi so much by that point that they wouldn’t allow her into the funeral home. When reporters went to her house, they found a teen unrecognizable as the same cute, blonde from a year before. Now she was disheveled, skinny, her face sunken. Inside the furniture was scattered all over the place, drawers were pulled out, and graffiti was written on the walls. Not long afterward, the Whittakers reported Brandi missing. The young girl, then 17, was found wrapped in plastic and dumped behind a junked van. Apparently she had overdosed, and the boy she was with panicked and hid her body. She was buried on Christmas Eve, almost two years to the day after her grandfather won the lottery. This true story was covered by the Washington Post because it was the single largest unshared lottery win in history. But there are all kinds of similar stories about how huge lottery winners have had their lives ruined by the sudden infusion of wealth. Gerald Muswagon of Winnipeg, Canada, hung himself after running through a $10 million lottery win in seven years. Karen Cohen of Springfield, Ill., was convicted of lying during her bankruptcy hearing despite winning a $1 million lottery. And Florida businessman Jeffrey Dampier Jr. was robbed and murdered after winning the Illinois lottery. Is there anything in human nature uglier than greed? I suppose you can argue that lottery winners are at greater risk than other rich people because they haven’t handled money before. They may have been raised without ―money smarts‖ or even common sense, and they don’t know have the necessary skills and values in place to handle it. Sort of like rock stars who throw TV sets out of hotel windows. But greed is nothing new. Greed is woven into the human DNA. The lottery is only our newest way of throwing its damage into stark relief. Jesus spoke about the dangers of wealth a lot. And Paul speaks about it today in our Scripture passage. We are returning to Paul’s first letter to his fellow missionary Timothy. Paul was in prison, and was nearing the end of his life’s work. In today’s passage, he is wrapping up the letter, giving advice to this young pastor who will carry on after Paul is dead. And one of the things he thinks it is critical for Timothy to know is that ―the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.‖ Let’s turn in our Bibles to I Timothy 6: 6-19. 6Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, so we can take nothing out of it; 8but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen. 17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. Timothy was working in the church in Ephesus when Paul wrote this letter. Apparently, there were some rich Christians in this church. And apparently, even in the days when life was harder than we can imagine, some people had more stuff than other people. And the seeking of that stuff presented terrible temptation. “Those who want to be rich,” Paul wrote, “fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Is that not exactly what happened to Jack Whittaker? Is that not exactly what happened to the deceased Brandi and her boyfriends who are in jail and the convenience store cook who had to move? Nineteen hundred years before Jack Whittaker won the Powerball Lottery, Paul could have told him what would happen. Note that he then says, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Money is not the root. The love of money is. For starting with verse 17, Paul tells Timothy how to deal with the rich people in his congregation. They are to do good, to use their riches for good works, for generosity, for sharing. There’s nothing wrong with money handled properly. There is everything wrong with the love of money. As some of you know, I was a newspaper reporter for 27 years before I went into ministry. And back in the 1990s, when South Carolina was trying to decide if it would continue to have video poker machines, we were doing many stories about video poker. We were hearing all these stories about people who spent their entire paychecks on the machines, but none of us reporters really got it. So I decided to do a story on the attraction, on the people who were addicted to video poker or who at least spent lots of time and money on it. The first few times I went into a video game room, I put in one dollar, lost it in two seconds, then stood around wondering how anyone could sit at a machine for hours at a time. I just didn’t understand it. Then one night, after I had completed most of my interviews, I went into one last game room for color. I decided to splurge and spend $20 – to give this poker machine thing a real chance. So I put in $20 – and started winning. I got up to $24, then $26, then hit a straight flush that started a purple light flashing and bells ringing. I had won $100! This was so much fun I couldn’t believe it! I was hyperventilating. Then I was up to $140. I had new friends. The other poker players, the ones who wouldn’t talk to me earlier, were looking up and smiling. The waitress was friendlier. And then I hit $150. I had stopped breathing entirely by then, so I cashed out. My heart was pounding. I was grinning uncontrollably. And I finally understood why people got hooked on video poker. You see, you had to win once, you had to hold the money in your hot little hand, to get it. For awhile after that, I had a hard time going into gas stations and convenience stores. I wanted to try my luck at a machine again. I thought I might just make enough money to pay the orthodontist’s bill, the soccer registration, the mortgage. I was greedy. And then fortunately, that small sliver of my brain that was still working, said, Get back in the car! What is wrong with you? ―In their eagerness to be rich,” Paul wrote, ―some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” To Timothy, to us, he offers this way of living instead: “Shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” In the Christian life, money can be a tool, nothing more. It can be useful if shared, if used to perform good works. Or it can be as dangerous as any crack pipe, any bottle of King Cobra. Just ask Jack Whittaker, who lost his wife, his granddaughter and his reputation – all for the love of money. Amen.
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