My sermon from September 29, 2019.
Texts: Amos 6:1, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31 Lessons for 16 Pentecost
Dear people of God, grace to you and peace this day through God in Christ. Amen.
This is an issue that is hotly debated in our country, and indeed around the world. It’s an issue that we would term “political.”
I’d like to defuse that word a little bit. We tend to use the word “political” as a substitute for “partisan.”
But one of the definitions of “political” in the Merriam Webster dictionary is this:
the total complex of relations between people living in society
I find this to be very helpful. It’s based on the Greek and Latin root words poly and polis which mean “of the people.”
And throughout all of scripture, the Divine is deeply and intimately involved with “the total complex of relations between people living in society.”
Our lessons today, all four of them, dive into income inequality, which is by no means only a modern issue. It’s an issue that God directs the prophet Amos to call out. That Paul warns Timothy about. That the Psalmist reminds us of, with God’s attention to the marginalized and oppressed. And that Jesus makes brutally clear with the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
That is a story full of intense images – images that we see all too often. Just a couple of weeks ago, in our public national discourse, comments were made about rich investors being turned off to a building because of the homeless folks sheltering themselves in the doorway.
Issues of housing affordability and income inequality collide and are lived in the houseless population of the United States.
But in order to really consider this issue, it’s important to remember that Jesus is not condemning the rich man for being rich.
Rather, the issue is that the rich man doesn’t even see Lazarus.
When we see one another, that is when relationship begins.
There is a phrase that’s used a lot right now: “I see you.” It’s a phrase that offers affirmation and validation, letting a person know that they matter and that their concerns are also our concerns, because we are all in this together – whether that’s as citizens of this country, members of the same group, or as children of God.
I believe this is what Jesus finds lacking with the rich man. He doesn’t see Lazarus, and so he doesn’t respond to him. The rich man has the means to respond, but is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t.
The prophet Amos calls out Israel in our first lesson. Amos lived in the time when Israel was at its most prosperous. Jeroboam was on the throne, and the surrounding nations were weak; Jeroboam used that reality to greatly expand the kingdom of Israel.
As tends to happen in times of great prosperity, the income inequality and disparity of living conditions became quite severe. Amos describes people living in outrageous extravagance while ignoring the “ruin of Joseph”, another name for Israel. The “ruin” is the large swath of people who’ve been left out of the prosperity. God has gifted some people with great wealth, says Amos, and the reason for that is so they can participate in God’s kingdom by sharing that wealth.
Let me say that again: participate in God’s kingdom by sharing the wealth.
In my few short weeks here, I’ve observed that you do this well. What God has entrusted to you, you share with your neighbors.
But as I thought about these stories, I was reminded that not only are we called to serve the neighbor who is poor, but also the neighbor who is rich. As Paul writes to Timothy in our second lesson, “to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
With our neighbor who is poor, we work to free them from poverty, oppression, marginalization. What about our neighbor who is wealthy?
Perhaps we are called to free them from greed. From self-absorption. From an uncaring attitude.
In my lifetime, I’ve observed that the most profound changes of heart come as a result of getting to know someone. In other words – relationship. When SOTH journeyed through the RIC process, forming relationships with LGBTQ folks provided the opportunity to be opened to new ideas and new possibilities around peoples’ sexuality, and realizing that “all are welcome” really means all.
Likewise, when someone of means is provided the opportunity to share their wealth, the door is opened to the possibility that their heart will be forever changed. Many people are just waiting to be asked. I’ve been told by colleagues that the best way to engage donors in the work you’re doing is to introduce them to a beneficiary of their giving. Let them hear the story of the person their dollars helped. Let them get to know that person.
It’s about relationship. Human interaction.
The work of literature that best illustrates this set of lessons is hands-down Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. You know the story. Ebeneezer Scrooge is a bitter, grumpy miser with no family, no friends, and no patience for compassion towards anyone or anything.
He is visited by the ghost of his partner, Jacob Marley. Marley informs him that he will be visited by “three spirits” over the course of the next few days, for the purpose of helping Scrooge to avoid Marley’s fate.
Note the parallel between Dickens and Jesus’ story: Abraham tells the rich man that even if his brothers were to behold someone risen from the dead, they wouldn’t believe him.
Certainly that is the situation with Scrooge. You may notice that Marley doesn’t give him a choice. The three spirits are coming, like it or not. Scrooge is agitated, but his heart has not yet been moved.
And that is, of course, the point of the story. For it is in the revisiting of his life, the re-experiencing of old relationships, that Scrooge begins to see through new eyes.
But only a bit. In the fourth stave when Scrooge is led by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to his own gravestone, Scrooge reacts out of terror and promises that he will keep Christmas. We still do not see Scrooge’s experience of metanoia, of turning and going a new way. Not yet.
That doesn’t happen until the fifth and final stave of the story.
In that fifth and final stave, Scrooge is brought back to the here and now. It is Christmas Day! He hasn’t missed it!
Contrary to his former behavior, Scrooge develops a relationship with everyone he encounters. Scrooge not only develops new relationships, but re-forms and deepens old ones.
And he is thereby changed. He has been given an opportunity to share what he has, and in the wake of his newly opened heart, he discovers the joy that generosity brings.
Joy like his silly chuckling while plotting to send an enormous turkey to Bob Cratchit’s house. His running into the gentlemen who’d been raising money for the poor the day before, and pledging to them today far more than they could even believe. His appearance at his nephew Fred’s house today, after basically throwing Fred out of the office the day before.
And of course, his complete surprise for Bob Cratchit the next morning, even as Bob thought he ought to call for Scrooge to be taken to hospital:
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
Scrooge has discovered the unparalleled joy of generosity. He has found that greed is about getting, but Gospel is about giving. And ultimately it is gospel living that brings us great joy and fulfillment. Not because we expect to receive something, but because it is the right thing to do. Luther put it this way: “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.”
The numbers around income inequality in this country – and indeed, in the world – are so staggering as to be paralyzing. It’s important for us to be mindful of the scripture we’ve heard today. And I think it’s also helpful to remember that when we reach out, when we actually see the person we are helping, it makes all the difference.
“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them….. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. …..and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
Dear friends, what we do today, matters.
How we are moved to respond to need with generosity, matters.
That we open our lives and our hearts to God’s transformative love, matters.
And that we live that transformative love in serving others, matters too.
Shepherd of the Hills does an extraordinary job in this realm. I would encourage us all to invite others to join us in this work that connects us all to one another and to God in Christ.
It is not easy work.
But it is desperately needed, by so many.
“God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.”
May we continue to live by that reminder from Luther, so that all may know Christ’s love.