Sunday, September 29, 2013

Luke 16:19-31, 1 Timothy 6:6-19 We are the Rich man and Lazarus

So my wife had a baby, and I disappeared for a while. It is good to be back at work!
Here is my sermon for Sunday, September 29th on Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19

Good morning friends!
it is good to gather in worship with all of you this morning.

We are continuing our fall journey through Luke this week-you may remember last week we talked about the parable of the unjust steward, and the dynamics of debt and forgiveness in the ancient world.

This week we have before us one of Jesus' parables that gives me the most trouble-the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I was tempted to skip this passage, because unlike last week, where we had a parable with unclear meaning, and I could have fun exploring all the different meanings it might have for us today, this week, we have a story that seems pretty straightforward. Jesus says if you don't take care of poor people, you will burn. It is straightforward, but it's also a message I don't particularly want to preach, or have preached at me. And I'm apparently not alone-of the pastor's I gathered with for lectionary study this week none had ever heard someone preach on Lazarus and the rich man. I've certainly never preached on it-I cleverly picked other themes both 3 years and 6 years ago when this story last came up in the lectionary.

But I figured that 6 years is probably long enough to overlook a story, and while it makes me a little squeamish, there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in this text that I'd like to think about with all of you.
In particular, I think it's worth reflecting on what this story says the afterlife, about parables, and of course, about money and the poor.

So to start out, lets talk about Hades. As most of you probably know, this isn't one of those topics I talk about all that often, nor is it one that I think about very much either.

In general, my thoughts are I'd rather not go there, and I'm not sure it's useful to worry about. I really prefer to focus on texts like Romans 5:18 "Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all people, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all” or Romans 11:32: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” or Colossians 1:20. "For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself ALL things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross,” not to mention teachings about God as love, who cares for all people, and wants them to be blessed.

These passages suggest that God's love is sufficient for all of creation to be redeemed, and that the threat of hell should not define our lives. I know that the theology of hell has been important for Christianity-it's served as a motivator, getting people to act in ways that are in line with the tradition, and I get it, sometimes we need both a carrot and a stick. But I worry that in our efforts to put the fear of God in people, we've made it harder to get close to the God of love who welcomes all people, and that the traditional Christian belief that most of the world's people are doomed to an eternity of torment is unhealthy for the church. Like Pope Francis said earlier this year, I believe that “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ... Even the atheists. Everyone! We must meet one another doing good.” (, and like the early church father, Origen, who wrote in the 2nd century, I think that in the end of time, even the devil himself will be saved.

So what do we do with our story this morning? Well, as I've been praying over this text, I've wondered if Jesus might not be communicating just a bit of this skepticism as well. Or at least, I noticed that neither the good guys or the bad guys in our story come out looking like saints.

Obviously, this unnamed rich man is the stereotypical villain-he feasts on rich food nightly, he wears only the most expensive clothing, and he ignores the poor man lying at his gates, who was hoping only to catch the drippings from the table. Surely he has received his just desserts, in a lake of fire.

But Jesus goes out of his way to build sympathy for this doomed fellow. There he is, in torment, and he sees his ancestor Abraham, seated in glory, and he cries out-not to be relieved of his torment, not to escape from his suffering, but for a single drop of water to cool his tongue. And Abraham's response- well it's just cold. Father Abraham says to his descendent: 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony'. Is that supposed to be compassionate? Helpful? A word of encouragement in a time of trouble? When Jesus asked “If your child asks for bread, do you give him a stone?” In Matthew 7:9, apparently Abraham's answer is yes, yes you do.

I guess it is possible that we are supposed to be delighted at the comeuppance of the rich man, to celebrate with the downtrodden that the rich will go away empty, as Mary said in the Magnificat, but for me, I get the sense that maybe we're supposed to notice a little discomfort down in the belly when we celebrate the suffering of another human being.

Jesus talked about hell a lot-he was worried that his community was wandering far from the fold of God, and was in deep need of repentance and transformation, and he believed that there were and are consequences for faithlessness.

But he doesn't have one static notion of hell-a specific physical description of where bad people go after they die. Rather, Jesus talked about hell using different metaphors-darkness, fire, destruction, a dump, exile, the place where teeth are gnashed. In the same way, I don't think we should read this as a literal description of the hereafter. I don't think we should imagine a pristine heaven and an awful hell, separated by a big gap you can yell across, where the sinners plead with the saved who are resting in the arms of Abraham and attended by angels for help for the rest of time.

All parables are metaphorical, symbolic, and meaningful more for their message than for their details, and in the same way, we probably ought to think of the rich man and Lazarus as archetypes-two sides of the human experience, and this as a simplified story where the whole of human existence is boiled down into the categories of the innocent suffering, who are rewarded, and the evil powerful, who are punished. But just like all the other parables where humanity is simplified into dualistic binaries, Jesus knew that life is more complicated than this, and I suspect that the afterlife is as well.

So to close this section-I believe that since life on earth cannot be strictly divided between evil rich men and those faithful servants in Lazarus' shoes, then we should not be too quick to presume that the complex mix of good and evil that dwells in each of our hearts can be meaningfully balanced and divided on one side of the up/down divide or the other. I prefer to look at this parable and learn a less precise lesson-

that when you are disconsolate, and the world seems against you, trust that God will pick you up, and you will rest in the arms of your creator, surrounded by love, filled with mercy, and granted peace.

Like Lazarus, you will be welcomed into the bosom of Abraham.

And when you look away from the poor, when you make excuses for your failure to care, when you take advantage of those around you, trust that God is watching, and your ill gotten gains will not be forgotten. There is a price to pay for your cruelty.

So when your choices come, and every day we have the opportunity to choose good or bad, love or anger, fear or courage, know that there is a reason to choose love, and to walk in the path of light.

And it is this broader perspective that I think leads us into our text from Timothy-
Timothy has a much more nuanced view of wealth and power than the one Jesus offers here. Now, of course, Timothy has a more nuanced view of wealth and power because he's writing a couple of generations after Jesus, and there are some rich and powerful Christians running around out there that he probably didn't want to upset, but that probably speaks better to us anyway.

This week, I've been particularly taken with Timothy's closing list of instructions for wealthy people-
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. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus 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.”
Haughty. What a great word! I think it's precisely correct for our current moment. Living in the richest country in the world, it is easy for us to think that America is wealthy because we are better, to forget that if I had been born in sub Saharan Africa I would be lucky to be making 5000$ a year. To think that because I have skills in the United States that render me employable, I should be proud, and celebrate that I am better than others. Watch out, Timothy warns. This is false success. It is Lazarus who was storing up treasures in heaven.
And along with the reminder not to be prideful in our power, there is Timothy's vision of being complete, of being content-that is something I can work for. It is hard for me to imagine choosing to live in intentional poverty, taking the route of Lazarus and rejecting all the comforts of modern living (though every time I visit an intentional community, I am intrigued by the setup, and how happy people seem there), but I can work at not being addicted to money. I am sure that contentment is a choice, not something we reach when we collect enough toys. In the pursuit of wealth, we can get ourselves in trouble, breaking relationships, losing our center in Christ, and get caught in a rat race that is both destructive and counter-productive.
Just as the rich man in our text from Luke finds himself ignoring his poor neighbor at the gate in his quest to enjoy the finer things in life, so too, Timothy warns, can we get caught in the trap of pursuing rather than dwelling, of chasing the next thing, rather than caring for the people around us. And so too then do we fall away from the path we are called to-to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.

He sums it up with the famous money quote (sorry).
The love of money is the root of a great deal of evil (or, to be king James about it, the Love of Money is the root of ALL evil). Notice that the common paraphrase, “Money is the root of all evil” is not Biblical. (Pull out dollar bill) I know what it is to love money. I like these things, with their idolatrous images of dead presidents, and their pagan symbols. Rachel will tell you that I hate to spend money, and am not all that much more excited about giving it away. Growing up, I had a bucket of cash where I collected spare change and the odd job money I had, and over the course of several years it grew to a pretty substantial amount, because I refused to spend it on anything-it was money, and that made it worth hording. And I'm pretty sure that's a dangerous way to think about these little pieces of paper. Also dangerous, of course, is failing to save for a rainy day, or to plan your spending, but it is easy to love money to much.

So to close, I offer to you the challenge of loving money less this week.
Maybe intentionally not daydreaming about what it would be like to have a new car, or paying attention to how often we go out to eat, or maybe just looking at the thing we own and saying 'yes, this is enough-these things, these people, this life, I can be satisfied.
And in doing so, may we care for those around us, and prepare ourselves for the heavenly banquet.
In the name of Christ,