Sermon – March 10, 2013

Posted on March 9, 2013


Sermon: The Rich Man and Lazarus – Lent 4

(Full Text)
I will start with a brief reminder of a “Creative Expression” that I offered a couple weeks ago.

This rope might remind you of the dialogue… it was called the “Cords of Apathy”.

I spoke my part of the dialogue trying to use the voice of Eeyore (of Winnie the Pooh.)

Eeyore is pessimistic, gloomy and depressed…
…the Eeyore character of the dialogue is stuck…
…he is stuck in a trap of apathy…
…and, it is of his own making.

The dialogue suggested that a way OUT of that trap might be to offer active care and concern for another…
…and in doing so to discover new possibility in life and mutual support.

But, the Eeyore character simply chose not to care… choosing apathy instead… and such choices on our part can bind us and diminish the joy-possibilities of life.

The “Creative Expression” dialogue connected with the scripture readings of two Sundays ago.

Perhaps it connects even more strongly with today’s reading about an unnamed rich man and a poor man, named Lazarus.

(Lazarus, by the way, means in Hebrew, “God has helped.”)

(Name-meanings often increase the emphasis of Bible messages.)

The rich man of this Jesus-parable never took the effort to notice another’s need beyond his own wants and pleasure.

While suffering and pain was just outside his door, the rich man didn’t notice… or care.

He missed the opportunities to discover another kind of richness.

He finds himself entangled in his own apathy… and the blessings of his life eventually turn upside down on him.

I noticed a couple sentences in a book I was reading recently and wrote it into my calendar (I included the lines in my sermon a couple weeks ago… I continue to think on the words):
“Indifference and neglect will often do more damage than outright dislike… while not being outright hatred, our regard of another as unworthy for much interest or notice can do great harm.”

It can be pointed out that the writer of Luke has two distinctive characteristics in his telling about what Jesus said, did and meant.

Right away in Luke – central within the “conception” stories of the first chapters – we see a profound prediction that, with Jesus, God is doing something remarkable… God is turning everything upside down.

God lifts up the poor and downtrodden… and diminishes the ones with power, authority, and money.

This is the first Lukan distinction that we see in today’s gospel reading about the rich man and the very poor man.

A second characteristic throughout the gospel of Luke is the bold and constant reference to money… it’s use… it’s dangers… it’s trail.

Follow a person’s money-trail and you follow a person’s priorities for life, faith and relationships.

This was made so very clear in my studying the beginning chapters of Luke during the season of Advent.

One bible scholar I heard from a few months ago suggested that money is simply central in Luke, with dozens and dozens of direct references…
…and, in one of every seven verses throughout Luke we encounter: money.

An aside about money in the Bible, I don’t know about you, but I’m always impressed to recognize the levels of financial dealings and fiduciary systems in place in the New Testament writings.

There is minted money – representative of accepted real value and “sweat equity”.

There are bankers and loans with principle and interest.

Trade is plentiful and asset management is a reality.

And, there is always plenty of room – relative to money – for abuse, neglect, injustice, inequity.

That is where the problems lie… and, especially in the case of the parable today, the problem of willful neglect and self-absorption.

Willful neglect and self-absorption are how the “Cords of Apathy” become problematic, as suggested in my creative expression two weeks ago.

We find better balance and potential for good things when we care about others and act in real ways as good stewards of God’s life-blessings… and aspects of money are primary ways in which we experience God’s blessings.

This is not a new biblical theme.

Justice for those neglected or powerless or oppressed are steadily lifted up in scripture, especially by the prophets.

Today’s first reading is all about this… the reading from the prophet Amos, who lived some 750 years before Jesus.

The name, Amos, means something about “load… or carry a load.”

Perhaps the meaning of the prophet Amos is significant to his prophetic message, in that God’s people ARE to take on some of one another’s loads.

It is part of being in meaningful and grace-filled community.

It is a part of living as God’s people in our world.

The prophet, Amos, announces God’s anger and impending judgment of God’s people because of how God’s people have practiced oppression of the poor and practiced a lack of justice.

People’s actions, their willful neglect and self-absorption, are condemned for the problems they can produce.

We aren’t used to hearing about God’s “anger” and “judgment”.

To quote a young bible scholar, Rolf Jacobson, regarding the message of Amos as applying to today’s world and its realities: “God still loves people, and God still is provoked to anger when people cause others to suffer.”

Professor Jacobson offers three specific insights to consider regarding the nature and role of God’s anger, as expressed in writings like Amos.

One – God’s anger is not opposite of God’s love… in fact, anger and judgment express God’s love for those who are oppressed.

Two – God’s anger and judgment exist to get people to change their harmful behavior… to bring about repentance and different living.

Three – we can be tempted to apply God’s anger to others, rather than to our own sins…
…the sins of our own willful neglect and self-absorption.

Remember that Jesus-saying in Matthew’s gospel?
“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

I remember a teaching-physician describing how he acted out a children’s sermon on that Jesus-phrase…

In our current American life, and the political realities that swirl about us, the message of Amos might easily be leveled at one another… without the more helpful hearing of the message as might apply to oneself.

Let me illustrate this…

Some conservative perspectives might hear Amos and say,
“See, it is about the oppressive taxes fostered by a legislative government class of people that nurtures our dependence on them, all the while making sure that their own bellies are full.”

On the other hand, opposite liberal perspectives might hear the same message of Amos but say instead,
“See, it is about the greedy economic policies of a predatory, wealthy business class, who exploit workers for forty years and then default on their pensions, all the while lining their own pockets with gold.”

One class against another… are these the only two ways to think?

Perhaps another perspective better embraces the message of Amos.

Being part of the “faith-toward-a-saving-God” class moves us toward greater wholeness and balance in our life and in our living.

We begin with ourselves when we encounter the message of Amos.

We apply the challenges to who we are…
…and how we function and live with others…
…and how we can move away from willful neglect and self-absorption toward what we know as God’s two great commandments: “Love God with our whole heart and mind and soul and strength… and, love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”

It is about balance and wholeness.

Instead of directing the message of Amos toward others, we focus Amos toward what WE do.

We are called through baptism to form, nurture, and support the faith of God’s people… ALL of God’s people… so that they can carry out God’s mission in the world.

The “so that” part is crucial… and it is a consequence of what WE faithfully do as God’s people.

As people in our unique community of faith, to quote a pastor I once heard, “We exercise our offices, we use our authority, and we employ our power faithfully, always tending the faith of the people, so they can live out their callings as God’s chosen ones… so that God’s people can fulfill the missions that God has given them.”

The words of Amos are lofty… and disturbing.

We can never seem to really rise up sufficiently to completely accomplish the challenges… but we have in each day the opportunities to rise up… sometimes much, sometimes a little.

As we were discussing a passage of scripture yesterday (during the men’s group gathered for breakfast) an illustrating story was told:
…A little boy was on a beach, picking up starfish and throwing them back into the water so that they can live and thrive.
…When somebody noticed and said the “reality” statement, “you’re not making much of a difference in the world of starfish by throwing these few back into the water.”
…The boy replied, “The ones that I threw back, what I did made a difference to THEM.”

We are asked by God, prodded by our faith, to notice and to stretch toward the possibilities of restoring, supporting, and making more whole the lives of those around us.

We are NOT called to be like the rich man of the parable.

We are called by God to let go of our tendencies toward willful neglect and self-absorption.

Referring once more to the Creative Expression dialogue (featuring Eeyore), we are called to let go of our apathy… we are called to reach out in healthy balance of care… to love others as we love ourselves, all the while loving God with our whole being.

As I pondered some verses of Colossians during yesterday’s Men’s breakfast gathering (in light of today’s scripture readings) I was struck by the 5th verse of the chapter four:
“Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.”

The time-thing… make the most of the time… the present and future.

We look at the past, especially to observe and think about what we have done, and how we fall short of God’s hope for us, short of our mission in Christ.

This looking back to look at the present and future provides possibility and hope in our repentance for the sake of our mission… to BE the presence of God in human life… to BE the caring hands of Christ in the lives of others.

It is about maturing in faith and life.

It is about integrating one’s whole self in loving relationship with God and others.

The confession we’ll speak together in a moment is a portion of the most recent Presbyterian Statement of Faith.

It states our mission toward others, the mission begun in Christ and continuing through the church, which is the body of Christ.

We’ll then sing a hymn of your hymnal, which I am assured, has never been sung here before.

So, expect some discomfort with an unfamiliar tune.

But, also, expect some wonderful proclamation in the sung words…
…it is a remarkable statement of faith in action…
…it is a beautiful prayer-hymn asking Jesus to empower us to be like him in our loving of others.

We’ll use the hymn again in worship on Maundy Thursday.

Join me in prayer…

Holy One, When Lazarus died hungry and alone, you opened the kingdom of heaven to him, and condemned the one who refused to feed him. Show us how to feed those who hunger, and nourish us when the hungry ones are us. Amen.

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