Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon for Proper 21, Year C, Sunday, September 29, 2013

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

Beloved sisters and brothers, let us look to the Lord.
May only God’s word be spoken,
May God’s word be heard.
In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

As I was reflecting on this week’s gospel, a particular song showed up and took up residence in my head. And while I don’t know about you when you’re working on something, for me there’s almost always music in the background and sometimes a particular song can just kind of show up with its bags packed ready to go along on the ride.

For me this week, it’s a wonderful traditional African American spiritual that is based on Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. In the song the rich man is called “Dives” (dee’-vays) which comes from an even older tradition, and is the result of a misreading of the Latin in verse 19. The name Dives is actually nothing more than the transliteration of the adjective “rich”, which in the Latin is dives. Anyway, from a portion of the spiritual (sung) ...
Rich man Dives he lived so well,
Dip your finger in the water,
come and cool my tongue,
cause I’m tormented in the flame
And when he died he went straight to hell,
Dip your finger in the water,
come and cool my tongue,
cause I’m tormented in the flame
The rich man lived so well, yet from across the chasm, now he is the one begging, looking up and wanting a handout, desperate for a drop of water to ease his miserable torment in hell. Hearing that melody in my head seems to only enhance the sense of divine reckoning that is so abundantly portrayed in this parable.
Dip your finger in the water,
come and cool my tongue,
cause I’m tormented in the flame
There’s nothing about this parable that’s difficult to understand, but maybe it’s difficult to hear simply because its meaning is so clear: not only that riches can’t save us, but also that it ends in deafening silence.

We’re also faced this week with a Jeremiah who does not seem to be acting very wisely; he’s investing in an enemy occupied field at the very moment that their armies are besieging Jerusalem. At that moment, it would probably seem unlikely that Israel will ever own that land again. Not very wise, Jeremiah. This kinda looks like blind hope flying the face of reason.

But in making this purchase, Jeremiah is obeying his God. A God who commands an optimistic kind of action at a pessimistic kind of time to show God’s people that God has a stake in Israel and that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Jeremiah is investing in a future that can only come from God.

With nearly 870 million hungry and chronically undernourished people in our world, with 1 in 5 children hungry every day right here in our own backyard, this can seem like a pretty pessimistic time. It can be easy to wonder just what can we do in the face of such overwhelming need? But, it is God’s own command that even in the face of daunting odds, we are to invest ourselves in their future. We may not always know the best way to do this, but we do this because God calls us to help our neighbor in need.

Not very wise, some might say. Better to invest in ourselves and our own future. But we as Christians, by God’s own command, are to be so bold as to stake our resources on the hope of a better day for those who are the least among us.

And then the text from 1st Timothy warns us about how we invest ourselves. Paul reminds us that when we reach the end of our life, any temporary privileges that we enjoy because of wealth, are removed.

Paul tells us that a better path is to be content with tending to more modest personal needs, and then investing ourselves in a life of faith.

Instead of storing up as much wealth or retirement security as we can, which can lead to the exploitation of vulnerable people, we are called to invest ourselves in righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness that positively impacts on the lives of those in need.

And then we are back to the rich man in Luke’s story who invests in purple and fine linen and feasts sumptuously each day. He is unconcerned for the poor man with sores (lacking health care?) who lay at his gate (homeless?) wishing to eat the crumbs beneath the rich man’s table (hungry!). The rich man isn’t thinking about the inequality between their conditions.

Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” wrestles with the irony of neighbors who long to have clear boundaries on their neighborliness. At one point, Frost wonders aloud why we divide ourselves, “On a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again.” There seems to be something about us as human beings that likes those clearly defined boundaries of what’s my place and what’s yours. Growing up in South Texas, the point that Frost also makes, was taken for granted that good fences make (pause and invite response) good neighbors.

Clearly, all of the investments that the rich man is making in his life are related to immediate, pragmatic, and egocentric needs. I don’t think that this parable is interested in speculating about the rich man’s moral character, but I think that it does offer a critique of the rich man’s investment of his attention, resources, and affection in himself.

And the result for the rich man is fatal, finding himself on the wrong side of a great chasm where he is being tormented in the low place, left only to gaze hungrily.
Dip your finger in the water,
come and cool my tongue,
cause I’m tormented in the flame
But, at least in this moment, it’s too late. The rich man has had his day. And then, Abraham responds compassionately towards this selfish man, that Abraham calls his child. We can tell that it is with sadness that Abraham indicates this gulf, this chasm, between them. For now, it’s too late for this man, and Abraham takes no delight in that knowing, since the rich man's heart is still hardened.

Then the rich man, finally, shows a bit of compassion but of course it’s tinged with manipulation as he orders Abraham to order Lazarus to serve him. “If you cannot help me, help my family. Send Lazarus!” Then, Abraham responds that they have been given what guidance they need, and if they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, why would they listen to a voice from the dead.

“Break through!” shouts the rich man. The reality, of course, is that God has already broken through with his word through the prophets, and his Word in his Christ. We have been given what we need to live faithful lives. We will listen, or we will not. We will respond, or we will not. That’s the original blessing, the ability to decide to choose for ourselves.

Perhaps the boundaries and walls we have drawn are not so much between us and others, as between us and our God… and, on this Feast Day of St. Michael and All Angels, I’m reminded of the mixture of invitation and warning that the angel in the Book of Revelation says to the church in Laodicea (lay·ohd’·i·see’·uh), “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev 3:20)
Robert Frost winds down his poem with these thoughts, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know, what I was walling in or walling out.”

So, let’s think a bit about who’s on the other side of that door, that wall. Who is this Christ? In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us he is Lazarus: He is that one lying at our door hungry and thirsty. He is that one imprisoned and cut off from “decent” society. He is the marginalized one that you or I can just as easily walk by. That is God’s Christ who stands at our door, at our wall, knocking. When we answer, we may not find someone who looks like us, but if we are paying attention, we may very well find someone who looks like our God, who looks like Jesus.
Thanks be to God!
Amen! Alleluia!