theolog cabin

Hosted by semfem, this is a warm, cozy place to curl up and ponder theological matters.

Friday, August 04, 2006

September 26, 2004 (Pentecost 17C)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Psalm 146
Luke 16:19-31 (primary text)

This was my first sermon while on internship. And of course:
  • my supervisor was out of town and I was doing all three services
  • the day before we had the first snow of the year, and the power went out while I was writing my sermon
  • I couldn't get the thing printed out, so I preached from my laptop.

And, check that text out. Just what every intern wants to start out with. Yeesh.

(One note: This congregation would almost always omit one of the readings, so there were usually two readings and a Psalm or poetic prophecy, and they often would go off-lectionary. You'll see what I mean in coming entries if you know what the lectionary readings would have been on a particular Sunday.)

Click the time link to take a look.

When I opened up the Bible and found the text for today, I discovered that it was about just what every new intern wants to preach on: Money and Hell. These are two things that make us very, very uncomfortable.

In our world, money and faith are often considered private matters. Often we are taught to never discuss politics or religion in polite company, and we could easily add to that list the admonition, “Never ask how much somebody earns!” I know I heard that from my mother at some point. So I realize that often it takes a strong rapport between pastor and congregation in order to speak honestly with each other about money and faith—especially the parts of Christian tradition and the Bible that we struggle with.

I'll be honest. I’m not sure if we have that rapport yet. After all, you just met me and I just met you, and we’re still getting to know each other, sort of like a blind date. But I hope that we can struggle with this passage together.

Jesus said to them, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day." Remind you of anyone? Let me suggest a few images. When I read this, what popped into my mind were the rich and famous who were shown on the Emmy awards the other night, and all the designer outfits and jewelry they wore. Entertainment shows on TV afterwards told everyday consumers how they would soon be able to buy "cheap" copies of the gowns that Sharon Stone and Jennifer Aniston wore. These "cheap" versions would cost only a few hundred dollars instead of thousands of dollars, so that women all over the country can dress like their favorite movie stars. Another example that came to my mind were people whose names are known by everyone for being so rich and smart in business. People like Donald Trump. Bill Gates. Steve Forbes. And you can probably name others.

These are the success stories in our society--people who had an idea and worked shrewdly to build an empire from it. But here's a hint about Jesus' opinion of people who are famous for their riches. Jesus leaves the rich man in this parable nameless AND he makes sure we know the name of the poor man. This is quite a twist for a world that knows who Donald Trump is but doesn't know the name of the man who comes up to you in the Carr's parking lot and asks for bus fare. Also, by leaving the rich man nameless, Jesus leaves the way clear for anybody--including us--to identify with him. This is where the entire parable starts to get really sticky. You have probably heard the statistics about North Americans having more than their share of the world's wealth, that anyone who can eat three meals a day and has their own place to live is already wealthy by world standards. Being new here, I'm just starting to learn about the Permanent Fund Dividend checks being sent out and how important that chunk of change is to the economy and also to life in Alaska. No matter how you slice it, in this parable we are not the ones under the table waiting for crumbs. So, yes. A sticky and uncomfortable parable. I think it shows that money is a lot like heroin. We can't get away from it, and the idea of living without it is frightening and to us, simply impossible.

The strongest reaction we might have from hearing this parable is a sense of guilt for not doing more to reverse this situation. But this leaves us at a loss about how to think about this parable. I think the key to what keeps the rich man in hell can be found by looking at how he acts once he gets there. First off, he cries to Abraham--not God--for mercy, which makes me wonder if he has ever seen God in anything. But more importantly, he asks Abraham to SEND Lazarus. Obviously he is still living in a world in which he had the ways and the means to send for people and have them do errands for him. This parable is not just about money. It is also about power, and the fact that so much of our world is built around the idea that money equals power. This is why our lesson from First Timothy today talks about money being the root of all kinds of evil--because the weeds of power grow out of the root of money.

The rich man just never seems to figure it out. His first request is for Lazarus to come to his hell and ease his suffering. How long do you think a drop of water on a thirsty tongue would really last before another drop is needed? What happens after that drop is gone, is he going to ask Lazarus to come back and give him another drop? Did the rich man even call Lazarus by name when they were alive? Did he ever speak to him at all? Even in the afterlife he talks to Abraham and tells him to "send" Lazarus--he knows his name but even now will not speak directly to him. He can't stop acting as though he still lived in the world and was rich and successful and able to order people around. He knows he is in hell, but it doesn't change him one bit. He is worried about what will happen to his brothers--but only for their own sake, not for the difference they could make in the world. The rich man plays by the rules of the world, the rules that we are all taught to play by. These rules that brought him success in this life are the rules that now create the impassable chasm.

One of the most uncomfortable parts of this parable comes when Abraham says to the rich man that nobody can cross this chasm, that those in hell are abandoned to it. I think many of us know how a “fire and brimstone” approach to serving Christ—that is, do these things or else you will go to hell—has been used (or abused) to scare people into behaving a certain way. This image of a yawning chasm between sinners on one side and saints on the other is the greatest potential for abuse in this text.

But let's look at a few other details. What does it mean that Abraham, who is on the heaven side, was actually very wealthy when he was alive? Apparently the chasm is not as simple as "rich people on the hell side and poor people on the heaven side." Perhaps the chasm between heaven and hell can also be understood as the chasm between the way our world works and the way God’s vision of the world works. It is the chasm between money as intoxicating power (which is what it becomes) and money used for the good of all God’s people (as portrayed in First Timothy). It is the chasm between the way our rules are supposed to insure happiness, and the way God's world works. Perhaps the chasm has not been set up by God in order to keep the rich man out of heaven. Perhaps the chasm has been set up by the rich man in order to keep God out of hell, where he can continue to live by the rules that brought him worldly success.

But joy, not fear, is the operative here, because even though we cannot cross the chasm alone, and not even Abraham, the giant of faith, can cross it, the chasm can be bridged. This is what happened when Jesus was crucified, died and buried. The Apostles’ Creed makes a point of saying that Jesus descended to hell. Jesus descended to where the rich man was! Jesus became part of the rich man’s world and loved it even though it rejected and killed him. Let me suggest a minor revision to the Apostles' Creed. Jesus did not only descend, past tense, long ago, into a place we call hell. Jesus descended and every day descends into the hells of our lives, into the places that hold us fast and separate us from God, and into the hells that are all over our world and communities today, the places that seem to be forsaken by God.

The chasm was also bridged by God in our baptism. The sinner and the saint in each of us are divided by a chasm that runs through the center of our very being, a chasm between what we are and what God has called us to be. Baptism does not erase the chasm, but every day Christ crosses the chasm, descends into our hell, and rises again--and calls us to follow him on this path every day.

Parables like this one operate on a twist. They count on surprising the listener, on causing the audience to stop short and say, "Wait! That's not how the story is supposed to go!" And they confront the listener with a question--usually more than one. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man gives us questions about heaven and hell, questions about how someone who follows Jesus ought to use money, and another very big question, one that really leads us to look at the concrete: How do God's people live in the midst of suffering?

Dan Erlander, a Lutheran pastor and author, suggests a way of life that is consonant with what we hear in First Timothy today. He calls it "manna living." Manna living is living as though everything you receive is like the manna that God gave to the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. If you take more than you need, it becomes rotten. When everyone takes what they need and no more, then everyone can be fed. The division is not as simple as "those who are rich" and "those who are poor". Instead it is between those who live with open hands, and those who live clutching whatever they receive. Christians are challenged to separate money from power. It may sound simple, but money's addictive qualities do not go away simply because the person handling the money follows Christ.

I want to be clear here that while we are called to action on behalf of those who suffer, this action is not a tool to gain resurrection. Only those who realize they are dead can be resurrected. The rich man, although he was dead, still lived according to the rules that had given him success in the world. He saw nothing but death before him, and reacted as though he was still the person he was when he was alive. We could say that Lazarus, with the dogs licking his sores, was dead before he even died. He knew that the ways of the world lead to death. Likewise, if we cling to the rules the world teaches us, we will always be searching for a way out of death. We can only act once we know we are dead and are being resurrected, here and now. Sometimes it is not an easy thing to learn. May God guide us in our learning, in our dying, in our rising and in our living. Amen.