Sermon – September 29, 2019 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lazarus and the rich man

There is a truly unfortunate form of Christianity these days that makes the claim that God wants us to be rich, and that our riches, thus, are evidence of God’s blessing. So, the implication seems to be, pursue wealth in order to demonstrate God’s favor. That is such an egregious twisting of the gospel that I don’t want to take much time today to bat it around except to say a couple of things.

1) Jesus would not recognize this as theology, or at least not as the gospel. Jesus, the one who told the rich young man to forsake his wealth for the sake of the poor and follow him. Jesus, the one who in his inaugural sermon, proclaimed that he had come to bring good news to the poor. Jesus, the one who said it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. That Jesus would not recognize prosperity gospel as the word of God.

2) it is not unprecedented.  The Hebrew Scriptures are full of admonitions to the people of means to care for the poor, yet there was a strain in biblical times who believe that wealth was confirmation of God’s favor and poverty and want a reflection of God’s disfavor.

Any way you look at it, Scripture consistently expresses a caution for the consequences and lure of wealht on our spiritual and community well-being. The rich man in our Gospel lesson today is an example of the reason why.

It was those who peddled this notion of wealth and privilege as reward whom Jesus often contended with, and today’s story might very well be a challenge to that kind of theological thinking. Again, if you were rich and had status, you bore the evidence of God’s favor and blessing, but if you were poor, like Lazarus, you bore the evidence of God’s disfavor.   And the problem was, those who had the money and the power and the authority, made the rules . . . and so whatever your station, there was no way out.

So, having said that, then, it would not of occurred to the people of that time to ask, “where is God in Lazarus’ life?  Where was God in the life of this poor and broken and dying man?” The answer was already a foregone conclusion. God was elsewhere taking care of the blessed rich.    It is a legitimate question to ask where God was in Lazarus’ life.  Is that the only hope for the poor?  That they are to suffer in this life and get their reward in heaven?   Is this the only hope that God’s creation offers for those who are not blessed as are most of us in this country?

Jesus says, “The game is not rigged in favor of the rich. God is all around and works through the blessings of creation.”   He was telling the people then that this rich man’s blessings were to be used as tools in the kingdom of God.    Maybe an extension of God’s goodness . . . and that the man had failed to do that.

The rich man’s problem in our story today is not that he was rich, but that he was distracted.  He had not made space in his life for compassion, for solidarity.   So, he was so blinded by his own indulgence, by his own riches that the sight of a pathetic creature collapsed at his gate, covered by sores, being treated by dogs,  . . . .so preoccupied was the rich man with his own bounty, that he could not recognize the tragedy of that, the injustice of that, the evil of that, the wrong of that.  He was distracted by his gifts, his good fortune.  So that even a dog on the street had more compassion that he.  What a precarious place.

We don’t know anything about Lazarus.   We don’t know who he was.   We don’t know what terrible circumstances must have befallen him, that he would end up a beggar at the gate.   We don’t know that he was a holy man.    It doesn’t matter.  The only thing we know about Lazarus besides his need was that he was a child of Abraham, a child of the covenant, a child of the promise, a child of God.   The only thing we know about Lazarus besides his pathetic state was that he was a child of God.    And Jesus tells us that’s enough.  That’s  enough for him.  It oughta be enough for us.  . . . . It wasn’t enough for the rich man.

So insidious is wealth, so blinding, that Jesus makes the point, that even as this man found himself in torment, he pleaded for Lazarus to come serve him, he still didn’t get it.  He bore into his own torment the perceived prerogatives of his wealth.   And he still had the gall to ask, “get the beggar to get me some water.”   So blinded, so consumed by the trappings of his wealth, that even in his own torment he tried to exercise the privileges his money, his linen, his purple robes had afforded him in life.   Even then he couldn’t see that Lazarus was a child of God.  That is the danger we are warned of.  This is the chasm, the gulf that Jesus describes. His wealth blinded him to the basic humanity of Lazarus.

Just this week it was reported that the gap between the rich and the poor in this country is at its highest point in over 50 years, even though we continue experienced a long-running economic expansion. In a very real way our wealth seems again to be blinding us to the needs of the least among us. It is those folks on the lower end of the income scale whose needs we continue to ignore even as the vast majority of us enjoy relative ease and comfort. Again, it is not wealth per se that Jesus names as a problem, but the effect that it has on our vision and our sense of our responsibilities to one another. A simple personal inventory will reveal to each of us that we have indeed been blessed with a variety of resources to not only live in safety and comfort, but to seek the same for the other. If we couple that reflection with our sense of call in our  faith, then much can change for the better.

In some way, God has given each of us some gift.  It may be a unique and single and solitary thing.   I always envy good musicians, or artists or craftsmen . . . those who do one thing well.  It may be a general ability.  It may even be the gift of second fiddle.   Someone once asked Leonard Bernstein what positions were most difficult to fill in the orchestra . . .  and he said second fiddle, and second flute and second French horn . . . lots of folks want first chair, but unless you have a second fiddle that plays well and with enthusiasm, then you don’t have harmony.  It may be our gift as second fiddlers to bring harmony, it may be your gift . . .  and you may have the ability to follow.   Whatever it is, God has given each of us gifts and in their consideration, we may recognize our abundance.

When Martin Luther talks about living out our faith in our vocations, he means that what we do, we do to the glory of God, in thankfulness and in all ways that we can, to benefit our neighbor.    That the work you do is a gift to others.  That God’s grace would be expressed in whatever we do.   That’s compassionate living.

We have a danger of being blinded by our riches, by our security, by our comforts.  That’s not news.    But we need to be reminded there is never a time in this world where suffering is not.   And there is never a time when that suffering for the most part could not be alleviated if resources and compassionate energy are marshaled.   There is no moment in the world where there is not hunger, or pain, or fear or despair, where there’s not a need of some sort that can’t be met by the riches of God’s kingdom, with our voices and our means and our talents and our community.

Lazarus, of course, is all around us.  In our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, on our streets.  And the hunger that he feels in our time is a hunger for healing, for healing and sustaining food of body and spirit that will bring him strength and wholeness.   It is a sustenance he has a need for and a right to.    We don’t know Lazarus, really, if he is holy, if he contributed to his own condition.  But all we need to know, Jesus said, is that each person is a child of God, a child of the promise, a target of grace.    We claim as baptized Christians that we share in a feast now that is a foretaste of the feast to come, of worship, and fellowship, the knowledge of forgiveness and hope.   That is a table laid with the greatest gifts God has to offer.   And we are called to share the feast with our words and deeds, not just the scraps, but from the whole menu.

Now, I know that smacks a bit of self-righteousness. . . ..   We holy people sitting at the full table of the grace of God.   And to leave it at that would be to ignore the fact that we, too, are Lazarus.   We too at times are filled with the gnawing hunger, the hollowing hunger for companionship when we are lonely, a hunger for forgiveness when our hearts and minds are wracked with guilt, a hunger for fellowship when we are left out, a hunger for understanding when we are confused or frightened, a hunger for consolation when a dream dies,  a hunger for peace when peace seems so far away. We, too, are beggars at God’s table, sometimes so weakened by our circumstance that we can barely get on our feet or get on our knees.   But Jesus says I will lift you up.  It’s enough that you are my child.  That is the promise through which we are sustained.

The bad news is that Lazarus is all around us.   The good news is that the one to whom we come begging spares us nothing for our renewal and our healing and the satisfaction for our hunger.  Jesus came to serve, to share, to redeem to restore.  If Jesus had been the rich man, he would ignore our hopeless condition in favor of his exalted position as the Son of God.   That’s why when we speak of our Lord, we never speak of him without the cross. If Christ is without the cross, where do we fit in?  If Jesus had been the rich man, the Christ without the cross, he would ignore our hopeless condition in favor of power.   The authorities knew this when they challenged him at the tribunal, “are you a king?”  Jesus said if I wanted to do that, I’d do it.  But I have a different agenda.   The tempter knew this when he promised Jesus all the trappings of worldly power in the desert.  Were he the rich man, then Lazarus  and each of us would die at the gate, never to be joined to the promise.

Through his gift of the riches of his grace, through the sacrifice of his life, Christ has guaranteed that we would be fed in our hunger, whether it be loneliness, or pain, or despair or fear of death.   That is the compassion the world so desperately needs. The gift of grace is that no matter how broken down we become, the host awaits us, invites us to the feast to restore us.  That is path he has cleared for us in our time and place.

Jesus says, “the game is not rigged.  It is enough that you are a child of God for me to love you and lift you up.”   He says, “it is enough that they are children of God, so use your gifts and means and talents to lift them up.”

We are children of God.  That’s enough.  Jesus says it’s enough.  Thank God it’s enough.