Sermon Notes for Proper 21, 18 Pentecost, Year C
Scripture: Amos 6:1-7; 1 Tim. 6:11-19; Luke 16:19-31
The other day I had a conversation with the guy who cuts my hair, and he asked me if I’d heard about or had read the book entitled The Secret. I told him that I had heard of it but that I hadn’t read it (I didn’t tell him what I heard about it), and I was interested to hear what he would say. So he tells me his impression of this book. “It’s about energy” he said, “and everyone has positive and negative varieties. When you focus on bad things, bad things are attracted to you. When you focus on good things, good things come to you.” “So” he says, “you want a nice car, you just have to be positive and think that you’ll get that car and you’ll find a way to get it.” So things like getting sick and other bad things that happen to us are because of our negative energies.
You can see, probably, why such a belief would be popular in modern America. It’s practical, simple, easy to understand, and if something good happens, you get to take all the credit. And we have a lot of opportunities in our country for good things to happen to us. I’m not sure this idea would be so popular with or comforting to a cancer patient, or someone who’d just lost a loved one or had any number of bad things happen to them. “Too bad you’re going through that, guess you didn’t keep up on your positive energies.”
The whole frame of thought that The Secret and other examples of the “new thought” movement come out of is profoundly negative because it encourages people to self-aggrandizement, and to take credit and responsibility for things that are, in the nature of our world, largely or entirely out of our control.
Of course, this isn’t a new idea…you may have thought it sounded a bit like Karma in Hinduism, but it also bears similarities to some ideas that are present in scripture.
That’s right, these are biblical ideas. What I mean is that they are in the Bible, not that they are held up as good or commended. But we see examples of this when Job’s friends insist he must have sinned and brought his calamity upon himself. We see it in the Gospels when Jesus is asked about the man born blind: who sinned, this man or his parents? Of course Jesus doesn’t confirm their prejudices but instead sees it as an opportunity for the grace of God to be made manifest.
But people in that time, as much or more than people today, believed that people’s status in life and especially any disease or physical affliction they might have were a direct result of their (or their parents’) own moral fault or sin. That’s certainly what Jesus’ hearers would have been thinking when he started telling them the story of Lazarus and the rich man that we find in our Gospel reading this morning.
“Surely,” they’d think, “the wealthy man is blessed by God. Not only can he afford to wear white, but purple cloth as well–and cater such a feast daily! He must be truly holy.”
Equally, when they heard the description of Lazarus, that he was covered with sores, that the dogs came and licked his sores–not to offer comfort, but to increase his torment, the would have believed him a horrible sinner because of his affliction.
But the thing is, they should have been able to tell from the beginning that something was off in Jesus’ tale. Because, you see, as he tells the story he doesn’t name the rich man, the person they would immediately take to be the good and holy one. Instead Jesus gives the poor man a name. He calls him Lazarus and he does so not to connect him to his friend friend of the same name, but rather because of what Lazarus means. It comes from the Hebrew “El Lazar” and means “God has helped.” And truly, there was no help for Lazarus but God. The picture we get of him is that he has no one, absolutely no one to care for him for to help him but God. Just look at his situation. Through the whole story Lazarus never takes initiative, he is always the subject of action but never acts himself. It seems likely that Lazarus was crippled and couldn’t move himself. In addition he was afflicted with some sort of skin disease which would have led others to label him “unclean.” It is also funny that most English translations of the Bible talk about Lazarus being “laid” at the gate of the rich man, when the Greek seems to indicate something much more violent. Lazarus was tossed aside at the gate of the rich man–forgotten about, scorned, rejected. More than that, one could almost get the sense that he was violently thrown at the rich man’s gate. Life happened to Lazarus, he has no voice to speak for him, no hands to care or work for him, no feet to carry him. And every day his only desire is to share in the scraps that fall from the rich man’s table, from his feast.
And what a feast! Jesus doesn’t give us a lot of details, but we can imagine what the feast may have been like from the wealth he describes. It’s amazing how much information can be contained in a few details. For instance, because the man wears white garments, we get an idea of the possible extent of his wealth–the bleaching process was very expensive in those days. And then there’s the detail about his purple cloths–this would have meant he was exceedingly wealthy. Purple cloth was very expensive, so expensive in fact that it was primarily rulers who were able to buy it. Hence it became the color of the emperor. This sort of wealth coupled with the detail of their being a sumptuous feast put on daily by the man, seem to hearken back to legends of King Agrippa III who feasted daily in such a manner that whole loaves of bread were said to be used as napkins and then tossed aside.1 So these weren’t just big parties, they were inherently wasteful. And outside the gate, Lazarus lays hungry, hurting, in need of help.
It’s important to note before we go on, that the rich man doesn’t do anything particularly bad. Nor does Lazarus do anything particularly good (Lazarus doesn’t do much of anything). But you see the sin of the rich man wasn’t one of action, but of inaction. His sin was the sin of indifference.
As our story continues, both Lazarus and the rich man die. The great equalizer takes effect. But it’s not simply an equalization that takes place. It’s a reversal of fortune.
Lazarus, we’re told, dies and is carried away by the angels to “Abraham’s bosom.” In contrast, the Rich man died and was buried, and finds himself in torment. But does he repent? Does he repent of his sin of indifference? Does he recognize the fact that he lived his life in a self-centered way? Not at all. When he finds himself in torment and recognizes Lazarus–recognizes him! He recognizes the man who laid at his gate in need of help, but who he never lifted a finger to aid.
…And he asks that he serve him. That he dip his finger in water to relieve his thirst… that he warn his family and friends.
And then Jesus get’s his shot in at the Pharisees…at the lover’s of money.
If they haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets, Abraham tells the rich man, if they haven’t sought God’s heart already, if they’re not already seeing to follow the spirit of the Law rather than the letter… if they haven’t discerned that the God they claim to serve is the the God of widows, orphans, the poor and afflicted. If they haven’t seen that it is the God of slaves and freedmen who calls to them through the scripture, then they wouldn’t believe even if someone returned from the dead–which is, of course what Jesus is destined to do.
So the question before those of us who strive to be faithful to Christ, is this: if the religious establishment failed so utterly during Christ’s earthly ministry, then what lessons can we learn?
Over the past several months I’ve been focusing on the call that we’ve seen reiterated again and again, for each of us individually to follow Christ & be Christ-like, to be holy. Now I want to talk a bit about what it would mean for us to do this as the Church, as a body. And over the next several weeks leading up to Advent, I’m going to be talking about the marks of the Church and what it is we’re supposed to do and who we’re supposed to be.
So what can we learn from our Lord’s parable to the pharisees? What can we take away from it now that we are the religious establishment?
I think it’s a rather simple lesson really, that was played out in a myriad of ways in the life of the early Church, and it can be expressed in the idea that the Church is a community of people who are not indifferent.
The Church is a community of people who are not indifferent.
If we look tot he early Church as our guide, we see a community that was fundamentally not indifferent. They were not indifferent about helping each other.
They were not indifferent about human need.
They were not indifferent about the honor and worship that is owed to God alone.
And so, what you see is a community of people who shared everything in common at times, such as described in the book of Acts. Or who, through the ministry of deacons and later deaconesses, cared for widows and orphans, the classes of people the Bible is at pains to protect because they were so vulnerable.
You see a community that grew even in the midst of persecution because their lives and their message was consistent and people saw it and were attracted. You see a community that began to care for the unwanted infants and children of the Greco-Roman world, those who were left on the hillside to die of exposure.
You find in that early Church a Church of martyrs who were not indifferent to where their worship should be directed. So while they would pay taxes and live as “good citizens” they refused to sacrifice to the emperor’s genius, as it was called, the supposed spiritual embodiment of the empire. They placed their heavenly King above all earthly kings and where prepared to die for it–an attitude that made the martyrology or account of martyrdom the earliest form of recognizably Christian literature outside the Gospels.
They took seriously the admonition of St. Paul in Romans to “offer [themselves] as livig sacrifices, holy and acceptable unto God…” Rowan Williams in his book Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church relates the story of such martyrs as those at Scilli in Numidia who refused to worship the emperor, and who, quoting Jesus’ words to “render unto Cesar what which is Cesar’s and unto God that which is God’s” went to their death with thanksgiving, and of Polycarp the great Bishop of Smyrna (not in TN, but in modern day Syria) who told his Roman persecuters when they asked him to renounce his faith:
I have served him for eighty-six years and he has done me no wrong. How shall I abandon my king who has saved me?”
And who, when we was tied to the stake in the arena to be burned alive, uttered a prayer that was so similar to the very prayer he would have said at the Eucharist, consecrating himself to God. And, as the Chronicler points out, witnesses saw Polycarp’s body as a loaf of bread and a sweet smell pervaded the arena.
The Martyr’s sacrifice has become a mirror to reflect Christ’s sacrifice, so that, while God may not save the martyres lives, he makes his presence known.2
God is present with his people during their trials. And what we see is that, just as he does with Lazarus, God smiles upon those who depend upon him for strength.
What can we as the Church learn from the story of Lazarus? We can learn a lot. But one thing we can learn is that the people of God cannot be indifferent because God is not indifferent. We know that God is not indifferent because he sent prophets like Amos to call the people out of their complacency and abuses. We know that God is not indifferent because he is the God who heard the cry of Jacob in Egypt and brought the people out of their bondage. We know that God is not indifferent because he demands care for those who cannot care for themselves.
Most of all, we know that God is not indifferent because an indifferent God would not have become one with his creation in Jesus Christ. An indifferent God would not have went to the cross to offer the world a relationship with him and the hope of everlasting life.
What do we learn from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man? We learn that Lazarus now has a in the Church.
What do we learn from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man? We learn that Lazarus, though lame, now has hands and feet in the church of Christ/
What do we learn from this parable?
That servants of our God, who is not indifferent, cannot be indifferent themselves.
To the plight of the poor on our doorstep or to any of the other ways the people that God gave his life to save suffer and hurt.
And so we, the people of God need to understand that orphanages and hospitals didn’t just appear. the began with Christian men and women taking in the unwanted children of others because they heard a cry in the woods. Or with people caring for those that others deemed unclean because of their disease.
We need to understand that just because we aren’t able to provide what some institutions are able to provide, that doesn’t mean that we can’t start where they started. With a heart for the people God came to save, and a desire to serve them, a desire to make a difference and not be indifferent.
And so, as we come to recieve this communion, to partake of this sacrament of grace, let us pray that Christ would break our hearts and show us here at St. Francis both individually and corporately how we can truly be the body of Christ, how we can be a community of those who are not indifferent and who love others as Christ loves them. Amen.