God is not God of the Dead, but of the Living

A sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

God is not God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is talking to some Sadducees about the resurrection. And that conversation isn’t happening in a vacuum. In the Gospel of Luke, this discussion happens after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple and the casting out of the money changers. Then, Jesus teaches in the temple, and this conversation is one of them.

But the tension in the story is this: We are coming up on Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. So when the Sadducees, who were the temple aristocrats, come up to Jesus with their questions, they aren’t doing it in good faith. They’re trying to catch Jesus out, embarrass him, or put him in legal or political danger.

Jesus, like the Pharisees, was known to teach the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees, however, did not believe in the resurrection or any of the other of the Pharisees’ teachings. For them, the only scripture was the five books we call the Pentateuch, the Jewish Torah. Their primary concern was with the worship of the temple in Jerusalem. So when they ask about a childless woman with seven husbands in the resurrection, they are simply giving the believers in the resurrection a bad time. There is a law in Deuteronomy commanding a brother to marry his brother’s widow and giving a procedure for him to refuse to marry her.  It’s not clear, even in Jesus’ time, how often these marriages to a brother’s widow really took place, and the idea of it happening seven times for one woman was totally absurd in the realities of the first century. However, the law was there in scripture and it gave occasion to present a conundrum to Jesus, to make him explain something about this resurrection—what happens after we die?

The resurrection in Judaism, and for Jesus and Paul or the rest of scripture, was never about the disembodied soul. It was about the resurrection of the body. The Sadducees questions assume that the world of the resurrection would be a continuation of life as they knew it, with its relationships still in the same way that they were on earth. Their view of life and of God was very concrete and literal—like most people of their time, and most people nowadays, to tell the truth. The problem with being so concrete and literal is that it locks in lots of assumptions that are based on our very narrow experience—truly just the things that have happened to us in our lifetimes and a few things we might have been taught or read—or maybe seen on the Internet.

I cannot remember any time when I was growing up when we didn’t have a TV. For me, television was always there, even though TV broadcasting only began a few years before I was born.  My mother grew up on a farm that didn’t

Snake River farmland near where Mom grew up.

have electricity until she was ten years old. Of course, that meant that there was no electric pump to bring water up out of the well, so no running water. For rural people of her parents’ generation, that was just how normal life was. It wasn’t remarkable and they couldn’t really imagine another way that life might be. I can’t really imagine everyday life without electricity, even though I know the historical facts. If we have a power blackout, normal life stops and we struggle until the lights come back on. Living every day like that? Inconceivable.  Of course, things have changed even more since I was a kid. I can remember what it was like before computers and cell phones and other electronics, but now I’m so used to them, I have to work at remembering.

There are lots of things that have existed or that will exist that are perfectly true, but that we cannot imagine or understand. So these guys are asking Jesus smart-alecky questions about what life is like on the other side of that horizon which is death. Their interest is in all the details and their demand is that it fit together with what they have experienced, and understand, and can imagine. We know those guys couldn’t imagine electricity, how could they really imagine the resurrection? We know that God raised Jesus from the dead. But it is not within our imagination or ordinary experience. Jesus tells the Sadducees: “In this age people marry and are given in marriage…but in that age and in the resurrection from the dead they neither marry nor are given in marriage…they cannot die any more…they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees isn’t a detailed description of the afterlife. What Jesus is describing is how our imagination falls short, how our ways of thought and expression put inappropriate limits on the truth of God. Jesus doesn’t say that in the resurrection people become angels. What he says is that they are like angels in that they can’t die any more. He does say that in the resurrection we are children of God—our source is God, we are cared for and valued by God as god’s own.  But do we really know or can we really imagine how that will be?  Not in any detail except that we will be dwelling in God’s love. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be details and complexity, but anything we can say about it is a metaphor not the concrete thing in itself.  The more I work with older people, and people who are closer to their own death, and the closer I get to my own death, the more I see that those people are comfortable with that. We cannot see over the horizon of death, but that’s okay, because God can be trusted, how it will be, will be God’s love.

When Jesus ends his answer, he describes what God said to Moses out of the burning bush. “He speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” God—not of the dead, but of the living… we are able to have faith in God and we are able to imagine and understand, so that we can live. The real importance of us understanding and talking about the resurrection of the dead is in how it affects our living. We live in hope because death is defeated, death is not the end, in Christ we are living. God is God of the living, not of the dead.  But in that hope, we do not know, nor can we fully imagine what God has in store for us.

We don’t even know the shape that the church will take. I mean that for the church as a whole and for this congregation in this place. In our imagination, we fill in the future from what we have known from the past. But the future is not the past and what God has in store is at least as different as the world of 2019 is from my mother’s world on that farm in eastern Oregon in the 1930s. It is safe to let go of things we want to cling to, for God is the God of the living, and in that age those who live in God’s hope are like the angels and the children of God who cannot die any more.

I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me;

incline your ear to me and hear my words.

Show me your marvelous loving-kindness,

O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand

from those who rise up against them.

Keep me as the apple of your eye;

hide me under the shadow of your wings,

From the wicked who assault me,

from my deadly enemies who surround me.

Happy are they who dwell in your house!

A sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 27, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…”

When we hear today’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, praying in the temple, it’s enough to make us think, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not a Pharisee!”

So who were the Pharisees?

They were the devout. They were those who were regular in attendance at worship. They observed pious practices and sought to purify their lives in accord with the commands of scripture. (The most likely derivation of the word “Pharisee” is from the word for “pure”.)

The Pharisees pledged and paid their pledge. They attended parish meetings and volunteered for committees. They really cared about their religious faith.

They were just like us.

Christians sometimes miss that. As St. Luke introduces this parable: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Regarded others with contempt. There is nothing further from Christian values than to regard others with contempt. Any time that we baptize new Christians we all promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Without that respect, there is no growth in a Christian church, no matter what anyone says. It is tempting to regard others with contempt, particularly in the current political climate of our country.  So how is it with the Pharisee in this parable? He says, “God, I thank you…” That part is good—all good is from God and we should always live our lives as thanksgiving and give voice to God in thanks as much as possible. He continues, “… that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers …”

Hmmm. He is NOT like other people. And he makes a long list in ways he’s not like other people. Included in that list are behaviors that most of us agree are bad behaviors such as theft, unrighteousness and adultery. So that makes the Pharisee irreproachable—because he’s not a thief, unrighteous, or an adulterer.

Fair enough, but now, the parable tells us that the Pharisee mentions the man standing next to him with contempt. That man, the tax collector of the story, is standing there and what is he saying? Unlike the Pharisee, he isn’t separating himself from others or categorizing others by their behavior. He says: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”

I look around our country, and what I hear is people defending themselves by accusation, of categorizing others according to their sins or imagined sins. I myself have been angry from time to time, and in that anger characterized others as the unrighteous, and myself and my friends as the righteous. That does not lead to healing or the resolution of the situation. For me, healing only comes through reaching out to others in compassion, hearing the pain and complexity in their lives, and encouraging others in the abundance of God’s mercy.  That’s usually a long process if trust has been broken between people. It also doesn’t mean that we have to give up on our deeply-held positive values.  In some situations where trust has really been broken, the life of compassion has to be developed elsewhere, with others, not directly and quickly with those we have been in conflict.  But it is not through accusation that we find the truth, but through sharing in the mercy of God, of trying to understand the struggles and suffering of others.

The tax collector was well aware of how things were in his life. It wasn’t just that others despised tax collectors because they were associated with the Roman rule and got substantial income and privilege from their work. The tax collector also knew of the pressures and temptations to extort from some and play favorites with others that characterized the somewhat chaotic Roman system of tax farming. Getting along in that job often ended up meaning that a tax collector went along with, and practiced things that went beyond his ethical boundaries. The truth could be devastating—and the picture in this parable is of a man facing that truth.

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…” There’s no easy answer in this story. But even so, the tax collector could receive God’s mercy because he was trying to live in the truth.

How common is it in our lives that we are tempted to avoid acknowledging the truth? How common that we fib to make ourselves look better? And how common is it for people to pretend that they don’t need mercy? That they don’t have to ask for forgiveness, because they can’t remember any wrong that they have done?

Think privately for yourself. When have you not respected someone else; some category of people? Whose dignity did you not respect? Perhaps put yourself in the position of the self-righteous man who disdained the tax collector …

Here, in the house of God’s mercy, it is safe to acknowledge to ourselves the ways in which we do this. God knows. And as we are healed it becomes easier to acknowledge them to ourselves, to turn them over to God at the altar, and to further respect the dignity of every person.

Jesus is here to give mercy and to welcome us into the truth.

How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts!

My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;

my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The sparrow has found her a house

and the swallow a next where she may lay her young;

by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house!

they will always be praising you.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you!

whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs,

for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

They will climb from height to height,

and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

The Persistent Woman

A sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Jesus is a story teller. In most of these stories the characters and places are not specific, rather they illustrate things we know to be true. They are seldom allegories, and most of them tell about human interaction. You often hear this parable referred to as “the Parable of the Unjust Judge,” because the first character who appears is a judge, who on principle is not just.

First—this is not an allegory about God. Nothing in the story refers to God. Second—despite its popular name, this story is not about the judge at all. This is the story of the Persistent Woman. We don’t know exactly, but we can imagine the judge being utterly corrupt, arbitrary and self-interested. Maybe he’s susceptible to bribes or cronyism, and he probably isn’t going to enforce judgements in favor of the poor, the widowed, or anyone else who he thinks doesn’t matter. Whether such judges were common in Jesus’ time, or whether he’s unusually corrupt isn’t really the issue in this story; it’s the context in which the widow finds herself in Jesus’ telling.

The woman in the story is a widow. Widows were the most vulnerable of all people in that society. They had lost their means of income and often most of their assets when their husbands died. And without power, they were vulnerable to further injustice and exploitation. It could be discouraging and exhausting to resist all the injustices on faces as a helpless widow. But in Jesus’ story, the widow kept coming back for justice. She didn’t lose heart, she kept coming, though the judge was the most hopeless source of vindication you could imagine. She kept coming.

Why? Why didn’t she give up? Most people would advise her it was certainly hopeless.

The woman persisted because she believed in justice. I don’t see evidence of desperation or panic in her story. To seek justice was the widow’s deepest value. She knew that she deserved justice, and she was not going to give up on that. She was not going to give up on the truth, or on justice, and her case was just, no matter how the judge tried to avoid giving her justice.  She persisted, even when tempted to give up, to walk away.

It wasn’t until someone pointed out to me how this is a story about a person and her deepest values that I was able to understand how it fits with the introductory sentence: “Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  It certainly has nothing to do with haranguing God incessantly about the pony you want, or whatever outcome you desire. Jesus is telling a story about what is deepest, what is the most valuable—and never giving up on what is at the center of your heart. In truth, prayer is finding the center of your heart in God and trusting God and remaining there, no matter what happens.

For this widow, that manifested itself in the value of justice. Each of us is a bit different—our deepest and most essential values come from different perspectives and express themselves in different ways. Take a moment, and consider, listen to your heart and visualize what it is that you would be so persistent to hold onto—that you value so deeply—like this persistent woman before the unfriendly judge.

I won’t ask you to tell anyone—the answer and the value is yours—there is not some right or Christian answer to that.

However, as a community we also have values—the deepest ones are the ones that bring us here and keep us here—they are values that we share and hold together. Some, of course, are shared by all Christians: the love of God and our fellow human beings in Christ. Yet each congregation, each community, is in its own situation with its own passions and deeply-held values, as distinct and individual as your own personal most deeply-held values.  Those values become clear in conversation and sharing.

A couple of weeks ago, many of us gathered here to reflect on what we value here at Trinity. What is vitally important about this church to us? We remember the love of those saints that have been with us here and remain in our memory and spirit. We value our children, those Christians who are the church for the remainder of the twenty-first century. And we welcome the opportunity to worship Almighty God in the beauty of holiness. The theme that emerged in our Day of Discernment that struck me most—because it was the most widespread and is not something you hear at every church—was a persistent dedication to service of others, of connecting beyond ourselves. This persistence, like the persistence of that woman with the judge that Jesus talked about, can be a challenge. It can be exhausting and sometimes people can get discouraged. Yet as we hold on—as we pray and do not lose heart—we discover that God is indeed present among us and within us. Our spirits are uplifted from the depths for God is here.

The lesson for today ends, “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Persist in what is true, what is good—those values that God has planted within you—and there will be faith in this place, long after all of us are gone.

Five years ago, shortly after I first came to Trinity, Keith Warren passed away. And one of our older members—Sheila—was very upset. She was mourning Keith, who had been very kind and comforting to her. And as we walked down the steps and toward her home down the street, she started to recite a psalm she had learned in Sunday School in Barbados, probably seventy years before—the whole thing from memory. And that is our psalm today:

I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?

My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved

and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.

Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel

shall neither slumber nor sleep;

The Lord himself watches over you;

the Lord is your shade at your right hand,

So that the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;

it is he who shall keep you safe.

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in,

from this time forth for evermore.

Except this Foreigner?

A sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Of the ten lepers that Jesus healed, nine of them went to the priests as Jesus told them, and the other one was a Samaritan who came back to Jesus, praising God. Jesus commended the Samaritan.

The Samaritans were a large minority group in Palestine in Jesus’ time. They shared a common heritage with the majority Jewish population, but there were religious and cultural differences and the two groups had almost nothing to do with one another. If you asked around, most people in that day would tell you that the Samaritans were lazy, dirty, and dishonest and that their worship was idolatrous. Of course most of the people saying these things knew nothing about Samaritans. For one thing, the Samaritans’s religion was based exclusively on the observance of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. So much for being idolatrous. But the Samaritans were foreigners in their own country, and therefore, not to be trusted.

At least, that was the popular wisdom of Jesus’ day.

So Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Perhaps Jesus is being a bit mischievous here. The other nine did do as Jesus told them. They did what was prescribed by the religious commandments and had a priest verify that they were healed. Jesus upset everyone’s expectations by praising the person who did not do what he told him to do. Everyone’s expectations of the Samaritan notwithstanding, Jesus told the Samaritan: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” The example of healing, of new life, of glorifying God, and of faith, is the faith of this foreigner and outcast. God is free, and is not captive to our expectations.

The Old Testament lesson is about the healing of another leper. Naaman, the Syrian, was a powerful military commander for the Aramaeans, a nearby kingdom which at that time had the upper hand over Israel. The early part of this lesson sounds like familiar recent news: the representatives of a powerful country approach a weaker country with implied threats and a show of force, seeking a favor. And so, Naaman shows up outside the house of the prophet Elisha with “horses and chariots.”

This part of the story also reminded me of some conversations I had, a little over twenty years ago, when I went to South Africa. When we visited Soweto, people told us what it was like just a couple of years before under apartheid. The South African Defense Forces would drive up in armored fighting vehicles they called “Hippos” to intimidate and keep an eye on anyone who might be taking an independent action or having free discussions. Those chariots and horsemen in our Old Testament lesson today were the equivalent.

Elisha is not intimidated. He sends out a messenger to tell Naaman: “Go wash in the Jordan.” The powerful man is enraged, because he expected more respect. Also, he didn’t think very much of that creek that the Israelites called the “Jordan River.”

Nonetheless, he ended up going and washing in the Jordan, and he was healed. His power, his bluster, and his intimidation did him no good—only the realistic words of the prophet and the mercy of God.

People like to think they can keep the upper hand. Even in church we think that our expectations and the solutions protect our regard of ourselves are what should prevail.  Sometimes, we even think that’s really the Will of God. The truth is, we don’t know the will of God for us or for this church. The healing that we need comes from God, not from some power center, or wealthy outside patron. Naaman had to find humility to do what the prophet said before he could be healed. We all have to have humility to listen to Jesus to be healed and to find our way forward.

Last Sunday we gathered together as a parish, and we listened. Among the themes that emerged in the self-descriptions from this parish was Commitment to Serve—that for a number of the people here, they felt most alive and connected to God when this church came together to serve others outside the bounds of this congregation: in the Caribbean Festival, the Gospel Choir interacting with other churches, in our Thrift Store, out on the sidewalk, interacting with this neighborhood and helping a few who can’t even afford the discount prices.  It’s in having the courage to give beyond the bounds of any expectation of receiving back, of welcoming the foreigner and offering healing, that we can be and become the healthy church that God wants—that we can be where the Kingdom of God occurs.

That man, that Samaritan suffering leprosy—he had a priest to go to who would pronounce and ratify his healing—but he returned to Jesus. He praised God because he was healed—as foreign as he had been made to feel in his own land, he was healed and given hope. He was included and his praises of God were included and added to the prayers of the angels and saints. “Your faith has made you well, get up and go on your way.” God has healed us and included us in God’s Kingdom, he invites us to get on our way, to do his business of praising him.

From today’s psalm, let us pray:

 

Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart

in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the Lord!

they are studied by all who delight in them.

His work is full of majesty and splendor,

and his righteousness endures for ever.

He makes his marvelous works to be remembered;

the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice;

all his commandments are sure.

They stand fast for ever and ever,

because they are done in truth and equity.

He sent redemption to his people,

he commanded his covenant forever; holy and awesome is his Name.

 

 

Increase our Faith!

A sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

Those apostles, Jesus’ most notable followers and representatives, were just like the rest of us. Like the rest of us, they were fearful from time to time and self-conscious about their own shortcomings. So, faced with the challenges of living compassionately in this not very compassionate world, they say to Jesus, “Add to our faith!” We don’t have enough! We need some more!

That’s how we often feel. That somehow, things would be different if we just had a bigger quantity of that special something. Or, if we only had what others seem to have, then it would be easy. Somehow what’s frightening and difficult won’t be frightening and will just flow by without difficulty.  That somehow our job as Christians is to have really big faith, and if we just had that kind of faith, then we would prosper.  Jesus doesn’t buy that—though some wrongheaded Christians and even preachers seem to teach that.

Jesus says, “As to quantity of faith, all it takes is the amount the size of a grain of mustard seed.” If I had a grain of mustard seed balanced on the tip of my little finger, you wouldn’t be able to see it down there in the pews. But, at least according to Jesus, that tiny speck can do everything we attribute to faith, even moving trees and forests into the sea. You are asking for more faith, but more faith isn’t what’s needed. You have the faith that is needed.

I’m going to keep this homily short because we have a lot to accomplish today. So I won’t unpack this other story from Jesus all the way. But briefly: Jesus is saying to his disciples that, as servants, servants of God and of one another, the things we do each day, are the service that is the Kingdom of God. There’s not some special prize for being the best, or better, or different, or reaching the end. We are God’s servants right now, living with that little mustard seed worth of faith. And it suffices.

The truth is, in Christian communities, people can be lots of things and feel lots of ways: happy, triumphant, sad, anxious, fearful, comforted. And the reason for that is because we are human beings in a human community. What makes us a divine community is that God loves us, exactly are we are in our humanity, because of that humanity, not in spite of us being the way that we are. We live in God’s mercy and God is merciful: All the Time—at every time, no matter how we feel, or what we are thinking—we are the body of Christ because we are living in God’s mercy and for no other reason. It is not our goal to feel some particular way, or to demonstrate some extraordinary level of faithfulness or piety. Our goal is to live in God’s mercy and compassion.

Today, we are gathering to remember how God has been merciful to us. How we have each experienced God’s love and how we have all experienced God’s love here at Trinity. Each one of you will have the opportunity to listen to and take notes on another person’s story—their experience, their values, and their hopes. And each of you will likewise have your own story be heard and shared, just as you choose to tell it. God’s love is manifest here at Trinity. I’ve experienced it. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The story of that love is told by the quietest voice and the least and most humble among us.  As we listen and gather those little mustard seeds of faith, the story of God’s love will show itself to be as great as God—God himself.

From today’s psalm:

Put your trust in the Lord and do good;

dwell in the land and feed on its riches.

Take delight in the Lord,

and he shall give you your heart’s desire.

Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him,

and he will bring it to pass.

He will make your righteousness as clear as the light

and your just dealing as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord

and wait patiently for him.

If they do not Listen to Moses and the Prophets

A sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 29, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

There is a deep irony to this last sentence of today’s Gospel. The Gospels are not written as mystery stories with a surprise ending. They are the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. This story that Jesus told is not about the dead, it is about the living. The story starts, “There was a rich man…”

A lot of the stories in the Gospel of Luke talk about rich people:  The rich young man who asked Jesus how he might attain everlasting life; the rich man who tore down his granaries to build bigger ones; the rich man who had a steward; the rich tax collector Zacchaeus who followed Jesus.  Rich people were a fact of life in the ancient world, more noticeable than now, perhaps, because there were fewer of them and the gap was even bigger than it is today, since there wasn’t really much if any middle class. Jesus did not condemn any of these people for being wealthy, the gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke, observe how they behave.

In the Gospels, the stories are there to be readily understood, to make their point clear. And one thing that was clear in the ancient world was that if you were rich, you were free to act.  Slaves’ lives were very circumscribed and most of the things that they did were things they had to do. The rich had plenty of discretion and choices available to them. They could choose among comforts, places they might go, when to be generous, and they were responsible for what they did. Most people were poor and had far less discretion. But in the case of a rich man, it was clear: he had choice in what he did and the responsibility for it.  But we have choices and responsibility too, even when we’re not rich. Jesus’ stories that mention rich people aren’t told because his words only applied to rich people. He was just using his hearer’s understanding of what it meant to be rich in that day and age, to illustrate that all of us are responsible for our actions.

So Jesus is telling a story. A folk tale or a parable, really. It’s about a rich man and a beggar whose name is Lazarus. That is to say, a person responsible for his own actions and someone who was suffering and unable to take care of his own needs. The rich man is described as feasting sumptuously every day—that appeared to be the sum total of his occupation. In fact, the rich man isn’t even given a name because there isn’t anything to say about him beyond that he was only taking care of himself, and ignoring the needs of others, or, in this case, Lazarus.  He’s characterized by self-indulgence and self-pity. Even after the rich man dies and is begging Abraham for relief, he wants Lazarus to be used as a slave, to bring him water.

This story isn’t moralistic in the way we moderns understand fables. It’s not saying that the rich man learned anything after he died and was in the same miserable condition as Lazarus. Look what he does: He asks for the servant to return from the dead to warn the members of his family about his heritage or legacy. He still gives not one whit for Lazarus the beggar, nor the people of Israel—he cares only for himself and his own. And there’s no reason to believe that the brothers he wants warned were any different. They weren’t going to change and respect the warning of Lazarus—even if a man were raised from the dead.

This story is about the respect of the living for the living. The prophets spoke to Israel about justice, about respect for the poor and the weak. The books of Moses spoke about respect for the strangers living in the land. The rich man in this story had no excuse—because of his wealth he was fully responsible for his actions. His lack of compassion was his own, it was not forced on him by God or by circumstances. Yet somehow, he behaved as if it was. “Let Lazarus bring me water.” “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers.” As if some special personal warning would guide them to take care of their interests, as if God owed them those things that they denied to other human beings, as if their only problem was a lack of information. This man’s life was impoverished because he lacked compassion and mercy, the basic building blocks of an abundant spiritual life. He was free and able to avail himself of all the generosity of God, the wisdom of the Torah, and the passion of the prophets, but instead he looked to himself, to his own self-centered benefit—and ultimately, self-pity. There was no magic solution, some astonishing miracle was not going to change that. We are called to be God’s people, to rejoice in God’s gift of love to us, to rejoice in the opportunity to live generously and not like this man who time after time, dove deeper into self-indulgence and self-pity.

This story is deeply ironic. Jesus WAS raised from the dead. And the people of his time didn’t listen to Jesus, anymore than they listened to all the prophets of Israel. As we heard this morning from Amos, one of the earliest of the prophets in the Old Testament:

Alas for those who are at east in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

 

God has raised Jesus from the dead, exactly so that we may listen to the prophets rather than have our ears stopped by the indolence of self-satisfaction. There is no point in gathering riches—it is in living life for others that we are  richly blessed.

More Shrewd in Dealing with their own Generation

A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 22, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

Today’s gospel reading is well known among preachers as one of the hardest of Jesus’ parables to interpret and preach on. Part of that is because people often think that Jesus’ parables are allegories where one of the characters is God. Another piece is that we often expect Jesus’ stories to be moralistic and tell people how to behave. Today’s parable proves that those things aren’t always true. Jesus’ stories are about the real world of human experience. There is nothing particularly moral about anybody in this story and the rich man is definitely NOT God. Let’s step back a bit and just listen to the story as a story. It’s easy enough to retell this in a contemporary idiom:

There was a CEO of a very large company, a national or international concern that makes a lot of money in many ways.  It came to his attention that one of his regional or divisional managers was not doing so well. The manager had been there a long time and had a very good salary, but unlike the rest of the company, this manager’s area of responsibility was on the decline—accounts were being cancelled and going to competitors, market share was declining, revenue was down while at the same time expenses were up.  Something was wrong. It probably wasn’t criminal—an embezzler would cover his tracks better. The CEO sends a message notifying the manager that there would be a Special Review of that division’s performance. The manager in question didn’t just fall off the turnip truck—he knew what that meant. In this company, a Special Review meant the end for the manager. And usually those reviews were used to document how to justify eliminating most of the severance and bonus eligibility for the manager on the way out.  He still had kids in college, lots of expenses, and it was way too early to retire.  And the job market at his level for people his age was none too good, especially because his most notable achievements were years ago.

So our manager considers his situation. And he comes up with a plan. He finds the most important of the accounts that his division oversees and he goes to see the person in charge of each one. I can’t say the specifics of what he worked out with them. It may well have involved criminal actions—it certainly violated the terms of his employment arrangements with his company. In a few days, he had made personal and professional arrangements that were so advantageous to the clients that they made consulting arrangements with him that guaranteed enough income for his kids to get through college and for him to reach retirement with at least as good a situation as he would have had if he had served his time with the company without being fired.

When it came time for the Special Review, the CEO could see what had happened, at least in outline. In all likelihood, the company would decide not to get investigators involved in the details of its operations and finances, and its attorneys would simply work to contain the damage and keep the manager from expanding his advantage. They wouldn’t necessarily be pleasant, but they weren’t going to be able to recover much either.

The CEO shakes his head, and says to the manager, “Wow! If you had been this creative and aggressive for the company for the past five years, I would have put you in charge of a lot more!”

That’s how I read the end of the parable when it says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Jesus tells a realistic story about his time, which is exactly parallel to this modern story. Nobody in the story is a moral exemplar—each person was out for his own advantage.

Jesus is talking to his disciples. He says, look—out there, even the unrighteous find ways to adapt, they find ways to get done what is important, when to take a risk to achieve a goal. The manager who had been indolent and wasteful and complacent was not shrewd or commended by either the CEO or by Jesus. And so it is with the children of light. Sometimes, they too, think that all they have to do is let someone else love their brothers and sisters, after all, we will be forgiven, so what responsibility do we have to be resourceful and perform our best for the Kingdom of God?

There’s a word in today’s Gospel that occurs a couple of times and is translated as “wealth,” or “money.” It’s actually a Hebrew word that is nonetheless used in the Greek gospels: Mammon. Mammon is a word that doesn’t appear in the Old Testament but it’s found in several other Hebrew texts. It means property, or assets. It has a neutral connotation in itself. Of course when you look at the dealings of this manager, you are looking at “unjust Mammon.” The priorities of the CEO and the manager were indeed Mammon. They were shrewd and efficient in how they dealt with it, and obtained it—the point at which the CEO decided to call in the manager to discipline him was when that manager was not shrewd and efficient with the Mammon entrusted to him. The manager’s later faithfulness to Mammon was what got the CEO’s admiration.

We live in a time and a society where Mammon gets all the attention and admiration. And those who really get the admiration are those who are clever and single-minded in its pursuit. The prophet Amos saw a similar situation about 2800 years ago. God called on Amos to say this:

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain and the Sabbath so that we may sell wheat?’ … The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”

We are called to be people of God, not Mammon.

It’s tempting to try to play both sides—get a little of that comfort, a little of that exploitation—just a little, you know. Jesus says no. Being God’s people is a full-time job. It takes as much focus to be compassionate, generous, and fierce for the good of God’s little ones as it does to get rich. Rejoicing in God’s love and discerning how we can live out that love doesn’t leave room to be preoccupied with plotting how to get the next edge of profit the moment you get on the street. We live in a time when it is becoming obvious how much our country is damaged by corruption and greed. As Christians we must be as shrewd as that crafty manager in living in generosity and integrity. We are the slaves of God, not of wealth:

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

There is a collect from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, that brings this all together. Let us pray.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who declarest they glory and showest forth thy handiwork in the heavens and in the earth. Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men; for the sake of him who came among us as one that serveth, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.