A Sermon for Proper 21; Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:16, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
In seminary class was asked to participate in an undergraduate sociology study. Everyone was given a date, time and place. I was running late, which was not unusual, even then. As I rushed down stairs, I heard, and half saw a student sitting there coughing. I noticed him, but he didn’t seem to be in any distress, didn’t seem to need any help, so off I went. I took the survey, which seemed kind of pointless; my undergrad degree is in sociology, and I still had some vague memory of how to do a survey. I later learn that the coughing student was the point of the study. The study was to see how many people would stop and help. It turns out that not many did, and fewer seminarians stopped than college students stopped.
One place Angie and I tend to act differently is folks stopped on the roadside with signs looking for help. Angie often stops to help. I rarely stop to help. She tends to take the signs at face value. I am rather jaded and wonder what the scam is. And I have to admit, her ability to see the child of God in anyone is a trait I admire.
Lazarus is the only character in a parable that has a name (Lose) (Hoezee, Luke). His only companions are the dogs that lick his wounds, and unlike today, dogs are held in contempt, just like Lazarus is held in contempt (Clavier). We don’t know how long the unnamed rich man, completely ignores Lazarus. We do know they couldn’t be more different; the rich man is covered in fine purple, and Lazarus is covered in open sores (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). The only time they are equal is that they both die. I expect even their funerals were different. The rich man’s funeral being a grand affair. Lazarus is thrown into a pauper’s grave, perhaps like the scene from the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby
who “died in the church
And was buried along with her name Nobody came” (Hoezee, Luke).
Then comes the great reversal.
The rich man is in Hades, that dark and dismal place in the very depths of the earth; the abode of the wicked (Gaventa and Petersen) being tormented by flames. Lazarus is taken by angels to be with Abraham. The ancient text reads “to be in Abraham’s bosom” and is most likely a reference to the intimacy between Abraham and Lazarus; it is a deep relationship (Lewis). The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some water. If you read closely the rich man calls Lazarus by name, he knows this dude. But even now the rich man treats Lazarus as a lowly servant; he refuses to see him as a brother in Abraham. Also, note how Abraham calls the rich man ‘child’ even as he refuses his request; raising the possibility that there is some equality between the rich man and Lazarus we don’t yet glean.
It is tempting to stay here and reflect on the evils of money, which in itself is a complex, simple topic. But that is not where Jesus leads the Pharisees (whom Luke refers to as lovers of money in verse 14). The story ends with Abraham saying that if the rich man’s brothers will not listen to Moses or the prophets, they will not listen to one who rises from the dead. It has an ominous sound particularly when spoken by the one who does rise from the dead. And remember, Luke’s audience knows Jesus has risen from the dead, just as we know Jesus has risen from the dead. So maybe we should start paying attention because Jesus’ story just may be targeted at Luke’s audience, which includes us.
I mentioned earlier that the rich man does not see Lazarus as a child of Abraham. Even though he knows his name, the rich man does not see Lazarus at all. He does not want to see Lazarus. Before you can have compassion for people, you have to see them, (Epperly). When we really see people, when we allow ourselves to learn their names, their stories, their history; when we see their faces, we risk feeling like Jesus so often has; compassion, that gut-wrenching impulse to act.
But we know this. We’ve known it for a long time, and in that time, for all sorts of reasons, we have gotten pretty good at censoring out all those events that create such impulses. The trouble is, even when this censoring is church defined, and it often is, censorship draws us away from who and what God is calling us to be and to do; and after the world passes us by, we discover that we have denied ourselves the opportunity to witness the resurrection moments, to be a part of resurrection opportunities (Lewis).
In fact, we deny ourselves the chance to learn the fullness of our identity. We are who we are through all the those who are around us. I am who I am, because of you. You are who you are, because of Lazarus, who by many other names, is in your life, our life, and when we censor them, we deny ourselves (Epperly).
As I was studying and writing, I continued to have vision after vision of folks whose plight I have censored. Yes, I have helped some folks over the years; but I have censored many as I followed the rich man out into the world. Knowing I have done so it is easy to fall into concern; perhaps even great concern, because as much as I like a fire I don’t want to be in a fire, so what are we to do.
Well if scripture creates, nope I created the mess, scripture just helps me see it, in any case, scripture can guide us, to a new light. In fact, that is what happens in the story from Jeremiah. For years he has been warning that if they did not quit, well, to be honest, quit acting like the rich man in Luke’s story, there would be serious consequences for Judah. They didn’t listen. They didn’t change their ways. And sure enough, there are consequences. The army of Babylon is at the gates, if not rushing the place walls. And suddenly, Jeremiah has the strangest vision, about buying a piece of land.
Sure enough, the next day his cousin shows up to offer him with an offer to sell the family land in Anathoth, which is less than ten miles northeast of Jerusalem (Epperly). Land sales in Jeremiah’s day is not a free market exercise; it is the exercise of family rights and responsibilities of succession to ensure that land stays within the family (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And Jeremiah has no reason at all to buy this land; he is old; he has no children to pass it on to; Jerusalem has fallen; and everyone who is anyone is bound to be exiled. So what would you expect him to do? Certainly wouldn’t expect him to buy the land, which is what he does. He even orders his secretary to take extraordinary precautions to protect the deeds (Wines).
For Jeremiah Buying the land is a proclamation of hope, that there is a future. Buying the land is an act of faith, he believes God’s word revealed in his visions. Buying the land is an exercise of ministry, when you often do what you do even when you don’t see, because as Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7 (Wines). In short, there is hope, because God is with us right here, and right now.
God wants us to hear and learn from Moses, the prophets and Jesus. God wants us to express confidence for the future, even though at the moment it is unknown (Hoezee, Jeremiah). God wants us to experience the abundance that comes from the community of the un-seeable, the disenfranchised, the hungry, the naked, and those who are in any way oppressed, who are all around us. God wants us to trust in the continuing power of resurrection; not just Jesus’ resurrection, but the resurrection of everyone and everything.
So where do we go from here? I really think in part we keep doing what we have been doing. I think we consider venturing into the neighborhood that surrounds us, one block, one neighbor at a time, inviting people to come share food, a flick, and fellowship on a Friday night. I think we pay attention to the moments we hesitate, and refrain from self-censorship, and reach out. I think we continue as best we can to follow Jeremiah by living in the Kingdom of God right here right now.
Clavier, Anthony. “What Separates Us From Each Other and From God?” 25 9 2016. Sermons that Work.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 25 9 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 25 9 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. Proper 21C | Jeremiah. 25 9 2016.
—. Proper 21C| Luke. 25 9 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel>.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.
Lewis, Karoline. The Bosom Of Abraham. 25 9 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lose, David. Pentecost 19 C: Eternal Life Now. 16 9 2016.
Rossing, Barbara. Commentary on Luke 16:19-31. 25 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Wines, Alphonetta. Commentary on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15. 25 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.