September 29, 2019
Amos 6:1-7; Luke 16:19-31; I Timothy 6:6-19
There are times when I think maybe my own agenda might be creeping into my words in the pulpit more than it should be. I’m human. I have my own beliefs and opinions. And sometimes those beliefs have a real place in my sermons because I feel God’s Word has shaped those beliefs. But when I preach, it should never be my agenda leading the way. Never. And so, if I feel like maybe I’m moving in that direction, then I know it’s time for a lectionary sermon. With the lectionary I don’t get to pick the scripture passages I use. In that way it’s a spiritual discipline. I have the texts dictated to me by a set structure. I actually really appreciate using the lectionary and am hoping to rely on that for sermons more this fall. Anyway, I know I’ve been hitting the whole injustice/economics/poverty theme pretty hard for the last number of months. And I have been faithful to scripture throughout. But, as I thought ahead to this sermon, I was ready to shift gears a little and allow the lectionary texts to send my thoughts in a different direction. So I determined to use the lectionary no matter what the passages were and then I turned to read them. Hmmm… We have Amos denouncing idle wealthy folk in Israel. Luke gives us a rich man writhing in the flames of hell. And then we have a passage from I Timothy that is all about the sins
of the wealthy and includes the verse, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Really God? Are you kidding me? I guess the reassurance I got was that it wasn’t my agenda after all.
There is a really inconvenient truth about this Holy Book we revere and that is how it repeatedly and consistently lifts up to the light voices we really don’t want to hear. Ideals we don’t want to think about a whole lot. Sins that hit uncomfortably close to home.
And so instead, we often go looking for the issues, the shortcomings, the ethical conundrums we can speak about with comfortable detachment knowing ourselves to be honorably removed. It feels good to decry sins we aren’t guilty of, never mind that those issues, and there are many of them, are really treated only in passing in scripture as a whole. But this whole idea of justice, of the lifting up of the oppressed, of the blessing for the poor and the marginalized and the downtrodden, those themes are so prevalent in the Bible. One online site I trust said these themes are mentioned over 2,000 times in scripture. I didn’t take the time to verify and make sure this was true. J
But I’m guessing it is. You can usually only go a couple of pages before you trip over the next mention. Sometimes, as in the case of the Old Testament prophets or the gospels, these ideas are often hammered home multiple times on a single page.
And I guess my feeling is, before we start pointing fingers, we really have to make sure our own house is clean. It’s the whole removing the log from our own eye before we start hollering about the splinter in someone else’s. And it seems to me, this is the front and central issue, the glaring sin that is consistently confronting most of us who attend church in this country today. In fact, this seems so glaringly obvious, it makes me wonder to what extent we simply pay lip service to our faith and to what extent we really believe what’s written in these pages. Because the disconnect is real.
I want to just make a few comments on each of these three passages. Amos. Amos is a farmer, a sheep rancher to be specific. Not someone with a ministry background. And when he gets the call from God, he goes around speaking some really unpopular truths. Things that just aren’t said. In the process, one can only imagine the damage he does to his business relationships and personal relationships. And yet, Amos is also clearly a man who cares about people, who cares about his country. In chapter 7 he intercedes powerfully with God on behalf of the people, pleading for mercy, for forgiveness. But here’s the problem. Life is good in Israel. Working now from the Believer’s commentary on Amos (Allen Guenther), a lot of people had it really good. According to Amos, – the wealthy tier of society has custom-built homes, vacation homes, they love fine dining, manicures and facials, fine arts, culture. And the churches are doing a good business too. Lots of people attending. Religion is booming. Life is good. But it’s not good for everyone.
Here’s the problem, reading now from the commentary, “Taxes were a burden to the average landholder. The capital city and the public administration in Samaria were the main beneficiaries of taxation. Fines and exactions further handicapped the subsistence farmer and sharecropper. A crop failure would result in mortgage foreclosures and ultimately in the sale of persons to debt-slavery. The poor were dismissed as an expendable commodity. The weight of the national budget and the imposition of surcharges and penalties favored the rich, many of whom probably occupied government posts or contracted for government services. Added to officially sanctioned financial costs were the manipulation of the judicial system and deception in the exchange of goods. The poor person had no real access to justice when the only legal recourse was to appeal to the very rich who also sat as judges in the local courts. Corruption was rampant. Power prevailed. Those at the bottom end of the economic ladder were pawns to be used and discarded at will. Structural injustice, personal unrighteousness, and conspicuous consumption had become the hallmark of the day…Israel’s religion, instead of challenging the moral decline, quietly ignored it.”
Amos comes striding on the scene in the midst of prosperity, good times for the upper tier and he warns them hard times are coming. They will fall. Because they have forgotten their true God, a God of justice and righteousness.
Let’s turn to Luke 16 and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Several interesting pieces to note. This is really the only story or illustration in the Bible depicting a personal experience of hell. Again, sometimes we like to self-righteously think about or bring up hell in reference to ethical issues we don’t struggle with. Well, the sin depicted here is a rich man’s steadfast refusal to see and to help the poor man lying at his gate every day. Furthermore, even once this rich man has dropped into hell, he still doesn’t get it. He looks up to heaven, which he can see from his place in hell, and now he finally notices Lazarus and has the audacity to suggest that Lazarus should come down to hell to minister to him, to serve him. I am convinced that some people would argue with God in defense of their own limited understandings and opinions before they would willingly concede their woeful ignorance. This rich man has landed in hell and he still refuses to accept he got it wrong.
I also think it’s curious that the rich man isn’t given a name. The only thing that really defined him apparently was his wealth and that wealth gave him no personal value. The poor man at the gate, however, covered in open sores, he is given the dignity and blessing of a name, Lazarus. And when the rich man is informed that no, Lazarus will not come down and drop water on his tongue, that he couldn’t even if he wanted to because there is no coming and going between these two realms, then he asks Abraham to go intercede on behalf of his brothers who are still living that they may escape his fate.
So if the rich man, sitting in the flames of hell, is still not willing to completely accept how completely and totally wrong he was in how he prioritized his earthly life, how in the world is anyone going to be able to persuade similarly pigheaded people on earth? Which is basically Abraham’s response. If Moses and the prophets didn’t make God’s Kingdom values crystal clear, there is nothing anyone can do or say that will change their minds, “even if someone rose from the dead.” If that’s not a jaw-dropping warning to hold our own opinions and prejudices lightly, humbly, understanding we might be wrong about a few things, I don’t what is.
This story is fired directly at the Pharisees. The Pharisees wanted desperately to believe that if you were basically a good and decent person, God would materially bless you in all kinds of ways. And if you were found lacking, if you were full of sin, then you would be cursed with illness, with misfortune, with poverty. Rich man good. Lazarus bad. The Pharisees cherry picked scripture to try and make their point, though they tended to conveniently overlook the larger context. Today we call this heresy, prosperity theology. And it has no place in the church. Jesus makes a similar point with his story indicating it has no place in heaven either.
I Timothy – Here’s our instructions. Notice Paul doesn’t tell us to give everything we have away. But he does leave us with some pretty clear instruction on how to handle our wealth.
Be content. Practice contentment. Greed is such a powerful force. Humanity has this insatiable appetite, we always want more — more recognition, more prestige, more stuff, more respect, more wins, more power, more money, more, more, more. And none of those things satisfy. That’s why, as people of faith, we are so thankful to worship a God and follow a Savior who shows us the more we need to be longing for and working for. Here’s the appetite we’re asked to feed, a desire for more understanding, more peace, more faith, more compassion, more mercy, more godliness, more patience, more righteousness, more love. Contentment feeds our longing for God and everything God stands for. This is the good fight of the faith. Be content.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. In the last couple of verses, he has very explicit instructions for people with wealth, for us. We are not to be arrogant. We are to put our hope, our faith, our trust in God, not in wealth. And we are to demonstrate this hope, this faith, this trust in God by being rich in good deeds, by being generous, willing to share. And I’m pretty sure Paul doesn’t mean here that we go around sharing our good fortune with those who have been similarly blessed, transferring the wealth around, but keeping it in the family, so to speak. No, I’m pretty sure Paul is telling us to be generous in giving to those in need. Notice the sick man lying at our gate, in other words. See Lazarus.
Two weeks ago, I talked about all the different opportunities we have before us as a church community to serve in the next few months. Lazarus is there in each of those invitations. And Lazarus is there in so many different ways in our own personal lives away from the church as well. It is when we open our eyes and our hearts to the misfortune of others and are moved to be generous, with time and money, moved to do something about it – that’s when we begin laying up treasure for ourselves in heaven. That’s when we begin to be defined, to become who we are meant to be. When we start earning the blessed dignity of a name worth remembering in the age to come.