This morning we had a joint service with our Church of Christ neighbours. When it’s at our church I usually lead the service and the minister from the Church of Christ preaches. Normally thats okay, but today I had a real urge to preach!!! Funny I know. While I didn’t, and the minister did a fine job, the reading was one of those that smacks the listener between the eyes, even in the 21st century. Because it was about money and how we become so entranced by it we don’t see those without it, suffering. So I am going to put a sermon I wrote a few years ago on the blog, because we in the west, with our comfortable lives, will always find it a challenge to really see the other in our midst. I did use the poem referenced in the sermon, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost as an opening to the service.
Luke 16:19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus
A few weeks ago Matt and I went down to Dunsborough for an extended family weekend away. My cousin Robyn had acquired a beautiful house down there and wanted to catch up with the rest of the family. You can imagine how enjoyable it was, walking down to the shops, relaxing in a very comfortable setting, watching the footy on a mega huge television. It was luxury. So much so that when I went out walking with my brother and sister one morning I suggested, half as a joke, that if I was to return to this earth I wanted to come back as a rich person. As soon as I said it, I realised that I knew I didn’t believe it, but it just shows that we can all be blinded by the delights of possessions and money. My very sensible and socialist brother put me in my place, by reminding me that I was rich in so many other ways. But it is hard to resist the subliminal messages we all get every day. Messages that encourage and cajole us into believing that life would be better and more fulfilling if only we had a bigger house, a more expensive car, a bigger television or better more exotic holidays. Better for whom, that is the question.
We have been seduced by the idea that greed is good. Good for us and good for others. That somehow it will trickle down and help all those in society without us having to do anything. As Walter Wink, in an article for Sojournersmagazine, suggests we have been systematically trained in greed from birth. Consumerism is our middle name. Just look what we get put into our letter boxes every day: piles of magazines wanting us to buy more things. He suggests our economic system is greedy on our behalf, a giant machine of production. We have made economic growth the primary social god passing off the problem of poverty as an outstanding debt to be paid off by further economic growth. Even though by now we should have learned the increased productivity does not in fact resolve inequalities of the distribution of wealth. We in fact know that money ends up the hands of a few, who will then do anything to keep it.
We may think money is neutral, a commodity without any meaning other than being used in transactions. How wrong can we be. As individuals and as a society money rules all. Our economic and political system allows money to play favourites. The more money you have the more powerful you are. I discovered this the other day listening to an account of the Koch brothers in America, who are part of the right wing Tea Party by a social researcher called Lee Fang. I had not heard of the Tea Party until a week ago, and now suddenly everywhere I look there are articles on them.
Fang reported that the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are the wealthiest and perhaps most effective, opponents of President Obama’s progressive agenda. They have been looming in the background of every major domestic policy dispute this year in the states. Ranked as the ninth richest men in America, the Koch brothers sit at the helm of Koch industries, a massive privately owned conglomerate of manufacturing, oil, gas and timber interests. They are best known for their wealth as well as for their generous contributions to the arts, cancer research and the Smithsonian institute. But David and Charles are also responsible for a vicious attack campaign aimed directly at obstructing and killing progressive reform. Over the years millions of dollars of Koch money has flowed to various right wing think tanks, front groups and publications. They formed a group called Americans for Prosperity in 1984 which in turn helped form the Tea Party protests, based on the Boston Tea Party and driven by extreme right wing groups. They have bankrolled campaigns against health care reform, pollution controls and for climate change denial to name a few.
Money is not neutral, it provides luxury, security and power and the people who have it have the greatest power to manipulate those in society to keep it. The trickle down effect is a myth; the more we have the less others have and the more we have the more we want. It makes us, our society and our world divided, fearful and less compassionate and as we have seen politicians play on it all.
But all this talk raises a very salient point, one that is central to the expression of our faith in the world. Money has become another god and economics a type of religion. So how we respond to it shows whose side we are on. For if we are really on the side of Jesus then we all have changes to make.
For Jesus wasted no time in the New Testament declaring himself on the side of the poor. There are numerous places where it is very clear, what is at stake. Siding with the poor was the mark of being one of his disciples in a time when the Roman Empire ruled and when the poor suffered at the hands of landowners, bankers, creditors and even priests.
As Walter Wink says, Jesus identified the world’s great idol as mammon, by which he meant money or property in general. He saw it as a power no longer under human control and no longer in the service of human needs. The chief manifestation of the God mammon is accumulated wealth.
Today we heard one of the many parables he used to make it very plain what he thought about it and what he believed God required of us. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is like all the parables, on the one hand an exaggerated story and on the other quite subtle. Many scholars believe it originated as a folk story which Jesus himself adapted, although most would say verses 27-31 are additions by Luke. The rich man feasted sumptuously every day, as most of us do, while poor Lazarus was lucky to beat the dogs to the garbage. When Lazarus dies we discover him safe in the bosom of Abraham at a banquet table, while the rich man cries out in torment from hell. But there is more to the story. As David Buttrick, in his book on Parables points out, the rich man has no name, while Lazarus’s name means ‘God has helped’. Interestingly by the time of Jesus beggars were seen as sinners being punished for their sins. Lazarus lies outside the wall, but just near the gate to the rich man’s estate. He is too weak to beg but lies hoping for table scraps from the rich man. The contrast between the two is carefully drawn. Then the tables are reversed. Lazarus who hoped for scraps now feasts in the afterlife. The rich man dies, is buried, and ends up in Hades. Once he partied every day, now he cries out for a drop of water. Still the rich man is arrogant and refuses to address Lazarus directly. He sees Lazarus as a low class slave and asks Abraham to order Lazarus to moisten his lips.
This parable hits us between the eyes. Poor and rich are extremes and Luke uses it in a not too subtle attack on the rich. But money is not neutral. It has social meaning and to have an abundance while others are starving is, as Buttrick suggests, impossible to condone. So perhaps this is the message we need to hear.
Brandon Scott has used the poem I read earlier from Robert Frost, The Mending Wall when looking at this parable. The rich man could have walked through his gate and served the poor man but he chose not to and even in the afterlife he doesn’t acknowledge Lazarus as a fellow human being. As a result the wall that separated the two in life becomes a chasm.
We build fences to protect ourselves from hearing the cry of the poor, watching them from the comfort of our lounge rooms or dream that if we spend more then the benefits will trickle down to those less fortunate. But as we have heard walls become permanent chasms unable to be breached. Human carelessness hardens. A great statement comes from David Buttrick about what happens. Yet in the parable all the rich man had to do is to go out and connect to the poor, and seek a common destiny. All he had to do was recognise what lay before him. That he didn’t, condemned him forever. We are the rich man and the poor are at our gates now, and our common destiny and survival is in our hands.
So what do we do to go through the opening? Well, it is not enough for us to continue with a lifestyle of the west, justifying our position by being generous, although that helps. As Wink suggests, we cannot just treat people well, raise our families, live in nice homes and work hard, and give money away when we are part of the institutionalised greed that leads to injustice. For as we accumulate more and more, we build a wall back up between those of us that have and those that are the have nots. A wall once built, as we have heard is hard to tear it down. We have to change our lifestyle, to see that what we desire affects others just as much as what we do. Not easy but essential. In recognising this dilemma Walter Wink acknowledges that, ‘Our personal transformation will not change the system, but it is the indispensable prerequisite to systemic change. We can alter our own patterns of consumption, less fuel, less junk food, less litter, less detergent, less beef; more recycling, more conservation, longer use of clothes and products, rejection of style fads and the mania for newness. Our very values can change: we can slough off the spell of bigness, the love of luxury, the bogus security of owning things.’ The myth that consumerism will solve everything. And in the process help the environment.
But there is more. We can also find ways to hold politicians and global companies responsible to the general public, and defeat those who are working against the public interest. The power of the internet to find out this information and then engage with groups who are questioning the activities of some of these corporations is with us all. I know because it took me about 30 minutes to find out about the Koch brothers and about groups exposing their methods to the public and coordinating opposition to them.
Finally, it is time to overhaul our national theology of wealth which Wink identifies, and the heresy that we are rich because we are righteous and righteous because we are rich. We are rich because the system perpetuates it, the rich get richer and the poor poorer unless we do something about it. The church is called to waken those within it to the wall that is building between the have and the have nots and tear it down.
As Wink concludes no one really knows how to construct a perfect economic system in the West which greedy people will not subvert to their own gain. But we, as people of faith, are free to risk moving toward a way that is more equitable and just, knowing we are grounded in a God whose love is for all people. It is this love we find in Jesus and whose way we follow. So while we can be countercultural with our money and how we use it, it is with our lifestyle we can truly reflect the call of Jesus and the need of our fellow brothers and sister. Changing the system starts with us. Scary but true.
As a footnote, it is interesting the one of the Koch brothers, David, died recently, and so was in the news. No matter how much money we have, we all die in the end! It’s how we live the matters!
We had a Naming ceremony for Thea, a beautiful granddaughter of a couple from our congregation. This is the sermon I preached after the ceremony.
“What’s in a Name?”
As most of you know I spend some of my time teaching first year university students anatomy and human biology. I have 4 classes and 18 students in each class, so there are a lot of names to remember. And I am not very good at remembering names! I try hard, and have a few strategies, but usually it takes the whole semester to get most of them. It’s not that I don’t know the students belong to me and while I usually explain at the beginning of term that age wearies the memory a bit, I know that is not really enough.
Knowing someone’s name and being able to use it when talking to them is actually very important. When I call a student by name I can see it makes a difference. It tells them they are of worth, of value, that they have something to contribute and I respect them as an individual who is neither better nor worse than me. For people who are struggling with the course, the material, and if they are good enough to be there, it helps reassure them that they belong, they are included.
But a name is more than that. It gives us an identity. We are Karen or Jane or Tom or Melissa. We are a person in our own right, with a history, with passions and ideas and with commitments. We had a naming service today for Thea, to mark her as a person who will become an independent adult in the future, loved and cared for. But a person in her own right.
Christianity has had its share of dead ends, even today, but a constant from Jesus and from the original letters of Paul is that it is an inclusive religion. Everyone is of value, everyone is to be included in the great banquet of life, everyone is of worth. Everyone is a vessel holding the divine spark, the divine light and love, even my young, slightly crazy students. When we love others like ourselves we give a nod to that reality. When we fight for others rights and the just sharing of resources we give a nod to that reality. When we share our money and our time with others we give a nod to that reality.
Two of the readings we heard today, reflect this inclusive message. The first, from Psalm 139:7-12 is my favourite, a spoken reality from before Jesus was even thought of. The psalmist is expressing their deep understanding that there is nowhere we can go from God because God is a reality within us, always.
Where can I hide from thee, if I go to the ends of the earth you are there, if I sink into the biggest abyss you are there, closer than by own breath. God is found deep within each of us, a spark of life that is not restricted to those with the most wealth possessions, power or intellect. We are all God’s children and this God never leaves, goes on holiday or somehow decides we really aren’t worthy enough. Early Christians knew this and tried to act in the world in which they lived as though it was true.
But what if we lived at a time when we were a non-person. In Jesus time, there were many non-people, women and slaves in particular, who were seen as chattels to be bought and sold rather than a real people. In our past indigenous people were until the 1960s counted with the flora and fauna, with no voice and often no name. A terrible blight on Australia’s history.
The second reading we had today was from Paul’s letter to Philemon(1:1-20). I also love this short letter, an authentic Pauline letter, because it says so much about how we are to live today. Most of you might remember that Paul is in jail for upsetting the authorities, but sends a letter to his friend Philemon, a Christian convert about Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has escaped and run to Paul for protection. Paul is writing to Philemon asking him to let Onesimus go free, become a free man, and welcome him as a brother, for in the faith in which Paul stands, there is no difference been slave and free, between male and female, between Jew or Gentile because all are one in Christ Jesus. All are one in God’s spirit.
Paul is asking Philemon to do something very radical. In ancient times, it was okay to have slaves, and rarely were they acknowledged as anything but a useful commodity. They had no voice other than their master’s voice. Paul is asking Philemon to go against the norms and culture of the day, and risk a lot for his faith!
This story is a homecoming similar to the prodigal son. As Paul saw it, Philemon had a legal right to slaves but not a moral or spiritual one. Onesimus is not just a slave but a young man, with a name and identity. He is worthy for who he is as a child of God, rather than someone’s workhorse. As a follower of Jesus, the inclusive Jesus, Paul is asking Philemon to relinquish his power over someone rather than continue to dominate and exploit them. To free Onesimus from subordination, to free him of the burden of debt, to free him from the burden of shame, to pardon him and welcome him with open arms as an equal, as a beloved brother was a pretty big move in the 1stcentury.
Yet it appears that Philemon in fact did just that. We presume, for the letter was preserved, that Onesimus was freed and welcomed as though he was Paul! And the whole community celebrated a renewed relationship of mutual love. What a homecoming!
It paints a picture, today. of how radical this call is for us. To think of this inclusive love, this inclusive society when we are the dominant culture of the first world and hold all the power is very challenging. How do we give voices and free those who we have enslaved to sustain our lifestyles. How might we free them, both here and elsewhere?
Again I say pretty radical stuff.
But I don’t want to finish here. I want to go back to the source for Paul, which was Jesus. The radical message of Jesus, has led to the radical message of Paul. Jesus came and shook up those who had forgotten that his call, God’s call was an inclusive call, an inclusive reality, particularly those from the Jewish tradition that he was immersed in. They, instead, were imposing rules and laws about who was in and who was out of Gods kingdom. Much like we do today.
Cherry will read a passage from Luke’s gospel (4:14-30) which demonstrates this. Although the whole of the New Testament is littered with Jesus’s radical message.
Jesus Rejected at Nazareth
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read,17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[a]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,”he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[b]in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
In this reading Jesus is preaching in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth, announcing to his community and to his family who he is. He stands up in the synagogue, reads from the scriptures, and suggests he is going to bring in a different way of being by what he says. Jesus was his name and he has come to change the world.
He does it as a young man who had grown up in this town, and the people thought that they knew him. Oh yes, he’s the son of Joseph and Mary, the carpenters son. Little did they realise what was coming! He is announcing something totally unexpected to those who thought they knew him.
Initially the listeners were well pleased as he had taken a reading from Isaiah. But as he continued, by using two stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, ones they would have known, he infuriates them. The point of the two extra stories is that both the widow mentioned and Naaman the Syrian were NOT Jews. Not part of the “chosen people” who the prophets, Eliza and Elisha go and help. What!, they are outsiders, the listeners would have cried. Jesus was suggesting, very strongly, that God chooses to touch and bless those on the outside of the Jewish tradition as well as those inside. And the task of those who are called to serve God, is to follow God, and to go to those outside the boundaries, outside the fold.
Jesus is widening Gods spirit, Gods love to include everyone, not just Jews and is calling his community to stop being so exclusive. And they were not happy. He barely got out alive!
Jesus was a baby then a boy, with a tradition and parents who loved him. But there came a time for him to forge his own way, to reveal the passions and commitment and path he would follow. This is a turning point. Jesus was choosing his own way, a spirit driven way that included love and justice for all. An inclusive message picked up and lived by Paul and many who have followed Jesus. And suddenly he wasn’t welcome!
So we can hear in this small story how it takes commitment to see the world in this way. Its challenging, and a bit scary.
But as Thea starts her journey or for all of us whose journey has been going for some time, the message is the same. It’s about choosing life, for everyone. It is about loving and being loved, fully and completely. It’s about the message that all people including ourselves are of worth, God’s divine spark. It is about making a commitment to this way of seeing the world, and not being swayed by those who seek to divide us, to belittle us, who tell us we need more possessions, power or money to be loved, or that others have to suffer in order for us to be happy.
We have heard it today in each of our reading, from different times. Now we face our time.
I pray that each one of us sees in the Jesus message the message of inclusion and love and justice, and we head out to make a difference in the world. Whether we are 6 months or 86!
For this is the way to fullness of life.