The Gospel according to Deeds and Scrooge

(sermon 9/29/19)

 

scrooge
Alastair Sim in Scrooge, 1951 – Photo: YouTube

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

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For the past several weeks, the Lectionary has focused on this section of Luke’s gospel, which is a series of Jesus’ teachings that deal directly or indirectly with wealth and possessions – how to prioritize them, and how to use them. This theme starts in the 11th chapter of Luke, but it really ramps up in chapters 15 and 16, where we’ve heard about risking what we have safely in hand to do the good of saving something that’s lost, in the stories of the shepherd’s lost sheep and the widow’s lost coin; and even though we skipped over it, immediately after that in the gospel is the parable of the prodigal son; then comes the parable of the dishonest manager, which we heard last week; and now this parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the rich man’s torment in the afterlife because of the way he kept his wealth to himself and ignored the suffering of Lazarus. Apparently in an attempt to drive his point even further home, Jesus names the suffering man in this story – actually the only time he gives a character in his parables any name at all – Lazarus, which literally mean “God helps.”

This whole extended section of Luke can be troubling for Western Christians in general, and us American Christians in particular, because it offers some harsh assessments and warnings for affluent people, and we all recognize that even the least financially secure among us are actually wealthy by global standards.

And this particular story can also be a bit troubling for most of us Protestants in traditions that originated in the Protestant Reformation, who profess that we’re saved by grace through faith, and faith alone, and not by works – but the only two times that Jesus offers any detail about what the final judgment would be like – in Matthew 25 and here – what we do in this life seems to be a major factor, if not the only factor, in that calculus.

Taken together, these stories remind us that while we should all strive for a reasonable amount of comfort and financial stability, each increasing level of that that we attain comes with increasing moral expectations, and an increasing potential for us to develop skewed priorities. We all know the old saying, the more you have, the more you want. We strive to achieve some level of wealth and possessions that we think will make us happy, and if we’re fortunate enough to achieve that goal, we immediately reset the goalposts and think that if we only reached that *new* goal, then we’d be really happy. And at every level that we achieve, we become more concerned about protecting and preserving what we have, and not necessarily using it to help others – and there is the real risk that Jesus hones in on in this parable. The rich man saw Lazarus, and his suffering, every single day, and he had the means to do something about it, but didn’t. He was too interested in using his wealth strictly for himself and his own priorities.

This gradual ratcheting up of working to preserve our wealth, our stuff, isn’t any real surprise to us. In fact, we’ve all experienced it in our own lives, in one way and at one time or another. Still, it is worth reflecting on, and examining ourselves from time to time, and asking ourselves if that attitude of overvaluing our wealth, and our comfort, and our stuff, over the lives and well-being of others has crept into our mindsets.

In this parable, Jesus frames the issue in terms of judgment and eternity. But eternity dwells in the present, too, and that judgment that Jesus refers to deals not only with whether you treated others well in this life, but whether you treated yourself well, too – and by that, I don’t mean in terms of material comfort and enjoyment, but rather, if you lived a life of spiritual wellness and shalom that God designed you for, and intended for you to enjoy and be grateful for.

It doesn’t matter if you believe that God has laid out a specific, detailed path for your life, or if you believe that God gives us a bit more agency than that, but then guides us and helps us after we’ve decided on our path. In either of those options, it seems pretty clear that God wants us to live that path, whatever it is, in a certain way, a way that’s best for others and is best and most fulfilling for ourselves, too. Just as racism, or any other -ism, hurts both the oppressed and the oppressor, living life in a way that’s best for others ends up being best for ourselves, too.

In 2002, Adam Sandler starred in the movie “Deeds,” a remake of the old Gary Cooper film “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” Sandler plays a simple, good-hearted small-town guy who suddenly inherits a controlling interest in a huge multinational corporation, and he’s forced to swim in those unfamiliar, shark-infested waters. It was a silly, lightweight movie, some feel-good cotton candy for the brain, and while it had its funny moments, it wasn’t nearly as good as the original. But in one scene near the end of the movie, Sandler’s character is speaking to a roomful of rich, powerful, and cynical stockholders at the corporation’s annual meeting, and he asks them to think about their lives and how they’d turned out. He asked them to think about what they’d always wanted to be when they were a kid – what they wanted to do with their lives, before they’d allowed themselves to become consumed by just making a lot of money. One by one, they shared their real life’s dreams, of what they wanted to be, how they wanted to do something good and meaningful and constructive in the world, independent of the money they might earn from it. Of course, it was just a sappy movie, so everyone had a change of heart and they all voted the way Sandler wanted them to.

Well, Jesus’ words in this parable are a warning, but they’re an invitation, too – an invitation to look at our own lives, no matter what stage of life we’re in and no matter what level of wealth we have, and to ask if our current priorities are the ones that we believe would please God – priorities where we love God, show compassion to others, and proper stewardship of creation – and that, in the process, will lead us into that life of shalom for ourselves. And if the answer that we arrive at is that no, we don’t have the priorities that we should, we can have hope, because with God’s help, we can fix that. The script of our lives isn’t finalized yet. Borrowing from the storyline of a much better known story than Sandler’s movie, our lives are like Ebenezer Scrooge learning that the images that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showed him aren’t images of what will happen, but what *could* happen if things didn’t change. Maybe call it the Gospel according to Scrooge – things weren’t cast in stone; he could rewrite them. And so can we.

So sometime, maybe today, maybe later this week, I invite you to do that exercise. Think about your life. Have you allowed the pursuit of wealth, of security, of comfort, of stuff, to cloud your vision, your sense of purpose, your understanding of what a truly fulfilling life would be?

If you conclude that it has, don’t worry. God has promised to help you; you can make the changes you might need to make to have that fulfillment in life. In some cases, it might not be easy. In some cases, it might take courage. But don’t be afraid to try to make that change, because Christ himself has promised to help guide you through that, to give you the strength and courage you need to pursue that life of fulfillment, contentment, shalom, both in the here and now, and in the life hereafter.

Thanks be to God.

#lazaruslivesmatter

(Sermon 9/25/16)

eugene-carson-blake-arrested-07-04-1963

Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, being arrested during a Civil Rights protest, July 4 1963. Click image above to view video.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”  – Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

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He was living the good life. There wasn’t any question that he’d worked hard in his life, and his hard work had paid off. Now, here he was, at the peak of his life. He had a nice home, good food. He was able to travel, see different and interesting places from time to time. He could afford to wear stylish, up to date clothes, and to get new ones whenever the fashion gurus changed their minds about what was the hot new color or the right width for a necktie. He certainly didn’t consider himself rich; he was just comfortable, even though he knew others considered him rich. Of course, he knew there were plenty of others who didn’t have it nearly as good as he did, but in most cases, he thought to himself, if they’d have just worked as hard as he had, and applied themselves, they’d be doing well, too. After all, our laws set up a level playing field, didn’t they; with all the opportunity out there, if they weren’t successful it was their own fault. And yes, there were some who weren’t physically or mentally able to succeed in life, but that’s what charities are for. Most of the time the unsuccessful ones, the have-nots, were just lazy. They had a poor work ethic; they wouldn’t accept responsibility for their own lives. And what’s worse, they were constantly getting into trouble with the police. If they’d just abide by the law, like good, decent people, half of their problems would disappear overnight. It really is a shame, he thought, as he reached for a second helping of potatoes in what he didn’t realize would be the last meal he’d ever eat, but there’s really nothing I can do about it. That’s just the way life is – always has been, always will be, for all eternity.

Or maybe not, according to Jesus. His story, this parable we heard this morning, was meant as a warning to the people in this world like the rich man in the parable – people who have relative peace, and security, and justice in their lives. Jesus’ warning was that for them to enjoy those things while depriving them to others is clearly not God’s will, and it that was their way, then they needed to change those ways. That was certainly true any time the comfortable were directly harming the have-nots, but it was also true when the harm was indirect, passive, through simple neglect or obliviousness, as was the case in this parable – the comfortable man never did anything directly to Lazarus to hurt him; he just ignored him.  Jesus was saying to his listeners through this story that, to borrow some language from our own time, Lazarus Lives Matter. That any of us who identify more with the comfortable man in the story than we do with poor, sick, homeless Lazarus, have an expectation – a charge – from God to use our money, our minds, our voices, our hearts and hands and feet, to enable all the Lazaruses of our lives to enjoy the same peace, stability, and justice that we do.

The problem of the rich man and Lazarus, the problem of the haves and have-nots is still a big problem; you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. And right now in our country, we’re seeing that problem playing out in terms of haves and have-nots, where the haves are those who have peace, and security, and justice in their lives, and the have-nots, who don’t. And due to the particular history of our country, for us, it’s a problem that’s deeply intertwined with issues of race. Race. The issue that from an actual biological, genetic standpoint means nothing – less than nothing. Really; if you analyzed my DNA, it could very well have more similarities with the DNA of Desmond Tutu than, say, (white male parishioner). Race is not biology; it’s a social construct based solely on a person’s physical appearance. It’s nothing. And yet, in our society, it seems to mean practically everything. Race determines in large part where we’ll live, how we’ll live; where we’ll worship and how we’ll worship. It will determine the quality of the education, and healthcare, and public services we’ll receive. Cutting to the chase, it determines whether we’ll be treated as full and equal citizens, receiving the same Constitutional rights and equal protection under the law that other citizens receive. From a purely secular standpoint, the unfair, unjust, and unequal treatment of members of our society based on race – based merely on their physical appearance – is  unconstitutional . By way of this parable, Jesus tells us it’s unchristian. From a logical standpoint, it’s institutionalized lunacy.

And yet, it goes on and on, day after day, year after year. Our hearts break, yours and mine alike, when we turn on the television or look at the news feed on our phones and we’re subjected to the latest dashcam and youTube videos of yet another police shooting of yet another black man; and CNN plays the video in a continuous, 24/7 loop of violence porn. And we see more city streets filled, day after day, night after night, with protestors crying out for justice – and not just justice regarding the particular incident, the tragedy du jour, but for *real* justice, and peace, and security in all aspects of their lives. Protestors crying out, in essence, “How long, Lord?”, and demanding that we recognize that their lives matter just as much as everyone else’s.

We watch it all, and it makes us wonder what in the world is going on, Why are all these tragedies happening? It’s like the wheels are falling off of our society; why? In Jesus’ parable, the rich man’s life was so far removed from the realities of Lazarus’ existence that he just didn’t, couldn’t, fully understand. He couldn’t see that he and Lazarus were living within a system of two completely different sets of realities and possibilities – rules and realities that made it possible for the rich man to enjoy life’s goodness, and that simultaneously made it extremely difficult if not impossible for the Lazaruses of his world to do the same. In this parable, where the rich man doesn’t learn the reality of things, and what God’s desires are, until after he dies, Jesus is telling us that this kind of situation is absolutely unacceptable for us as his followers, as people of the Kingdom of God. It is absolutely unacceptable.

One of the great moral voices of our time, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, has said that we’ve experienced two Reconstructions in our history. These were times when large numbers of people from different races, religions, and other classifications, recognized the problem of the Lazaruses in our society – particularly, the Lazaruses based on race – and they understood that they needed to work together to achieve greater justice and equity for them; to get the nation to live more truly and genuinely into the words and promises of its own founding documents. The first Reconstruction was in the decade or so immediately following the Civil War. The second, Dr. Barber says, ran from 1954, the start of the Civil Rights Movement, until about 1980. In each of these Reconstructions, we, the Church, played a major role in achieving the progress that was made, specifically because we understood Jesus’ meaning in this parable. And now, Dr. Barber suggests that we’re in the midst of a Third Reconstruction, where once again a broad and diverse group of people are coming together to advance justice and equity in our society once again. That’s what we’re witnessing being born, that’s what we’re witnessing unfolding on the television news. And, because we do understand this parable, we, the Church, needs to be a part of this Reconstruction, too, just as we were in the past.

But how do we do that? How do we get our hands around an issue that can seem too big and complex to solve? And, being completely honest, how do we come to terms with the conflicted feelings that all of us, you and me alike, sometimes have when we think about issues of race?

Here at Springdale, we’ve already done some important work. We’ve studied our Confession of 1967 and the Belhar Confession, these incredible historical confessions, part of our denominational Constitution, both of which expand on the message of this parable and make it clear that the work of racial equality and reconciliation is work that God calls us to and expects from us. It isn’t an option for us to ignore it. Next, our upcoming Issues Class is going to have a guest speaker who will tackle this same issue. Then also next month, the Presbytery is sponsoring a workshop on racial reconciliation. It will be held on Saturday, October 22, at Fourth Presbyterian Church. There’s a flyer out in the Gathering Space about the event. I’ll be there, and I hope to see many of you there, too. And in addition to those things, a couple of us are beginning to work on a multiple-part educational offering that will dig deeper into the issue of race in our society; there will be more information about that in the near future.

Those are all good starts, and we should all be a part of them. But one thing that we can’t do is just get together in a big room full of only comfortable white people to sit around and try totalk about the issues of race in our society. I couldn’t imagine a bigger waste of time. I wouldn’t attend another meeting like that myself. We can’t understand the problems faced by other people if we don’t sit and talk with them, truly listening to them, in open, candid, and loving conversations in a mixed, multi-racial setting.

Another thing that we can’t do is leave our work at just the level of talk. Conversation is important, but it’s a means to an end; it isn’t the actual end itself. We need to find ways to turn our talk into positive, constructive action. And I don’t know specifically what that looks like; it may look like something different for each of us. It might be working together with existing community groups working for social justice in our community and society. Most of these groups include a large number of people of faith already; people who understand the meaning of this parable. For some of us, dare I suggest that it might be taking part in non-violent but loud protests calling for social justice improvements, just as we’ve done in the past. .

Whatever we do, it won’t be easy. But there’s a bit of good news here for us because, unlike the rich man in the parable, we know we’re supposed to be doing it. And also unlike him, we actually do have the benefit of someone having been raised from the dead to remind us of this reality, this expectation – and not just to remind us of it, but who remains with us, emboldening and empowering and strengthening us to actually do it.

Thanks be to God.