Sermon from the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year C: September 29, 2019
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story, a parable, a teaching story, and this story is told to the Pharisees and to his disciples about a rich man and a poor man. Parables are supposed to be mysterious, so I don’t want to try to wrap it all up and tell you exactly what it means. But I do want one thing to be abundantly clear, and that is that God is always coming to our assistance, helping us to live the life that really is life, a life of wholeness and beautiful proportion.
Why does Jesus tell this parable, this story? After he tells the parable of the unjust steward which we heard last week, Jesus is ridiculed by the Pharisees, the Jewish teachers and law experts, and the text of Luke tells us that they were lovers of money. So Jesus is telling these stories about money, and they are immediately criticizing him. In response to their criticism, Jesus really calls them out. He says, “You try to justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts. For what is prized in the sight of human beings is detestable before God,” and he’s talking about money. Then he goes on to remind them of the enduring truth of the scriptures, of all the law and the prophets, and then he tells the story of this rich man and this poor man named Lazarus. Notice the rich man is not given a name. The rich man is disproportionately wealthy. He wears the finest clothes of purple and linen every day, and he is feasting every day as if it were a holiday every day. The poor man Lazarus is disproportionately poor. He has absolutely nothing and is disproportionately ignored by the rich man. Only the dogs notice his suffering and come to lick his wounds.
Now the Pharisees would have been surprised by the turn the story takes. Because it was often thought, as Bob told us in his sermon last week, that people who suffered in their earthly life were being punished by God for their sins or for the sins of their forebearers. Likewise, people who prospered in the world were seen as blessed by God and being rewarded for something. But Jesus reverses the order when he says that Lazarus when he died was carried by the angels themselves to be with father Abraham, the faithful ancestor of the Jewish people, whereas the rich man suffered in Hades, the land of the dead. Jesus dramatically shows the gap between the rich man and the poor man, and this probably shocked the Pharisees. I think this is why Jesus tells the parable.
Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine has described parables as bombs thrown into our status quo, bombs thrown into our status quo to explode our understanding, and so while we might wonder is Jesus saying that the rich people go to the bad place, and the poor people go to the good place, is this what heaven and hell are going to be like? I think that the purpose of the story is not to predict what will happen, not to paint a definitive picture of what heaven is like, or the afterlife. But it is to surprise the hearers, to explode their understanding such that they might wonder in some new ways. I think Jesus tells the parable to the Pharisees so that they, and us, may take a hard look at our own disproportions and do something about them. And that we might consider that our disproportions in this life have spiritual consequences for us now and in the life to come.
I don’t think I need to spend a disproportionate amount of time in this sermon talking about the disproportionate way our world has become in terms of wealth and poverty, but I’ll just say a couple things. Just as in Jesus’ time, we have people who are so rich, who have so much it is obscene. And we have people just as in Jesus’ time who have so little it is sickening, and we have ignorance of the needs of the poor now just as there has always been. Just as in Jesus’ time, there are self-righteous persons who justify their abundance and who maybe give a little bit here or a little bit there, but in their hearts there is only the impoverished love of money.
Now I think most of us are somewhere in the middle, somewhere on the spectrum. We might be at the high end of the spectrum, in the middle, or at the low. Most of us are not obscenely rich, nor are we desperately poor. And we may not even love money, but we feel like we have to give a disproportionate amount of our time and our energy worrying about it. We may feel trapped because money and the system of money rules our lives. The funny thing is that compared with most of the world and compared with humanity through most of human history, we, most of us in this room, have so much more than we need, and yet we worry that all it will take will be a turn in the markets or a crisis in our life, and we will be, we will not have enough. Such disproportions in life are not what God wants for us individually and us as a community.
So, what bomb does this parable drop into our status quo? How might this parable challenge us to look at our disproportions, to look in the ways in which we are out of balance, in which some parts of our lives take up way too much room and other parts do not have enough room? I can’t answer that question for you, you’re going to have to wrestle with that yourselves because I don’t know your individual circumstances, but I wonder if this parable also invites us to ask about the proportions we would like to see. How can our lives be proportioned such that it shows wholeness and the life that really is life?
Several years ago, my wife Sarah and I got together with four other couples for some dinners and some conversations in each other’s homes around the topic of Sabbath economics. We got together to explore and imagine how our lives might more proportionately reflect the Biblical values of Sabbath. Sabbath is not just taking one day off a week for rest. Sabbath is a way of living that is centered around the fact that God is God, and we are not, and that God provides what we need, and that everyone is invited to share in rest and abundance. So, as couples we talked with each other frankly about the reality of living in a world that worships money and how hard it is when we would like to order our lives differently but it’s difficult to see how. We talked about the joys of giving and sometimes the challenges of not feeling like we can give as much as we wanted to or the invitation to live more simply and yet how difficult it can be to live in such a complicated world. Like the parable, some of these conversations were a bomb dropped into our status quo, they really blew our minds open. I think that everyone who participated ended up doing something differently as a result. None of us changed our lives dramatically overnight. It certainly wasn’t enough, but it was a start, it was a start.
We’re entering as a parish into this time of year that we often call stewardship season, a time of praying about our sacred financial offerings, our gifts that we give back to God through the church in gratitude for the wonder in all that God has done. I think many of us feel like we wish we could give more. We’re not sure how to start. We’re talking about money after all, and money is one of the most difficult topics, especially in church, and as Paul reminds us, the love of money is the root of many kinds of evil, that is not money itself but the love of it that gets us into trouble. Maybe it’s time for a bomb in our status quo. This year as you consider what you might give back to God in the form of financial offerings here at St. George’s that you discern whether you can commit to that, your offerings in the coming year and let us know what those are in the coming weeks on your pledge card. The invitation may be not just to consider what you can do but to consider the proportions of your life. And not to start with what’s realistic, but to start with what you’d like to see, what proportion of your time and energy would you like to give to the people and the things you care about most? What proportion of your income, what percentage of your income would be a fitting offering to God in thanks for all that God has given you? Where would you like to be? If you really want to throw a bomb in the status quo, find some people that you trust and talk with them about it. It might open your eyes in some new ways. Start with the right proportions and then work back to what you think you might be able to do to make those proportions more a part of your reality. Dream audaciously, and then see how those proportions might start to come into balance.
This idea of proportionate giving is thinking of your giving as a percentage of your overall income, so the Bible gives us the tithe of the ten percent as one standard. That may not be where you are but thinking of those gifts not in terms of the amount but in terms of the proportion of the whole. This way of thinking also though kind of invites us to think of our lives not as fragmented pieces that are fighting with one another but our lives as one whole that fits together. One of the things I’ve said after my sabbatical is I don’t want to try to fit my life in around my work anymore. I want my work to be a part of the whole of my life, and I want my giving to be part of a greater whole of how I take care of what God has given me. How is God inviting us to live lives of wholeness and beautiful proportion? Maybe your pledge this year to give one part in ten or one part in twenty or one part in a hundred, whatever it is, maybe it will be a stretch, maybe you can make it a stretch for you, not just as a sign of what you’ll give but as a sign of your desire to live a life of wholeness and proportion.
If you figure out how to do this, please let us know because we’d love to hear your wisdom. Most of us feel daunted by this in some way, shape, or form. So the good news from the parable today is that the poor man in the parable is named Lazarus, and Lazarus in Hebrew means my God has helped, and God has always and will always help the poor, and that includes, thanks be to God, the poor in imagination, the poor in courage, the poor in resolve. When we turn our hearts from seeking the things of this world to seeking the things of God, God will give us a disproportionate measure of grace because that’s how God’s economy works, and possibly God might give us a bomb in our status quo because that’s also how God often works. So, watch out for that. God has helped, God is helping, God will help us to live lives of beautiful proportion. Thanks be to God.