Delivered at Ames UCC on March 26, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Our Communion table has been decorated by Linda Shenk. She couldn’t be here to help share her vision, but has given me permission to quote her. As Linda studied today’s scripture, she said she was aware of how strongly it emphasizes our need to listen in “the places that seem lowly, even despicable.” So Linda decided to find a lowly object, something so familiar we might not even really see it, as a reminder to listen: paper clips. Linda wrote to me that a paper clip, “looks like an ear, and it could be a nice reminder as we go about our work and our seemingly mundane routines to listen for the divine.”
So let’s listen for God in this story of mundane meanness.
RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
A rich man who partied every day cruelly allows an enfeebled and dying man named Lazarus to lay outside his home, without offering any assistance. They both die. On dying, the rich man finds himself in hell but with a view of Lazarus in a better place in the company of Abraham, patriarch of the nation, of the people. The rich man asks Abraham to ask Lazarus to bring him water, something he never seemed willing to do for Lazarus.
Abraham reminds the rich man of the disparities between him and Lazarus in life, disparities that are now made permanent through a fixed chasm in the afterlife. Well, the rich man says, please send Lazarus to warn my brothers. No, Abraham replies. They have already been given all the warning they need through our religious tradition. Having Lazarus go to them won’t make a difference.
This story comes on the heels of several similar stories. In Luke 14.12b–13a, Jesus says,
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
Then there’s the abundant generosity of the prodigal son’s father, which we heard last week. And immediately before Lazarus’ story there is a parable about a dishonest land manager that ends with “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16.13b).
Despite the efforts of some Christians to make all of Jesus’ statements about cash money into statements about spiritual wealth, the weight of evidence is on the former: Jesus, in line with his own Jewish tradition, condemns rich people who do nothing with their riches to help others. This message of sharing wealth is so important that Jesus tells it at least three times in a row.
Caring for Lazarus by giving away money is not a hard sell at Ames UCC.
Last year we gave away $152,186. Special offerings, like today’s for One Great Hour of Sharing and regular budgeted gifts to organizations like the Emergency Residence Project account for about $50,000. The other $100,000 was from the 150th Capital Campaign. This church is committed, when raising money for itself, to give away 20% of the total. Not only that, but to give that money away first, before spending on ourselves, thereby putting the needs of the community ahead of our own.
We have no problem with financial generosity. We have, in fact, been generous to a fault.
Last week, one of the 10 (I think) furnaces that we have to heat our campus went out. Like many of them, it is over 20 years old. Our leadership had to debate whether to put a $1,500 patch on it, knowing we might only have a few more years left in it because of its replacement parts becoming obsolete, or spend $6,000 on a replacement.
This is not money we have. Our limited capital repairs budget for the year is going to some very long-delayed repairs to our brick work, repairs that might allow us to actually utilize the second floor for our growing children’s ministry. They—Jennifer, Rachel, Allison, Justin, Lynette, Janet, Irene, Debi, everyone at the Executive Team meeting on Tuesday—decided on the less expensive patch, with the knowledge that pretty substantial costs are looming across the campus.
While, as homeowners, it would be reckless of us not to save for inevitable repairs and replacements, as people of faith there’s something honorable in our deficit. We are no rich men. We give generously of our wealth.
And I don’t think we do it out of fear of hell.
Few of us here actually are rich. This is not a church that has to struggle to understand why we must overcome divides between rich and poor because we are not a uniformly wealthy or uniformly poor congregation. Some of us give to the pastoral emergency fund for bill-paying and some of us make use of that fund to get bills paid.
Our financial generosity is not some kind of insurance against “affluenza.” All I see is joy. Faithful joy at having something to give.
It turns out that we are already pretty great listeners and pretty good do-ers, or do-good-ers. So, I guess I can just say amen and get on with the service.
Worship is a service to God, not a pep rally for us, so there may be even more Jesus is asking us to hear.
Here is a question that the story does not answer: How did Lazarus get to the rich man’s gate?
In her commentary1, Amy-Jill Levine points out that Lazarus is already so far gone that he isn’t even begging. He longed for table scraps, yes, but did not even have the strength to ask for them. Maybe he started as a beggar, but the longer the rich man ignored him, the weaker he became. Or maybe, Levine suggests, he was brought there by friends. Maybe they put him at the rich man’s gate because of the expectation within Judaism that the wealthy must help the poor.
We have a lot of weakened people being put at our doorstep with the expectation that, because of our generous giving and our community involvement and our signage, we will help.
So in addition to our ongoing giving to agencies and food pantries, to opening our building free of charge to yesterday’s Black Lives Matter rally, and inviting our youth group to raise money for homeless teens and sleep out in the stadium last night, we now find both refugees and immigrants at risk of deportation at our gate, asking for our help. Not physically—yet—but at the gates of our awareness and faith.
From the richness of not needing to flee our homeland, wrapped in the luxurious linens and royal purples of citizenship, we are asking God and each other whether we have yet more to share.
How do we decide? We are only 207 mostly not-rich people. Does scripture provide any guidance on how much or how far to give?
In the next chapter, Jesus says to a rich young man that he must, “Sell all that (he) owns and distribute the money to the poor” (Luke 18.22b). Are we at a place in the history of our nation and this church where we should let all of the furnaces fail, if that is what it takes to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger?
Please know I am not making such a case. When I was with Habitat for Humanity, I learned that the staff at our ReStore stopped bringing requests for free assistance to me because I would have, very quickly, given away the store. But then where would our home-building capacity have been?
In my conversations with you, in our business meetings and Lenten classes and our coffee dates, and through your posts on social media, I am hearing profound levels of anxiety, worry, anger, fear, frustration, and even compassion fatigue. As you heard at the start of this sermon, I am critical of those Christians who try to make Jesus’ message about riches purely spiritual. But that doesn’t mean our spirits are unimportant. They are critical to our ability to make the right choices.
Two weeks ago, I talked about how, in the midst of doing good, we also need to take time to rest under God’s wing, to develop a relationship with holiness that is as ripe and juicy as a fig. If our souls are battered by hawks or shriveled by the sun, we are no use to anyone.
Last week I described the mutuality of our relationship with God. God is desperate to find us, to shepherd us, to prize us, to clothe us.
The prophets and Moses, those whom Abraham tells the rich man his family must heed, are not just messengers with God’s To Do Lists. They are, like Jesus, people who are so connected to God that they can be fearless and untiring.
So I’m going to be as repetitious about the care of our souls as Jesus has been about the care of each other.
Ames UCC, you have demonstrated your hearing of God’s call to covenant living exceptionally well. In order to continue to respond richly to the needs in our church and at our gates, please take back a portion of the time you dedicate to problem solving, for soul providing.
We cannot hear God well if our organ of listening is itself weak and bleeding.
Linda, our table decorator, has a reminder for all of us: There will be paperclips in the offering plate. Take one when it comes to you.
Ben, Greg, and Barb also have an offering of song, which I will let serve as our “amen.”
Close your eyes
It’s time to start
your restless heart
Let it teach you
1Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. (New York: HarperOne, 2014).