Life and Death Stuff: A Really Scary Sermon 7/7
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
October 29th, 2017
You may think that it’s difficult to follow and worship and it is; but can you imagine how hard it is to lead you, to be a pastor who’s charged to lead the church? I find it much better to stand behind and say, go ahead, because trying to corral you and shape you and move you… and I’m not saying that as a complaint, I’m saying that you are a gift for me to work with. You saw today just a sliver, a piece, of our leaders in action, of our church in action, of you in action. I could stand up here for the next hour and just run through the ministries of this church and how this place, this congregation, you all, is where lives are changed.
And it is astounding, it is amazing and I’m going to stop talking about it because I don’t think words help. Sometimes we just have to be in awe and the best thing to do when we’re in awe is shut up and I’m good at that. I want to start this morning by thanking Sean George. My understanding was you were all on the edge of your seats last week as he shared his story. He is a gift from God, who sees God active in his life. He is a true minister of the Gospel. He sees his story and he’s willing to share it. That is the church at its best and I believe there are quite a few of us who have stories to tell.
That’s why I don’t wear a robe, because I want you to know it’s us, it’s just us and any of us on any given day could stand up and bring the word of God in our lives as we understand God in our lives. Thank you to Sean George for his story. Our text today is hard. I almost wore my Halloween costume. My Halloween costume this year is Mr. Incredible, or Bob Incredible and I didn’t wear it for a couple of reasons. I wanted to wear it because you really need to be an incredible person to contemplate this text. It’s difficult is the beginning and it just goes down from there.
And the second reason I didn’t wear the costume was I didn’t want it to be a distraction, but more importantly than that, superheroes don’t tell you this: those things ride up on you. And I didn’t need to stand here doing this for twenty minutes. It would be a distraction. Thank you. You need to be somewhat of a superhero to live out this passage. You’re going to be standing counter to culture. We are in that tough section of the Gospel of Luke, the part that we gracelessly leap over trying to get to the Resurrection where someone comes back from the dead, but that’s what this text is about: will we listen to someone who has returned from the dead, will we let that individual reshape our lives?
And the answer, for the most part, is, let’s talk about the Resurrection! Yeah! We’re distracted. We smooth everything over and we make nice: God loves us, this we know, for the Bible tells us so. But today, the Bible also tells us some things about us that God doesn’t like and I think we can trust Jesus to be our guide. By the 16th chapter of Luke, which is where our passage comes from today, Luke has been hammering on the dangers of riches. Jesus has told a story about one brother he encounters who keeps property from his younger brother, inherited property; he keeps it for himself. Jesus tells a parable about a rich fool who builds barns and only once they are erected, he dies. And God calls him a fool.
Jesus notices that the rich in the community get together and they indulge in grand banquets and they should be inviting the poor, the lame, the lost, the last and the blind. Jesus tells a story about a prodigal son who takes his half of the inheritance before dear old dad is even dead. He goes to the far country and squanders it, he cheapens his soul in riotous living. And our text today, this isn’t the first we’ve heard of this problem, it actually starts back in the 11th chapter of Luke, when Jesus says, you Pharisees, you worry about getting the outside of the cup clean, but the inside is where the real dirt is.
You’re looking to justify your greed and your wickedness and you wrap it in religion, but did not the one who made the outside also make the inside? And inside of you Pharisees is greed and deception. Jesus continues. He says; give money to show what is on the inside, but woe to you who make a show of ritualized faith but neglect justice and being the love of God. Forget meaningless rituals, God doesn’t care. Focus on justice and being the love of God. Jesus goes on to say that what we have hidden on the inside of us will become visible through what we do with our money.
The Pharisees hear Jesus talking about this and they scoff at his teaching because they were lovers of money. This text that Bill read for us about Lazarus and the rich man, the nameless rich man, has two messages and the first one, painfully clear, I don’t need to spend much more than a couple of sentences on it. There’s no massaging our way around this and that is that achieving wealth and success does not mean that we have God’s favor and on the flip side, being a failure in the terms of the world does not remove you from God’s favor. That’s hard to hear in our culture.
The second point of this text is significantly more difficult and we have to think about it, but we try not to think about what it says to us about what we do with money. We avoid thinking about how our money and what we do with it shows what’s inside of us by arguing our positions. Things that we’ve heard on our favorite television news channel, we become a songbird for MSNBC, or we become really good at arguing and justifying ourselves because of what we heard on Fox News. We become very good Democrats or very good Republicans. We play offence, defense, with planks from our political party.
And we’re walking the whole time away from being kingdom people, because God doesn’t care about Democrats and Republicans. There is no biblical call to politicize your life. The call is to be followers of Christ, imitating him. And what we do when we become Democrats or Republicans is we either defend the poor man and argue his case to the end, or we defend the rich man, both of which are silly because Jesus has already pronounced his judgment. Or we engage in a 20th-century argument, is Jesus a socialist or a capitalist, which is really a misnomer at best and at worst is a distraction, because neither of these things existed when Jesus walked the earth.
The best we can do is extrapolating some conclusions that are to our liking and we’re really good at justifying what we do. And it feels good because we’re talking and it feels good because we think we have final word and we enjoy the sound of our voice so much that we let ourselves off the hook, which is not ours to do. Of all of the details that Jesus could have included in this story, he chose very few. The rich man knows the name of the poor man, that’s one of the details Jesus includes. In fact, he stands on his side of the chasm where it’s hot and tries to command the poor man to bring him water.
And the poor man does nothing, like the rich man had done nothing when they were both alive. There’s definitely a reversal of fortune happening in this text, something about you get what you gave. Maybe that’s what Jesus means when he says, what is hidden inside of you will be seen. There’s another detail that Jesus chooses to include among the few and that is there is a door in this story. The rich man knows the name of the poor man but closed the door because he was uncomfortable seeing him.
The rich man is capable of engaging in some critical thinking, which in this case really means coming to a feeling of peace about oneself by criticizing what’s happening to someone else, coming to a place of peace by being critical of someone else. Anybody can be negative, right? Find someone to criticize. Constructive criticism, we call it, but it’s just criticism. It takes no effort, requires no creativity whatsoever and there’s no risk involved because there are plenty of people around you who love to criticize just as much.
The hard task, the heroic effort, the incredible rescue, is to consider a situation where twenty things that you don’t like are happening, twenty opportunities for lecture are presenting themselves to you and you find the one thing, that person, your sibling, who you know how much you love to correct your siblings, even when you’re an… oh, especially when you’re an adult. Your child, we all knows how to be critical and we call it good parenting. Your neighbor: oh, if only they’d do things to your liking. Your adversary, your enemy: twenty things they’re doing that you don’t like, that you’d like to improve in them and that’s where you start the conversation.
The hard task is to find one where they’re doing something well and you start the conversation there. I have seen marriages destroyed by criticism, which is utterly lack of respect. I have seen parent/child relationships destroyed because a parent had to get in one more word and the kid popped and said: we’re done here. I have seen neighborhoods explode over criticism. I’ve also seen kids who are amazingly perceptive of all the ways they’re being told how they’re doing it wrong by everyone around them, I’ve seen those kids turned around by a single positive influence.
I’ve seen siblings with a long history of doing battle turn around and change their relationship with one another because one sibling makes the decision, I’m going to be positive; I’m no longer the critic. I have seen people who have given up in despair and are sure that no one cares have their lives turned around and their attitude changed when they encounter one person who stops, helps in a small way – buys them a sandwich, calls them brother – and then goes on.
Yes, of course it doesn’t always work. Yes, of course there’s always criticism of the past history and separation and power plays to overcome. Yes, of course it’s hard to work with people who are still angry at us for past criticisms. Yes, it’s terribly difficult to get over criticisms that keep coming when we’ve decided I’m not about that anymore, like younger brothers who, after taking their portion and fleeing to the far country and spending it, come home on a last whim hope that dear old dad will be a sucker and take him in and care for them. But now it’s being paid for by responsible people who never left, responsible, rule-keeping, and polite – at least to your face – upstanding family members who pay the bill.
We read this story and we cannot help ourselves but wonder why Lazarus doesn’t get up and do something like get a job, like seek medical assistance for whatever that was, like try, like take a bath and if we wonder those things, you can be sure as shooting that the rich man in the story wondered them, too and more. What did you do to deserve this? How did you get there? Why did you do something so stupid? Why is God punishing you? I don’t make those kinds of decisions. You’re a fool. I don’t deserve what you got. I know what you should do, let me tell you.
The words of responsible people who have managed some level of comfort haven’t changed one bit and neither have our tactics designed to keep out people we’ve labeled as irresponsible. Ways of communicating unwelcome and inaccessibility come in a whole lot of ways. Locked doors become suburbs where undesirables cannot afford to live, become a nation politicized into building a wall it cannot afford to keep out people it deems undesirable. It’s easy to be critical, it takes no effort whatsoever, requires no creativity. Our text today tells us it all leads to the same place.
It takes effort, sometimes heroic levels of effort, to make our lives about unlocking and opening and including and affirming. Our text today tells us that that kind of effort leads to a different place. It leads to the kingdom of God. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann says that the opposite of poverty is not property. Moltmann says the opposite of both is community. As most of us know, too many dollars can weigh an awful burden on the soul and as most of us know, we are very much addicted to our money. As a sign of success, it gives us a purpose, accumulating gives us meaning and importance.
But money in this story isn’t really about any of these things; money in this story is simply the door between them and us. And the problem of the story is not the money; the problem of the story is not the poverty. The problem of the story is the door between them and us, what we put between ourselves and what we find to be undesirable. It was Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity… you know what Habitat for Humanity is about. We think it’s about building houses for the poor, salvation through hammers and nails and plaster, but Millard Fuller corrects us when he says, the way of salvation is the relationships that it builds between people made by God.
The opposite of poverty, the opposite of property, is community. This correct reading of this text is from the perspective of God’s kingdom, the kingdom ideal of community salvation. I defy anyone to show me anywhere in scripture where it says personal salvation. It’s always community; it’s always when we are together; how we include everyone. Community happens when we honor the biblical promise that there is enough for everyone. Salvation finds its way in when the door is open. The kingdom question that we all need to ponder is, what does it mean in our lives to have an open door?
As you think about your economic position, as you think about your politics, ponder that question: what does it mean to have an open door? I know Jesus told this story and I think he probably enjoyed it. He told this story to money-hungry, money-loving Pharisees, but I think he also told it for us. Another detail that Luke included in the story is that Jesus was angry and he was angry for a reason. He was angry because he could no longer stand, couldn’t swallow it anymore, the way people loved things that they could get for themselves more than the things God wanted to give them.
People become satisfied with nice clothes and feeling important; God wants to give us the kingdom. People become content with living and passing by beggars on the street, when God wants to give us brothers and sisters. People are happy to choose and pick parts of the Bible that support the life they want to live, when God wants to give us a new life together. What we seem to miss is that we’re really victims of our own thinking.
When we succeed in cutting ourselves off from each other; when we learn how to live with the misery of other people right there by convincing ourselves they deserve it; when we defend our own good fortune and our own luck as God’s blessing and we decline to see how our selfishness is quilted into the suffering of people we see; then we are all losers in God’s kingdom. Not because of what God will do to us, but simply because of the consequences that come for how we live our lives. Who do you think made the chasm in the story? Do you think God made that chasm? Was it God or the rich man?
Sometimes I think that the worst thing we have to fear is that God is going to give us exactly what we want. But what if we hear this text and we begin thinking and reordering our lives to be more simple; reflective of where our hearts really are; reflective of our concern of being in good relationships with people and being life-change agents for God’s kingdom; choosing to listen before we start rationalizing; and choosing to love by keeping the door open?
And what if rather than believing that it’s a task, a list of checkable items that we’re going to accomplish and then arrive at, which objectifies people because we see suffering as a problem for us to solve. Once we solve it in people we can see then our task is done but we’re objectifying people to do that. What if we approach people as a never-ending opportunity to be unsure of ourselves, our position, never quite clear that we’ve accomplished the kingdom and so we’re always reliant on the mysteries of God?
I think we can trust Jesus to be our guide, but this is a superhero text. I think you’re up for it. It’s different from what’s familiar to us, but I think you’re up for it. Let what we do with our money reveal what is hidden inside each of us.