Sunday, September 29, 2013

Those Rich People

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ Proper 21, Year C/ September 29, 2013

“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches … they shall now be the first to go into exile.”

“Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

“The rich man … died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented …”

Oh, thank God! A set of readings that’s not about us! God sure isn’t happy with those rich people! I’m so happy I’m not rich, and we’re not rich, so these readings can’t really be for our ears. No, we can enjoy them. In fact, we can just sit back and watch the smiting begin. Who’s with me?

Michael Douglas in Wall Street
Because the readings aren’t about us, right? They’re about those rich people. You know—Wall Street types. Stock brokers, corporate raiders, the one percent, right? The people who rig the political system to keep from having to pay any taxes. The people who pull the strings behind the scenes and are really the ones in control. Oh, we hate them, don’t we? And the Bible slams on them all over the place, too! The rich people … not us … no, this can’t be about us … can it?

British comedian Eddie Izzard once did a routine about Robin Hood. Robin Hood is riding through the countryside and comes upon a very well-dressed horseman.

“Give us cash! I steal from the rich and give to the poor! Give us cash!”

“No, I’m not gonna give you cash.”

“Go on, I steal from the rich. Are you rich?”

"No, I’m … comfortable.”

“That’s no good, I can’t steal from the fairly well off and give to the moderately impoverished! That’s not gonna swing, is it?”

Hmmm. Maybe there are grey areas. Could it be that our society isn’t cloven distinctly into “the rich” and “the rest of us”? You know, I noticed something at the height of the Occupy movement. In all our talk about being the 99%, few of us noticed that we’re only the 99% if we look solely at the United States. When we compare ourselves to the rest of the world … well … things suddenly don’t look so good for us, do they? No, indeed, we become the rich—even those of us who struggle to pay more than one mortgage, and those of us who won’t be able to send our children to college after all, and those of us who must keep adding more debt to the credit card. We’re still the rich, even if we don’t feel like it.

Now, we’re not lying on beds of ivory (which sounds profoundly uncomfortable to me),  but compared to most people on earth, we are feasting sumptuously every single day. I have not gone a single day in my life without enough to eat, and I bet that’s true for most of us here today. So what’s the minimum standard? How worried should we be?

Well, I think the writer of the first letter to Timothy gives us a pretty solid baseline: “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” It seems to me that once we have something more than the means of bare survival, we receive two things: we receive enough material wealth that we could share some and not die; and we receive an urge not to share, just in case our luck runs out. Let’s say we are a little better off—a home of our own, perhaps, after scrimping and saving for a down payment. Maybe there are kids to feed, and perhaps a job is going sour. What will I do if something goes wrong? No, it’s not time to share yet.

Now, as time goes by, let’s say material success becomes a reality. Just maintaining the level of comfort we’re used to costs quite a bit of money, and we’re never quite certain that the money will keep coming. And next thing you know, we’re the rich man, feasting sumptuously every day, and walking right past the starving beggar. We’ll give eventually, we say. We’ll help our suffering neighbors once we have enough to feel secure.

I’m not saying all this to make you feel guilty; after all, I’m implicated just as much as anyone else. I’m a seminarian, which means I’m relying on financial aid and a lot of generous people to enjoy the luxury of three years of study. I don’t feel financially secure, and I know there’s no guarantee of financial security after I am ordained and graduate. Jobs for clergy are scarce in the places I could imagine my family living. But by our broader definition, I’m still among the rich. So let’s stop for a minute and look more closely at the readings, because there is indeed hope there.

Amos—the prophet Amos, 8th century B.C.E.—does not rail against all rich people, but against those
who “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph”—that is, of the Jews’ ancient ancestor. Amos is shocked at the level of decadence in the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He’s also aware that the Assyrians are getting ready to sweep into Samaria, where they will march the elite of Jewish society into exile. Of course the rich will be the first to go, and then the Assyrians will be able to subjugate the poor and uneducated people who remain. The rich and educated of Israel have made themselves vulnerable by their carelessness, as they have the means to make a just society but don’t act on it. Those who don’t care about the poor systematically undermine the nation’s stability.

Now let’s look at this letter to Timothy. This is, of course, where we get the aphorism, “Money is the root of all evil.” But that’s not a direct quote; the writer does not find sin in those who are rich, but in those who want to be rich. Their driving force is to make more and more money, so that they can relax and not worry about anything or anybody else. It is the love of money that is the problem. Those who, through whatever hard work or fortuitous circumstances, find themselves able to make money are charged to use it to help others, not merely to help themselves. So in the first letter to Timothy, you don’t even have to be rich to be in the wrong about money. This passage isn’t about having; it’s about the ability to let go. This is what it means to be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” This is how we “take hold of the life that really is life,” as opposed to the life that really is a living death.

Sawai Chinnawong, "Lazarus and Dives"
And this brings us to the rich man in Jesus’ parable. In this gripping story, Jesus gives us much of the imagery we still attribute to the afterlife: a heaven above, a burning fire of hell beneath, and a giant chasm between them. Doubtless Dante drew on these images and expanded on them when he created Inferno and The Divine Comedy. We should remember that this is a parable, not a divine description of a metaphysical reality. It’s a story, sort of an ancient equivalent of the old “A man dies and meets St. Peter at the gate” story. Except, in this case, St. Peter is actually listening to the story! Huh.

Jesus seems to be illustrating continuity between our lives now and our lives on the other side of death. From Hades, where he is being tormented, the rich man instructs Abraham first to send Lazarus to him with just a drop of water, and barring that possibility, then as a messenger to warn his family of their potential fate … as if poor Lazarus were still some poor lackey he could order around. But it is too late. This man’s entitled soul has never practiced the art of generosity. What if he had noticed Lazarus at the gate? What if he had started giving early on, before he became a self-made man, when he didn’t have two dimes to scrape together, but when he could have given one of his two nickels away? How might things have gone differently? Would he ever have become so rich? And if not, what would have been wrong with that?

Many of Jesus’ later parables, especially, urge us not to wait to change our lives. We don’t like to imagine a time, on either side of the grave, after which it will be too late to change. But if we assume a continuity of existence, then we can’t assume that death means we will suddenly become infinitely wise or abundantly giving. At what point will change just become too difficult for us to bear? Must it take death to spark change in our lives? And is this moment, right now, too soon to begin really living?

And so we come back to us. If we have any wealth beyond that which we need, we have the privilege of deciding what to do with it. Being responsible with money means knowing how to spend and knowing how to save, of course, but it also means knowing how to share—and that sharing is an indispensable piece. None of our wealth really belongs to us; everything in our lives is a gift from God, and the gift of material resources is particular to our earthly lives. Whether or not we use it, we will lose it. So God says, “Use it!” Because to whatever degree we do not share with those in need, we are implicated in their suffering. We cannot live our lives separately from them because we are not a planet full of isolated individuals. We were made to love each other.

That’s Good News. And that’s why the psalmist is able to proclaim, “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God … who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.” May we also be instruments of justice for the oppressed, and may we always share what we have with those who are in need. Amen.

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