sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 21C, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2016
Last week at Western Washington University, our Episcopal campus fellowship, EPIC, had a booth at the annual InfoFair, a massive gathering of campus clubs. As usual, the university grouped most of the religious clubs in a row. We had the Mormons on one side of us, and on the other side were the atheists. The atheist club drew a much bigger crowd than we did, driven in part by their large sign that was decorated with the flames of hellfire and sported the words, “You’re Probably Fine.”
Now, most hardcore atheists probably have no idea that the god they don’t believe in is a god I don’t believe in either. I even thought about asking if I could borrow their sign and walk around with it a bit. But in the end I decided not to … not because I believe that God craves fiery punishment for anyone, but because I was working through the readings for today, readings that warn us not to be too self-assured. We hear loud and clear today that it is not at all safe to assume that we’re “probably fine” in the afterlife. After all, Jesus says, “The rich man … died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented …”
Just as importantly, we must not be flippant about the lives we live today. From the Prophet Amos: “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches … they shall now be the first to go into exile.” And, from the First Letter of Timothy: “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.”
On the other hand, this set of readings isn’t really about us, is it? It’s those rich people God isn’t happy with! 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 just sit back and watch the smiting begin. Who’s with me?
The stand-up comic 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, when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world, most of us 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 not lying on beds of ivory (which sounds profoundly uncomfortable to me), but compared to others, most of us are feasting sumptuously every single day. Personally, I have not gone a single day in my life without enough to eat. So what’s the minimum standard? How worried should I be?
Maybe a good way to look at it is this: Would Robin Hood be justified in robbing you? And if you say no, on what do you base that?
The writer of the first letter of Timothy gives us a pretty solid baseline for our lives: “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 have 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 we do if something goes wrong? No, it’s not time to share yet. You may be having that reaction just listening to me right now!
But 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 you are. When I was in seminary, my family relied on financial aid and a lot of generous people to enable me to enjoy the luxury of three years of study. We didn’t feel financially secure. We didn’t give anything to the church during the first year! And I knew there was no guarantee of financial security after I graduated and was ordained. Thank God for St. Paul’s. But even during seminary, by any fair definition, I was still among the richest in the world. So let’s stop for a minute and look more closely at the readings, because there is indeed hope there.
The Prophet Amos doesn’t rail against rich people in general, but specifically 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 who remain. The rich and educated of Israel have made themselves vulnerable by their carelessness, as they have always had the means to make a just society but just didn’t feel like it. Nations that don’t provide for the poor become unstable, because the more the citizens are suffering, the weaker the nation is … no matter how powerful it looks from the outside. I’ve heard it said that you can judge a nation’s morality by how far it is willing to let any one of its citizens fall.
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, so 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 present and actually listening to the story! Huh.
I notice that Jesus assumes that there is continuity between our lives now and our lives on the other side of death. From Hades, the Greek underworld, 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. The rich man’s entitled soul has never practiced the art of generosity—and, yes, generosity is an art that must be practiced. The rich man has been building a giant chasm all his life.
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, would that have been so awful?
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? 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 will buy our daily bread, we have the privilege of deciding what to do with it. Being responsible with money means spending some and saving some, of course, but it also means learning how to share—and that’s the hardest part. The gift of material resources is particular to our earthly lives, and 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. And if we place faith in God’s love, then we are obligated to share our wealth with those who need it more.
Maybe you’re sitting there right now, looking at your situation and saying, “I just can’t. The chasm I’ve built is too wide and too deep.” If that’s how you feel, fear not, because you can still entrust yourself to the great bridge-builder and step out in faith.
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 God use us as instruments of justice for the oppressed, and may we always share what we have with those who are in need. If we are a Christian people, then let’s practice the generosity of God. Amen.