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Sermon – September 26, 2010: Rich

Sermon for Sunday, September 26, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Rich

Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6: 6-19; Luke 16: 19 – 31

Saw a headline in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago, “Fifty per cent of

Americans don’t like Islam.” Now you have to take anything that’s the result of a poll with a

grain of salt, because polls ask questions the way lawyers do when they have you on the

witness stand. They limit how differently you can respond from the way they want you to.

Still, in order to get half those responding to a poll to say they don’t like Islam, there’s

got to be a lot of bad feeling toward Islam out there. All this stuff that’s been in the news

has made me think of a couple of responses to the uproar about that mosque in New York

City and Islam in general. The first is to say I bet Timothy McVeigh was enthusiastic about

some violent, intolerant, pretty much crazy variety of Christianity and yet nobody has ever,

as far as I know, acted like it would be an insult if somebody wanted to build a Christian

church within a couple of blocks of the Oklahoma City Federal Building.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense for me to take this approach.

I have a religion for people. One of its principle teachings, and one which plays heavily into

the historical event which validates the faith, is that nobody is allowed to use violence

against another person, not even in self-defense. If a person hits you on one side of your

face, turn the other side and see if the person will strike you there, too. Then, after the

person has biffed you a couple of times, and gets bored with that, and goes away,

then you turn to God and you don’t say, “Go get ’em, God.” You pray for that person.

You ask God to bless that person, to fulfill God’s will for that person as a child of God.

And here’s the part of this religion that bears on today’s scriptures. Its teaching is that

being poor is an innocent state, that there’s nothing wrong with people who experience

poverty. But there is something wrong that people experience poverty, and that wrong is

supposed to be addressed by people who have wealth. So here’s a religion which says

that you can suffer all the violence the world inflicts but you mustn’t engage in any, and that

you can be an economic underachiever without blame but that if you have lots of money

and don’t willingly part with it for other people’s benefit, you may be in trouble with God.

So how many Americans are going to say they like that religion? If I could get fifty

per cent, I’d be surprised. Of course, anyone who’s been to Sunday School would

probably figure out that this theoretical religion is Christianity, so that would skew results.

But just focusing on these two teachings of Christianity–and neither of them minor teachings,

either, I would expect to get a negative response from most people. Most people, it

seems, don’t talk or act or vote as if they liked that kind of religion at all. So how much does

it mean to find out that people don’t like a particular religion?

This morning’s scriptures give us a way to think about the Bible’s take on money.

The first thing to say, and we see it in the reading from Jeremiah, is that money’s not going

to go away. The poet may have said that “getting and spending, we lay waste our

powers, ” but we’re stuck with getting and spending. I’m not sure there ever was a society

in which people didn’t have something that was used like money, and if there ever was

such a people–a subsistence economy, with people finding enough to get by without

having to trade with each other–we’re not going back there–at least most of us hope not.

People often specify that the Bible says that it isn’t money which is the root of all

evil, but the love of money which is, and that’s true. Money, like the birds and the bees, is

a fact of life. Like all facts of life, it has a moral dimension, and that’s why it fits in a sermon.

But it begins as simply something that’s part of the world.

God even uses a private-property transaction as a sign for the prophet Jeremiah.

We don’t usually think of prophets–especially wild man prophets like Jeremiah– as guys

with bank accounts. But Jeremiah’s got money, and first God shows him a vision of a

relative coming to sell him his share in a family-owned property, and then the guy shows up

and Jeremiah realizes that God is behind this, so Jeremiah spends the money and gets the

contract properly recorded–the fussiness of the actual business transaction is an interesting

glimpse at the commerce of long, long ago–and it’s all about hope. Jeremiah now owns a

piece of the future, so to speak–property in the Promised Land will some day again make

sense as the possession of the Jews. This is a guarantee of eventual restoration at a time

when the city is under siege and future-oriented business dealings seem crazy.

The impact of this prophetic sign is enhanced by all the witnessing and recording,

and by the deed’s being buried somewhere secure. Just as Jeremiah’s transaction is

made as ironclad as possible, this guarantee of God’s is ironclad. If the land were forever

lost, God wouldn’t recommend this purchase.

So what’s all that prove about money? That even strident denouncers of the sins of

the rich have money. Jeremiah doesn’t imagine that riches and commerce will vanish–but

he engages in them the way he believes God wants, and he ends up spending his money

so that the future looks brighter–and not his own personal future, but a general, God’speople-

are-in-it-together kind of future. He has that clarity about the place and the proper

weight of money which is recommended in the First Letter to Timothy. It’s a recognition that

you can’t take it with you, and that it’s a mistake to love it.

Oh, but it’s so useful, you’ll say. And it sure is. I’m not going to disagree- every time

I practice frugality I say “my name’s not MacKenzie Scott for nothing.” What the word of

God is saying about money is not that it’s bad, but when anyone says anything at all that is

not one hundred per cent positive about something important to us the first thing we feel

like saying is, “but it is important!” We’re not denying the usefulness and the merit of having

money. Lord Byron said “Ready money is Aladdin’s Lamp,” and there’s something to that.

We’re not talking about money at all, really, though it seems like we are. That’s

because there’s something about us which is susceptible to selfishness, and money very

often seems less like something we possess than something which possesses us. The

person who gave away a thirtieth part of his income to charities and good causes when he

was starting out in business and relatively poor will tend to give away a hundredth part of

his income when he becomes rich. Being rich seems to cost so much.

That’s the warning that we get twice in the New Testament. It is possible to love

money, to be like Scrooge McDuck and have no other satisfaction in life than swimming

around in the sea of coins in one’s vault. The sheer pleasure of owning wealth can be

intoxicating. It’s impressive, and when we have a little substance we impress ourselves.

There’s no denying that we think we deserve it, too. That’s the moral basis of our

economic system, that we have wealth because we have been especially industrious, or

ingenious, or something. Even if we’ve been lucky, it’s still our money. It’s hard not to be

attached to it.

That’s why Jesus tells stories like this one about the rich man who lives high on the

hog every day and the impoverished wretch who sits outside his gates. He doesn’t have

anything against the poor man, as far as we know. Rich and poor are just facts of life, like the

money itself which one of them has and the other doesn’t.

Nothing in the story tells us that the poor man resents the riches of Lazarus. He may

even listen to enough of the money-funded media to have accepted the idea that his rich

neighbor has every right to be rich and has no responsibility to poor beggars like himself.

Stories with God in them, however, show us something that we simply don’t see on

the surface. It turns out that God’s way of achieving justice is to have the afterlife supply the

benefits one missed while alive, and confer the sufferings one never knew before death.

It’s as if God were saying, in the world of the living it’s not fair, but I’ll make it fair.

I don’t know if we’re supposed to learn about the afterlife from a story like this, but it

seems we are supposed to learn something about how to live in this world from stories like

this. The rich man always has had a chance to alleviate the miseries of his neighbor, and he

never has, and it’s too late to do anything about it when both of them are dead.

It’s not too late for the living, however. Lazarus has brothers whom he hopes to

help by sending them a warning, and notice God’s response. God says they have Moses

and the prophets to warn them. In other words, if they were the least serious about their

faith, they’d be safe from Lazarus’s fate. Then Lazarus says, “But if someone were to return

to them from the dead, then they’d listen” and God says, “No, if they won’t listen to Moses

and the prophets, they won’t listen if someone returns from the dead.”

This is something we all wrestle with. The question is whether we believe someone

has returned from the dead, to confirm the teachings of compassion and generosity given

by Moses and the prophets. How gladly do we hear that message, and how readily do

we set our priorities to heed its warning?

 

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