Sermon for September 26th, 2010 (Proper 21, Year C, RCL)
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Lately it seems Luke just won’t stop talking about money: The widow and her lost coin, the son who squandered his inheritance, the steward and the dishonest wealth, the Pharisees Luke calls “lovers of money,” and now it’s the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. There’s no escaping it. Even if we turn to the other lessons appointed for today, all we hear about is money and wealth. Frankly, all this talk of money is getting a bit tiresome, and we haven’t even started the fall stewardship campaign yet!
On top of that, after encouraging a lot of folks to spend their money at our auction last night on things they didn’t really need, you might wonder how I’m going to preach on these scriptures with a straight face. After all, Paul is pretty clear in his letter to Timothy that, “we brought nothing into the world, so… we can take nothing out of it.” We are not to be trapped by “senseless and harmful desires,” Paul warns us, but to be content if we have food and clothing.
Yet in this morning’s gospel, the rich man’s sin wasn’t really that he was rich. As one blogger wrote this week, instead of being called the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, this gospel should be called, “The Parable of The Indifferent-Man-Who-Could-Have-Listened-to-Moses-and-the-Prophets-and-Followed-God’s-Way-of-Life-and-Been-Welcomed-Into-Paradise-by-Father-Abraham-But-Chose-Not-To… and Lazarus.”
The rich man knew, from the teachings of Moses and the prophets, of God’s dream for humankind. He knew of God’s desire for justice and mercy, compassion and humility. But the rich man’s “wrong” relationship to his wealth had prevented him from being in “right” relationship with God, with Lazarus, and with the world around him. Money had become the most important motivating force in his life. It had become an idol.
Now, you may remember that Abraham himself, not to mention David and Solomon among others, were all wealthy men. Money in itself, is not the root of all evil. Money, in fact, can be used for all kinds of good purposes (like buying things at an auction to help pay off a church’s mortgage, so more money is available for ministry and mission!) Rather, as Paul says in our epistle this morning, it is the love of money that is the root of so many evils:
“For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” Paul writes to Timothy,“ and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
You see, the rich man’s sin really wasn’t that he was rich. It was that in his pursuit of money, he had wandered away from the faith and pierced himself with blindness, numbness and complacency. The rich man’s sin wasn’t that he was rich; it was that when he had the chance, he was not, “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” the God-given resources he had accumulated. The rich man’s sin wasn’t that he was rich; it was that while living in the self-indulgent lap of luxury (“feasting sumptuously every day” as Luke describes it), he was oblivious to poor Lazarus lying at his gate, hungry and tired, dogs licking his sores.
We might wonder what could possibly motivate this rich man to walk by and ignore poor Lazarus. But before we too much finger pointing we might ask ourelves, as one commentator on this text writes a bit too pointedly for comfort, “What motivates us to give life away to unrealistic dreams? What prompts us to expend energy chasing after a six-figure income only to wake up and realize that we don’t know our children and/or significant other? What keeps us living a life of quiet desperation, lived inside impressive walls?” And the answer for Lazarus and for those of us who feel squirmy when confronted by these questions is this: We love what money promises us, what we think it can do for us, and like the rich man in the parable we inadvertently wander away from the reality that only God can provide the security, the comfort and the joy we expect to find in money.
The Greek word for this wrong relationship with money is “fa-LAR-ga-RE-ah.” It’s translated in our scripture as “love of money”; it points to a need to accumulate money, rather than to use it for a higher purpose. Fa-LAR-ga-RE-ah is the rich man’s sin. Because despite the teachings of Moses and the prophets, the rich man in today’s parable had forgotten who was really responsible for his many blessings. He’d forgotten that those many blessings were meant to be used in such a way that God’s Kingdom might come and God’s will might be done on this beautiful, fragile, broken little planet of ours. And he’d forgotten that that’s where all the real joy of life is—in using our resources to do God’s work!
It’s an easy trap to fall into. Even easier now, for us, in our consumer-driven society than it was when Paul warned Timothy that, “those who want to be rich…are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.” Paul and Timothy didn’t have anywhere near the number of “senseless and harmful desires” to be trapped by as we do! When I read this scripture the other morning and thought about the number of things I spend money on that I don’t even need—the useless “stuff”I buy– frankly, I was horrified. Then when I opened the paper and saw an ad for a little girl in need of corrective surgery for a cleft palate and caught myself hesitating to respond, I felt ashamed. Because I knew that in two weeks I spend as much money on “stuff” I don’t need as it would cost to change this little girl’s life forever. Yet I hesitated!
How do I, how do we, protect ourselves from the rich man’s fate of wandering from the faith and piercing ourselves with blindness, numbness and complacency? How do we resist being trapped by senseless and harmful consumerist desires? How do we develop more faith in God than in money?
Paul’s answer is nothing new. We’ve heard it all before. In fact, we’ve heard it so many times before, it seems like spiritual pablum: we are to shun wealth; pursue righteousness… we are not to set our hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides. We are to do good, to be generous, to be ready to share…and so on, and so on, and so on.
But wait–have we really heard it all before? Did we hear the part in Paul’s letter to Timothy that theologian Walter Brueggemann characterizes as “lyrical doxology?” The part where he praises God with a grateful heart?
Now I know we’re all used to thinking of doxology simply as the song we sing when the offering is brought forward, like “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” But doxology (from the Latin “doxa” /glory and “logos”/word)) can refer to any outpouring of grateful praise. And in the midst of his warnings to Timothy about the dangers of wealth, Paul breaks out into an amazing doxology about, “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords… who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.”
Brueggemann says only doxology can break the power of consumerism that threatens today’s churches and their congregations. And what that suggests to me is that grateful praise can be our saving grace! Gratitude and thanksgiving can be our salvation! Giving credit where credit is due can teach us all we need to know about spirituality and money, about God’s dream and our part in it, about what John Wesley meant when he advised his followers to gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.
“Measured rationally and economically, doxology is a feeble, futile gesture,” Brueggemann writes, “[But] whenever the church has had missional vitality…it has chosen the irrationality of doxology over the rationality of commodity.”
See, gratitude is life-giving! Gratitude centers us in the joyful reality that “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Gratitude frees us from the unhealthy relationship with money that is promoted everywhere in our self-indulgent society. It frees us to notice the abundance with which God showers us every minute of every day; it frees us to thank God for every breath that we draw and every step that we take; it frees us to share our gifts with each other and with the world. Gratitude frees us to face our future filled with faith rather than with fear.
“Hallelujah!” writes the Psalmist this morning, “I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God as long as I have my being. Praise the Lord, O my soul! Hallelujah!”
Hallelujah, indeed! Thanks be to God! Amen.