Phylargyria

Sermon for Sunday, September 25, 2016 ||  Proper 21, Year C ||  Amos 6: 1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6: 6-19; Luke 16: 19-31 ||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

The appointed readings for this morning are an absolute nightmare for any preacher trying to counter-act the commonly held negative stereotype that “all they do in church is talk about money.”

First we hear the repeated sigh of the prophet Amos: Alas! “Alas” he cries, for those with material wealth and comfort, for “they shall…be the first to go into exile…”

Then Paul piles-on in his epistle to 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.”

And finally we get to Luke’s gospel, where it seems like Jesus just won’t stop going on about money and greed and possessions and wealth. We’ve gone from the parable of the rich fool to the parable of the widow and her lost coin; from the parable of the prodigal son who blew through his inheritance, to the parable of the dishonest money manager (“You can not serve God and wealth” the story concludes); and finally we get to the pejorative characterization of the Pharisees as “lovers of money” before landing squarely in this morning’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus—with the Rich Man dying and going to agony and eternal torment in Hades.

All this talk about money is getting tiresome, and we haven’t even started our stewardship campaign! Then again, why does Jesus spend so much time talking about something as un-spiritual as money? Today’s readings provide a pretty clear window through which to view the answer to that question.

Let’s start with the Rich Man—or, as one person I read referred to him, “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.”

Now, that description may sound a little snarky, but there’s definitely truth to it. Consider that the Rich Man is a well-educated Jew. Surely he knows–from his study of Moses and the prophets –all about God’s dream for humankind. Surely he knows all about God’s desire for justice and mercy, generosity and compassion.  And surely he has heard more times than he can count, those words of warning from Amos we just read regarding what happens to those “…who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall…who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils… but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!”

Surely the Rich Man knows that he’s not living his life the way God’s calling him to live it, but such is his folly.  Yet, the Rich Man’s sin isn’t that he’s rich, it’s that while living in the lap of luxury (“feasting sumptuously every day” as Luke describes it), he has wandered far from God and forgotten the needs of others. The sin isn’t that he’s rich, it’s that he utterly fails to be what the apostle Paul describes in his letter to Timothy as “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” It isn’t that he’s rich, it’s that in his pursuit of money, the Rich Man has fallen in love with it.

Money in and of itself, isn’t the problem; plenty of biblical heroes, including Abraham, were men of wealth. It’s not money that’s the root of all evil, it’s the love of money. Money is just a thing; it’s our relationship to it that Jesus puts under the microscope. Because that is a spiritual issue.  And the Rich Man’s relationship with money is horribly distorted. Money has become more important to him than God or God’s people– witness his treatment of Lazarus.

But we don’t have to remember the last “Lazarus” we walked past at the T or in front of Starbucks or curled up on a street corner, to recognize a bit of ourselves in the Rich Man and his distorted values. As one commentator on this passage pointedly asks: “What prompts us to expend energy chasing after six-figure incomes, only to wake up and realize that we don’t even know our children or our significant other? What keeps us living lives of quiet desperation inside over-priced, impressive walls?”

The answer for the Rich Man, and for those of us who feel squirmy when confronted by questions like these, is this: Our distorted relationship with money. Our distorted relationship with money deludes and deceives us. It misleads and ultimately ensnares us, until like the Rich Man in today’s gospel we wander far, far away from God and God’s dream for us.

The Greek word for this distorted relationship with money is “philargyria.” It’s translated in this morning’s scripture as “the love of money,” and it points to this unhealthy—almost compulsive drive–to accumulate money, rather than to use it for a higher purpose.

Phylargyria is the Rich Man’s sin. Phylargyria puts money before God. Phylargyria is idolatry.

Despite all that the Rich Man learned from his high-falutin education, he has completely forgotten that without God he would have nothing. He’s completely forgotten that the many blessings he enjoys are meant to be shared, so that God’s Kingdom may come and God’s will may be done on this beautiful, broken little planet of ours. And he’s clearly forgotten—or maybe he never learned– that that’s where all the real joy in living lies—not in accumulating fearfully but in sharing generously!

It’s an easy enough trap to fall into—and even more so now, I think, than in the first century. Every which way we turn we’re bombarded with messages to buy the latest new and improved, bigger or better, this or that. We live in such fear of not having enough or not being enough! When Paul warned that “…those who want to be rich…are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires” he couldn’t possibly have imagined the never-ending stream of “senseless and harmful desires” our fear-based consumer culture could create!

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?

Well, for the answer, my favorite theologian– Walter Brueggemann– points to a part of Paul’s letter to Timothy that we might not have even noticed this morning. Paul is in the midst of warning us about the dangers of wealth when he suddenly breaks into what Brueggemann calls “lyrical doxology,” praising God as “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,” Paul concludes, “Amen!”

That kind of grateful and generous praise of God, Brueggemann argues, is exactly what can break the power of consumerism and commodity that so threatens our lives today. Grateful and generous thanksgiving has the power to re-order our distorted relationship with money and to keep us from wandering too far astray. Gratitude for all that God gives us 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 followers to gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.

Doxology is life-giving! Like making a daily gratitude list, it centers us in the joyful reality that “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own are we giving thee.” It frees us to notice the abundance with which God showers us every minute of every day; to thank God for every breath that we draw and every step that we take; to share our gifts generously with each other and with the world; to face our future filled with faith instead of fear.

I’m willing to bet the Rich Man in this morning’s parable forgot to praise God. I’m willing to bet he forgot to be grateful.

But “Hallelujah!” sings the Psalmist, “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!”

Praising God, you see, puts things in perspective. And when it comes to money, perspective is what we sorely lack. Amen.

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