Sunday,September 26, 2004

Seventeenth Sunday in Pentecost
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

…laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed.

Reality TV is the big thing on television these days. Now, there are shows that really do show the reality of life in a certain situations. They put cameras inside real places like an airport or a veterinarian’s office and you can see the things that happen in any given day. Though I am sure they edit out the most boring footage of a day, we can generally get an idea a new perspective of the place, better understand the difficulties of the job and perhaps have a little more compassion for the workers the next time we find ourselves in those places.

The reality televisions that are really popular are those that are more like a contest. “The Apprentice,” “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire” all pit contestants against one another until one is chosen as the winner. The players begin these shows with high hopes that they will win based on their natural gifts and abilities. They are sure they are the most beautiful, the most talented and the best qualified to win.

After the first show, after they see that the other contestants are equally qualified, they realize that they will need to work hard to win. They begin making alliances with certain players and against others. The farther along they get in the competition, the more willing they are do to whatever it takes to win. By the final show, it is likely at least one of the contestants will do something that could be deemed immoral, because by then anything goes. There are no longer alliances and if it is possible they will try to defeat their opponent with trickery or deceit. In the beginning of a show, the contestants are more likely to stop and help someone in need. By the finale, a small act of kindness could mean the difference between a million dollars or nothing.

In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul tells us that money is the root of all kinds of evil. This is certainly true with the reality television shows. Compassion is easy in the beginning because the cost is not as great. When a contestant is still just one of a dozen, losing is not quite as hard as it is when you’ve made it to the finals. All that work is wasted time when you lose late in the game. This is also true for those of us who will never star on a reality television show. We work hard all our lives, building up wealth for tomorrow. We can’t wait until we retire so that we can live at ease – certainly our just reward for a long life of laboring at our careers.

Unfortunately, as we get closer to that day of retirement, we begin to worry if we have saved enough. We do not want to have to end up where we began – flipping burgers at McDonald’s or being a greeter at Wal-Mart. We hoard every penny so that we will not end up like the poor man that is living on the street or the lady who barely survives on cat food for food.

While we know that there are those who live lives of poverty and pain, we rarely put a face to the problem. We are apathetic to their troubles. Perhaps, for most of us, the apathy is nothing more than fear. We don’t want to end up in the same troubles, so we ignore those in need for our own sakes, justifying our indifference by claiming that we are helping others by helping ourselves. If we are comfortable, then no one will need to feed us.

Unfortunately, it is when we become comfortable with our wealth that we run into the greatest trouble. See, like the reality TV contestants, it is in our quest for wealth that we start sinning against our neighbor. The closer we get, the more we feel we have to hold on to what we have, no matter what it costs.

This is what was happening to Israel in the days of Amos the prophet. There were some that were comfortable, so comfortable that they were ignoring the needs of those who were suffering. They did not grieve what was happening in Zion, as a matter of fact, they were embracing the very thing that would defeat them as a people. As Assyria drew closer, they enjoyed their comfort and their peace. They did not see that the people were turning from the Lord God Almighty to the gods of these new people. They did not see the destruction happening within as the Israelites were marrying foreigners. They were enjoying a time of prosperity – but it was false because it did not come from God.

Amos tells us, “Therefore shall they now go captive with the first that go captive; and the revelry of them that stretched themselves shall pass away.” Their freedom to live comfortably is exactly what they will lose. They would become slaves under the watchful eyes of those whom they thought were their friends and allies.

All of this was to come because they had stopped listening to God. They were no longer obedient to God’s Word, they did not remember all that he had done for them. They were ignoring the weak and the poor. They were hoarding the wealth and others were suffering for their unjust behavior.

Jesus tells us a similar story. He begins today’s Gospel lesson with the statement “Now there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, faring sumptuously every day.” He was reveling in his wealth. Unfortunately, outside the gate of his fine home lay a man named Lazarus who was sick and poor. It is likely that the rich man passed Lazarus regularly, perhaps even having to step over his prone body. Lazarus would have settled for anything, even crumbs, but the rich man gave nothing from his table to this beggar.

We then hear that both Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus was taken into the bosom of Abraham, a metaphor for heaven. After a life of suffering, Lazarus would be cared for in the heart of grace. The rich man ended up in Hades where he was being tormented. Even worse than the suffering of the bowels of hell, he could see Lazarus in the comfort of heaven.

The rich man called out to Abraham, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” Abraham answered that it is impossible for Lazarus to do so because there is a large chasm between heaven and hell. He also told the rich man, “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things: but now here he is comforted and thou art in anguish.” The rich man left behind a wealth that would ease any pain, but it could do nothing for him in Hades. He did not grieve for those who had nothing in that world.

The rich man, even in his suffering, still held the arrogance of authority over poor Lazarus. He cried out to Abraham, “I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house; for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” It appears as though the rich man found a bit of compassion. He wanted to spare his family the same suffering and yet, he is still looking at Lazarus as nothing more than a servant.

Abraham tells the rich man that they do not need Lazarus to tell them this – they have “Moses and the prophets.” The Word of God provided the rich man with everything he needed to live a righteous life on this earth. Moses and the prophets warned the rich of the penalty for ignoring the sick and poor. They would suffer the same lack of compassion from God. The rich man knew that his brothers would not listen to the Word of God any more than he did. “Nay, father Abraham: but if one go to them from the dead, they will repent.”

Jesus ends this parable with a prophetic truth – if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t believe when someone is raised from the dead. Those who were unjust while Jesus lived continued to be unjust when He was resurrected. They did not believe God in the life of Jesus or in His death. They were comfortable in their security, enjoying their alliances and their wealth. They thought they were blessed by God and the poor were cursed. If God were ignoring the poor and sick, what is there to grieve?

The psalmist writes, “Put not your trust in princes, Nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; In that very day his thoughts perish.” Consider the tombs of the Pharaohs in Egypt. Every ruler knew it was vital to complete the work on their tomb while they were still alive because the subsequent ruler would not bother to finish the work. The plans and work of a leader is often overturned or ignored when he or she is replaced. The money we put away for a rainy day is useless once we die. Oh, we might be remembered and our wealth may come to some good, but why are we wasting time hoarding our blessings when they could be shared in the here and now?

The lessons for this week are, at the surface, a message of compassion. We are called to see the face of pain and suffering in this world and do something about it. Lazarus only wanted the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Most certainly the rich man had seen Lazarus on his doorstep. He probably tripped over him once or twice. Eventually, he stopped seeing the pain. Lazarus was just an annoyance, no longer a person.

Don’t we feel that way about the commercials we see on television about the sick children in third world countries? How about the guy that is on the freeway corner looking for a handout? We have become so cynical about so many things that we are sure that the organization using those kids on TV are keeping 90% of the funds for themselves and the guy on the corner is not really homeless. It is true that some charities abuse the trust of the public and some homeless guys are really crooks. Yet, in our cynicism we have stopped seeing pain and suffering and we have forgotten God’s call to compassion and mercy.

We tend to live in the hope of all the wrong things. We hope we will get a raise. We hope we will win the lottery. We hope our investments will do well. These aren’t hopes, they are wishes and dreams. Hope is the expectation of God’s faithfulness. The psalmist calls us to live in the hope of God’s promises. “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in Jehovah his God: Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that in them is; Who keepeth truth for ever; Who executeth justice for the oppressed; Who giveth food to the hungry. Jehovah looseth the prisoners; Jehovah openeth the eyes of the blind; Jehovah raiseth up them that are bowed down; Jehovah loveth the righteous; Jehovah preserveth the sojourners; He upholdeth the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked he turneth upside down. Jehovah will reign for ever, Thy God, O Zion, unto all generations. Praise ye Jehovah.”

Our wealth will fade. It will not take us into heaven or follow us into hell. When we die, everything we have done on earth will be lost. Everything will be lost but faith. What is most interesting is that faith is the greatest treasure that we have, and yet we all too often take it for granted. And while these lessons are definitely about the proper use of our wealth in this world, we have a wealth beyond our imagination that we tend to hoard for ourselves.

When was the last time you shared the Gospel of Christ with your neighbor? With your co-workers? With someone you meet at the grocery store who needs the love and mercy of Christ in their life? The world is filled with people who are hungering for the bread of life, starving and they don’t even know it. This poverty is much harder to see than the poor in third world countries or on the street corners. Our neighbors might seem to be happy, but if they do not have Christ, they have no real hope. They are trusting in the things of this world which will fade. They can’t find contentment because they are always striving to keep or enhance their possessions.

Paul writes, “But godliness with contentment is great gain: for we brought nothing into the world, for neither can we carry anything out; but having food and covering we shall be therewith content.” Who is content in this world with only food and clothing? “But they that are minded to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and hurtful lusts, such as drown men in destruction and perdition.” This is what happens on those reality television shows. The closer the contestants get to the money, the more willing they are to do whatever it takes. They become trapped in their lusts and desires, but that is the very thing that leads to their downfall.

Paul continues by telling Timothy how to be content. “But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.” We are called to pursue after the good things in life, to live in faith and trust in God. In this life of faith, we will no longer be so blinded by our desires for wealth that we will see the world through God’s eyes and truly grieve for those who suffer. When we see them as God sees them, we can no longer ignore their pain and we are compelled by the love of God to change their world. This is true not only of those who are poor in body, but also of those who are poor in spirit.

Paul’s words to Timothy are words to you and I, “Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed.”

I imagine most of us would reject the idea that we are rich in this present world. Many of us are barely making it from paycheck to paycheck. Yet, as Christians we have the greatest wealth even if we do not have a penny to our name. We are heirs to the Kingdom of God, heirs through Christ Jesus who died that we might have true life. Our wealth is unlimited – there is plenty of God to go around, we need not hoard Him for ourselves.

The leaders of Israel to whom Amos spoke could not see the destruction that was happening right under their eyes because they were too comfortable in their wealth and security. Perhaps we are also too secure in our wealth to see and grieve over those in this world who are dying the most horrible death. There are too many who are lost in sin and death and yet we do not see their pain even though it is right there before us.

Let us do as Paul has commanded and stop chasing after wealth that will fail some day and follow after that which is imperishable. Let us all do good, be rich in good works and generous with all we have that we too might store up a treasure that will never fade so that we might take hold of true life, life in Christ which is eternal. Thanks be to God.

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