United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds September 29 2019

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)

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Worship resources for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, 16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21) are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations:
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 with Psalm 91:1-6,14-16 or
Amos 6:1a, 4-7 with Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19 and
Luke 16:19-31


Sermon Seeds

Focus Text:
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Additional reflection on 1 Timothy 6:6-19
Stewardship sermon on Luke 16:19-31 and First Timothy 6:6-19

Focus Theme:
Surprising Investment

Reflection:
Kathryn M. Matthews

If they had had such things back in those days, the people of Israel might have said that their hopes were on a roller-coaster ride, up and down, up and down. When things were good, no one wanted to hear from the prophet Jeremiah, who warned even in "secure" times that God's judgment was coming in the form of the armies of the Babylonian empire.

For almost thirty chapters, Jeremiah does go on. And on. No wonder the people preferred to listen to the prophets who were cheery and reassuring, denying the threat of destruction from the East, denial, it seems, thriving in every age.

An oblivious king

Meanwhile, the king seemed to have his head in the clouds, counting on help to come from the south, from mighty Egypt, who hated Babylon as much as everyone else did. Little Israel was caught between, and at the mercy of, the grand empires who decided world affairs in those days, including the things that eventually rained down on the "little ones," ordinary people who starved, suffered, and died in the midst of the dramas of "greater" men. Perhaps some things do never change.

But that's not really what our passage this week is about. Jeremiah has now changed his tune (and certainly the key in which he sings it), and his prophecies in these chapters are commonly called "The Book of Comfort." It's 588 B.C. E., and the Babylonian Empire is pounding on the door of Jerusalem - again.

Trouble is brewing

Ten years earlier, Babylon had "disciplined" a rebellious Israel with a measure of destruction and had carried off some of its people. Now, Israel was getting overly confident again, probably because they thought they had Egypt backing them up (sometimes it works to get one bully to fight the other), and the Babylonians were going to make it very clear that there would be no more trouble from this upstart kingdom.

We know that the destruction and exile that followed left a profound mark on the spirit and history of the people of Israel, when the land that had been promised to their ancestors long ago, the land to which their freed-slave forebears had been led through forty long years (and much longer in captivity), the land of David and Solomon's glory, the land that was theirs – or better, God's, and they were its stewards: this land was in every sense taken from them.

A prophet's warning

Jeremiah the prophet had tried to warn the people that they needed to get right with God instead of taking God's favor for granted, and, ironically, he saw Babylon as the instrument of God's punishment for Israel's unfaithfulness.

With the armies of the evil empire camped around them like a scene from a medieval novel, or better, one of The Lord of the Rings movies, the people are starving, and sick, and desperate. They are trapped, too, and can't get out of the city walls to tend their land.

A ruler in desperation

Their king, Zedekiah, knows he's in trouble, but he's perhaps the best of all at denial. He even responded to Jeremiah's warnings that he, the king, would suffer the approaching doom by holding the prophet captive in his palace, where he couldn't stir up the people.

While Jeremiah has used many words in the past thirty chapters or so, here he uses a deed (literally a deed) to deliver a message. In his action as much as his speech, he still digs down deep and finds hope to sustain the people. Even though he has predicted this calamity, his spirit must be depressed by the reality of it on his doorstep. Undoubtedly he wishes he could be wrong.

A surprising word from God

Right at that moment he receives a message from God that both surprises and perplexes him. When he hears that his relative, Hanamel, is going to come to him with the offer to sell him his land in Anathoth, and then Hanamel appears and does exactly that, Jeremiah knows that this is indeed a message from God.

And so he obeys the command he has received, and purchases what is, at least at this moment, worthless land.

This is not our land, but God's

In our own time, we have different ways of determining the value of property, including land. While we still have farms and depend on the earth for our sustenance, most of us are disconnected from the processes of agriculture, and land may only represent an investment that will grow because of its strategic location (for example, if a housing development might be put on it, or a big box store goes up next to it, and its commercial value soars).

Except for long-time owners of land, farmers who live on it and its yield, most folks have very little attachment to such real estate. But that's not how things were in Jeremiah's day. The people still remembered that the land was not only a gift from God, but in a very real way, still belonged to God.

Foundational theology for stewardship

This is the foundation of a stewardship theology that says that all creation, while a blessing from God, still belongs to God, including all of our possessions and money. In any case, the land was precious to the people, and it was "kept in the family," passed down from generation to generation.

In Leviticus 25:25-55, the law even provided protection for this practice, and we hear about this "law of redemption" in action in our reading this week. It was Jeremiah's right and duty, then, to re-claim the land in Anathoth for a relative who was destitute.

Location, timing and deciding

Talk about location, location, location: what good was that land going to be to Jeremiah, when the Babylonians were camped on it? It certainly couldn't be farmed, or provide sustenance or income for its owner.

If he tried to sell it, he'd have to find another family member as "foolish" as he was, willing to pay good money for what appeared to be worthless.

In the midst of a depression

Imagine the mess Israel was in! Elizabeth Achtemeier vividly describes the major economic depression visited upon Israel by the Babylonians, with land, silver and gold all now worthless, business at a standstill and everyone just wanting to get out of harm's way (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

This was the exactly the worst moment for such a strange transaction by Jeremiah, in fact, we might call it counter-intuitive, and completely against the tide of developments around him. If location is important in real estate, so are timing and the decision to buy or sell at just the right moment.

A dramatic move by the prophet

It's in this atmosphere of doom that Jeremiah doesn't just speak but acts, and acts with great care, even great drama, however quiet that drama may appear. He buys his relative's land, and he makes something of a show of it, just to make a statement, we would say today. When it appears that there is no hope for tomorrow, Jeremiah makes a hope-filled, trust-filled proclamation about God's intentions for Israel and its story, which will, against all appearances, go on.

The prophet's "statement" doesn't spring from optimism or even a misplaced confidence in governments, his own king, or Egypt's armies, to pull things out of the fire at the last moment. And it is most certainly not just more denial.

Jeremiah's purchase is his way of announcing his hope in the God of Israel here, in the worst of times just as much as in the good ones. Israel's God, no matter what the appearances are, no matter what "the market" says, is the One in charge. (Again: God's God, and we're not.)

Daring to see hope

When the word of God comes to Jeremiah and tells him to buy the land, it also helps him to dare to see that there would be more than this impending desolation, more than the realization of his worst warnings, and that there would be life again, with God's people back on their own land, and the most ordinary of human transactions, including those of real estate, resuming once again.

That's why Jeremiah orders his secretary, Baruch, whom we meet for the first time here but whose role bears further reflection, to copy and preserve these documents of sale not only for verification but for future generations who will read them and be inspired to hope in their own day.

A message for us as well

Even though Jeremiah himself wouldn't live to see this happen, he wants to make sure that his descendants would see in the good times the hand of God fulfilling ancient promises, and would, in the bad times, hold fast to those same promises of abiding, faithful love and compassion by a generous but demanding God. As Gary Peluso-Verdend puts it, the hope will live on, even if Jeremiah didn't (New Proclamation Year C 2007).

According to Walter C. Bouzard, Jeremiah "acted in faith and, one can suppose, lived in hope that God's purposes would be worked out in the course of time" (New Proclamation Year C 2013). And this message, and witness, are for us today, as well, Lisa Davison writes: "Looking forward instead of backward is a testament to our faith and trust in God's ultimate control and desire for a world filled with peace and justice" (New Proclamation Year C 2010).

The prophet struggles

It must be noted here that even Jeremiah himself struggled with all of this, and that may be, in a way, encouraging to congregations today. In the passage that follows the lectionary text, Jeremiah has one of those weary-sounding and anxious prayer-times with God.

He reviews a long list of God's good deeds toward Israel, God's mighty deeds and faithfulness, in spite of the people's sins, "but" – there's that important word – but, for heaven's sake, aren't you paying attention, he asks God, to what's happening out there, on the wall, where the enemy has put ramps up to the walls as it lays siege to Jerusalem, fully intending to destroy it, and to end at last the story of the people of God? Are you sure, Jeremiah asks God, that you really want me to be buying land at this point?

God's reminders

And of course, God responds with a long message of judgment against the people, beginning with the wonderful question, "I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?" Many verses into the speech, God says, "Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good fortune that I now promise them. Fields shall be bought in this land….for money, and deeds shall be signed and sealed and witnessed…for I will restore their fortunes, says the Lord" (32:42-44).

As James Newsome writes, we are reassured that "judgment is not the final word. Beyond judgment, beyond destruction, beyond the justice of God there is restoration, mercy, salvation!" (Texts for Preaching Year C). After the bitterness of exile, there will be homecoming, and joy, once again.

A tension in the narrative

Perhaps we struggle with the idea that God would allow, or even will, the destruction, of Jerusalem and its people. It's only a short step, after all, from there to saying that any group or nation that suffers somehow deserves it.

This is a tension within the Old Testament narrative, and indeed in the life of faith for us as well, for our actions are not without consequence or consequences, and it's only natural to view our circumstances, whether ancient invasion or modern-day foreclosure, illness, and heartbreak, through the lens of God's will for our lives.

How does someone else "hear" this story?

I have often found that to be the most helpful way to read many narratives, as if I'm looking through the lens of someone who is doing theological reflection on a situation, and struggling to find meaning in, to understand, what is happening to them. Isn't that what Jeremiah does himself, in his anguished prayer, full of questions for God?

And doesn't it require a kind of faith, of trust, in God even to pose such questions? Shouldn't we respect the questions that people struggle with?

Thinking of themselves in a new way

There's also a subtext here of how to define or at least describe the community of faith. According to Sharon Peebles Burch, Israel was undergoing a transformation in its identity, one that we might apply to ourselves as well.

When Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant with God in chapter 31, he was calling the people to think of themselves in a new way, remembering that God was willing to make a new beginning with Israel, with torah planted in their hearts rather than engraved on a stone. That's how closely they would be identified with torah, Burch writes, how closely their lives would embrace God's law as their identity rather than geographic, cultic or tribal connections (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 4).

A people dedicated to God

How might that image - a new covenant planted in their hearts - describe a local congregation as well? Are we dedicated to God, and the things of God? What really connects us within our congregations and gives us common ground on which to worship?

Do we care more, perhaps too much, about "the way we've always" worshipped, our "cultic" traditions (this chair has always been placed right here in the chancel, and the minister always leads this part of the service), or which people and groups hold rights and place within the life of the church?

A figure in the shadows

We could also focus our attention on Baruch the secretary, for we might not be called to be "foolish" people of faith as much as the ones who watch them, and learn from them, and help them in their work.

Michael E. Williams imagines what Baruch may have been thinking as he performed this "no ordinary task...in no ordinary time." Maybe Jeremiah was crazy, but his Baruch claims that "[w]ithout those God-crazed Jeremiahs among us we would fall more often….Perhaps in times like these our only hope is found in such outrageous faith….Others of us can only stand aside and marvel at such faith or foolishness. And we can record for future generations the lives and words of God's outrageous faithful. We are the Baruchs" (The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Volume Six, The Prophets I).

A tradition of hope

Walter Brueggemann observes that the earthenware vessel is not the only receptacle of this witness, because "the biblical text itself" ensures that it will be passed down to future generations rather than lost. We don't have the written deed but we have the evidence that supports the hope of Israel, and our hope as well.

Brueggemann also points out the way this story is one more that illustrates how "the Bible holds together faith claims and the realities of public life. Unless both factors are present, the significance of this episode collapses," for this is a story about the plans and intentions of a faithful and loving God who has plans for Israel, despite all appearances right now: "God intends a good life for this people after exile" (A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming).

Emerging from desolation

I remember that awful time after 9/11, when we were still reeling from the effects of the terrorist attacks, and many of us thought that life would never be the same. Of course, it isn't the same, but life has persisted, sprung up, and flourished in many ways, even as we grieve our loss and struggle to rebuild on the dust of the destruction.

When we in the church today root our identity in texts like this one from Jeremiah, we have to discern how God is calling us to live on, to thrive, in a new day, no matter what empires – materialism, hatred and prejudice, militarism, sexism, racism or more – may threaten us.

When we read texts like this one from the prophets, we can find inspiration and promise, and ultimately, firm hope and trust in God, no matter how bad things appear at any given moment, in the life of the community, or in our own private, all-encompassing griefs. No matter what happens, Brueggemann writes, "The world does not culminate on Babylonian terms, because God has post-Babylonian intentions for Judah," and for them, and for us, "Life begins again, out of chaos!" (A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming).

A focus on love

Gary E. Peluso-Verdend draws on this text in order to direct our attention to the importance of stewardship in the life of Jesus' followers, and to the church's responsibility to be able to speak about human desire in its theology of stewardship. Living our lives as "stewards rather than owners," he writes, "can raise speed-bumps for us when we have taken a questionable road in pursuit of 'more'" instead of focusing on God and one another.

In the life of faith, loving God and our neighbor is the deepest desire of our heart. When we read in the text that Israel's sins involved idolatry, Peluso-Verdend makes the connection between ancient offenses and those of our own time and place, for we know that we too are guilty of idolatry, of worshipping the false gods of our own culture and time.

A word of hope

And yet he does find hope in the stories today of wealthy people who have the vision to use their wealth for the greater good, both short-term and long-term, with their own version of "earthen jars" bringing life to people they will never meet or know (New Proclamation Year C 2007).

When we read in the text that Israel's sins involved idolatry, Peluso-Verdend makes the connection between ancient offenses and those of our own time and place, for we know that we too are guilty of idolatry, of worshipping the false gods of our own culture and time.

Anxiety and hope

In his book of prayers, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, Walter Brueggemann evokes the sense of anxiety in this story from long ago, as he prays about our situation today, with threats and dangers always on our hearts and minds, from natural disasters, terrorism, and calamities of every sort.

God's word, however, "cuts the threat…siphons off the danger…tames the powers," and tells us, "do not fear." And so, we learn to live in hope and trust in God's presence with us, always, rather than living "in our feeble anxiety," for "you veto our anxiety…." Come by us here, he prays, and "give us faith commensurate with your true, abiding self. Amen." Amen!

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Francis Bacon, 16th century
"A sudden bold and unexpected question doth many times surprise a man and lay him open."

Danny Kaye, 20th century
"I wasn't born a fool. It took work to get this way."

Barack Obama, 21st century
"The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope."

Maxine Hong Kingston, 20th century
"In a time of destruction, create something."

Oscar Wilde, 19th century
"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"People only see what they are prepared to see."

Henri Matisse, 20th century
"There are always flowers for those who want to see them."

Audre Lorde, 20th century
"When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."

Meister Eckhart, Sermons of Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love."

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 19th century
"Nothing is more imminent than the impossible...what we must always foresee is the unforeseen."

Additional reflection on 1 Timothy 6:6-19
by Kathryn M. Matthews

When a person is ordained, they make promises and they have something to live up to. In this letter, Paul (or a teacher writing in his name) is instructing his student colleague, Timothy, in what it means to be a good and faithful leader in the church.

There are people out there, Paul warns Timothy, who are spreading false teaching and they're doing it, he says, for financial gain. Their greed has led them astray from the path of truth, and Paul exhorts his student to keep his eye on the prize of eternal life and more meaningful rewards than the transitory riches of this world.

There are many influences on Paul here; Robert W. Wall includes the Jewish "piety of poverty" tradition that held up the "richness of one's faith in God over the trappings of material well-being," as well as the secular philosophies of the time, and of course the teachings of Jesus himself, who told the story (in this week's Gospel reading) about the selfish rich man, who ended up in a very different place from the poor man, Lazarus.

The challenges of wealth in an urban setting

According to Wall, "Paul's solidarity with the poor in his own ministry makes him profoundly suspicious of both wealth and the wealthy. The tensions provoked by a memory of Jesus' teaching, carried forward by Paul in these concluding exhortations, are more likely more severe and serious in an urban church, where public pretensions of wealth and status were more prominent" (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and Epistles).

Timothy was toiling in Ephesus, a Greek city, and, like many modern pastors, undoubtedly had to deal with both the problems and the possibilities of wealth among at least some of his church members. His mentor and teacher, Paul, is helping him here to find his way through the pitfalls and perils of such a path.

It's the love of money, not money itself

The familiar (and often-misquoted) line from this passage about the love of money being the root of all sorts of evil clarifies the situation a bit: it's not money itself, which is neutral, but the love of it that leads us into all kinds of trouble, because "riches are seductive," Carl R. Holladay writes: "Like the brambles in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:22), riches ensnare through suffocation. What begins as the innocent desire to make a fair profit becomes an obsession to own. Before long, we no longer own but are owned" (Preaching through the Christian Year C).

This thought is particularly disconcerting for many of us in the church in North America. Even a middle-class income here is in the highest percentiles of those in the world, profit is the foundation of our economy, and we're told that an "ownership society" is a good thing. Perhaps it is indeed better to own than to rent, at least for many people (but certainly not for all), and stability is a good thing, too, but the slope from owning to being owned is a slippery one.

Before we know it, we love the money as much or more than the things it can accomplish or buy. And that leads us into all sorts of other problems. "The love of money is the root, mother, and hometown of all other evils," Holladay writes (Preaching through the Christian Year C). One thinks of the evil of oppressive debt, for example, which presses on so many in our churches.

Setting our priorities from the start

If this letter was written later than the other epistles, toward the end of the first century when things were settling down a bit in the life of the church, that is, when Jesus had not returned so quickly, and some of the structures and traditions were beginning to take shape for a longer wait, then we can also read in it a concern for right teaching to be passed on through those structures and traditions.

And Paul is concerned here about the powerful effect of greed if (because) it leads Christians away from the true faith. Whether faith here is defined as proper teaching or as trust in God, either way, it works, because "Not riches but God alone should provide the basis for human hope" (Beverly R. Gaventa, Texts for Preaching Year C).

Learning the art of ministry

We can imagine Timothy as a new pastor, learning the art of ministry, and being influenced, as mentioned, by the culture around him. The Greco-Roman philosophers cared about "the good life," and they believed that our desires needed to be curbed. As Gary E. Peluso-Verdend writes: "While the word crave comes from a different root than the word craven, one might say that a life of unexamined, undisciplined desires is a life of craving (begging) that leads even to a craven (cowardly) life."

But for Christians, there is even more at stake, because we are to strive for nothing less than godliness, and godliness is our destiny, Peluso-Verdend writes, for "we deserve godliness because we were made for it. In order to desire godliness, we must free our attention from seeking wealth" (New Proclamation Year C 2007).

What is our economic policy as people of faith?

And godliness has a longer view than the next moment's pleasure or even the apparent long-term security of a big bank account. According to Robert W. Wall, Paul has an "economic policy" very different from the world that surrounded him or the one that surrounds us today, because it was "framed by his profound confidence in the future of God: the believer spends money on projects of mercy that build spiritual revenues for the coming age" (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).

Read in this light, the final verses of this reading are excellent guidelines for Christians in North America, so that we might not set our "hopes on the uncertainty of riches" but on God, who, as we read in Ephesians 3:20, "by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine." Might this be considered a counter-cultural claim in our society, and perhaps even in the church, if it preaches a prosperity gospel?

Are we extravagant in our generosity?

Of course, there is another way to look at the instructions and exhortations to the rich, who are not told to sell everything they have and give it to the poor but are instead told to be "extravagantly generous." Is it possible to be both faithful and rich in money?

Clearly, there were members of the church with some measure of wealth, and they were still included in the life of the church. It seems that Jesus had rich friends and enjoyed feasts whenever he could.

Challenging questions in every age

This letter from the "later/early” church helps us to connect the life of our own congregations with the questions that have challenged communities of faith for two thousand years. The answers to our questions are not always simple.

Lewis R. Donelson reminds us of the "many different perceptions of Jesus the church experiences," including these "sober, non-mystical, and gentle" reflections by an early church leader, which are as biblically sound as the soaring insights of John, for example (Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, Westminster Bible Companion).

Simple and clear instructions

The answers may not always be simple, yet Eugene Peterson finds simple and clear words to express Paul's instructions to a young pastor: "These are the things I want you to teach and preach...a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy...run hard and fast in the faith...be extravagantly generous” (The Message).

Be extravagantly generous: not easy to live up to, but clear nevertheless, today just as much as it was in the first century.

For further reflection:

Francis Bacon, 17th century
"Money is a great servant but a bad master."

Gabriel García Márquez, 21st century
"No, not rich. I am a poor man with money, which is not the same thing."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"Money often costs too much."

Art Buchwald, 20th century
"The best things in life aren't things."

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 19th century
"Genuflection before the idol or the dollar destroys the muscles which walk and the will that moves."

Bryant McGill, Voice of Reason, 21st century
"Lust for possession and greed has ravaged the soul of humanity like a great cancer, metastasizing throughout society in the form of a nouveau post-human, consumer hedonism."

Stewardship sermon on Luke 16:19-31 and First Timothy 6:6-19:

Maybe it is a matter of seeing. Or noticing: it's hard to imagine that the rich man didn't see poor Lazarus lying right there, at his gate. He must have stepped over him every time he went to the Temple to pray, right? Every time he opened his home to entertain his other rich friends.

Maybe his staff even had to shoo away the dogs that were licking the wounds on Lazarus' body, which of course made him ritually unclean as well as thoroughly unpleasant to look at, so, hmmm...organized religion was no help to the poor man, either. Just a few scraps from the table, like the dogs eat, the scraps that fell from the table – that would have been a feast to poor, starving Lazarus.

This is a really depressing, sad story that Jesus tells. But, hey – this is the Gospel of Luke, and one of the things that keeps happening in this Gospel is that things get turned upside down, made right, fortunes get reversed, the lowly lifted up, the mighty brought down, the hungry will be filled and those who are full will be hungry – it's all right there if you read the whole thing from beginning to end.

So we're not surprised and we're not at all sorry to hear that, when both Lazarus and the rich man die, Lazarus gets carried by the angels to be with Abraham. It's the surprise, the ironic twist that satisfies the audience, the happy ending that, by the way, we Americans can't get enough of.

Now of course the rich man – he ends up in Hades, "tormented" and "in agony," the text says. Now, let me just say this about that: Jesus is NOT telling us the details of what happens after death. As a matter of fact, this story existed in many forms in Judaism and throughout the ancient world. Jesus was drawing on ancient wisdom to make his point about what is important now, in this life. This thing about a happy ending must be true of many cultures and many times. It's satisfying to think there's some justice in the world, isn’t it?

The way Jesus tells the story, though – what is the point he's making? For one thing, I think he's trying to tell his audience about how important it is to see. Oh, sure, the rich man, as he went about his business, probably saw Lazarus out of the corner of his eye, but he didn't take notice of him, didn't talk to him, although he seems to recognize him and remember his name – but surely, if he really saw Lazarus lying there, wouldn't his heart have been moved to do something, even to share those table scraps?

Evidently not. Even in hell, which some say is a state of mind rather than a place, especially in hell, all the rich man can think about is himself. He doesn't even address Lazarus here, doesn't acknowledge him, but acts as if Lazarus is a servant who should be sent by Abraham to get him a drink of water because he is in agony and wants some water for his tongue – it's all about him, him, him – the rich man has made his way to a state of total self-absorption, and there, all by himself, all he finds is agony and torment.

But then the rich man does something surprising – he does think of someone else: his five brothers who are also back at the mansion, enjoying the good life without thinking about the poor, and once again he "sees" Lazarus as a servant, a messenger that Abraham should send to these brothers to warn them not to make the same mistakes he made.

This is one scary story, isn't it? Forget the happy ending thing. Instead, read this parable right in the middle of a bunch of things Jesus is saying about money and possessions, and what it means to be his disciple. Consider Luke 14:33, where we hear that "none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." And Luke 16:13 – "You cannot serve God and wealth." Or Luke 16:14, where the Pharisees are described as "lovers of money," and then Jesus tells this story about wealth and poverty and suffering and warning.

I think it's very important that we not miss that context, because Jesus is angry here at the religious leaders of his own tradition who have let him down – the ones who are supposed to be leading the people but instead are too busy loving money and thinking about themselves.

Our other New Testament reading is talking about the same thing. We hear a passage from a Letter by someone writing in Paul's name, Paul's voice, to his student, Timothy, teaching him how to be a good pastor. Timothy is serving an urban church about 60-70 years after Jesus told this story, so there were presumably some members of his urban church who had some money.

That's where the money often is, of course – in the city. And there are teachers – false teachers, Paul says – who are leading people astray because of their love of money. Their greed.

Back then, just as today, people believed a lot of different things about money. In fact, right in the Bible itself, there is a kind of "prosperity theology" that says God wants you to be rich, and if you are rich, well, God must be rewarding you. It's a sign of God's favor.

The other side of this belief, logically, is that the poor somehow deserve their fate. It's their punishment for something they did or didn't do. Or maybe something their parents did or didn't do.

Now, that doesn't fit with other parts of the Bible that tell us to live justly and to take care of those in need. Let's face it – the Bible has many different voices in it. In any case, I remember a book I read back in seminary called The Undeserving Poor. It was very challenging to our middle-class, All-American sensibilities. It said that in gospel living there's no such thing as people who don't deserve our help.

Money itself is neutral – it can be used for good or evil. It's the love of money, we hear, that leads us astray. That's comforting, especially if we have a little money, or a lot. Money is not evil. Just the love of it is, the mother of all evils, one person has said. After all, money brings with it power, prestige, security: it's easy to love, I guess.

Paul tells Timothy what to tell his wealthy church members: "As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life."

I don’t know about you, but I feel a bit of tension here. Which is it – do you have to give up all your possessions to follow Jesus, or not? Can we be both rich and faithful? Paul seems to think so. Jesus...well, that's not so clear, is it?

This week I went on a website called globalrichlist.com to see where I stand in the world in terms of income. It turns out that I'm one of the richest people in the world. Actually, most of us in the United States are.

Once they show you where you are on the graph of the world's population, they congratulate you and then they ask you to share your wealth with others who are in need. Those Lazaruses who lie at our gate and the gate of the world, hungry and longing for the scraps that fall from our tables. They challenge us to use our money for good, to do good and be rich in good works, to be extravagantly generous.

You know, there’s no question that folks right here in our church, in our families and community, right down the street in this city and up in Cleveland, where I live, the poorest city in America (shame on us), are feeling not so rich no matter what the website says. That's fair.

Lots of folks are worried about debt and paying for child care and not having health insurance and losing their retirement savings or their homes, about keeping the job they have right now. The gospel isn’t meant to lay burdens on the people that they cannot bear, and that is never my intention in preaching, either.

But I would be irresponsible as a pastor if I didn't love you enough to walk with you – together – down this difficult road and its uncomfortable questions. That's what church is for – to wrestle with the hard questions, together.

I think, at the heart of these passages, and at the heart of being a follower of Jesus, is generosity. I really believe that all the virtues flow from generosity. Think about it. If we're generous of spirit, we trust in God and not in ourselves and our own devices. If we're generous, we give people the benefit of the doubt, and we don't judge them, just like Jesus said.

If we're generous, we can open up our hearts to forgive people, just like Jesus said. If we're generous, we make room for others in our lives; it has been said that hospitality, after all, is generosity in elegant action.

Think about this: the words "generosity" and "generate" share the same root word – they both have to do with bringing new life. God has generously given us life, our lives and the life of this beautiful creation, an abundance with far more than enough for everyone, but we just haven't done such a good job of sharing that abundance. We have not done so well at generating new life from what we have so generously received.

Jesus knows that money and possessions can grab hold of us in ways we don't want to think about. Indeed, instead of owning, we find ourselves owned by our possessions. Luke is trying to warn us, to teach us, that the blessings of this world can turn us inward, or outward, Margaret Shuster observes, and these words really ought to go right to our hearts: Our money and possessions – and our love of them – she says, can make us "self-consumed, self-important, self-satisfied, self-indulgent, and insensitive to others...it will not be enough to say that we just did not pay attention or that we had intended to help someone tomorrow, or that we surely meant no harm to the helpless around us…."

What if, instead, we turned ourselves over to the imagination of the kingdom of God, an imagination that leads to empathy, to feeling with others who are suffering and in need, and then, to acting on their behalf? I think the readings are saying that this is the path to the life that really is life.

It's also the path to joy. And that's a scientific fact as well as a gospel truth: I once read a wonderful article by Natalie Angier in The New York Times about scientists who studied neural activity, who measure brain waves. It said that, "Hard as it may be to believe in these days of infectious greed and sabers unsheathed, scientists have discovered that the small, brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy."

Here's Eugene Peterson's version (in The Message) of the end of this passage from the Letter to Timothy: "These are the things I want you to teach and preach...a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy...run hard and fast in the faith...be extravagantly generous."

That's what I think these readings are about today, my sisters and brothers. I think they're about extravagant generosity and unbounded joy and unwavering trust in God instead of our stuff, about sharing the abundance God has freely given us. I don't think we're the rich man or Lazarus in this story. I think in this story we're the five brothers, and the question is not only whether we'll open our eyes and see, but will we listen, too?


Lectionary texts

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar.

At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours."

Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself." Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales.

Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.

In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

with

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

You who live in the shelter
   of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow
   of the Almighty,
will say to God,
   "My refuge and my fortress;
my God,
   in whom I trust."

For God will deliver you
   from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;

God will cover you
   with God's pinions,
and under God's wings
   you will find refuge;
God's faithfulness is a shield
   and buckler.

You will not fear
   the terror of the night,
or the arrow
   that flies by day,

or the pestilence
   that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction
   that wastes at noonday.

Those who love me,
   I will deliver;
I will protect those
   who know my name.

When they call to me,
   I will answer them;
I will be with them
   in trouble,
I will rescue them
   and honor them.

With long life
   I will satisfy them,
and show them
   my salvation.

or

Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!

Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

with

Psalm 146

Praise God!
   Praise God, O my soul!

I will praise God
   as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God
   all my life long.

Do not put your trust
   in princes,
in mortals,
   in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs,
   they return to the earth;
on that very day
   their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help
   is the God of Jacob,
whose hope
   is in their God,

who made heaven and earth,
   the sea,
and all that is in them;
   who keeps faith forever;

who executes justice
   for the oppressed;
who gives food
   to the hungry.
God sets the prisoners
   free;
God opens the eyes
   of the blind.

God lifts up those
   who are bowed down
and loves the righteous.

God watches over
   the strangers
and upholds the orphan
   and the widow,
but the way of the wicked
   God brings to ruin.

God will reign
   forever,
your God, O Zion,
   for all generations.
Praise God!

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But 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. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time--he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Luke 16:19-31

"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.'

"But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.'

"He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house--for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

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