Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 29, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Amos 6:1a, 4-7+Psalm 146+1 Timothy 6:6-19+Luke 16:19-31

But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime

you received your good things…” (Luke 16:25)

Those of you who have heard me preach more than, say, once, know that, from time to time, I can be a little bit critical of the compilers of our three-year lectionary cycle. Either the readings are completely disconnected from each other or we are plopped down in the middle of a story or really important verses are left out. But today, I have to give credit where credit is due. This week’s texts from Amos to Luke are a seamless whole.

This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the gist of every reading is that, if we’re not attending, really attending to the poor and marginalized in our world, then we’re just not doing it right.

Now for the bad news: the gist of every reading is that, if we’re not attending, really attending to the poor and marginalized in our world, then we’re just not doing it right.

This message from Luke about concern for the poor should come as no surprise. It has been Luke’s project from the very beginning, and he has been hammering home this point over the past several weeks with parables about the lost being found and lavishing resources on those found ones, the poor ones, and not holding on so tightly to what we have.

In our earlier readings today, we hear Amos pronouncing God’s judgement on those who “lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches” (Amos 6:4) and the psalmist praising a God who “gives justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger” (146:6). And, of course, there’s the letter to Timothy which gives us one of the most oft-quoted texts about money: “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10), a statement which a lot of preachers are quick to point out means that you can have all the money you want as long as you don’t love it too much. That’s not actually what it means at all; it means that our money blinds us to what’s really important. Just like the rich man in our parable was blinded.

His sin in this parable is not just that he does not give money to this poor man named Lazarus. It’s that he doesn’t even see him. Even when the rich man dies and is suffering in Hades, he doesn’t speak to the poor man. No, he begs Abraham to have Lazarus bring him some water.

Here he is, this man who had everything handed to him on a silver platter when he was alive, and, even in death, he is still ordering people around. He doesn’t speak to Lazarus. He doesn’t appeal to him or apologize to him. He asks someone else to give him an order.

And when Abraham refuses to do that, he tries to strike a bargain: send word to my brothers to amend their ways so they don’t end up like me. Now, I don’t know if Charles Dickens read this parable as part of his research for A Christmas Carol, but I imagine the scene in which the ghost of Christmas yet-to-come shows Ebenezer Scrooge his own grave, sometimes rendered on film as a fiery furnace, might have occurred to Dickens. And in the case of Scrooge, having three ghostly visitations actually worked. He changed his ways, mended relationships, and saved Tiny Tim.

It may not be explicit in this parable that Luke is not really talking about just any rich man. Immediately before our reading begins today, Jesus refers to the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). Writing decades after the resurrection when the conflict between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders was at its peak, Luke is adding fuel to that fire, accusing them that even the resurrection of Jesus – a dead man come back to life – was not enough to convince the Pharisees any more than it would convince the rich man’s five brothers. There would be no Ebenezer Scrooge-like amendment of life here.

In the parables we have heard over the past several weeks, I have encouraged you to try to find where God is in the parable, but what is also important is to try to figure out who we are. In the Prodigal Son, on our very best days, we might be like the all-forgiving and all-patient father. On some other days, we might be the resentful older brother. And at other times, we might be the one that wandered off and lost everything and are so ashamed, we hatch a plan to go home again.

Who are we in today’s story? There might be times that we are like the rich man, maybe not so extravagantly wealthy, but blind to the need of the beggar at the gate. How often do we pass by the homeless folks up and down Washington Street or sleeping in our parks, averting our eyes by checking our phones or simply keeping our eyes straight ahead?

I don’t think Luke intends that we see ourselves in poor Lazarus, who sits at the gate – the city gates being a place where the oppressed went to seek justice. Some of us have surely been poor and sick, but Luke seems to be making Lazarus as wretched as the rich man is grand.

We’re not Abraham. At least I don’t think that we are.

Who, then?

I really think that we are to see ourselves as the brothers, the ones needing a sign of what the consequences of our blindness to those in need might actually mean. We have seen the risen Lord. We have heard what the prophets said time and again about the poor and the widow and the orphan, and yet we still walk by those homeless, the children seeking a safe place to learn and thrive at the Jubilee Center, the poor families who show up at In Jesus’s Name Charities because they lost a job or the assistance dollars ran out too soon.

There was a great outcry a few years ago in England about spikes being placed in strategic places on ledges and entryways where the homeless folks might try to sleep, the spikes making it impossible for them to sit or lie down in those places. It was intended to make them go away, somewhere else, someplace that they could be hidden away. The Hoboken Shelter gets complaints from neighbors about guests congregating or smoking or making too much noise. Most of these complaints come from folks who bought their million-dollar homes knowing full well that the shelter would be their neighbor. Where is it they want the shelter guests to go? Someplace where they can’t be seen.

Seeing is the first step to compassion. To look into someone eyes, to say, “I see you,” is the path to redemption, because once you have seen, you just can’t look away. Once you have seen, you will move heaven and earth to ease the pain and sorrow of the world.

This parable isn’t about the next life. It is a cautionary tale for living God’s reign right now. We have heard the prophets. We have witnessed the resurrection. What other sign do we need? Lazarus still sits at the gate, waiting for us to see.

When the Letter to Timothy says that we are to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12), the fight may be less about trying to win souls for Jesus than a fight within ourselves to simply be the people God calls us to be: people who pay attention, who see Jesus in all persons, who notice and act for the good of the Other.

May God grant us all the courage not to look away.

ASEPSermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 29, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas