Sunday, September 25, 2016

On the Way of Grace: a sermon Year C Proper 21

“On the Way of Grace”
Year C Proper 21, 25 September 2017
St. Francis’ Episcopal, Manakin-Sabot, VA

Proper 21 Collect:
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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.

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.'"

I remember hearing a story from a friend about going into a church, and seeing in the entryway a huge banner: “You have arrived!” Now, I hope and trust that what they meant to say was “You made it. We are glad you are here!” But when I hear the phrase, “You have arrived!” it sounds like you have made it to your destination, that you have nowhere else to go, that you have nothing else to do, nothing more to learn, no more growth is needed. Rest.

Had I seen that banner hanging in a church I was visiting, I would have turned around and walked out the door immediately. What I look for in a Church is not a bunch of “arrived” people, but a bunch of people en route. In the early Church, people who followed Christ did not call themselves Christians. In fact, the name Christian was an insulting, derisive name that got slapped on Christ’s followers in Antioch, the city in Syria. It literally means “little Christs.” Little Messiahs. People were making fun of these people running around trying to help people and save them from their troubles. The term that people used in the Church to describe themselves was followers of The Way. The Way. You see, our faith is to be on the move, on the go. We follow Jesus, and he shows us The Way. When we think that we have it made, that we have arrived, we have left The Way. And there is nothing I think that would make Jesus sadder.

It was the same way when Jesus was alive. He was always fighting the mindset of the religious leaders that people “had arrived.” You see, back then, people understood it that when they had a lot of things, they were “blessed by God.” And the more you had, the more God loved them and how they were living.

Has it really changed all that much? Last week I heard a North Carolina congressman say that people were rioting in Charlotte because they were not successful. Actually I think they were rioting because someone got shot. Now, I am not getting political here, and please do not hear it that way. But I am pointing out that the attitude that some are blessed and “better,” and others are not blessed and “worse,” is still with us. People still are looking at the wrong things to keep score. In fact, our Gospel reading starts just a few verses after Jesus said this in verse 15: So Jesus said to [the religious leaders], ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”

When we think we have it made, when we feel we have “arrived,” could it be an abomination to God? I think maybe. In response to this attitude, Jesus tells this story.

There is a rich man. Now notice that he is not even named, but what he is wearing is mentioned. The rich man wears purple, a highly expensive cloth that had to be died in a the juice of a squashed mollusk. It cost a fortune because they were such little boogers, but hey, he was worth it. And outside the unnamed Rich Man’s door lay a diseased beggar named Lazarus. Now the name Lazarus means comes from Elazar, which means God is my Help. So the Rich Man feasts on daily banquets, and poor Lazarus starves just feet away. Then, they both die. The Rich Man is in Hades, not hell, but Hades, the place of the Dead. And even though he is just in the Afterlife’s holding cell, he is in torment and in want for just a drop of water. And then just like Lazarus could look in the doorway to the courtyard where the Rich Man feasted, the Rich Man could look across a great chasm and see Lazarus resting on the bosom of Abraham. Now that phrase, resting on the bosom of Abraham comes from a very different culture. People did not sit at a table, they reclined. Tables were low. This phrase means that Lazarus was seated at the place of honor, reclining next to Abraham at the great banquet that is to come. You see, their places have been reversed.

Now, too often people see this as a view of what heaven is like. I do not think so. I think that this is a story, and Jesus was a storyteller. In fact scholars have found very close parallels in Jewish and Egyptian parables, wise stories told to make a point, like Aesop’s Fables. They are not to be taken literally, but an attempt to set up a premise to make a point. We get in trouble when we take parables as literal, the metaphorical as historical.

When I was in seminary, I had opportunity to go to Israel and Palestine for a missions and history trip with several students and a professor. While we were on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the same road used since Jesus’ time for the most part, we got to see where Jesus’ temptations took place and the setting for one of his parables. What was a path in Jesus’ time, is now paved. It is still the Wilderness. Nothing is out there. About the midway point, though, our tour guide stopped the bus and pointed out a building. “This,” he said, “was the inn where the Good Samaritan brought the injured man.” My fellow seminarians jumped to the windows to take pictures. It struck me, “Uh, it was a parable.” Not to mention the two room shack did not look 50 years old, much less 2,000. You see, we all want to make the fictional literal, even a bunch of seminarians.

The parable today, I think, speaks to the listeners about themselves more than what the afterlife is like. This is a story. A very poignant one, and I do not think the premise is that poor people go to heaven, and rich people do not. I think the premise comes in how Jesus ends it. It is how one lived, not how one was blessed.

The Rich Man begs for someone to go back and warn his brothers of what is to come. The chasm is fixed there, in the Afterlife in the story, but it is not yet fixed here on this plane of existence yet. We can still make a change, we can still make a difference on this side of death. But Father Abraham, the one speaking for the way things are, says that even if someone came back from the dead they would not listen.

I do not find it accidental that the one telling this story is the one who came back from the dead, later in the story at least.

And think about it. What would keep someone from listening to this one risen from the dead. You would think that that would grab someone’s attention. Father Abraham says that if they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, they would not listen to the Resurrected One either.  And what keeps someone from hearing something new, and changing their ways?

They feel like they have already arrived. Remember that horrible piece of bad theology we all seem to have a hard time shaking, the good are rewarded and the bad are punished.  Those that are like the Rich Man feel that they are complete. They have nothing else to learn. They have no new ways to grow.

One of my life mottos comes from the Michelangelo, the great Renaissance painter and sculptor. A man of immense genius, he strove to always improve. According to story, someone asked him at the age of 83 how does one live a good life. His response was just two words: Ancora imparo. That is Italian for “I am still learning.” This man of immense genius, was still striving and growing, he was changing and learning. He was still learning to have a good life, and he had a good life because he was still learning.

I heard someone say this week that they never planned to retire because when you retire you die. I think there is more to it than that. I think when we stop growing we die. One of the great lines from The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne, the main character, said, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.” And it comes down to us as the same choice.

Jesus calls us to life and growth, and to share that ability with all of God’s children, like the Rich Man could have done for Lazarus. The quickest way to suffering is stay where we are, fat and happy.

The prophet Amos, that we read earlier, shared the same message:
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.

The revelry of the loungers. We were not made to sit on our tuckus. We are people of the Way. We are meant to be out and about. We are meant to be on the Go.

And when we are out and about, learning and growing, we do not just do it for our own ends. We have been blessed to be a blessing. We are blessed to make a difference in others’ lives. We have been blessed to live fully and give fully the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

A story is told, a true one, of one of my favorite authors, Tony Campolo. He was asked to speak at a Missions Conference. Just before he spoke, the moderator got word that one of the Missionaries was in great need, and needed $5,000 I think it was. Unannounced, she asked Dr. Campolo to please pray for the need to be met. He said, “No.” She was taken aback, and assumed he was joking. She asked again. He said, “No, but what I will do is this.” He reached into his pocket, took out his wallet, and emptied the contents of all his cash. He went and set it on the edge of the stage. The moderator laughed and thanked him for making his point. He said, “No” again. It was not a metaphor, he pointed at her and told her to do the same. He then told the ushers to go and gather all the cash from the attendees. They did. After this spontaneous collection they counted it up, and there was over $15,000, triple the need. It was then time for him to speak. The moderator glad she was off the hook. Dr. Campolo went to the lectern and said, “Don’t ask God for a nickel, when he has given you a dollar.” He sat down, and did not say anything else. I heard later that they did not honor his contract for his speaking fee because he did not speak, but I think that his message screamed, and the conference showed that they still did not get it.

We have been blessed to be a blessing. In closing, I saw a great bit of TV yesterday. I have been thinking about it ever since. My wife had on some food shows on PBS, and I will be honest, I was not paying attention. I had a magazine, and bounced between that and my phone. But one thing did rivet my attention. On one of the shows there was a farmer, leather skin from being out in the sun for decades, calloused hands, with a wisdom in the eyes. His drawal was beautiful, and his pace deliberate. He was talking about how to get seeds from your vegetables, how to store them up so you can use them next year. He started with Sunflowers, he said it was the easiest. And it was. I saw it. I could do that. Then he went to Tomatoes. Not as easy, but I could do that. Then he went to Carrots. I had never seen a carrot seed before. I live in Cary Town, and I am not a farmer. But was has stayed with me is this, and it fit so well in my sermon I added it in this morning when I got up, it having been stuck in my spiritual cud all night. The farmer said this, “I believe everyone should grow at least one thing that they eat. Even if it is just one thing, and then get it to seed, so you can do it again next year. When I give someone seed, and they ask me if they can pay me back, I say, ‘Naw, you show somebody else. You pay it back to them.’”

In our spiritual lives, I think we all can do that. Some of us are at the planting stage, hoping to grow. Many of us are at the Growing stage, enjoying the benefit of where we are. But like the old farmer said, We’ve got to “show somebody else. You pay it back to them.” Jesus calls us to go beyond the Growing stage, where we have arrived. He calls us to go to Seed, to grow to the point where we and others can benefit from our growth. We pay God back for the Grace we have received by paying it forward, and helping someone else get on the Way of Grace.

We have been so blessed, but God is not finished with us yet. I pray that you never feel like you have arrived. Go out, boldly. You are the Light of the World. You are the Salt of the Earth. Jesus came and made his life an offering and sacrifice to God. Go and do likewise.

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Blessings, Rock