This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 26 September 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 32: 1 – 3, 6 – 15; 1 Timothy 6 – 19; and Luke 16: 19 – 31.
The modern Christmas carol, "Do You Hear What I Hear", seems highly appropriate for these days and in this age. There are three parts to the carol. The night wind says to the lamb, "do you see what I see?" The lamb says to the shepherd boy, "do you hear what I hear?" And the shepherd boy asks the king if he knows of the child shivering in the cold? I think this is appropriate for this day and time because we often hear the cries of the needy, the homeless, the hungry, and the oppressed. Unfortunately, as a nation and as a society, we do not seem to be listening.
It seems that we would rather hear preachers preach a softer Gospel, offering us the rewards and joys of heaven but without the requirements and the edge that was often a part of Jesus’ message. When people come to church today, they hope to escape from the problems of the world. They do not want the problems of the world to interfere with the quiet they hope to find in church. The people want a Gospel message that does not require the rich young ruler to give up everything. They want a Gospel message that says it is okay to pray out loud in public but not mean what you pray for. They do not want to be called to task by God or reminded that the cross is the one true symbol of suffering and shame. And preachers oblige them, finding reasons to place the blame for the problems of society on others.
The problem that I have is that we are more apt to blame others than seek solutions. And when someone seeks a solution to the problems that face us, they are often apt to be criticized for anything that they do. We are fast becoming a society where laying blame is more important than taking action. We are fast becoming a society in which the Gospel message of love and peace is being replaced by a message of hatred and indifference, intolerance and violence.
But in an age when human life has been devalued through numerous wars, the instrumental use of the unborn for political purposes, the exploitation of the poor, and an arrogant use of power, it is surprising that churches are fostering this change and not leading the fight against it. As Methodists, steeped in Wesleyan tradition, we should be responding to this repudiation of human dignity. We should be drawing on John Wesley’s doctrine of God; in particular his understanding of the Trinity, as well as on his anthropology which specifically affirms that human beings are ever created in the image of God.
I fear that mankind, with many church leaders leading the way, are trying to make God in the image of man rather than working to make man the true image of God. It seems to me that we, as mankind, have forgotten when the people of Babylon attempted to build the Tower of Babylon and reach beyond their grasp. We should be crying out, loud and strong, about the abuse of power that is emerging from an autonomous and usurping conception of humanity. (From "A Reconfiguration of Power: The Basic Trajectory in John Wesley’s Practical Theology" by Kenneth J. Collins; edited by Michael Mattel for the Wesley Center for Applied Theology at Northwest Nazarene University. Copyright 2003 by the Wesley Center for Applied Theology.)
It is clear that John Wesley hear the cries of the needy, the homeless, the sick, and the oppressed. When the storm that was the Industrial Revolution howled through the winter of England’s soul in the 18th century, it blew humanity into the cities like maple leaves before a November wind. And it left them, like leaves, piled in random heaps. Housing conditions were outrageous. Ten persons per unfinished room were common. Horse manure polluted the unpaved streets, sometimes piled 14 feet high on both sides of the street in London. Diseases like typhoid, smallpox, dysentery, and cholera ravaged almost unchecked. Starvation was a daily reality that stalked the poorest. In England’s larger cities, graveyard operators maintained "poor holes"; large common graves left open until the daily flow of corpses of nameless nobodies filled them.
Violent crime was common. Gambling and drinking were almost the national pastime. Every sixth building in London was an alehouse. For the children, there were the streets or the sweatshops; only one child in twenty-five attended school of any kind.
We know the story of John Wesley as the hero who came out of college and lifted the nation culturally, economically, and spiritually. We know that were it not for the Methodist revival led by John Wesley, England in the 18th century would have undergone the violent revolution that would sweep over France during the same period. But are these true stories? Were things really that bad? Or perhaps was there an attempt to "color" the stories and make Wesley seem larger than life? We know that were this to happen today, this would be the case.
In studying newspapers and other non-Wesleyan or non-Methodist sources of the 18th century, Wesley D. Tracey attempted to verify the accounts of those days. What he discovered was that most Wesleyan sources understated what happened. It seems that the social conditions judicial oppression of the times were worse than Wesley wrote in his diary. It was clear that Wesley’s theology and practice developed because of society’s indifference to the marginal members of society. (From "Economic Policies and Judicial Oppression As Formative Influences on the Theology of John Wesley" by Wesley D. Tracy; edited by Michael Mattel for the Wesley Center for Applied Theology at Northwest Nazarene University. Copyright 2000 by the Wesley Center for Applied Theology.)
But those who heard Wesley’s exhortations to make the Gospel meaningful for all did not choose to respond in kind. First, church authorities barred Wesley and his fellow ministers from preaching in the established churches. Then, when the Methodist Revival moved into meeting houses, the secular authorities, at the urging of church authorities, banned them from those places. This forced the early Methodist preachers into the fields and countryside where crowds would heckle, taunt, and physical disrupt the services. On more than one occasion, John Wesley was stoned while preaching the Gospel. He later claimed that the bruises he bore from the rocks that the crowds threw were badges of honor for preaching the Gospel message. We also need to remember that those who formed the early Methodist societies in this country, such as those who banded together to form this church, were barred from meeting in the churches of the time.
Do not be surprised by this treatment of our early pastors, it is not new. Between the verses from the Old Testament that we read today we find that the people of Jerusalem had thrown Jeremiah into jail. The people had grown tired of hearing that God had forgotten them; they were tired of hearing how they had failed to keep the covenant first established by Abraham and Moses. They were quite content to worship other gods, others gods that promised them good news, not bad. They looked for gods that made them feel good, not asked them to take on the troubles of the world. They had gotten tired of hearing Jeremiah’s pronouncements of doom. But instead of working to reestablish the covenant, instead of trying to be God’s people, instead of heeding Jeremiah’s prophecies, they threw Jeremiah in jail.
I wonder how well we have learned the lessons of the past. We seem bound and determined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Churches today still seem to believe that poverty was a condition of sin. If you were a sinner, it was because you lived in poverty and were devoid of God’s blessings. If you were rich, it was only because you lived a righteous life and God’s blessing rained down on you.
We are reminded through the Gospel message for today that God’s blessings do not come to us because of our social or economic status. There is no doubt that the rich man was a righteous man, a man who attended the synagogue and said his daily prayers. But there was also no doubt that he ignored Lazarus, the poor beggar who sat outside his door. It is probable that the rich man was not even aware that Lazarus even existed.
But when the rich man died and found himself condemned to the fires of Sheol, tormented by unimaginable pain, he became very much aware of Lazarus. In his vision, he saw Lazarus, after all the suffering he had endured on earth, being comforted by the angels of heaven. It must have really hurt the rich man to think that this could even have occurred. Why else would he, the rich man, ask Abraham to send a message to his brothers warning them of what might happen to them? But Abraham told him that the message had been sent and the brothers, just like the rich man, would not hear it.
What then shall we do? C. S. Lewis portrayed hell, not as a flaming inferno, but as a dark, shady, chilly, and above all boring place. Its proud citizens may actually depart whenever they so choose. But just as they did on earth, they choose separation from God, misery over joy, hollowness over reality. Now, one might ask, "if they can choose, why do they not choose heaven?" Because they always seem to insist on keeping something, even if it means remaining in misery. There is always something they prefer to joy. It comes down to two things, either one says to God, "Thy will be done" or God will say, "Thy will be done." Those, to whom God speaks first end up like the rich man, caught in hell longing for a comforting drink of water.
The rich man’s hope was right outside his door. Lazarus was his neighbor, figuratively and literally. His own salvation was as close as the other side of the door yet the separation between the two was as wide as a canyon. The rich man could not go the few inches so now he cannot cross the massive chasm that was his own choosing.
Could the rich man have saved his soul by tossing a nugget of gold to Lazarus? What if every now and then he had told his servants to give a few leftovers to Lazarus? Would that have been sufficient for God to proclaim "well done, good and faithful servant!" Hardly; for the opposite of poverty is not property but rather community.
On this earth, we are called to live in community. It is a community of all, with no distinction between who you are or what you were. It cannot be a community in which what we have determines what will happen. Go back and read what Paul wrote Timothy. When you allow success to take over your life, you are apt to get into trouble. Here we read what is the most mis-quoted verse in the Bible. It is not money that is the root of all evil; rather, it is the love of money. Paul says to Timothy, understand where all you have came from and understand why you have what you have. Finally, make sure that is what the people see. Do not lead a life which will lead to dissension or distrust. Rather, lead a life that will inspire others and reflect on the presence of Christ in one’s life.
Finally, look not at where you are at now but where you will be. Jeremiah is in jail, imprisoned for telling the truth and warning Israel about the troubles that are to come. Yet, he buys some property; he invests in the future of Israel. Jeremiah trusts in God and knows that good things are about to happen. Paul encourages Timothy to not get hung up on the trappings of life but concentrate on what makes for good and godly life, for there one will find true peace and happiness.
In a few weeks, Jeremiah will announce a new covenant, a covenant that foretells the coming of the Messiah. Jesus reminds us to listen carefully, that the words of the prophets are true. I would ask this day if we hear the words of the Lord just as clearly as the prophets said them?