Sunday, September 25, 2016

September 25, 2016 -

Luke 16:19-31

So last week’s assigned Gospel reading was very critical of the way we handle money for our own gain, and Jesus told us, “Make friends of yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Which, I think, is Jesus being sarcastic, since nobody can welcome us into the eternal home but God. Those wealth-motivated friends don’t have the power to welcome us into the kingdom of God, so I think Jesus is saying, Go ahead and do what you need to get by in this world but don’t think it will do you any good in the next. 

Today we have the story of Lazarus and the rich man, another critique of wealth. The Gospel of Luke is, you may have noticed by now, concerned about wealth inequity. Each Gospel has it’s own particular thing to say about Jesus - Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ connection to Israel, John emphasizes Jesus’ relationship with God going back to the beginning of time. The person who wrote Luke followed very much in the footsteps of the prophets of ancient Israel, like Amos and Hosea and Isaiah. These prophets, old and new, believed that nothing upset God more than to see the rich flouting their riches while the poor suffered and starved. God had given to everyone enough to live a good life, but some were taking more than their fair share with the result that others had less. The prophets had the same complaints as much of today’s poor and middle classes: the rich get richer and the rest of us get poorer. And in the gospel of Luke, Jesus came to tell us that God is extraordinarily unhappy with this situation. If you’re very rich and you’re not sharing, the story of Lazarus is bad news, and serves as a stern warning. If you’re very poor, it’s good news, and Lazarus is the hope for a better life after death.

But the problem with preaching this text today, to you, is that none of us here is particularly wealthy or particularly poor. Yes, we could talk about the riches of the First World on a global scale and how our consumption contributes to the staggering poverty of others in the world, but I already did that not so long ago. So how can we understand this text in a way that makes sense for us today?
Well, if we take the idea that God gives us enough of everything, but some of us try hoarding these gifts in order to keep it all for ourselves, we find ourselves challenged when we look at this story on a spiritual level. In other words, what if the point Jesus is making doesn’t have anything to do with food or material wealth, but has to do with access to God and entrance into God’s kingdom? What if it’s not about the riches of food, but about the riches of righteousness that we’ve received? You see, the audience for Jesus’ story is a group of religiously-observant folks. Jesus is talking to both his disciples and to the Pharisees. (And I have to stop and make a point here that the Pharisees were never, ever Jesus’ enemies, despite centuries of church teaching to the contrary. Jesus actually has much more in common with the Pharisees as far as their understanding of God than he does with any of the other Jewish sects that existed in his time.) Anyway, Jesus is talking to people who feel, for one reason or another, privileged in their access to God. They feel that they have the inside track to God, either because they are exceptionally-observant Jews or because they are following Jesus or simply because they are inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham and the children of Israel. They rightly believe that God has blessed them with an overabundance of righteousness, which enables them to walk straight into the kingdom of heaven, dripping with godliness, as it were. They have more than they need, actually, so much so that it spills onto the floor as leftovers.

We, as Christians and the more direct audience of Luke’s Gospel, are in the same place. We are recipients of God’s overabundant gift of righteousness. Through Jesus Christ, God has given us more righteousness than we could ever possibly use. The righteousness of Christ, made ours in baptism, is so much that it covers every sin we could possibly ever commit in a lifetime of sinfulness, with copious leftovers. That is one of the principles of our Lutheran faith––that there is no sin we can commit that is too big for God to overturn in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we look at the second-most important text of the Lutheran faith, at Luther’s Small Catechism, as we’re now doing in the Ladies’ Group, we see that the righteousness and grace that ushers us through the gates of heaven comes from Christ and from the Holy Spirit, and that, by the power of God, it is so abundant that it cannot possibly be overcome by our own feeble misdeeds. The righteousness God has given us through Christ is so much that “our cup overfloweth.”

The question then becomes: given that God has gifted us with this overabundance of Christ’s righteousness and grace, more than we could possibly use, like the rich man’s table that spills over onto the floor leaving food everywhere, what do we do with the extra?

It turns out that God is actually very particular about leftovers. When God blesses us, it is always with the assumption that we will share it with others, and so God always gives us more than what we need for ourselves. In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy, there’s an understanding that God blesses the farmer with crops, and that the farmer pays it forward, if you will, by harvesting only a portion of it. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien.” [Lev 19:9-10] The remainder of the crops are meant to be leftovers, to be harvested by hungry individuals who have no food of their own, but who know that they can pick the edges of any farmer’s crops. This is the basis of the story of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz, when Ruth goes to the neighbourhood fields to pick up the leftovers, and meets Boaz. This was standard practice in Israel––that the rich should take only what they need, and leave the leftovers for the poor, so that all would have enough. If God were a mom, she wouldn’t say, “Finish everything on your plate because there are starving children in the world.” She would say, “Leave something on your plate and go find those starving children and give them the rest.” God wants us to share the leftovers.

And so we have in the story of Lazarus this anonymous man who has so much extra that it’s falling onto the floor. And what does he do about it? He builds gates to protect his leftovers. “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.” The rich man built walls and a gate around his property so that the poor couldn’t come to his fields or his house or his table and survive off his leftovers. He stuffed himself and hoarded the leftovers that God had given him to share.
And so, of course, I have to ask, what are the ways in which we hoard what God has given us? Specifically, what are the ways in which we hoard the righteousness and grace and love that God has given us?

Because I’m convinced that we do this. That we hoard God’s grace, and that, as Christians, we build walls and erect gates to keep for ourselves the gifts of forgiveness and righteousness that we have more than enough of. I’m not sure why we do it, although if I were to guess it would be because we’re not truly convinced that God really is that gracious and we’re always a little bit worried it will be taken away from us. I do know, though, that, for whatever reason, we do build these gates. Our Christian history is full of putting up gates that keep others out. We put up gates of doctrine: we say, you have to believe certain things about Christ and about Communion in order to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Make no mistake, having an open table at Communion as we do here is relatively recent, and not practiced everywhere. We know that some of our Christian neighbours erect gates of doctrine that keep others away from the grace of Holy Communion. We’ve been some of the ones lying at those gates longing for the crumbs from their table. We know that pain and yet we still erect our own gates: a previous pastor of this church told a church member that their spouse couldn’t have a Lutheran funeral if they were going to include symbols of a non-religious group they belonged to. That pastor was following this church’s constitution in that respect, but it was a gate that kept that family from having the funeral in the church. And that family never came back. The doctrinal gate we built kept them from the peace that Christ brings to those who are mourning, a peace God has given us to share.

We erect gates of behaviour: for instance, you have to go to church every Sunday to be a good Christian. I know that at least one pastor in the history of St. John has said that to people. Some of those people didn’t come back. In the old days, a gate was erected that said you have to be confirmed to have Communion. We erect other gates, like you have to wear the right kind of clothes, or you have to look as if you’ve combed your hair or showered to be at church, as if God’s gift of righteousness is dependent upon what we wear or the respectability of our appearance.

And of course, we erect gates of faith: we say, you don’t belong in God’s kingdom if you don’t believe what we do. You don’t belong in God’s house, and you don’t deserve Christ’s forgiveness, if you’re not a Christian. We, who are guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom, who are showered with righteousness and forgiveness and grace, turn to those around us who are spiritually starving and say, “Keep out. This righteousness is not yours.” And then we wonder why no one comes to church anymore.

But here is something to remember. Gates cannot contain the abundance of God’s righteousness. Gates cannot hold God’s grace and mercy from spilling out everywhere. Not our gates, not others’ gates. God’s abundance overruns gates entirely. We don’t need to hoard God’s love for us because it’s never going to run out. There is more than enough for everyone. As Paul says in our reading this morning from 1st Timothy, “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.” [1 Timothy 6:17] It doesn’t matter what gates we put up to keep God’s righteousness for ourselves, or what gates others’ put up to keep us out, none of these will stand in the face of God’s love for us, or in the face of the forgiveness and mercy and grace that Christ’s death and resurrection has bought for us and the whole world.

We are rich with God’s love for the world. We are draped in mercy and we feast sumptuously on God’s grace every day. Shall we not freely share this love and forgiveness and righteousness with all around us? Those whose spirits are poor, whose lives are impoverished when it comes to love, those who are desperate for even the crumbs of God’s love? Shall we put up gates that can only be opened with the right beliefs or the right behaviour or the right confession of faith? Or shall we instead do as Christ has so graciously done: throw open the gates, and welcome everyone not to the leftovers but to the table itself to feast on the abundant mercy and love that God has granted to all people. As Christ has done, let us do also. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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