Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray, using the words of our Catholic siblings’:
Lord Jesus, keep our lives in balance. Guide us, so that we may use and share our Godgiven wealth to benefit the poor, our families, our brothers, sisters and siblings throughout the world. May we never fail to see the many Lazarus’ in our midst. Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our siblings, who live and die in poverty and hunger. Give them, through our Spirit empowered hands, this day their daily bread, and through our embodied proclamation of your gracefilled love, give them peace and joy. And, in living out of that Divine love, provide for us all places of peace and happiness. Amen.
Beginning last week, we at St. Matthew began a sermon series called A Faith Of DARING: The Dreams We Dare to Dream. As these sermons hit the lectionary, we are spending a lot of time considering wealth. And here’s the thing; in the US, we are used to talking about dreams as personal aspirations – goals that I fulfil for myself, based on the belief that a happy me makes for a happy we. And while that is not wrong in and of itself, it has allowed a certain myopic narrowing of our vision. We have forgotten that we live in a world so deeply interconnected that there can be no me without taking care of the we. So the choice of the word “we” in the sermon series was very deliberate. Our reality and our faith have to be centred in that awareness – focused on maintaining that balance between the individual and the society in which we all move.
Each of our lessons this morning lifts up this idea of balance between the me and we of our lives. And before we go too far down a path that discounts the me in that equation, I want to lift up the fact that we worship a God who doesn’t just give proclamations through pronouncements and laws. God, repeatedly, from the moment of our creation, speaks to us personally. The building of walls or bridges isn’t solely focused on the corporate actions of Empire (although that’s certainly part of it) – but rather on the question that God asks each of us : what are you doing that builds that Empire? We must understand that the Empire doesn’t exist without our cooperation and our support. So we do have agency and power. Even at its most terrifying, individual ‘mes’ are capable of changing the ‘wes’ of Empire. As the great anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Or with humour, in a quote attributed to Betty Reese ; “If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in the dark with a mosquito.”
With this lens, we can say that God has their eye, not just on the sparrow, but even the mosquito! So the Lord believes in our ability to create change – otherwise there would be no call for individual repentance, or even worse, no possibility of that change! Yet there A LOT of Empire powers that DO want you to disbelieve in your own personal ability to change things. Empires have always spread this false narrative. The Psalmist, who wrote the 146th Psalm, was doing so at a time when the Persian Empire was the only game in town. Amy Erickson, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Illiff School of Theology in Denver, CO, writes in her commentary:
Psalm 146 is commonly dated to the Persian period. This matters because the Persian Empire developed a rhetoric that promoted its universal, imperial rule as a force of cosmic order that the many peoples of the Empire should joyfully accept. Recent scholarship … has appreciated that embedded in this material is a critique of this kind of Persian propaganda … Amid the praise of YHWH, “there is a secondary claim meant to discredit the power associated with other nations and peoples.”2
… The psalmist is not content only to critique, however; in 146:5 she offers a clear and compelling alternative. Those who whose help and hope is in YHWH are “happy.” The language of “happy are those” will, of course, [centuries later] play a key role in the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount … [But the psalms speak first.] Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked (Psalm 1:1); who take refuge in YHWH (Psalm 34:8); who do not turn to the proud (Psalm 40:4); who consider the poor (Psalm 41:1); who observe justice (Psalm 106:3); who fear YHWH, who greatly delight in [their] commandments (Psalm 112:1); who keep [YHWH’s] decrees … with their whole heart (Psalm 119:2).
Here, the “happy” are those whose look to YHWH for help rather than to princes. In contrast to human rulers, YHWH is not only powerful ([God] made heaven and earth and the sea and all the things in them), [moreover, God’s] plans are not [without substance] ([God] keeps faith forever, 146:6), and [God] is actually and truly committed to bringing justice to the oppressed and to feeding the hungry (146:7).
So when Jesus speaks to the disciples in the midst of the mighty Roman Empire, he is lifting up what the learned Pharisees already know – that the empires of the past – Babylonian, Persian and others – point us to understanding that Empires – past, present and future – are simply not built to withstand the weight of God’s concrete interaction with their people!
Thus the question moves to what does last – and that is our relationship with God. And if that relationship is the criteria for our action in the world, then we are called to preserve that loving relationship that God has established. That love is not evidenced by the gathering of personal wealth and power, but rather in the ensuring that all of creation is able to live the life that God intended for us to live. And THAT lands square back in our laps. Each of us is called to do what we can to make this God created world run the way that it should. If we fail in that charge, if we fail to be good stewards of what we have been given, then we will pay the penalty.
In the US, as well as in other cultures, the idea that wealth somehow equates to God’s blessing is so insidious that quite literally national institutions have been created that incorporate those beliefs. The assumption is made that if you are poor, you somehow deserve it. If you are sick, it was somehow your fault. If you are suffering, well, you brought it on yourself. This belief allows governments and Empires to not just ignore the needs of those who need help but to actively seek to disenfranchise them, and wall them out of the mainstream. This is where these tenets cross over into evil, because, we then as individuals, look at the suffering around us and buy into the hardness of heart that says, “Hey, I don’t have to help you; your own stupidity landed you in this position.”
The rich man in this morning’s parable appears to have bought into exactly this Empire mindset. He doesn’t even register Lazarus; Lazarus is just part of the landscape to step over on his way to the party that is his life; the life that he was blessed with; the life that clearly he was supposed to, destined to, have. Yet the faith that he professes as a Jew, that he profanes as a servant of Empire, by believing that God has given him his life and his status as a reward, rather than a privilege – is the same faith that you and I hear proclaimed to us this morning. If we are not living as servant-stewards of the gifts entrusted to us – the true owner and bestower of those gifts is going to ask us why. If we answer “well, I got all this because I deserved it and it was all for me and a result of my hard work and my dedication”, we are in for the same rude awakening that the rich man faces. God is going to look back at us and say “Huh. I entrusted you with all this stuff to do what you were called to do – make the world better for all and to take care of your neighbour.” And like the rich man, we can’t – CANNOT – say we didn’t know. We know. Prophets, preachers and proclaimers abound. We are called not to accumulate, but to share. We are called not to judge, but to serve. We are called not to close our eyes to suffering but to roll up our sleeves and enter into it.
In the Lutheran church, we were blessed with a prophet in the midst of World War Two and the rise of the Empire of the Nazi Third Reich, named Deitrich Bonhoeffer. In his book, The Way To Freedom: he writes, “They know that where there is grace proclaimed, (we) are called to “What shall I do?” because otherwise grace becomes a judgement.” Now I have often heard in my ministry, “Pastor, I come to church to be reassured, to be comforted.” Well, if you are broken and in need, I truly hope that the word of God pours through me into your wounds and blesses you with grace and peace. But there are many of us who have instead allowed the false narrative of Empire to harden our hearts and to shutter our eyes. And in that case, God’s judging word is going to come to us as a hammer and a sword, shattering our complacency and cutting the rot from our lives. The word that the rich man wants the ghostly Lazarus to carry to his family, that he thinks will be better heard through the lips of a scary dead guy – that’s the word coming to us today, throughout the lips of a pretty darned impressive resurrected from the dead Lord! Jesus, in this parable, calls us to be the mosquitos, the committed few, who will say to the Empire beliefs of this world – you are wrong! The stuff isn’t what matters – the one with the most toys at the end does NOT win! Rather, when we arrive in heaven, the measure of our success will be – “how well did we share that stuff?” How hard did we work to ensure that everybody had a toy? That all people could trust that their work and contribution would be counted, recognised and encouraged? If we don’t have a good answer for that, quite frankly we will be looking up, finally understanding what our lives were always supposed to be.
This DARING faith we profess, speaks to us of debts forgiven, and that IS great good news! But the Word of God does not end there; it continues speaking – calling us, not the enforce the laws and ethics of Empire, but to instead live the grace of Divine love. Our living of God’s grace-filled love has to include access, invitation and welcome for all – or we will find ourselves in the situation Paul warns against:
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. 10For 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. 11But as for you, child of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called.
This morning, we are reminded of that call to turn from the temptations of building Empire walls of wealth and privilege, and to attend to the building of bridges of gracefilled access for ALL people to enter the Kindom of God. Doing that is not safe, yet we are not called to be safe. We are called to be the hands of God in service to our neighbours.