Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
When I served as the pastor of a local church I often had folks in my office who wanted to know what to do about the guy on the street corner flying a sign. I’ve been part of churches who have made “blessing bags” to keep in their cars, full of items like bottled water and socks, to avoid passing cash to the homeless that live on the streets of our town. (Because, you know, drugs and stuff). I have had folks confess to me that the only reason they give money to the man or woman they pass on the corner is out of guilt, but they know deep down that their $5 bill is more about them feeling good than helping the poor. I suspect that you go to church with folks who are wrestling with many of these same questions. You might even be asking these questions yourself.
The same folks who want to know how to respond to the Lazarus they pass on their way to work will be the same folks to whom you will likely preach a sermon (or four) on stewardship and generosity this fall. ‘Tis the season, right? It’s the season when we invite our folks to lay pledge cards printed on card stock on the altar rails of our churches; the season when we will carefully craft our “asks” as we invite folks to “step up” to new levels of giving.
I suspect that most folks in our pews are already prepared for these appeals. It’s hard for me to be moved by appeals to generosity or faithful stewardship when I know that there are budgets to be funded, salaries and mission giving to pay, trustees making maintenance requests to fix old plumbing and crumbling roofs.
When I stepped away from the local church just over a year ago, I assumed that stewardship season would be one part of my job that I wouldn’t miss. Let me preach a funeral sermon every week for a year, but please don’t make me beg folks for money to pay my own salary. I hoped to experience the freedom of being able to do evangelism without that lingering suspicion in my mind that I had ulterior motives for the person in front of me.
It’s true…I don’t miss the begging for money or the sneaking suspicion of ulterior motives, but I was wrong to think that I wouldn’t miss thinking and praying with folks about stewardship and generosity.
As I read the passages of Scripture appointed for this coming Sunday I began to realize that the chance to enter into conversation with folks about their time, money, and other resources might be some of the most significant pastoral work I ever engaged in the local church. We spend a lot of time on questions that seem to have little spiritual significance. We worry a lot, it seems, about the eternal destination of everyone else’s soul, all the while missing the opportunity to have the conversation that Jesus suggestion might have a pretty significant bearing on our own.
When I imagine this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in my mind, I discover that the Rich Man is not actually as much of an evil villain as I want him to be at first glance. (You know, to distance himself from me). He’s wealthy and he works hard. His quick recognition of Father Abraham leads me to believe that he’s a religious man. I imagine that he’s in the synagogue weekly, maybe one of its biggest contributors. He sits on the board of several local non-profits.
In my mind he’s a good man, but he’s a busy man. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt. As he goes in and out of the city gates every day doing the work of his business and the synagogue, making the most of every minute, he doesn’t even see Lazarus. If he had seen, he’d at least have thrown some scraps his way.
When I picture Lazarus in my mind, he too becomes more 3-dimensional. He’s clearly poor. His body shows the wear and tear of a hard life. It’s not pretty. His presence is off-putting, even a bit scary if you don’t know his story. He sits outside the gate flying his sign where the rich men and women pass. He offers a grateful “God bless you” to those who throw a coin his way. In his mind he’s come to believe that he’s not worth much more than this leftover pocket change. He’s content with their crumbs.
This is the story of a Rich Man who is so caught up in religious and economic activity, in pursuit of “the good life” that he ends up missing it altogether. He dies in a poverty of spirit that appears irredeemable. This is the story of Lazarus, a man so caught in his poverty that he can’t even imagine what a good life might look like.
It’s a bit disconcerting for those of us charged to lead congregations of Christians into deeper faithfulness that there aren’t easy answers here. I can’t point you or anyone else to a chapter and verse that will offer proper vetting procedures to be sure your cash won’t be used on drugs. Jesus doesn’t prescribe how often folks can show up to receive food from your food pantry. There are enough parables and stories in Scripture to prove that just because someone gives the church a big chunk of money or their neighbor on the street corner $5 doesn’t mean that they are living lives marked by generosity or the love of God and neighbor.
If that’s what we’re looking for, we are left sorely disappointed by Jesus and Paul both. What we get instead is a potentially shame-inducing story about a rich man and a poor man and the vague admonition to embrace now the eternal life for which we were redeemed by Christ.
For me, that is good news. I am so very glad that Scripture does not offer a one-size fits all prescription for eternal life, or a faithfulness task list at which I will either succeed or fail each day. The people in our pews might think they want easy answers about what to put in the plate or what to give on the street corner, but all they’ll get from that kind of answer is more guilt for themselves and more ways to condemn the guy next to them.
We, friends, have something much better to offer than that.
What a privilege it is to share the gospel in a way that helps our folks give thanks for the Christ who looked upon each one of us when we approached him who owned the riches of heaven as poor and ugly beggars hoping just for some crumbs and brought us to his banqueting table. What a privilege to give thanks for the Christ who continues to invite us back even though we regularly wander away and squander the gift on the spiritual equivalent of a nickel bag.
What power there is in preaching this word from Paul to Timothy that reminds our folks caught up in the pursuit of the good life that in Christ they already have everything they need to experience full and abundant life right here, right now; that it’s not after the next raise; not after the kitchen remodel, not once the loans are paid off. It is here. It is now. It is God’s gift to us in Christ.
What hope that there are still a few folks left in this world willing to let folks like you and me into their lives to wrestle with them about the ways in which we all are tempted to love the gift more than we love the giver; the ways our human nature will cause us to hang on so tightly to the gift that we sometimes squash it, or we end up confusing the means with the ends. It’s hard, but worthwhile, to untangle in your own heart where God has given you material and financial resources so that you might become co-workers with God in the work of goodness and grace from where you have instead fallen in love with the pursuit, making this the means for which you live.
It happens, friends, even to pastors, and we need to be able to acknowledge that to one another and to our folks if there’s ever any hope for us to be transformed together. By grace we can be brave enough to start talking about the ways in which new members have become notches on our belts and stepping stones to “better” churches in less rural areas with more cultural amenities; how more pledges are means to a raise; and how we often confuse our average worship attendance with our worth as a pastor.
Can we talk about the ways in which we have traded vocation for careerism and aren’t sure how to stop working 24/7? Can we confess to one another that we have ulcers from worry and overwork? Can we name the Lazarus whom we passed by most recently because we were so busy doing work for God that forgot to do the work of God? Can we name the ways in which our own lives look so little like the abundant and eternal life to and for which we were called?
I hope so, friends. For perfect love casts out fear; God’s grace abounds; and this work in us is the work of sanctification.
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It’s a hard one. It’s stark, and cold, and doesn’t leave space for easy answers. I don’t believe that Jesus told it to shame us, but rather to capture our imaginations. It’s a gut check on our priorities and motivations. It holds the potential to transform our questions from how we will fund our church budget into questions about the nature of eternal life–now and in the age to come. This story offers us an opportunity to open our lives so that through acts of generosity, sharing, and paying attention to those whom Jesus puts in our path, we might take hold of, and share, right here and now, the life that is truly life.