Year C — The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)

Commentary for September 29, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
The things that God asks of us don’t always seem to make sense — at least in the moment. Why would Jeremiah buy a field and then go through the elaborate ceremony with the deeds and the pot in front of the crowd gathered around the king’s palace?

“Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land,” said he. I’m sure there were more than a few head scratches. But, J-man knows times are about to get really tough — the people will be carried away into captivity in Babylon. Even so, in the midst of God’s judgment, there is a plan for redemption.

It’s the gospel, I tell ya’!

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
Fowler’s snares and deadly pestilence make apt metaphors when you are surrounded by the armies of a foreign power, bent on your destruction. But, God has not forgotten — and will not forget — God’s people!

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Having plenty to eat and singing along with the harp aren’t necessarily bad things — unless they distract you from paying attention to those in need. 

Psalm 146
There will come a day — no matter how healthy you are or rich you are or powerful you are — when you will draw your last breath and your time here will be done. What of your life will last? What matters when you put such a perspective into view?

The LORD reigns forever, the psalmist says; you might want to think about casting your lot in that general direction.

1 Timothy 6:6-19
Another pop quiz from the Apostle: how much of the stuff you manage to accumulate during your lifetime will you carry with you when you die?

The real treasure is to be found “over there” — on the other side of this life. In order to be rich there, here’s a list for the here-and-now: do good, be rich in good works, be generous, and be ready to share. 

Luke 16:19-31
The Rich Man and Lazarus. Boy, oh boy — lots of hay has been made in the pulpit with this story!

I don’t necessarily think this text is so much about eternal destiny as it is about “those who get it and those who don’t.” Are there ways in which our lives — and our lifestyles — are screaming so loud that we can’t really hear what God is trying to say to us? Will we reach a point with the Lord some day at which we will say, “Well, if you had only let me know, I would have been glad to live for you?”

Will God simply have to shake His/Her/God’s head and heave an Almighty sigh?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Many times we hear about such and such a pastor as being GIFTED. He has so many gifts for ministry; she is a gifted speaker, or musician, or counselor; he has the gift of leadership, etc. and I applaud and revel in their giftedness. So many people have so many gifts that I don’t have and that I envy. 

Singing, for instance. Not only do I wish I could sing; other people wish I could sing too. Being creative with Liturgy. Wow, I wish I could do that. I’m a setting One, Two or Three, pick three hymns kind of pastor. I don’t have the gift of being creative with liturgy.

But it’s important to remember why we pastors have been given our gifts for ministry. We have received these gifts not for ourselves, not for our own enjoyment and not so that we can be praised and lauded for having these gifts.

We have received these gifts for the benefit of the church, for serving God by serving the world, for preaching and teaching, for spreading the Good News of Christ to the world.

The difficulty of this task is revealed to us in our reading from Luke’s Gospel, in the very last line, where Jesus tells the rich man in Hell, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even someone rises from the dead.”

Well someone did rise from the dead, and many are still quite unconvinced, and we, the pastors and the people of the church, still find ourselves talking to people so enamored of their stuff that they are unable to hear the word of truth.

The first part of our text, verses 19 through 26, is a familiar middle eastern folk tale. In the modern world, we recycle jokes and urban legends. Names, professions, locations change but the point is always the same. In Jesus’ world they recycled these folk stories, and when a good story teller started to tell one, everyone settled in to see how well he told it, what clever riffs he used. Here in Nashville, we might think of a singer making an old standard song her own by singing it in a unique way. Creativity grew out of the art of adapting the story, not in creating a totally new one. So as Jesus began the story, everyone knew where he was going, they just weren’t sure how he was going to get there. 

The rich man/poor man reversal in the afterlife was a familiar moralistic tale; often used to shame the rich into being more generous to the poor. So when the rich man sees Lazarus in the “bosom of Abraham,” and cries out for mercy, everyone is ready for the discussion of the finality of Hell, the great chasm that has been established and can’t be crossed, etc.

What they are not prepared for is the next part, New Testament Scholar NT Wright says, “In the usual story, when someone asks permission to send a message back to the people who are still alive on earth, the permission is granted. Here, it isn’t; and the sharp ending of the story points beyond itself to all sorts of questions. . . “ (Luke for Everyone, p.200)

Jesus’ story was aimed at some familiar targets: those who think that being rich is a reward from God and proof of their goodness and those who think that poverty is largely deserved and either divine punishment for evil or just desserts for those who seem able to work but aren’t very successful at it.

These words are also aimed by Luke at the early church, the first tellers of the Good News of Jesus, to remind them of the difficulty of their task. The people of Israel had had Moses and the Prophets, revealed words from God, for a thousand years and many were still sinful and in need of repentance. Just adding the Resurrection of Jesus to the story didn’t make it easier for people to accept, believe and live out; indeed, for most people it made it harder.

Our calling as a community of faith is to take the old, old familiar story of God and sin and rescue and rebellion and death and resurrection; a story that has been told so often that many no longer listen, or if they listen, they think they know what it means and how it’s going to turn out.

We are called to take that story and like Jesus, tell it in new ways, with surprising endings. We are called to tell that story to this generation, to people in the 21st century.

We are called to aim the story at the spiritual needs of people living now, in this time of richness and poorness, in this age of technology and social networking and the collective national attention span of a gnat.

We are called to bring the great truths of Moses and the prophets to people on this side of the grave, so that they will hear the call to repent, to turn, to change, to bring their lives into alignment with God’s will and God’s way. 

I started my career as a pastor in three little churches in rural NC. Wood-frame buildings on isolated dirt roads, a few dozen farmers and shop-owners and their children and grand-children who drove out on Sundays from the cities to visit the folks and go to church. One weekday noon I went into a church member’s place of business for lunch: Alvis Brigg’s Bar-B-Q.  

As I walked in, a Briggs grandchild, a boy about 4 years old, spotted me.  He stood up in the booth where he was sitting and yelled out, “Hello . . . ” and then he was silent, because he couldn’t remember where he knew me from. He tried a couple more times, “HELLO . . . ” then silence and meditation, “HELLO . . .” again, and more thoughtful silence.  By this time everyone in the room was quiet and looking back and forth between the boy and me. Finally his face brightened and he shouted, HELLO CHURCH!” 

We are called to remember who we are as God’s people, and to remember what we  have to say and  we are to say it and do it in such a way that when people see us coming, they will shout in their hearts, “HELLO CHURCH!”

Amen and Amen.

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