September 25, 2016
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Prior to today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has been debating with the Pharisees. He is telling parables in an effort to help them understand that he has come to offer the world a new kind of power... a power that comes with weakness, vulnerability, humility... He has told them about a shrewd manager, about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and then about a lost son who left home and came back to a father’s welcome.
Jesus has been telling these stories, hoping that the Pharisees and the scribes will have a change of perspective – hoping that they will begin to see the world in a new way. And still, even after all these compelling, provocative stories, they have not yet seen him as the One who represents the God of small things... So now he tells this story of the rich man and Lazarus, offering them an opportunity to see themselves, and the world around them, in a new way.
Let’s listen for God’s word....
Jesus said, "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 named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house - for I have five brothers - that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'" Luke 16:19-31
The underlying message in each of our readings this morning (even this Gospel which we have just heard – believe it or not) is hope. As individuals we know what it is to feel small – powerless – overwhelmed with some of the challenges with which we are confronted throughout the course of our lives. Each of us – I am sure -comes here today with a mixture of joy and sorrow. The joy for which we are to be thankful is to be celebrated, but often it is more difficult to know what to do with the sorrow.
Some here may be worried about children/grandchildren/parents/grandparents/friends – and feeling helpless/powerless in terms of making a difference. Some may be facing the realities of getting older – and grieving the loss of loved ones, physical mobility, the ability to do those things that once were possible. Others may be struggling with various other issues related to health. Some may be struggling with job security/financial security, and the potentially terrifying challenge of searching for work. Some here may be experiencing the breakdown of a relationship, or relationships that once seemed strong but now are a thing of the past. Some here may be maneuvering through challenges (and opportunities) in the midst of huge changes. And, of course, on a larger scale, we recognize that this culture in which we live is currently facing challenges and concerns that seem daunting at times.
Lots is currently being written and published on the face that we are a culture that is driven by fear. Fear of those different from ourselves – fear of the stranger. And, of course, globally, that ‘fear’ factor has become hugely intensified since 9/11. We live with concerns about our environment - this parish continues to contribute greatly where creation care is concerned. So, individually and collectively, we know what it is to experience struggles and challenges. And the Good News is that our readings this morning offer profound hope in the midst of all this.
Our first reading takes place in the midst of extremely challenging times. The army of the Babylonian King is invading Jerusalem, and the consequences of this invasion promise to be devastating for the Israelite people. They will lose their homes and their land – and they will soon find themselves in exile in the midst of a strange land. The prophet Jeremiah himself is under arrest (he may be in protective custody, but more likely is actually under arrest) – and is being held in the court of the palace guard. The prophet, Jeremiah, had been warning that this was coming – and challenging the Israelite people to change their ways in order to turn things around – so it seems that locking him up was a way of silencing his voice. My heart has always ached for Jeremiah, because what he has anticipated is now coming to pass; yet it means destruction for the people that he deeply loves; the people for whom God himself grieves.
Jeremiah’s own personal safety would also be at risk, because when the Babylonians descend upon Jerusalem the first place they will likely attack is the palace where he is being held. But it is at this time and in this situation that the word of God comes to Jeremiah once again. This time, instead of impending doom, Jeremiah is told by God that his cousin Hanamel will come and ask him to take over his field back home. The whole episode of Jeremiah buying the field from his cousin is based on “the law of redemption”. This law states that, if any property or person within the family is unable to keep their land it is the duty of the most senior family member to make sure it stays within that family. So, since Hanamel is financially unable to keep his land, he does make the visit to Jeremiah, asking to transfer it over to him. And Jeremiah agrees to this request. Much of what follows is a detailed description of the legal procedure to ensure that this agreement has been made along with a way of protecting the legal documents so that this agreement is available and clear to the generations to follow.
This story, on the surface, seems full of contradictions. Jeremiah, imprisoned for warning the Israelite people of the Babylonians invasion – warning them, in effect, that they are about to lose everything (their homes / their land) and become exiles in a strange land – then agrees to buy his cousin’s land. This simply makes no practical sense. I would suggest that short term real estate investment is not Jeremiah’s strong suit. His purchase of this land is highly illogical. But here’s the rub. It conveys a profound message of hope. The God of Israel has promised that there will be a future for the Israelite people.
Yes, this moment in time is beyond distressing – yes, this moment in time will continue to devastate future generations – but this ever-present God is with them in that moment – and promising hope that will rise beyond it. Jeremiah’s purchase of that land is born out of his own trust in this ever-present God, and also becomes an expression of hope for the Israelite people.
Everything about this passage makes particular sense with the final words, “For thus says the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Yes, this is a tough moment in the life of Israel, but as I (God) have promised all along, my people will know a more promising future.
And this message of hope is further conveyed in our Psalm this morning, where we are reminded that the God we worship shelters us; offers us refuge and protection; frees us from our fears; that we are bound to this astonishing God in love, who stays with us and holds us in times of trouble. Here we are reminded that God will in fact protect those who put their trust in Him. The language of trust provides important commentary on hope. Someone who trusts God looks away from himself to the God who is trustworthy. This is the reason why we say that the opposite of fear is not courage but trust.
The great truth that the Psalmist is expressing in this Psalm might be summarized like this: “Ever-present God, I believe that you are good even though life does not always unfold as I might expect or hope or wish. As I commit myself whole-heartedly to you, I find the strength that holds me up in my weakness.”
So, today we gather in this place, and most likely each of us carries with us those things for which we are thankful, as well as the struggles and the challenges that are also part of the human condition. And we find here a profound message of hope. We may not be promised a lifetime free of difficult times, but we are promised the gift of a God who is absolutely ever-present (even, maybe particularly, when He/She seems terribly absent) – a God who promises new possibilities – all in the fullness of time. And, Jeremiah also teaches us today that we’re not passive in all this. Because of his own trust in this ever-present God, he made a commitment which contributed toward Israel’s future.
So we are left with the question, in the midst of our own struggles and challenges (personally and collectively) what acts of hope are we called to perform as a witness to the community around us and the generations that are yet to be born? I find myself thinking about such heroes as Terry Fox, particularly since the Terry Fox run occurred so recently. In the midst of his own agony and disappointment, he offered a profound gesture of hope; and of course, that vision has been carried on by his family and countless others.
I remember reading an article about a Church in Toronto that had to make the difficult decision to sell their building and worship at a nearby Presbyterian church. It was described as a devastating time – filled with grief. But a member of the church said, “We lost something here. And part of how you try to deal with grief is legacy and things continuing.” So, motivated by this, the congregation took the $4 million they received from selling the building – set aside some proceeds to help finance the worship in their new surroundings, and gave away the rest: $1.5 million to theological education; $700,000 to Kairos a church-based organization that works on social justice issues; $500,000 to a resource centre in a low income Toronto neighbourhood; $320,000 to the International development. Their $1 million organ they donated to an Anglican downtown church. Although the closing of their building was devastating, they have trusted an ever-present God will continue to create new possibilities. Their generosity has offered new hope to countless people.
Finally, our Gospel this morning (contrary to first appearances) is primarily about building the kingdom of God in the here and now and a living God who empowers us to faithfully live into this call. It does involve the story of a rich man and a poor man who find their places reversed in the afterlife. All too often this parable has been interpreted as a lesson about punishment in the afterlife. However, teachers such as C.S. Lewis strongly suggest that what happens to us in life after death is not something that is imposed on us, but a state of being that we choose ourselves based on how we have lived.
So, the rich man in this story desperately wants his brothers who are still living to receive a message about the importance of living their lives faithfully and well. He wants someone to tell them that they must not live their lives as he had lived his. He asks that Lazarus (the poor man) be sent to convey this message. He is told that they already have Moses and the prophets (they too had the benefit of Jeremiah’s prophetic wisdom) – they need to listen to them. But the rich man argues, “No, because if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” But then there’s this neat little – yet hugely significant – reference to Jesus, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Jesus has risen from the dead. On the cross he has entered into all the pain and devastation associated with the human condition. Through Him this ever-present God frees us – stays with us –holds us in times of trouble; offers us refuge and protection – in Him the words of the Psalmist have been fulfilled. Out of death and despair on the cross he has risen so that this ever-present God of Israel may be with us in an even more intimate way and empower us to be a people of hope – living our lives with concrete gestures that will build a future for our children, grandchildren, and all the generations that are yet to be born.
The clincher in this parable is its message of the resurrection. Through Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit we are given the strength and the power to do what needs to be done to create a new world order in which peace, justice and compassionate sharing create an environment of hope.