Sermon – September 29, 2019 Proper 21, Year C
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
We know a former Lutheran minister who currently works as an investment advisor for Thrivent Financial. We had asked him if he would like to preach today with Barbara being away, but he was not available. For those of you who don’t know, Thrivent Financial is a Christian financial planning company that will help believers create a financial plan for their lives that reflects their Christian values. As I read today’s readings, our Lutheran friend would have been an ideal person to hear from today. But I will do my best to talk to us about how our faith should guide our money management. All of our passages today speak to this subject, with solid guidelines in understanding how our faith in Jesus ought to inform our attitude toward money and wealth.
Let’s begin with the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel reading. This is a story about a very rich man who thought very highly of himself and lived in luxury, and a very poor beggar named Lazarus, who lived in the streets outside the rich man’s house. Eventually both men died, and Lazarus was taken to be with Abraham amongst the saints, while the rich man went to torment in hell. There is a lot to unpack in this parable, and we’ll look at a few of the lessons to learn.
It is important to note that Jesus is directing his message to rich, religious folk. This is very clear in the parable. Throughout history, there have been movements within both Christianity and Judaism that teach that the most important sign that God is blessing you is if he grants you wealth and prosperity. Today, we call this the Prosperity Gospel movement. Those who propagate this teaching point to places in the Old Testament where God promises good things to those who obey him. And so, adherents of this teaching believe that if they are rich and wealthy, it is a sign of God’s blessing on their lives.
On the flip side, they also believe that the poor and downtrodden have only themselves to blame for their predicament because they too would be rich if only they were obedient to God. Even if we don’t buy into the Prosperity Gospel, this way of thinking is very tempting for those of us that are comfortable financially. We like to congratulate ourselves for our frugality and wise choices. At the same time, it is easy for us to look down on the poor as having caused their own misfortune through bad choices or laziness. And so the temptation for us is to view ourselves as self-sufficient, without any need for God, fully deserving of the fruit of our labors, and without any obligation to care for the needs of others.
This is very much the character of the rich man in today’s parable. He was focused only on himself. There are little details in the parable that amplify this impression. For example, we are told that he wore purple, which, as you may know, is historically a color reserved for royalty. This man was clearly very self-absorbed. When this man died, we are told he ended up in hell. We need to pause a moment and reflect on this. Hell is not a popular subject in contemporary America. We like to think that we are all pretty good people and that the only people who go to hell are the people that we really, really dislike.
Well, I believe that hell is real, but it is the state of being for those who are separated from the love and presence of God. Hell is where we choose to go if we choose to live apart from God. Or to put it in another way, hell is the place where we go if we are absorbed entirely in ourselves, our own wants, our own desires, and where we reject the love and presence of God. The rich man in the parable was just such a person.
Look at the rich man’s conversation with Abraham. The rich man never repents or asks for forgiveness. He remains focused only on himself, and what he can do to be made more comfortable. And look at his attitude towards Lazarus. The rich man wants Abraham to direct Lazarus to act as his servant and to bring him water to comfort him. The only time that the rich man thinks of anyone else is when he wants Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family so that they can avoid the torments of hell. Even from his place in hell, the rich man continues in the same attitude that he had on earth – he is looking out for himself and he sees Lazarus only as a tool to be used to do his bidding.
Listen to how Abraham responds to the rich man’s request to warn his family because it is full of meaning.
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Abraham first tells the rich man that his family has the Word of God, and that if they would only actually listen to what God is saying, they would seek a relationship with him and so avoid hell. But the rich man tells Abraham that his family won’t do that. Instead, he says, if someone from the dead goes to them, they will surely repent. But Abraham replies that if they will not listen to God’s word, then neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. In telling this parable, Jesus was, of course, looking forward to his own death and resurrection.
Unless we first acknowledge our sinfulness, our inability to save ourselves, and our need for God, the death and resurrection of Jesus will have no meaning for us. If we don’t think we need a savior, then why would we think it important that Jesus died for our sins? Here is the catch – if our wealth and riches have made us feel that we are self-sufficient and able to take care of ourselves – thank you very much – than we will no longer see the need for a savior. This is, I believe, the central message of this parable. All of us, rich and poor are equally in need of a savior, equally in need of a relationship with God, and are equally called to his service and the service of others.
The passage from 1 Timothy continues this teaching. Paul is writing this letter to Timothy, who was ministering to the church in Greece. Timothy was dealing with a number of people in the church, including wealthy adherents to the new faith. In the portion of his letter that we read today, Paul is giving Timothy advice on how to deal with riches and wealth. Paul begins by emphasizing the importance of attitude. He emphasizes the importance of being content with what we have. Paul grounds this in the foundational reality that applies to every person that has ever lived – “we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” Paul says that as long as we have the necessities of life, we should be content.
Paul tells us that it is actually the desire for wealth that is the problem. He writes ‘Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” It is our selfish desires that lead us into trouble. At the root of the love of money and the desire to get rich is self-centeredness and greed. It is turning away from God and the needs of others to our own desires.
Paul’s advice to Timothy on how to combat greed begins with a person’s attitude. Paul tells Timothy to “flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.” Paul doesn’t even mention money here. He knows that if someone pursues righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness, then greed will cease to be an issue. That is because these qualities all assume that you will be putting God first in your life. This is the key battle for believers, and the only one that really matters.
Once Paul has established the foundational need for believers to put God first in their lives, he turns to practical ways that wealthy believers can live obedient lives. Paul does not tell rich believers to give away all their money or suggest that possession of riches is evil. Instead, he focuses on how Christians ought to use their wealth. He writes “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”
Paul tells rich believers not to be proud in their wealth or look down on others who are less fortunate. He tells the rich not to put their hope in wealth, but instead to put their hope in God. Rich believers are called to the same humility that is called for in all believers. Rich and poor are both equally in need of Jesus Christ. Riches will not buy us a relationship with God. In our politics this week, we have read many allegations of quid pro quo – of politicians offering money and aid to pressure foreign governments to take preferred actions. Well, wealth and money won’t buy special consideration from God! There is one path only to God, and that is through Jesus Christ, and the poor and rich stand equal before him.
Rich believers are called to do good to others, to be generous and to share. In other words, they are to look at the needs of others. The rich man in the parable that we read earlier didn’t do this. He was always and only focused on himself and his needs, even after he found himself in hell. How might this rich man’s eternal destiny have been different had he noticed Lazarus at his gates and sent him leftovers from his sumptuous meals now and again?
And now let us turn to our passage from Jeremiah, in which the prophet Jeremiah buys a field from his cousin. You are probably wondering what this story can possibly tell us about handling our wealth obediently to God. As it turns out a lot. You see, God had told Jeremiah to issue a lot of doom and gloom prophecies against a wicked and corrupt kingdom of Judah. And the doom and gloom was about to come to pass as the great and mighty army of Babylon had overrun much of the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem was about to be attacked. Everyone knew what was coming. Judah was about to be conquered by the Babylonians.
And so at this time, Jeremiah’s cousin approached him, probably wanting to raise money so that he could flee to Egypt to escape the coming maelstrom. His cousin wanted to sell Jeremiah a field that had already been overrun by the Babylonian army. The Babylonians wouldn’t honor Jeremiah’s deed of ownership. Only an idiot would have agreed to buy that field. And yet God told Jeremiah to buy it. You see God was using Jeremiah once again to show the people of Judah that he would come and redeem the land even from the mighty Babylonians. And Jeremiah bought the field.
God did redeem the land. Yes, the Babylonian army did conquer the kingdom of Judah and they exiled the people to Babylon. But in Jeremiah’s lifetime, the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persian Empire and the Persian emperor Cyrus restored the Jews to their ancestral land. In the end, Jeremiah did take possession of his field. The investment, which every financial advisor ever would have told Jeremiah to run away from, turned out to be a good investment. And more than that, it was an investment that showed the glory and power of God.
Consider the lesson to us here. We need to pay attention to what God calls us to invest in, regardless of whether the secular world thinks it is a sound investment. Investing in God’s purposes will never be wasted. I think of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Galt today. If I am a secular investor, I will tell you to walk away. St. Luke’s has enough money to last another 6 years, ten years tops. The people are getting older and who knows how much longer it will be a viable congregation? No, don’t invest there. Instead, go put your money in a growth industry – maybe opioids or pornography – I hear those bring in nice profits.
Well, God still has plans for St. Luke’s. Let me tell you, the plight of Jeremiah’s field looked a lot bleaker to Jeremiah, than is the plight of St. Luke’s. Our God is a God of renewal and restoration. Even now, I have seen St. Luke’s have a powerful healing influence amongst us and in our community. That is God at work. And God is at work all around the world.
Let me conclude by summarizing some of the lessons for us from our readings. First, the problem is not wealth in of itself, but the love of wealth. Greed is one of the most powerful and insidious motivators to sinful humanity. We need to turn our focus on God and not ourselves. We need to place our wealth, along with the rest of ourselves, at God’s service. This is the key. When we develop our financial plans, it is a good thing to plan for our retirement and to make prudent decisions with our money. But these plans need to be informed by our faith in God and what he calls us to do.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago, after my brother died, my sisters and I decided to make sure that my parents’ will and affairs were all in order. I sat down with my dad and he told me that all of their estate would pass to me, my sisters and my brother’s family. Well, I pushed back to my dad and mom. I told them that their kids would all be okay, we don’t need the money. But I pointed out how important their church was to them. How supportive it had been to them through everything they had been through, how it had become like a family to them, how it had a huge financial need for a new building, how important it was for the Gospel to be preached. And I successfully talked my parents into taking away half of our inheritance. Yeah me! But I was glad, and my sisters agreed. It was important that my parents reflect their commitment to God and his church.
Second, those of us blessed with wealth and riches need to embrace humility. When we see others who are less fortunate, we should not think “well, they wouldn’t be poor if they were more like me.” Rather we ought to say “there but for the grace of God go I.” And we should respond to need accordingly. These are our brothers and sisters in need, and we are called to help them. There is not just one way to help, but we do need to wrestle with what we can do. Maybe for some it is giving to a foodbank, maybe for others to come alongside a needy family or individual, maybe for others it is giving to international aid organizations. As Christians, we should be known for our generosity.
Third, be bold to invest in the work of God. Our God specializes in giving new life to that which we think is dead or dying. He is a God of new life, redemption, healing and transformation. Remember Jeremiah’s field and ask yourself what your field will be?
Finally, when you think about your financial decisions, ask yourself what those decision say about you? What we spend our money on tells us where we place our value. What will it be shown that you value? Does your financial planning reflect God as the priority in your life? I would encourage each one of us today to think about how our financial decisions, including our wills and trusts, reflect our commitment to God and his church, both locally and around the world. In whatever way we choose to use the riches that God has given us, let us do so with God’s purposes in mind. Whatever field God puts in your path to buy, remember the story of Jeremiah. And buy that field.
Let us pray,Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor you with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.