A sermon preached by Assistant Curate, Rev Richard Hutchins on 29 September 2019
Amos 6: 1a, 4-7. 1 Timothy 6:6-19. Luke 16:19-31
Reading through today’s texts, mulling them over and pondering what meaning the Holy Spirit might want to bring to each of us this morning – all of that sermon preparation has made me deeply aware of just how much I need to hear something on this subject myself!! A mentor of mine was given a topic on prayer to deliver at the New Wine summer conference this year; and he confessed to me that when he received the topic, he would have much rather gone to listen to something on that subject…but instead there he was having to prepare something to say about it. I feel pretty much the same this morning. Preparing something out of weakness is a rightly humbling place to be, believe me.
I am sure there will be a range of reactions to these readings and my thoughts on them this morning – if you are one of those that finds it uncomfortable listening will you give space to the possibility that this might just be the Holy Spirit prompting? And in prompting that to take a bit of time, in a bit of stillness, to respond.
The book of Amos as a whole speaks in terms of God’s judgements on Israel. It is worth highlighting that at the time of Amos God’s people had split into two factions – those of Judah in the south, and those of Israel to the North. Different kings, different religious practices, different lots of things – and they didn’t necessarily get along with each other at all. Amos the prophet had come from the southern state – to tell the northern peoples what was in store for them; not necessarily a popular thing to do!!
Underlying everything that was headed Israel’s way was a departure from justice, and a departure from caring for the whole of society. In this reading from Amos we hear of the self-satisfied, who feel safe in their wealth and in their disregard for the weak – lying on beds of ivory and lounging on couches, while eating, drinking and frankly making merry. Amos the prophet came to hold a mirror up to what they had become, and to say that this was unacceptable to the Lord. In fact, just before this passage you can read in Chapter 5 that the Lord had stopped accepting their religious sacrifices and offerings – has in effect turned away from all of those trappings – waiting for justice to “roll down like waters, and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream”.
The reality is that, as a collective, Israel in comfort and wealth had become blind to the plight of the needy – and had moved into an exploitative position. I suspect this blindness is an easy thing to suffer from; it is very easy to point away from ourselves in things like this – to say that we could be nothing like that, that couldn’t possibly be me…could it?
Our Gospel speaks to this as well – with a rich man who never even noticed Lazarus at his gate. There is nothing specifically wicked spoken about this rich guy – he was just blind to what was about him, until it was too late to do anything about it. Earlier this week at a Bishop’s Study Day, Reverend Sam Wells from St. Martin in the Fields church in Trafalgar gave us an important reminder that the parables are not morality tales, like Aesop’s fables. No, the parables tell us about Jesus, and they tell us about the Kingdom of God and with that in mind we can discount the notion that this parable is a specific picture of the afterlife.
This parable was directed to a group of Pharisees who were taking the mickey out of Jesus, because just beforehand he had been pointing out to them that you can’t serve two masters; we choose who we love and pursue with our energy, whether that is God or money (or any other distraction such as power). This is the only parable of Jesus where a character is named, the poor man, Lazarus, who is given centre stage and personality, rather than the nameless, faceless rich man. Both die and the rich man is buried, but by contrast Lazarus is carried away by angels to be with Abraham, father to the Jews – and our father in faith by adoption through Christ.
Even after death, the rich man in this tale maintains his haughty and arrogant attitude to Lazarus, asking Abraham to send him on a variety of errands like some lackey! Abraham is quick to point out that the rich man had all good things in mortality but now things have changed and the good things in immortality belong to Lazarus. The crux comes when the man asks for Lazarus to be sent back to his family, but
Abraham responds that the family have all the information that they need already to change, through Moses and the prophets; in other words, in the Scriptures. I do wonder whether the name Jesus chooses harks to the raising of Lazarus, his dear friend, from the dead and whether this is a really pointed message that despite all that the Pharisees still won’t listen…and are completely blind to what, to who, is right in front of them.
I know within myself that it is all too easy to fall into a Pharisaic trap, to nod in agreement with moral and ethical challenges, with biblical challenges and say “thank goodness I am better than that”…or “that’s so true, and I’m glad that isn’t how I behave – that’s not who I am!!”. In the subject area of our Bible passages today to forget the fact that 10% of the world population control 84% of all wealth, and most of us here will fall into the 10% bracket, even if we don’t feel that wealthy.
The Lazarus parable seems to be about individual approaches to riches and blessing, but it is important to recognise that the Old Testament reading in Amos shows that this is also a collective thing. We can be individually blind to inequality and injustice, but we can also do this “turning a blind eye” collectively. Last week Chris spoke about us being living stones, built into the house of God wherever we are. Another description of the people of God that I know Chris considered using was that of the body of Christ. As that body we gather together and with our gifts, time and resources form the living, incarnate presence of Christ for those around us. This means that everything we hear about wealth in our readings today applies to us as the gathered body of Christ just as much as to us as individuals.
How we go about this is really important, because this is our discipleship; how we act puts on display the reality of our faith (or otherwise). There are three short phrases in our mission at St. Mary’s, drawn from a teaching series on discipleship that we shared last year during Lent – a series of talks from a chap called John Mark Comer. He characterised our discipleship, our apprenticeship, in the three short phrases “Be with Jesus, Become like Jesus, Do what Jesus did” – and indeed Chris reminded us of this just last week. Recently someone said to me words to the effect of “Oh that, that’s just a strapline”. I have to say I was appalled to hear that, because it means that something fundamental to us as church just hasn’t sunk in!!
These words are no mere strapline; catchy meaningless phrase; hollow waste of empty breath. Those few words encompass a discipleship journey, without which it is doubtful that we inhabit the truth of the word Christian – it is as serious as that. If that sounds overly harsh I am not particularly apologetic – because if our lives individually and our life together as church is not one that is grounded on Jesus, characterised by honest discipleship, apprenticeship, then I fear that we are not really representative of the reality that our incarnate Lord came to teach about and to live out. Discipleship is challenging to us in our sinful fleshiness, and that challenge is well-described in those few words of our mission
This brings us to Paul’s words in the letter to Timothy, starting with the middle bit – some pastoral advice to Timothy on how to live. “…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness…” Paul says; could this be “become like Jesus”. “…in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus…”; that sounds a bit like “be with Jesus” to me. “…fight the good fight…” and “…keep the commandment without spot or blame…” says Paul; “do what Jesus did” perhaps?
The phrase “fight the good fight” refers to an athletic context – it is an instruction to train continuously, to strive continuously. Recalling the discipleship teaching of John Mark Comer, he asked “how do you run a marathon?”. Do you just get up one morning and run 26 and a bit miles? No, you start with a short distance and run regularly, training your body and then increase a bit at a time until one day, running a marathon comes into the realm of the possible; and hand-in-hand with that training goes diet, the shape of ones day; it is a whole life thing. Paul exhorts Timothy to make righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness his habit, his way of life, his training regime, apprenticeship, discipleship. This is an antidote to something – because Paul starts this pastoral advice with the words “Shun all this” – shun what?
The words that precede today’s epistle make clear that Paul was warning Timothy about teachers who were coming with a perverted Gospel, a populist Gospel with the intent of making money. This smacks of the all-too-familiar prosperity gospel that is alive and well in many places today – alive and well in televangelists calling for money for private jets, even today, in exchange for blessings; not too far removed from the concept of indulgences with the Roman Catholic church that stirred up the beginnings of the Reformation!! While this is the central target of Paul’s warning, he is more encompassing in his message about those who seek wealth as the main thing. The familiar, proverb-like words “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” follow on from a warning that “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”. This is all about desires, priorities, what or who is our master. It is about whom we disciple ourselves to – and remember, this is about our corporate discipleship as well as our individual journey.
I think it is quite easy to misread Paul’s warning of temptation for the rich, as holding consequences only for the tempted. The original Greek text makes it clear that is actually a wider group of “their people” who are plunged into these desperate conditions. The desire for riches plunges all sorts of people into ruin and destruction. This feels so important in the contemporary context because of its truth – and we (well certainly I) can fall so easily into the trap that this represents. Remember that most of us are in the 10% that holds 84% of world wealth – and yet how often do I seek out that bargain, that thing that is cheaper than it really should be…manufactured on the back of low, even poverty-level wages; sourced unjustly, unethically even; and it is not as though I turn a blind eye to something I am consciously aware of – I just become blind to it!! Or blind to the impact of my consumption on people who have very little. I sense, in news reports of plastic mountains in all sorts of places, that we are just starting to become aware of the impact of our richness on the people laying at our gates in global terms. I pray that I am the worst in this and that you are all much more conscious and conscientious than I am – and I pray that I will be better at keeping my eyes open.
Paul gives sound advice to those that are already rich, already wealthy, in the last few verses of our Timothy reading. If we are part of that top 10% in world wealth this is sound advice individually, but it is also definitely sound advice to us together because as far as churches go, we are definitely not amongst the poor! What is that advice to us corporately? We should not be haughty, should not look down on churches that struggle financially; perhaps this might be reflected in our attitude to giving our Parish Share? We are called not to put our hopes in riches; this is almost certainly a new reality to face as the comfort blanket of investments and their dividend contribution to our financial well-being together is substantially trimmed through the re-ordering. What about positive advice? To do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share? This is about our attitudes towards, and what we do with, our gifts, time and resources. There is an individual side to that, which is each of our own private business, between us, our conscience and God – a space where we have to rely on the sometimes-uncomfortable presence of the Holy Spirit to prompt.
But these are also things we are called to together – and I hope we have the opportunity in this season to examine how we are doing together with each of these things. While we are temporarily displaced (in exile if you want) might this be a golden time for taking stock of our character as that body – of how we behave and act corporately? And to look at how we, individually, are influencing the rest of the body? To take time to encourage one another where we are genuinely doing well, and to challenge each other to change together where we could do a bit more. Because “be with Jesus, become like Jesus, do what Jesus did” is not just about individual apprenticeship to Jesus, but is also about our discipleship as a community.
I want to give a few minutes to respond to what you have heard about our collective discipleship and the importance that our attitudes to gifts, time and resources play in that – as well as to our individual apprenticeship to Jesus. In a very few minutes of silence I invite you just to “be with Jesus”, to listen for the prompting of the Holy Spirit – to be encouraged where we are in the right place, and to hear guidance in areas where we are not yet there. A few quiet moments just to be with Jesus before we continue towards that memorial of the ultimate generosity from the one who had everything, in our Holy Communion together.