Sunday, September 26, 2004

Sermon: Pentecost 17 - Year C

Kevin Powell
Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd
Pentecost 17 – Year C
September 26, 2004

In an Associated Press article the writer interviewed a man named Randy Baines. As it turns out, Baines lived in the same long-term hotel in Boyton Beach, Florida, in the summer of 2000 with one of the 9/11 highjackers, a man who called himself Waleed Alsheri. The two talked frequently and chatted about football and baseball, particularly the Florida Marlins. Alsheri seemed to be a real Marlins fan. “He was a really nice guy, very hospitable,” reports Baines, a 48-year-old carpenter. “But if he was involved in one of those plane crashes, I hope he goes to hell.” (From Why Not Send Lazarus? By Frank Honneycutt)

Who do you hope goes to hell? Who is on your short list? Osama Bin Laden? Child abusers? Murderers? The neighbour next door that lets his dog bark all night? Hell has taken a centre stage in our religious imaginations and has dominated much of our theological discourse.

But it may surprise you to learn that the bible doesn’t talk a whole lot about Hell. The OT is virtually silent on the issue. Much of the OT talks about Sheol, which means a shadowy place below. No torment or bliss, just a place where people go rest. Both good and evil. Hell is introduced in the NT and the word that Jesus often used for it is “gehenna” referring to a place just outside the city where people burned their trash.

But here Jesus was clearly talking about a place. And a rich man goes there because he a tripped over the poor man named Lazarus everyday sitting just outside his house, ignoring the obvious pain Lazarus was in.

I don’t know about you but this story haunts me every time I’m downtown and I see a drunken person passed out in a doorway. Should I step in and get involved? Should I wake him and find him some food? Should I call the police so they can deal with him? I guess this story doesn’t trouble me as much as it should because, like the rich man, I step over the anonymous drunk on the sidewalk, and hustle down the street on my merry little way, trying to think of something spiritual to say for Sunday’s sermon.

But Jesus seems to be telling us that if we ignore this person, we do so at our own peril. Because if we keep our ears perked, we will hear nothing from him about Hell as a consequence of lack in belief in Jesus, nor do we hear anything about the sins we tend to think about most often, namely sins of the flesh, as the most condemning. The rich man didn’t go to Hell because he was lax in his moral hygiene, slack in his daily devotions, or even because he didn’t have a relationship with Jesus. This story, the only story we have where Jesus actually talks openly about Hell and who goes there, he talks about the rich man ending up in Hell because he was indifferent to poor people.

But if we listen even more closely, we will hear that this isn’t even a story about Hell or the afterlife at all. This story is about this life. Jesus wasn’t threatening his listeners with eternal damnation for having too much money. This wasn’t about the personal perils of riches. This story is about how we treat one other with regards to money. And I think, speaks clearly to how we relate to money in our lives. Although such a story might be easier if Jesus were talking about personal morality.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts a clarifying mirror to many of our faces when she says,

“On the whole it is easier for me to dodge charges of personal immorality than to dodge charges of social injustice. As long as I can manage to stay in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage I can enter into discussions about adultery, homosexuality, and divorce with all the sound and fury that I want because it’s not likely that the discussion will require me to change anything. But switch the subject to money, as Jesus himself did, over and over again, and I may become quiet. Because I have a lot of money. If we’re going to talk about wealth, how we get it, how we spend it, and what it tells us about the gods we really worship, than I’m probably not going to get out of the room without hearing a call to repentance. Could we change the subject back to sex, please.” (BBT, Bible Lecture)

But, of course, Jesus, ignoring our middle-class discomfort with conflict, keeps turning the discussion away from sex back to money, whether we want it to or not.

But we might protest and say, “Jesus, we know you’re strong on spiritual matters, but you’ve obviously never studied economics. Making the poor dependant on charity only ruins whatever hope they have of getting up on their own two feet. By helping the poor, we’re hurting the poor. Sometimes some tough-love is needed with these people.”

But Jesus, unmoved by our justifications, may point to the single mom who lost her welfare cheque because her teenage daughter got a part-time job after school at Burger King. How is that helping her? Jesus may point to the 30 000 children under five who die each day from malnutrition and hunger-related diseases. Is that what you call ‘tough love’? He may point to developing countries being crushed under a debt load that’s been paid off many times over but the interest keeps compounding, offering no hope of relief. How can they get back on their own two feet?

On the other hand he may point out how multi-million dollar hockey players protest salary caps while 20 percent of Canadian children go to school hungry. Jesus may open the newspaper and point out, that genocide and atrocities are happening in Sudan but there were more reports of Britney Spears wedding then of the bloodshed in Darfur. Jesus then may lower his eyes and speak of the widening gulf between the richest and the poorest people in the world. “This is not about politics,” he would say. “This is not even about economics. I don’t care how money is distributed because the kingdom of God has nothing to do with money. But this is about right and wrong, this is about loving your neighbour, this is about how we treat one another. And I would remind you that, “where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”

Jesus may then point out to us that we don’t lack the resources, tools, talent, or brain-power to deal with the problems crushing humanity, we lack the will.

My friend Kevin Little, the minister at Mackay United Church in Ottawa tells of when he was a university student at Dalhousie and he I had a professor named George Grant, whom many of you who’ve studied philosophy might have heard of. “[Grant] asked us to read the four gospels and give our impressions. I thought this odd, given that the course was a philosophy credit. What struck me then as a 17 year old was how the people that didn't matter in the Roman Empire, to the Religious authorities, to us today, were the ones who mattered most to Jesus.

“Grant asked us a bold question. He asked us, who were the campus do-gooders, to account for our actions, why did we care so much about others? Some offered up the possibility that it was an innate human quality. Grant quickly dismissed this. Clearly, unlike animal life, our passions to sacrifice often took us to lengths well beyond a mother and her young. "How do you account for that" he would ask. Some thought self-interest. After all if you look after others, they'll be inclined to look after you. "Pretty cold" said Grant. He reminded us that Nietzsche had pretty much refuted that argument, that the strong would eventually resent the weak and how they sap resources that could be used to further their great visions.

“In the end the only convincing answer was that something, someone, had willed a reality for us as humans that could not be reasoned or debated, it just was. That we are all equal cannot be proved. It just is. And we know this from our baptism. We know this from the one who gives our chaotic world a purpose. We know this because when we look in the eyes of our neighbour we glimpse a reflection of what the experience of God is.”

I think he’s right.

We may lack the will to tackle the world’s greatest problems, but God doesn’t. I often wonder if looking for political solutions to resolve the terrors of poverty, hunger, war, and whatever else is causing chaos in the world is really the answer. While I have a more than a passing interest in politics and the bible talks about Christians supporting their leaders because doing so leads to peaceable living, the bible is also not naïve to the dangers of power. Even if we elect the right people and enact the correct policies, the kingdom of God will not arrive. The kingdom cannot be legislated. Governments change. Policies evolve. But the kingdom of God remains the same. The Kingdom of justice, the kingdom of peace, the kingdom where the poor, the sick, the suffering, and the neglected, take their place at the head of the table.

Can we build this kingdom? No, but God asks us to keep it in our vision, to remember that our baptismal calling is always to keeping learning how to follow Jesus. We learn by living, sharing, daring, tearing down fences, challenging our pre-conceived notions about how the world works, and being transformed by the power of God’s compassion, we then discover the kingdom that Jesus was talking about and our lives begin to reflect the kind of love that God has for the world – a love that suffers, a love that liberates.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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