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Sermon for 16th Sunday after Pentecost 2019

Amos 6:1a, 4-7 Psalms 146

I Timothy 6:6-19 Luke 16:19-31

The priest was preparing a dying man for his voyage into the great beyond. Whispering firmly, the priest said, "Denounce the devil! Let him know how little you think of his evil!" The dying man said nothing. The priest repeated his order. Still the dying man said nothing. The priest asked, "Why do you refuse to denounce the devil and his evil?" The dying man said, "Until I know where I'm heading, I don't think I ought to aggravate anybody."

Today’s readings offer us the same choice. In both Luke and First Timothy, we get the “what not to do” and “what to do” in living our lives for Christ. The rich man failed to listen to Moses and the prophets. In knowing the poor man’s name, Jesus personalizes his concern for the poor man, and makes it clear that the poor man represents many of us. God cares for each poor person and is fully aware of their plight. The idea of divine evaluation and the hardness of heart dominate the story. The rich man just doesn’t get it. Lazarus has suffered. His situation is as tragic as the rich man’s is lavish.

But death is the great equalizer, since after death the one thing that counts is the human heart. Possessions and status symbols are left behind. You don’t see a u-haul trailer pulled behind the hearse. What God considers important is not written down with numbers and dollar signs. Lazarus is in, the rich man is out. Part of the rich man’s agony is knowing that God exists and knowing that he is far away from God. We see the hardness of heart in the rich man. It is not the rich man’s wealth that kept him from Abraham’s side. It is his missed opportunities to help Lazarus while he was on earth. He refused to help Lazarus.

Understanding that all is lost for him, he intercedes for his five brothers, who have similar attitudes. He pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn them. The rich man thought that his five brothers would surely believe a messenger who had been raised from the dead. Abraham’s reply is crucial in the understanding of what was said earlier to the rich man and to Luke’s readers. “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” In other words, if some one wants to understand what God asks of God’s people in terms of caring for others, he or she needs only to read the Scripture – God’s Word is clear on what God desires. Our devotion to God is seen in our caring for others. Jesus calls this “the great commandment” – love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.

How are we to view our lives in community? In First Timothy, we are charged with living our lives “to fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which we were called and for which we made the good confession.” Scholars say that this confession could be from Timothy’s baptism. Baptism is the sign and seal that one has given one’s life to following the ways of God and has “taken hold of the eternal life” to which God calls every person, the life of faith as one whom God called “beloved”. If so, to what kind of life does our baptism call us? We are called to a life of “godliness combined with contentment” (v.6). This way of life does not guarantee worldly success. In fact, Timothy is soundly warned to flee from “the love of money that is the root of all evil” – not to flee from money itself, but from the extreme desire of it, the distraction of it, the temptation of it.

I have shared before that after my father died in 2001, I began a quest to understand the difference in our lives between success and fulfillment. I came to see the difference is in how we see our gifts being used for the glory of God in the community of faith. I realized that I wasn’t being fulfilled in the way I was living my life. Those who are financially rich “in the present age” are called to “be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” (vv.17-18) so that they might stay focused on God’s ways.

We are called by our baptism to “fight the good fight of the faith” (v.12). Maintaining the faith and living that faith requires energy and commitment. A life that enduringly pursues such qualities as “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (v.11) reflects a life of faith, a life of wholeness, and total commitment to the ways of God. These ways require more than an intellectual agreement. They require more than a disciplined commitment to a set of rules. Righteousness, godliness, vision, and belief in action are qualities of life that demand the entirety of ourselves – body, mind, spirit, and heart – if they are to lead us in the ways of “faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”

The whole-life picture of gospel living is the good news that we hear today. We are to engage our full selves into following the right pathways of God. If we put our mind to something without an open heart or the introspection of the Holy Spirit, it produces empty words and hollow deeds. Any bodily skill without the direction of thought or the fire of the Holy Spirit or the feeling of our hearts turns out to be self-centered and can become destructive. Acting on the feelings of the heart without mindful intent and awareness can smother relationships with over-control. The spirit’s intuition is useless without the mind’s direction and the heart’s compass. To make “the good confession” and live into the life we are called by our baptism, to “take hold of the eternal life,” “to fight the good fight of faith” (v.12), we must be fully engaged – body, mind, spirit, and heart – to following the ways of God.

Our service to others shows something about our loyalty and love of God. We don’t earn a place in heaven by our good works, but our love of God inspires, empowers, encourages, and enables us to care for others. We love because God first loved us. We can contribute to the lives of others at a distance, but the sort of service that is mutual is usually handmade, something that happens in a deeply personal way between two people. At those times, we may come to know the true value and worth of our lives. The kind of service that transforms us the most has our fingerprints all over it. Joan Chittister writes, “To know our gifts is to know our role in life. Gifts not given, are not gifts at all. They are simply promises made but not kept. We are responsible for one another. That is the meaning of life.”

But the gifts of God, “the abundance of God’s mercy,” often require us to abandon some unhealthy behavior or attitude that we cling to. A behavior that we passionately defend. Sometimes, our preoccupation with ourselves causes emptiness. Christ has set us free from these things, but we will not claim the prize until we release the burdens. The stones that you have chosen represent those burdens, those obstacles, those distractions that are keeping you from being all that God created you to be, all that you are called to be. Feel the weight of the stone in your hand. Is it smooth from your fretfully holding on to it? Is it wet with tears of loss, frustration, anger, indifference, pain? Is the weight of it almost too much to bear?

Like the rich man, we hold on to things. We harden our hearts as we circle the wagons around what we have, what we are, who we are, and we fail to see what we can become. I ask that you ponder on what those things may be for you. I ask that you take a moment and ask God to reveal those things to you – those things that hold you back from being all that God wants you to be – those things that get in the way of your connection with God, your commitment to God. In a few moments we you come up for communion, bring your stone, your burden, your distraction and give it to the Eucharistic Ministers. They will place the stones on the altar and after communion we will prayerfully release them to God. Hold your stone, feel the weight of it…feel the possibilities in letting it go.

Madeline L’Engle wrote, “We either add to the darkness of indifference, or we light a candle to see by.” The ways and means by which people serve may vary from time to time and from culture to culture, but the nature of service has not changed since our beginning. No matter what we do, service is always a work of the heart. Perhaps hell is that place where people have forgotten to bless one another.

John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all ways that you can, in all the places that you can, to all the people you can, as long as you can.” The rich man in the hardness of his heart and the distance from God was not able to respond in love. But we can, we are able and by the grace of God, we will. What must we put aside, forgive, forget, gain perspective on, release, that we come closer to serving God with all our bodies, minds, spirits, and hearts? Amen.

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