Blowing on the Coals
2007-09-30 by Jim Somerville
Sunday afternoon may not be the best time for the preacher to talk about preaching. Either it went really well in the pulpit that morning and she thinks she’s mastered the art, or it went really badly, and she’s thinking about changing careers, or, worst of all, she may have preached a completely average sermon on a completely average Sunday to a completely average congregation, which leaves her thinking about nothing so much as the difficulty of trying to do it all again next week.
That’s where I find myself on this Sunday afternoon, and so, on a completely selfish level, I'm drawn to the passage from 2 Timothy where someone (probably not Paul) writes words of encouragement to a young minister. “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you,” he says, and as an outdoorsman I remember all those times I have tried to get a campfire going again after a night in the woods--how I gather up tiny twigs and snap them until I have a handful of dry tinder, how I look for the hot coals under the gray ash and then pile the tinder on top and start to blow, how the coals begin to glow and eventually burst into flame, and how the tinder catches fire and begins to smoke and pop. Soon I can pile on sticks of kindling and soon after that pieces of firewood as big as my forearm. Whatever else may happen, the day has started with the crackling warmth and the delicious smoky smells of a campfire.
“Rekindle the gift of God that is within you,” the writer urges, but I’m not sure how you do that. I don’t know how you blow on the coals of your calling till the flames burst forth. More likely you bare your soul to the Holy Spirit and pile on the tinder of prayer and wait for the rush of a mighty wind to fan you into flame again.
And in the meantime have a cup of coffee.
Jim Somerville is pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, DC; adjunct professor of preaching at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies; and one-time host of the Festival of Homiletics.
Sermon on Luke 16:19-31 for Sept. 30
2007-09-28 by David von Schlichten
A Rich Man and Lazarus Walk Into the Afterlife
(Word count: 907)
Texts: Luke 16:19-31
Main point: The focus of the parable is on, neither describing the afterlife nor inducing guilt, but producing change that leads to greater care for the poor.
The story Jesus tells today is stunning. Listen again.
A rich man, Jesus says, feasts all day. He's overweight because he eats huge portions at restaurants – portions the restaurant calls “small” - and he munches away at home while watching TV. He always eats everything in front of him, because, as his mother used to say, “There are people in China who would love to have what we throw away. It's a sin to waste food.”
The rich man hears from his doctor that he needs to lose weight and get his cholesterol down and that he is at risk of a heart attack, so the rich man goes on a crash diet, loses twenty pounds, then slides off the diet and puts on twenty-five. “I guess I'm doomed to be fat,” he says.
Lying outside the man's door is Lazarus, homeless and sick with AIDS. The rich man also sees ads on TV saying to send money to help people in the Darfur. At the rich man's church, they take up a collection of canned goods for the local food pantry. “See, God?” the rich man prays. “I'm helping.”
After worship, the rich man and some of his fellow worshipers go out for breakfast. While enjoying the buffet, they talk about how important it is to care for the poor.
“The thing is,” one person says, “some people just take the money you give them and waste it on booze, dope, and cigarettes. And you go into some people's homes, and their kids are starving while watching cable on a plasma-screen TV.”
The rich man nods. “I want to help, but some people are just lazy. Like the Bible says, 'God helps those who help themselves.' They just want to cheat the system and get us to bail them out. The great thing about this country is that, if you really work at it and set your mind to it, you can do anything, even get out of poverty. This is the land of opportunity.”
They all agree. The rich man adds, “And my heart goes out to anyone with AIDS, but some people bring their troubles on themselves. You get what you pay for, that's my motto.”
The next day, Lazarus dies from AIDS, and the rich man dies of a heart attack. Lazarus goes to the Pearly Gates, where Abraham gives him backrubs, while the rich man ends up shoveling coal in hell while the Devil jabs him with a pitchfork all day long.
The rich man calls up, “Father Abraham, please help! I don't deserve this. I was a victim of a corrupt and confused society. Please send your boy Lazarus to come down and wait on me. Cut me a break. I'm a good man. I went to church and everything.”
Abraham sighs. “I'm sorry, son. You had all the good things in your life on earth, while Lazarus here was in misery. God wants you to help people as much as possible, just like he saved you by dying for you. But you made excuses and did just enough to shut up your nagging guilt. Now my hands are tied. You've dug a huge, wide pit between you and heaven, and no one can cross it.”
The rich man says, “Then send my friend Lazarus to my brothers and sisters to warn them. Also, warn the people I go out to breakfast with after church. They're worse than I am. You better warn the pastor, too, while you're at it. He talks the talk more than he walks the walk. Make them feel good and guilty, so they get their act together. Scare them with some fire and brimstone. They need a good old-fashioned guilt trip. In my day preachers made you feel guilty, and they got results.”
Abraham shakes his head. “What they need isn't guilt. What they need is to change. Most people are good at feeling guilty but bad at changing behavior. Guilt is cheap. Anyway, they have the Bible telling them to care for the poor. It's all right there in black and white.”
“You're going to argue with me when I am suffering with the Devil jabbing my butt all day with a pitchfork? You're not acting much like a man of God. Guilt, change, whatever. If you send someone back from the dead, then people will listen. Come on. Cut me a break. Send my family and friends Lazarus, because a person from the dead will put some fear into them.”
The Devil stops jabbing and smacks the rich man on the back of the head. “You goofball. Don't you get it? Jesus is the one who first told this parable, and he rose from the dead. This parable is the warning, is the call to action. Sheesh, even I know that.” The Devil gives the rich man an extra hard jab. The rich man squeals and curses.
Abraham says, “Fork Boy's right for once. Jesus rose from the dead to give everyone eternal life, and he says, 'Make changes. Feed the poor.' This story is part of that message. This story is for your friends and family. Jesus has saved all of us, and now he calls us to help one another, not with guilt trips, but with real change. This is the wake-up call. The question is, 'Will people listen?' Will they listen by making real change to help the poor?”
Charles Dickens Meets the Rich Man and Lazarus
2007-09-28 by Jim Somerville
At the end of the reading from Luke 16:19-31 the rich man--the same one who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast sumptuously every day--is being tormented in the flames of hell, begging Father Abraham to send poor old Lazarus to warn his five brothers so that they won't end up in the same misery as he. But Abraham will have none of it. "They have Moses and the prophets," he says with a shrug. "Let them listen to them." "No, Father Abraham," the rich man begs; "but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." To which Abraham replies, "No, they won't."
Jesus' story ends where Charles Dickens' best-known story begins. There someone does come back from the dead--the ghost of Jacob Marley--to beg his tight-fisted former partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, to repent of his miserliness. But just like those five brothers, he won't! As Marley's ghost leaves the room, dragging his long chains behind him, Scrooge tries to convince himself that he has imagined the whole thing, and goes to bed without repenting. But that's not the end of the story. As you know he is visited by three other spirits, one of whom--the ghost of Christmas Present--shows him the Christmas dinner of his own, poor clerk, Bob Cratchit. There they are, the fifteen Cratchits, gathered around one skinny Christmas goose, a few mashed potatoes, some applesauce, and a tiny Christmas pudding, and yet they praise the meal to the skies and all push back from the table as if they couldn't eat another bite. They gather around the fire to sing songs and eat the handful of chestnuts that are roasting there. Bob Cratchit raises his cracked cup of cider and says, "A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears! God bless us." And Tiny Tim answers, "God bless us every one!"
Move from that scene to the one here in Luke 16, where a rich man is seated at his table, dressed in purple and fine linen--the most elegant clothing of his day--and feasting "sumptuously" Jesus says. The table groans under the weight of the food--roast turkey, lamb, thick slices of tender beef, steaming potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, asparagus, fresh bread, baked apples, Brie, and gallons of good, red wine to wash everything down. But just outside the gate is Lazarus, a poor beggar who is covered from head to toe with sores, and who would have gladly eaten the scraps of bread that fell from the rich man's table. Not only that, but the dogs come and lick his sores as he lies there. It is as pitiful a picture as Jesus can paint, a deliberate contrast between someone who has everything and someone who has nothing. But then the tables are turned. Both Lazarus and the rich man die, their lives fall into the hands of God, and God pulls off the Great Reversal, welcoming Lazarus into Heaven while the rich man is sent to roast in the flames of Hell. He looks up and sees Lazarus in Paradise, and he can hardly believe his eyes.He calls to Abraham: "Father Abraham! Send Lazarus to dip his fingertip in water and cool my tongue, because I am in torment in these flames." But Abraham says, "Nothing doing. You've had your good times. Now it's his turn. And besides, he couldn't get to you if he wanted to. There's this big chasm between us so that nobody from there can come here, and nobody from here can go there." Can you imagine that this is the first time in his life the rich man has been told no? It takes him a while to recover, but when he does he comes up with a surprisingly generous response. "Well, then," he says. "If he can't come to me, then send him to my five brothers. Let him warn them about this place so they won't end up here, too." "Why should he do that?" Abraham asks. "They have Moses and the prophets to warn them. Let them listen to them." "They won't do it," the rich man replies. "But if someone comes back from the dead I think they would." "No they wouldn't," Abraham says. "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn't listen even if someone came back from the dead." And that's the end of the story. The rich man is left right there, roasting in the flames of hell, turning like a Christmas turkey on a spit.
The difference between the story Jesus tells and the story Dickens tells is that in Dickens' story the rich man is given a second chance to repent. After this long night of visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, poor old Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up in his own bed, in his own room. "Best and happiest of all," Dickens writes, "the Time before him was his own, to make amends in! Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious! 'What's to-day?' cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes.'To-day?' replied the boy. 'Why, Christmas Day.' 'It's Christmas Day!' said Scrooge to himself. 'Good! I haven't missed it. Do you know the Poulterer's, next street over, at the corner?' Scrooge inquired. 'I should hope I did,' replied the lad. 'An intelligent boy!' said Scrooge. 'A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they've sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? -- Not the little prize Turkey: the big one?' 'What, the one as big as me?' returned the boy. 'What a delightful boy!' said Scrooge. 'It's a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, yes, that one!' 'It's hanging there now,' replied the boy. 'Is it?' said Scrooge. 'Go and buy it.' 'You're joking!' exclaimed the boy. 'No, no,' said Scrooge, 'I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell them to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it.'" And that is just what he did. He wrote down Bob Cratchit's address and sent him the biggest Christmas turkey in the city of London. And then he made a very, very generous contribution to charity. And then he went off to have Christmas dinner with his estranged nephew, chuckling all the way. He had never dreamed it could feel so good to be generous. The more he gave, the better he felt. And the next day, when Bob Cratchit came in to work, Scrooge offered him a promotion and a big, fat raise. Dickens ends the novel by saying, "Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim . . . he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world."
If Charles Dickens had told the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus it might have had a different ending. The rich man might have woken up from his bad dream, thrown open the window of his bedroom and seen Lazarus, still lying out there at the gate. He might have rushed down the stairs, run out to the gate, scooped Lazarus up in his arms and brought him inside. He might have ordered a hot bath drawn for him, and bandages for his sores, and new clothing, just his size--some of those fine linen undergarments and soft purple robes. He might have put him at the place of honor at his table, and filled his plate with every good thing imaginable, so that at the end of the story there would be Lazarus--freshly scrubbed and smelling of lilac, dressed from head to toe in fine linen and purple, raising his jeweled goblet to say, "God bless us every one!"But that's not how it ends. There is Lazarus, living it up in Paradise, and there is the rich man, roasting in the flames of hell. It wasn't a dream after all, and so the rich man doesn't have a second chance to make things right. He had one chance, and he missed it. All his begging, all his pleading, is in vain. Abraham remains unmoved. And as for his five brothers, those who still have a chance to get it right? "They have Moses and the prophets," Abraham says. "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets they wouldn't listen if someone came back from the dead."It doesn’t seem entirely fair, does it? But then again it didn’t really happen. This is a story Jesus is telling, and he is not telling it for the benefit of the rich man, or even for his five brothers, but for those of us who are listening to it even now and who, as long as we have breath in us, as long as we can wake up and look out our own windows tomorrow morning, have an opportunity to repent.
Psalm 91, and Taylor and Luke 16
2007-09-27 by David von Schlichten
Rick Brand reflects pastorally on Psalm 91 in the blog entry below this one. I agree that Psalm 91's promise that God will protect the righteous does not guarantee that bad things will never happen to good people. Indeed, the book of Psalms as a whole presents a more complex picture of the relationship between righteous living and suffering. Sometimes the psalmist suffers precisely because evil people are persecuting her or him. It's a good thing we have 150 psalms and not just Psalm 91.
For that matter, thanks be to the Spirit that the Bible is far more than Psalms. Whenever I meet Psalm 91, I remember Satan trying to tempt Jesus in the wilderness by quoting that magnificent psalm. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy, another part of Scripture. Satan is proof-texting, while Jesus recognizes that Psalm 91, along with every passage in Scripture, must be understood vis-a-vis the larger scriptural context.
Perhaps we can help our hearers to understand this crucial hermeneutical principle. We are to take the Bible as a whole, even when focusing on one verse in one chapter of one book.
Barbara Brown Taylor and Luke 16:19-31
In Bread of Angels, Taylor has a wise sermon on this text from Luke. She begins “A Fixed Chasm” by critiquing the simplistic notion - this point fits well with Rick Brand's comment in response to Psalm 91 – that we are wealthy or poor because of our own hard work, God's blessing, or a combination of the two, but not because of factors beyond our control or outside of God's will. Taylor preaches, “The great American myth is that anyone willing to work hard can win first prize” (p.109). She says that might be true if everyone had the same auspicious circumstances at the beginning of the race. In reality, “Some start so far back that they can run until their lungs burst and never even see the dust of their front-runners” (110).
Also pervasive is the belief that a person is poor because of God's wrath. Such a mentality often begets a fatalistic attitude toward the poor among us rich people. A person is poor because that is God's will, so I should just not bother to try to help her. A person's poverty is fate or part of God's plan, so I am to leave the poverty alone.
Taylor goes on to declare that Jesus hated this kind of “health and wealth theology” (111), reminding people of the scriptural call to care for the poor and doing so himself through word and action. Jesus also made this point by telling stories, and now we come to the parable of this Sunday's Gospel reading.
Taylor proclaims that the point of the parable is not to induce guilt but to induce change. She notes the absence of guilt in the parable and adds, “God could [sic] care less about our guilt. The only thing guilt is good for is to move us to change” (111). If we simply feel guilty but don't do anything to improve our behavior, what good is the guilt?
Taylor continues by pointing out that the story teaches us that we create our own misery. Just as the rich man has doomed himself with his self-indulgent lifestyle, so also do we generate our own misery when we cut ourselves off from each other and God because we are too busy chasing after bling, thinking that we deserve it and that the poor deserve their poverty. She preaches, “Who do you think fixed that chasm in the story? Was it God or the rich man?” (113)
She concludes the sermon by reminding us that we are the five brothers. It is too late for the rich man, but it is not too late for us rich women and men to care for the Lazarus lying in our driveway in front of our two cars.
Returning to Rick's thoughts about theodicy and Psalm 91, an additional point is that one way God lifts us and protects us is through the compassion people show us and we them. When we pray for God to help the poor, God responds, “Good idea. Let's get to work, you and I, together.”
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, poedifier
2007-09-27 by Rick Brand
Jimmy Buffet has a line in a song about it's been thirty years since my last confession, so if you have all day, Father, let's get started.
I have been plowing the lectionary lessons for more than thirty years and so I have finally focused on plowing in the Psalms. According to my lectionary that is Psalm 91.
A. This is a magnificent psalm of celebration of the goodness of God's steadfast care and protection for somebody who has had an experience that convinces them that God has been there for them. I have heard this kind of testimony of people who survive tornadoes and other horrors.
B. But it is a dangerous Psalm to try to preach if we go so far as to say that all who love the Lord will feel this kind of protection. At least, I would never say to the congregation that if you love God you will be protected from all harm. One has only to read Mother Teresa's letters to know that one as devout as she was felt deserted and apart from God.
I certainly do not have any interest in trying to say who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, i.e. if you get hit by a car, you must not have been under the shadow of God's wings.
C. But all that does make you wonder, well, who do you trust yourself to. You going to believe you can look out for yourself? Do you believe your security will be in the Patriots' Act? Do you really believe George Bush can keep you save from terrorits? Is your security in "the piece of the Rock" insurance company?
D. Which drives us back to the Psalm that in our faith in God do we find the only comfort and security that there is for us finite creatures. If we do not trust the Creator to keep creation, then nothing else will be able to keep it. If we do not believe that God will gather God's children into God's care, then we are without much grounds for hope.
I wonder if someone else has found a better word in this Psalm.
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