It’s been a challenging week. To be honest, I’ve lost track of how many inappropriate instances of police brutality and other violence have happened in this country; I’ve not been too successful at stepping away from the day to day media circus that our presidential election has become; I’m getting tired of telling individuals that St Paul’s food pantry closed six years ago (there are several calls each week) – personally I’d rather have churches as a place for spiritual development and not expected social relief agencies; and I’m spending too much energy worrying about where I need to put my energy (I heard the statement the other day that “all churches should get involved with providing addiction recovery services” – that pastor’s hobby horse, which is not what I am called to do). On top of these, I had agreed to preach this Sunday and when I read the Gospel on Monday, I came close to telling Don I was going to run away!
It was mid-week when I realized that at the center of my problem was me, literally and figuratively – and that the lessons had four critical pieces of wisdom for me.
The first piece of wisdom comes from Jeremiah. His act of buying a piece of property is an extreme act of hope. The Babylonian army, the strongest one in that part of the world at that time, is literally at the gates of Jerusalem. And Jeremiah dares to trust the word of the Lord, and purchases a piece of land. It would be like telling a person in Syria to go ahead and spend their life savings on a piece of property – assuming that they will be able to return and that the future government would honor the deed. In a world where so much is uncontrollable, and chaotic, and separated from what God desires, such hope is a precious gift.
The second voice of wisdom comes from the Psalm. Psalms are amazing; these ancient poems capture the entire range of human emotion as well as the range of human relationship with God. At the beginning of the week I was in a raise-the-fist-and-shake-it-at-God kind of relationship, but this psalm asked me to move elsewhere. The imagery is beautiful, inviting me to “dwell in the shelter of the Most High” which is imaged like a bird covering me with its wings in a way that embraces us. God only requires that we acknowledge God’s Presence.
The third thread of wisdom comes from Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Paul is talking about paying attention to our choices so that our values are aligned with God. He notes that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and that the better choice is to shun the paths that take us away from God. The real treasure is a good foundation: godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. I am reminded of one author’s discussion of how to know that one’s spiritual exercises are bearing fruit: deepen your compassion; increase your patience, lessen your judgments, find your purpose in life and share it with the world. It is with this kind of growth in mind that I can “take hold of the life that really is life.”
The fourth expression of wisdom comes from the Gospel. Before getting directly to the point, I’d like to explore some details in this story.
•The rich man is very rich indeed. Only the top 1% had clothing dyed purple and fine linen( which required the harvesting of young plants) and daily sumptuous feasting. A person like this would, by culture and religion, be expected to give the leftovers to the poor. But, he did not.
• The poor man, Lazarus, is in dire straits. Importantly, he is not depicted as begging.
• There is a reversal of fortune after they die: the poor man is with Abraham (which is like saying the unwanted refugees who drowned are in heaven with Jesus); the rich man is in Hades, an unpleasant situation to say the least.
• Yet even here, in Hades, the rich man still doesn’t get it – he tries to bargain with, Abraham to send Lazarus to him so that he might have some water. He’s still not speaking to Lazarus. He doesn’t recognize, let alone acknowledge, his failure to treat Lazarus as a person such as by sharing leftovers from the table. So, of course he doesn’t repent or say “woe is me.” He does want to spare his brothers from the same fate – yet is reminded that the voices of Moses and the prophets were familiar and, just as he had heard these voices, they still could be heard by his brothers.
This is a hard story to hear. We may not think of ourselves as rich – as there are those in our culture who are far more wealthy – yet we are far more wealthy than most of the world’s population. The rich man’s failure was that he didn’t live responsibly – he didn’t live as expected. That the parable is told by a rabbi indicates that he didn’t live into or practice the values inherent in his faith. Even in death, even in hell, he was still trying to throw his weight around, the kind of weight that comes from having great wealth and privilege.
In these readings I heard four pieces of wisdom:
1) be hope-filled,
2) take shelter beneath God’s wings,
3) value and build a good foundation for the future, and
4) live responsibly.
Live into the gospel values of generosity, compassion, acceptance, and cooperation.
I needed to see the bigger picture – one painted with a hopeful brush, one where I can place myself beneath God’s wings, one where I spend time contemplating the kind of foundation my faith values, one that is done with integrity. In so doing I regained my focus and balance.
How we live our lives matters not only to us now, but to our neighbors and to God both now and into the future. Life is not essentially about getting into heaven – it’s about living responsibly in the present and contributing through our time, our skills and abilities, and out of our resources to the formation of a viable and joyful future for all God’s people, for all God’s creatures and for God’s Creation.