Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Who will beg?

Sermon for Pentecost 19, Proper 21C, preached on Sunday, September 25, 2016.

Dontcha just love it when the rich get it in the end?!  What a royal pleasure it is when their money cannot buy their way out of trouble, their powerful friends cannot rescue them, and they fall from their high place to a dull thud on the ground!  Do I hear an “Amen!”  Of course you love it.  We all do.  How many movies have used this as their premise in addition to the stories of real life?  We all love this kind of retribution and justice to right a wrong but that is not what this parable is about.  The difference between Lazarus and the rich man without a name is not the amount of riches but the riches they trusted.  It is not the promise of justice that Jesus teaches here but of mercy.

The difference between Lazarus and the unnamed rich man appears to be their treasure.  Sure, one has a fat wallet.  But the other one has a greater treasure.  Moses and the prophets have provided a hope for Lazarus and his victory in death.  They both had eyes but those eyes saw things very differently.  One saw what he wanted to see – a life of ease, of pleasure, of satisfaction, and of happiness.  The other saw through poverty and scabs and the companionship of dogs to a hope beyond his vision.  They both had hearts but the heart of one longed only for today and was satisfied with the joys of the day.  Lazarus longed for a tomorrow beyond the present day’s sorrows, pains, and disappointments.  In his heart, he longed for what this world could not provide – perfect peace, contentment, and rest.

We look at these characters too shallowly – seeing only what is externally different between them when they were very different but in ways you have to look deeply at in order to appreciate.  There are poor who are as lost as the rich man without a name and there are rich who know the limits of their earthly treasures and who hear the voice of Moses and prophets.  It is not simply the riches that distinguish them but their faith or their lack of faith in wealth and in poverty.  Though we might want this to be a simple story about a rich man who got his downfall and the underdog poor man who won, it is about the triumph of faith and the trust in God’s mercy.  That is where it hits you and me – not the divide of riches but of faith, not for the cause of justice but of mercy.

We don't like to think of ourselves as beggars even before God and yet this is exactly what Lazarus teaches us.  High or low, rich or poor, great or anonymous, we are beggars before the mercy of God and if we refuse to be beggars and claim some privilege or merit in ourselves, we receive nothing from God but the justice we think we want.

Luther’s death showed the character of this faith.  He was ailing and had probably suffered a heart attack or two prior to this.  Yet he had been asked to come and settle a dispute tween the Mansfield counts.  So he set off on his last trip, heading to Eisleben on January 17, 1546.  He worked to resolve the dispute and he extracted from the royals a promise to support a school for boys and girls.  He ended his time with them by preaching on Matthew 11:25-30 - “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

In the middle of the sermon, he overcome with weakness, apologized, quickly ended it.  He went to bed.  He was watched by friends but his condition did not seem to worsen.    The papers were signed and again Luther took to the bed.  Count Albrecht brought in his personal physician and Luther felt better.  At 1 am he awoke and called out: “Oh, hear Lord God!  My pain is so great.  I am certain I will remain here in Eisleben where I was born and baptized.”  Friends and co-workers tried to console him and Luther kept repeated John 3:16.  Dr. Jonas asked Luther if he was ready to die in the doctrine he taught.  “Ja.” was the simple reply and he died of a massive heart attack.  In cleaning his room and going through his pockets, they found the last words Luther had written: “We are beggars.  This is true.”  

Luther the great heroic figure of the Reformation dies as a beggar before the mercy of God.  Like Lazarus, he was content to beg God's mercy rather than claim privilege or merit.  

Here was have no abiding city.  Whether are rich and your life easy or in wretched poverty of spirit or life, it does not matter.  Here is not our eternity.  Neither for good or for ill.  Heaven is our home.  There is only one treasure and one riches that can buy the kingdom and it does not come from your pocket.  These are the riches of another who pays for your salvation in full with His suffering, blood, and death.  Christ must purchase the kingdom or rich and poor will be forever on the outside.  Only Christ and Christ for all, for those the world calls good or bad, rich or poor, once He paid for all.

Your abiding treasure is not in the now but in this eternity Christ has won for you.  Your hope lies not in a better or easier or fairer today but in the paradise prepared for you by Him who went before to prepare your way.  Salvation is by grace through faith and not of works or wealth or accomplishment or achievement or piety or moral perfection.  Before the Lord we are not rich or poor.  As Luther wrote before he died, we are all beggars.  This is true.

Lazarus was not too proud to beg.  Are you?  This is the perspective of faith.  Faith never forgets that we are not the entitled but the beggars who have no right to the mercy of the Lord but who beg for God to give us what He has promised and provided.  Faith begs the Lord to do for us what He has promised  – to deliver us both from the joys of this world that do not last and the trials of this world that seem never to end.  What distinguished Lazarus from the rich man not named was not the earthly treasures but the heavenly one.

This is what Mary sang of in the Magnificat.  You have sung those words, too.  Of Him who has scattered the proud in the imagination of their minds and put down the mighty from their thrones and sent the rich empty away only to exalt the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, remember the low estate of His servants with eternal mercy. The riches that leave us empty are those which distract us from Christ’s treasure, teach us to trust in ourselves, and tempt us to believe that we can have our best life now and get all that we desire.  In contrast to this is the beggar who comes in faith with nothing to offer God at all and whose only hope is Christ alone. 

The truth is we want this story to be about the justice of God in cutting down the rich and haughty and giving the poor a break.  But this story is not about that at all.  It is not about justice but about mercy, not about the rich but God’s riches that save the lost and forgive the sinner and raise up the dead.  We are the beggars whom come pleading the mercy of God alone.  We are those whose only promise is the compassion of a God who does not deal with us justly but in mercy.  We are those who come not for a happy life but an eternal home in which both life’s joys and its sorrows fade from our memory in the face of unimaginable joy.

The rich man has no name but the beggar God cannot forget.  He calls him by name. That is the message of mercy, the story of hope for the hopeless.  The living turn out to be forever dead and the dead who live forever.  Because of this, St. Peter can say once you were nobody but now you belong to Christs.  Mary rejoices in being a beggar who claims God’s mercy alone.  Luther died in this blessed hope.  Today we pray that we may all beggars who have been made eternally rich by the mercy of God, forgiving our sins and bestowing upon us the life which shall not disappoint us.  Amen.


John Joseph Flanagan said...

I believe most people realize that there are wealthy individuals who are generous and kind to those less fortunate. We all have known or read about such people. On the other hand, the rich who are self serving and lacking in compassion to others are also around us. Jesus was not attacking people of means as a revolutionary looks at class warfare, He was pointing out that money should not be our god, but we need to use it charitably, and it should not become an idol.

Anonymous said...

I turned 80 last week. There is one thing that has not happened during all of these years: never did I hear a Lutheran pastor comment about the last sentence in this parable: (Luke 16:31) “He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
So what am I to do? I have thought about this for many years and here is what I concluded: This whole parable is not about how we should not be rich and heartless, but it is about the pure Gospel of the Kingdom.
In Luke 4: 43, when the disciples urged our Lord to return to the village where he had healed on the previous day, he responded with “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”
Our Lord made it clear that there was a vast difference between the Old Covenant and the New. In Luke 16: 16 He said “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.”
When our Lord spoke of someone rising from the dead, He may have been speaking about the other Lazarus, whom He raised just a short while after telling this parable. Or, He may have been speaking of Himself. In both cases, their rising was met with disbelief from many.
Under the Old Covenant, the guides to truth were Moses and the Prophets. There was no guarantee that the people would be able to understand them. But in the New Covenant, we have a Helper, through Whom we become “Those whom God helped”: the Holy Spirit. Of Him our Lord spoke, John 7: 37, “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.' " 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” Further in John 14: 16, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” And again in John 16: 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” And further, in the most beautiful words Martin Luther ever wrote, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.”
So just because Someone has risen from the dead, that fact does not enable us to believe Him. But God helps His people, He comes to dwell in us, He brings us into His Kingdom in which we live out our lives on earth, and He sustains us in that Kingdom, so that each one of us may call himself “Lazarus,” “The One Whom God Helps.”
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart