Archives For Stewardship

38681_1409539809500_674056_nIn most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Some may want to “Make America Great Again” and others may want to “Lean Forward” but all agree that our Adjusted Gross Income is our own damn business.

Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God. Or not.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues: rp_faith4.jpg

If you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re screwing or how much they earn in salary…almost everyone will opt for Door #1 to the boudoir.

We’re even more reticent to be called out for our recalcitrance regarding Door #2.

Recently, my friend and apprentice-turned-colleague Rev. Taylor Mertins wrote a blog post (you should subscribe) on Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 6: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith…” In the post, Taylor asserted, with a blandness necessitated by the obviousness of the observation, that clergy are not immune from being captivated by and captive to the Mammon. As an example, Taylor cited the “Appointment Workbook.” It’s available for viewing on the website devoted to the United Methodist Church in Virginia.

Said Taylor:

“If you click on the link you will have access to a list of all the pastors in the Virginia Conference, how long they served, how many new people are attending their churches, how much their churches are required to pay in apportionments, what percentage of the apportionments have they paid, AND their annual compensation. This is good and important information for the life of the church, but the fact that the entire list of pastors is not organized by name, or region, or new disciples, but by salary, shows how we have wandered away from the faith.”

Taylor promptly was bombarded with complaints that clergy are immune to the idolatry scripture says is at root in all of us and that, regardless, he should never criticize or cast aspersions upon the capital C Church.

To channel Stanley Hauerwas, I call bulls#$% on such bulls@#$.

One would think the Gospels themselves, where the clergymen-called-Pharisees plot Jesus’ undoing and one of his disciples betray him to that end for a bag full of cash, should be sufficient corroboration of Taylor’s point. After all, if Jesus was fully human it stands to reason Jesus’ people, preachers included, are less human than Jesus and, so, susceptible to sin. Indeed since in those same Gospels Satan shows himself most acutely wherever Jesus is at work, it stands to reason that the Church especially, where Jesus is at work, more so than any other place or institution in the world, would be ground zero for the Enemy’s infections.

Never mind how the refusal to criticize the Church, honestly and in love, smacks of the very institutional inauthenticity for which so many of Taylor’s generation (and mine) have written off the Church.

There is a problem with Taylor’s post, however, deserving of a rejoinder, but the problem with his argument is not his assertion that clergy can be captive to idolatry of Mammon (we are) or that the Church is sinful (it is). We are, all of us, sinners who apart from Paul’s mighty “yet” of Christ’s cruciform love deserve God’s wrath. Of course, our s#$% stinks.

The lack and error in Taylor’s argument, vis a vis the Appointment Workbook, is not in accusing Christ’s clergy and Christ’s Church of being comprised of sinners. Not only is that not news it’s the freaking good news! No, the strike against Taylor is that he doesn’t go full monty on the Hauerwas. He doesn’t connect how odd and dysfunctional it is that clergy salaries in the United Methodist Church are available to the public but the salaries of laypeople in the United Methodist Church, who determine the salaries of their pastors, are a secret not even Donald Trump’s Russian Hackers can ferret out. Taylor’s correct that our Appointment Workbook betrays a captivity but he doesn’t go far enough in smashing the idols.

The problem isn’t (simply) that pastors measure themselves and their future appointments according to pay; the problem is that those whom the pastors serve in those appointments do not have to make themselves accountable in like fashion.

What Taylor’s post missed is the lack of mutual vulnerability in our congregations when it comes to money. Pastors’ salaries and the appointment process are but the rattling chains of a deeper captivity. Christians in the Church think that how much they make and what they give should be “between them and God” which is to say “It’s none of your damn business. It’s mine.”

Every fall United Methodist clergy gather in “Charge Conferences” where their clergy’s salary is discussed, debated, and voted upon by a committee of (not necessarily informed) lay people. Even in the best of church settings (like my own, for example) it’s an awkward experience, having your worth sized up in front of everyone like you’re a 4-H cow or the #2 pitcher who might not be worth ace money next hot stove league.

Considering the circumstances- even making modest salaries- clergy feel compelled (if only in their head) to justify their pay and prove their usefulness. But no other church persons gathered there for such conferences ever get asked to stand, a la Hauerwas, and reveal their own income. And that’s the problem Taylor missed.

The red-faced shame among clergy about the Appointment Workbook is but a symptom of the larger secrecy which exists in our churches around money.

The problem exposed by the Appointment Workbook isn’t that it reveals the Church’s possible idolatry; it’s that it reinforces the extent to which, in every other part of the Church’s life, clergy aid and abet their congregations’ secrecy about money.

The “wandering away” Taylor points out isn’t that we know this about clergy and their income; it’s that very often this is the only thing we know about money and income in our churches.

What I mean is –

In most mainline churches, congregations convey and clergy uncritically receive the mandate that pastors should not know what their parishioners give to the church.

The thinking always goes…If I know who gives what then I might not minister to people equitably.

This is a rationale whose obtuseness, I think, could only be produced by a latent idolatry to Mammon. Having served in the same place for 12 years, I know, for example, the parishioners who’ve cheated on their spouses, who’re alcoholics and drug addicts, who don’t talk to their kids or whose kids don’t talk to them, who suffer from PTSD or who inflicted it. I know the Democrats and the Republicans, the abused and the abusers, and who thumps their bible to keep their doubts at bay. I recognize the hand-writing on anonymous notes and I’ve trimmed the grape vine so it’s as fast as my iPhone.

I minister to all of them. It doesn’t even occur to me to triage them according to merit.

No one would ever suggest I shouldn’t know the addicts in my congregation because then I might treat them differently. Why should addiction to Mammon be any different? The many pastors who espouse a “see no evil” attitude over their congregants’ giving would never likewise argue that they should remain ignorant of all of their congregants’ other imperfections and particularities for fear of ministering to them inequitably. So what does it say about us our relationship to money that we don’t believe our pastor should know how much we’ve got and how much we’ve given? If learning every other secret about our flock makes us better shepherds, what does it reveal about us that we think money is the one secret better left alone?

The problem with Taylor’s post then is that he didn’t go far enough. The problem with the Appointment Workbook isn’t that it reveals a secret; it’s that it helps perpetuate a different one.

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_nTomorrow is Earth Day- my boys told me.

They also told me via their National Geographic for Kids magazine that the best way to celebrate Earth Day was to make every day Earth Day.

Cheesy, I know.

True, I know.

And naturally I responded by telling my boys that the best way to celebrate Earth Day is to celebrate Easter.

Really celebrate it- not as 19th century liberals where we’re supposed to believe the disciples let themselves be crucified for a subjective metaphor- but as the literal, actual, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus, which is a foretaste of our own.

At least since the Enlightenment, Christians have neutered the Church’s original Gospel message: ‘…you/we killed him but God vindicated him by raising him from the dead and enthroning him in heaven to rule Earth…forever’ (Book of Acts, Handel’s Messiah.)

In its place, Christians have spiritualized the ancient Easter proclamation into empty allegories and similes. ‘Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! becomes ‘[It’s as though] Christ is Risen [in our hearts]! He is Risen Indeed [if we remember him and live ‘resurrected lives’].

Even rhetorical violence is not without casualty.

Spiritualizing Jesus’ resurrection leads to spiritualizing of the general resurrection.

Now, somehow- even though there’s no scriptural warrant for so supposing- Easter is seen as a sign that ‘eternal life’ is the union of our soul with God in Heaven. Easter then is a sign of our evacuation, of human creatures from creation and of our ‘soul’ from our body.

Which leaves the Earth a temporary occasion for God-fearing awe and wonder that will be disposed of once this ‘world is not my home.’

And if this world is not your home, how much effort are you going to spend keeping clean?

I mean, really, how well do you treat a hotel room?

If the body is not something the soul fundamentally, eternally depends upon then neither is the Earth something the Body of believers fundamentally, eternally depend upon.

If God didn’t save Jesus from death, there’s no reason to steward the Earth from it.

Any right celebration of Earth Day starts with Easter, with the physical resurrection of Jesus.

Think again to the Easter Gospel stories.

They go out of their way to tell us that Jesus still has the nail marks on his hands and feet. In other words, his resurrected body is the same as his earthly body.

They go out of their way to assert that Jesus is not simply a ghost. In other words, his resurrected body really is a body, and not a disembodied soul.

They even bother to point out that Jesus gets hungry. Jesus eats fish. That means the sheer stuff of creation still has a necessary part to play in resurrected existence.

‘Heaven’ then is less an ethereal, spiritual other world and more like the perfection of this world.

The Easter witness of the Gospels, that God raised Jesus from the dead, literally and physically, doesn’t just say something about Jesus’ body. It says something about bodies.

If the resurrected Jesus is a real, physical body, a body similar to his earthly body, a body that engages with the environment around him by eating fish, then the Earth itself is necessary to our identity and our relationship with God.

Resurrection doesn’t mean our soul will evacuate our earthly bodies for heaven.

Resurrection means will heaven will come down to Earth one day, on the last day; therefore, Christians should celebrate Earth Day every day.

Of course, if God didn’t really raise Christ from the dead there’s no basis to believe God will redeem Creation.

And if God isn’t (really) going to redeem Creation one day then our every effort to ‘protect it’ today, while noble, is ultimately futile.

Enough: A Letter to My Boys

Jason Micheli —  October 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

fruit-of-the-spirit1This weekend we continue our sermon series on Adam Hamilton’s book Enough.

Here’s an old Father’s Day sermon/letter I wrote to my boys that echoes the very same themes of simplicity and sufficiency in our lives.

Everything We Need: Galatians 5

 

Dear Gabriel and Alexander,

 

First, my apologies. I had meant to write this letter and give it to you on Father’s Day. Unfortunately I have this job where I have to work most weekends so instead you’re getting it a week late. In any case, I hope you will take this letter, tuck it away somewhere and save it for a day when you want some advice and life wisdom from your old man. I’m guessing that day will not come until you are in your forties so make sure you store this in a dry place.

 

You might be wondering if this should not be the other way around. Maybe you should be the ones writing me a letter. After all, what kind of self-aggrandizing, cheese-ball writes his kids a letter on Father’s Day and then reads it from the pulpit? Gabriel, if you do happen to ask yourself that question, the answer is your godfather, Dr. Dennis Perry. I got the idea years ago when I was just a teenager, listening to the letters he wrote to Jess and Ben.

 

You should know I went through a phase in my theological development where I didn’t think it appropriate to talk at all in sermons about mothers and fathers and children. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day aren’t liturgical holidays, after all, and Jesus seemed to have had a complicated relationship with his own family.

 

I can tell you I’ve disappointed no small amount of church ladies with my previous refusals to preach Mother’s Day sermons. Obviously its because of you two boys but these days my thinking is changed. I can’t help thinking that if the Gospel has no bearing on our everyday, ordinary decisions and relationships then the incarnation- God taking flesh and dwelling among us- was kind of a waste of time.

 

Alexander, by now you’ve spent not quite two of your seven years with us. Just as if I’d held you at your birth, I honestly can’t recall a time you weren’t with us. As much as the extra weight around my middle, the weight of your head on my shoulder feels a part of me.

 

X, when I think of how far you’ve come since you first came to live with us and when I think of all the obstacles you have overcome, I’m filled with pride for you. And my faith is reinvigorated. I know your success is not because of your mom or me or even entirely because of you. I don’t often talk about seeing God at work in my life for fear of intimidating people who don’t see their lives that way. X, you are one case where I feel no need to be reticent.

 

Since we promised to be your forever home I’ve watched you go from just a handful of English words to turning the pages of Roald Dahl. This year I’ve seen you step out from your fear of getting something wrong to try new things- and, okay, maybe you should’ve been more afraid of skiing.

And this year I’ve discovered just how empathetic you are Alexander. With everyone. I can’t guess what path you will choose when you are older, but I pray its one in which you get to exercise this gift that God’s given you.

 

Gabriel, you make me laugh. I hope you always will. Some parents wonder what their children will be like when they are older. Considering how often I catch you hiding in the closet eating cheetos and cookies, I mostly wonder how big you’ll be when you’re older.

 

Gabriel, this year you’ve learned to ride your bike, your skateboard and to jump in the pool- all with reckless abandon. As the Fantastic Mr Fox says, that’s your trademark. This year you’ve also developed your potty humor and sarcasm to heights previously unmatched for a four year old. While some will say you couldn’t have inherited this from me genetically, I like to think it certainly has come by osmosis.

 

I can’t believe you’re four years old. I already miss the sound of you tramping down the hallway at 11:30 at night, wrapped in your red Nationals blanket, asking if you can watch Deadliest Catch with your mom and me.

 

But this year we’ve noticed other things about you boys too. For example, Alexander I’d no idea you could recite the Lord’s Prayer all by yourself, and Gabriel I don’t know when you learned to hold your hands out to receive- rather than take- communion.

 

I saw signs of your spiritual development all year, such as the afternoon this spring I listened to the two of you arguing in the backseat of my car about the nature of the Risen Christ. Alexander, I heard you positing that the Risen Jesus is ‘kind of like a Jedi, like Obi-Wan after he dies.’ Gabriel, on the other hand, you felt the Easter Jesus had more in common with Gandalf from Lord of the Rings because when he comes back from the dead ‘he’s sparkly.’

 

That’s hardly all. There was the evening at the dinner table when you, Alexander, matter-of-factly explained that Jesus and God are one and the same and, in your own words, you explained how Jesus was present at creation. Not too shabby for a first grader.

 

And there was the Easter night this Spring when we were all serving the homeless in DC with some church people when you, Gabriel, looked at me with complete seriousness and explained that we were doing what we were doing because Jesus had been homeless too.

 

When people hear this about you, its possible they’ll chalk it up to you being a couple of preacher kids. They’d never believe that in our house we actually talk more about bluegrass, baseball and the X-Men. Despite wearing a robe once a week and having some people call me Reverend, the truth is I don’t know how to plant this faith in you any better than any other parent.

No, the growth of your faith is a testimony to the Church- not just to Aldersgate Church specifically but to the Church with a big C, to the Church as a sacrament, to the Church a visible means of a grace we can’t see with our own eyes.

 

You’ll learn one day, if you’ve not already, that the Church is often easy for people to mock and parody. The Church can be easy to criticize and it can be a convenient scapegoat for disillusionment. Nevertheless, its every bit as true that the Church can transform people. Of that, you are already exhibits A and B.

 

Gabriel, one afternoon this summer while we were at the pool you pointed out how I had a couple of gray hairs on my chest. You then said: ‘Daddy, you’re old. Are you going to die soon?’

 

I like to think the gray hair is just part of my plan to look more and more like Sam Elliot, but even if that doesn’t work out for me the gray hair at least puts me in a better position to begin offering you sagely wisdom. Are you ready?

 

Here it is:

When you get older, one day and probably many times thereafter, you are going to wonder: DO I HAVE ENOUGH?

 

Enough what? you might be asking. Enough of anything.

 

I’m starting my 10th year in ministry and my 6th year at Aldersgate, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about people its that there’s one anxiety we all share. Its an anxiety about not having enough: money, time, love, health, security, faith.

 

You should know, boys, that question’s as old as the bible; in fact, they even asked it in the bible. A teacher named Paul wrote a letter about it.

 

Gabriel, you already know some of it. Thanks to Mrs. Mertins and the Aldersgate Day School you know all about the fruit of the Spirit. But somehow I doubt Mrs Mertins taught you that Paul writes about the fruit in the middle of a long argument about circumcision. I imagine it is hard to explain circumcision with construction paper.

 

If you were to read Paul’s letter now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me it was confusing, that you tripped over words like Flesh, Law, Justification and, naturally, Circumcision.

 

Here’s the thing- when you push all the confusing parts to the side, what you discover is that Paul is writing to people who wonder if they have enough. Only their question is: Is Jesus Enough?

 

These people loved Jesus. They believed in him and had faith in him.

 

They believed Jesus was enough to get them into heaven; they just didn’t think Jesus was enough to make sense of their practical, everyday lives. They wanted something else that would tell them what to do and what not to do, who to be, and where to go with their lives. So they hoped that something called the Law could give them the answers that, let’s face it, everyone wants.

 

We do not argue too much about the Law anymore, but the fact is boys: every moment of your lives you’re being bombarded with messages about what to wear, what to desire and buy, how to think, who to fear, what to hate, where to belong, what is possible and what you should aspire to.

 

So its no different than it was in Paul’s day. Everywhere you are confronted with messages telling you that Jesus is not enough to make your way in the world.

 

In response, Paul says we should ‘live by the Spirit.’

 

X, you asked me not too long ago what the Holy Spirit is. And I said it was like wind or breath, something that is everywhere even if you can’t see it. I could tell from the look on your face that that was a singularly unsatisfying answer.

 

I think in general Christians are too sloppy when it comes to talking about the Holy Spirit because really its simple: the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus.

 

The Spirit is Holy because its Jesus’ Spirit. The Holy Spirit is how Jesus is at work in the world today. The Spirit does what Jesus did and if the Spirit allegedly does something Jesus would not have done then, chances are, its not really the Spirit.

 

When Paul says that we should live by the Spirit, he means we should follow Jesus: mimic his life, practice his teachings, apprentice our lives to his life. He is the mold we should pour our lives into.

 

That’s where the fruit of the Spirit comes in, Gabriel. Paul says that if we apprentice our lives to Jesus then our lives will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, and self-control.

 

Some bibles have Paul saying ‘There is no law against such things’ but, really, in the Greek, it says: ‘There is no shortage of such things.’

 

In other words, Paul is saying our lives will resemble Jesus’ life. And not only is that is enough for your life, really its everything you need.

 

God doesn’t give you everything you want- you’ve probably learned that already.

 

God doesn’t give you everything you need to be happy and free from disappointment and suffering.

 

But God does give you everything you need to follow him. That’s what we were made to do and that’s what the fruit of the Spirit means.

 

And that brings me back to the Church, boys- the Church with a big C. Because our lives are meant to bear fruit; our lives are meant to look like the life Jesus lived. So its not that your faith can ever be just one part of your life.

 

The moment you become a disciple your life suddenly becomes something for you to cultivate and grow. And you can only do that among the People we call Church. You can only do that by learning how to worship and pray, by learning how to give and forgive, by serving and sharing another’s burdens.

 

I hope when you are my age you have not forgotten that. I hope none of us have.

 

Love,

Dad

Jesus-Christ-With-Shopping-Bags-by-BanksyFor our fall commitment campaign this year, we’re doing a sermon series around Adam Hamilton’s book Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity.

In his warmth, winsomeness and measured inoffensiveness, Rev. Hamilton is like the alternate universe version of yours truly.

We all serve a purpose, right? I suppose if I was a pastor in Kansas where Christians are inclined to conceal and carry in the sanctuary, then I’d tone it down too.

In most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God.

Or not.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes:

if you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re sleeping with or how much they make and give to their church…almost everyone will opt for Door #1.

Because I’m a contrarian by both nature and desire, I’m supplementing Hamilton’s book by rereading a little book by the postliberal theologian, William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

Cavanaugh is an Augustinian, which lends a corrective to something I think gets obscured in Enough. Adam Hamilton leverages the anxieties provoked by the Great Recession- and now the sequestration and shut down here in DC- to encourage his readers to desire greater simplicity in their lives.

That’s all well and good obviously, but as St Augustine would point out desire is the root problem.

Ask any sinner- one should be easy to find- and they will tell you that very often our desires are given to us.

They’re not freely chosen.

We do not form our wants and desires like my son composes his Christmas list for Santa. Our wants and desires are formed for us by external forces and powers.

Actually my son’s Christmas list is a good example, containing as it does several things he’s never before expressed a desire for (and I know as his father he won’t enjoy) until he recently saw them in a commercial.

Our economic system is premised on the belief that each should be ‘free’ to choose his or her own ends. I’m free, in other words, to choose simplicity and generosity or I’m free to choose a McMansion.

As Friedrich Hayek says, “the individual is ultimately the judge of his ends. There is no unitary order to our desires.” 

Free market economics, then, assume that choose particular actions and objects based on the wants and desires of which we’re in control.

Freedom so conceived is freedom in the negative; that is, freedom is the absence of coercion. Thus, the ‘free market’ is a market without any external controls or values imposed upon it.

Freedom, in such a context, is not directed to any End, or rather it’s directed to whatever End the individual decides.

For Christians, however, freedom isn’t defined negatively as something that exists in the absence of coercion.

Freedom isn’t freedom from something; freedom is freedom for something. Freedom is freedom for the Kingdom of God.

In other words, as telos-driven (Kingdom/God-driven) creatures we are free only when we are directed towards and participating in the Kingdom, only when we’re wrapped up in God’s will.

Freedom then, as Paul describes it, isn’t independence itself but dependence on God.

When we try to live our lives without acknowledging our dependence on God, our loves become disordered, directed towards some other end but God. As Paul saw it in his own pre-Jesus life, what we think of as freedom is actually slavery.

Augustine saw his pre-faith life in much the same way. In his Confessions, the memoir of his conversion, he says famously that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee (God).’

Question:

Why is it that the pursuit of, say, material happiness so often leads to sensations of emptiness and meaninglessness? Even nothingness?

Here’s why, according to Augustine.

Because creation is given as a gracious gift, the goodness of creation is only ‘good’ insofar as it participates and points back to God’s greater goodness. Wine is good, for example, because its a sign of the graciousness of what God has made.

However, when you’re no longer directed towards or participating in God’s End, the Kingdom, you effectively strip the material things in creation from God’s goodness. They no longer have the purpose for which God gave them. They no longer have any meaning- like a paintbrush without ever having a canvas.

They are, in the same sense in which we talked about evil, no thing. Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism.

As William Cavanaugh says:

“All such loves are disordered loves, loves looking for something worth loving that is not just arbitrarily chosen.

A person buys something- anything- trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine (by which he means our having been created to desire the Kingdom).

And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing and he has to head back to the mall to continue the search.

With no objective End to guide the search, his search is literally endless.”

We tend to think of sin simply as an act we do to break one of God’s rules. We think of sin as a free act that violates God’s honor.

Sin is anything but a free act. Sin is a disordered love that upsets the God-given trajectory of our lives. Sin is a privation of goodness in our lives. It’s nothingness that intrudes onto the life God would have for us. In a very real way, the more we sin the less human we become, the less real.

Sin is not a free act or decision at all.

It’s slavery.

That’s why, ironically, ‘desiring’ simplicity and generosity not only isn’t enough but will ultimately prove futile.

Augustine would point out  that our desires themselves are what need rehabilitation. Or rather, the way to simplicity and generosity is by cultivating the right desires.

Simplicity is made possible not by purging away our stuff or simply desiring a simpler life. Simplicity is only made possible by throwing ourselves so deeply into the way of Jesus that we’re given all new desires.

 

hand-over-the-money-sirThis week we kick off our annual stewardship campaign, that time of year when people who give to the work of the Church say ‘It’s about time the preachers are talking about money’ and the people who do not give to the work of Christ complain ‘There they go again, always talking about money.’

The theme of our sermon series for the campaign is Enough, which could be taken as a double entendre given that a good many people just want to scream ‘Enough!’ over any mention of money in church or any suggestion that discipleship manifests itself through sacrificial generosity.

Oddly, United Methodists have made it impolite to talk about, much less preach about, two things that any honest reading of the Gospels shows consumed Jesus the Preacher:

Hell

&

Money

Just take this old sermon from 5 years ago. The text is Luke 16.19-3. Proving why we eventually crucified him, Jesus delightfully combines both those taboo topics, money and hell, into a disarming parable.

Last weekend I officiated at the wedding of a friend of mine in Farmville, Virginia. After the marriage ceremony was over, I was standing on the sidewalk outside the church, shaking hands with people, when this middle-aged woman with horn-rimmed glasses rushed up to me, thrust her hand out and began pumping my arm up and down.

“Reverend, that was so wonderful!” she said.  “Your sermon was so warm, lovely and uplifting. Most of the preaching I’ve ever heard is either about money or its all fire and brimstone. Do you know what I mean?” she asked.

I didn’t say anything one way or the other.  I just smiled and moved on to shake the next hand, but I could’ve said: ‘Excellent! You should come to my church next weekend- Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria. Next weekend we’ll be talking about money and hell.”

Did you know:

Jesus talks about Hell more than Paul, Peter, Isaiah, Daniel and Ezekiel combined?

Did you know:

In St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus is constantly talking about money?

Now that I can see that you’re totally pumped about today’s sermon, let’s get started.

To understand this morning’s parable you need to know that it’s not told in a vacuum. This isn’t just an isolated, independent story. It has context. You need to know who Jesus is talking to here. You need to know that Jesus tells this story to the Pharisees, the wealthy religious leaders who have been standing on the sidelines, sneering sarcastically. By the time you get chapter 16, they’re openly mocking and ridiculing Jesus.

Now, to really hear this parable you also need to understand how the Pharisees read scripture. For the Pharisees, wealth and possessions and material prosperity were signs of God’s blessing and favor. Today we call their way of thinking the ‘prosperity gospel.’ If you can picture the Pharisees as a bunch of grumpy-faced Joel Osteens- minus the capped teeth- then you’ve got the right idea.

For the Pharisees, if you HAD it was because God gave it to you…because you deserved it. So if you didn’t have it was because, well, in God’s eyes you didn’t deserve it. In other words, for the Pharisees money was not a means to some other good, it was a good in itself. It was a possession. It was a sign that God had found favor with you. Money was not a means to further God’s Kingdom it was instead a sign that God’s Kingdom had blessed you over others. And, as you can do for anything else, the Pharisees found plenty of scripture to justify themselves.

And then this Jesus comes along, and he doesn’t conform to what they think a religious person does or what a rabbi looks like. And they hear this Jesus say things like:

  • “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God will be yours, but woe to you who are rich for you have already received your consolation.”
  • “Whoever would follow me, first go and sell all that you own.”
  • “Do not worry about your wardrobe or your budget or you house or your groceries. Worry only about furthering God’s Kingdom and God will take care of everything you need.”
  • “If your wealth’s not serving God’s Kingdom, then you’re serving your wealth. You can’t serve both of them, Money and God.”

And that’s when they start to sneer. You see, for the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t just different, he was dangerous. It’s not simply that Jesus didn’t conform to their expectations; it’s that he would change everything about the way they lived their lives. Jesus would invite God into parts of their lives where they didn’t want him.

So in verse 14 of today’s chapter, the Pharisees start to mock Jesus, ridicule him, hoping to diminish him in the eyes of the crowd. And Jesus, since he’s Jesus, responds by telling a story.

I normally hate people who explain stories, but today Jesus’ parable is too pregnant with subtlety and meaning to do otherwise. So, humor me and pull out your bibles and turn to Luke 16.19 and I will try to unpack this for you.

Verse 19- “There was a rich man…”

The parable Jesus tells is actually a storied version of what he preached in his sermon on the plain: ‘Blessed are you who are poor/Woe to you who are rich…You’ll get the Kingdom/You’ve already gotten your reward.” Jesus begins his parable by laying a trap for his hearers. He says: there was a rich man who wore the kind of clothes you can’t find in a store, clothes only Paris Hilton can afford. This rich man ate extravagantly every day.

And already Jesus’ listeners- the Pharisees- already they don’t know where Jesus is going with this. They would hear Jesus describe this man’s threads and his dining table and, just based on that, they would say: ‘This guy has made it made. This man is blessed. This man is righteous.’

Verse 20: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus…” 

Like many wealthy people, this man has isolated himself from the rest of the world, from the needs of others. Jesus says the rich man lives in his very own gated community. Outside the rich man’s gate, lay a poor man. The word your bibles translate as ‘lay’ actually in Greek means ‘dumped.’ This poor man outside the rich man’s gate was dumped there by someone else. So not only was he poor, he was probably crippled too.

You will see that Jesus sets up the poor man as a mirror contrast to the rich man. The rich man is covered with fine linen, the poor man is covered with open sores. The rich man feasts opulently every day, the poor man begs for what falls from the rich man’s table- and Jesus doesn’t just mean scraps of food. In Jesus’ day, the wealthy would eat with their hands and then, rather than a napkin, they would wipe the grease off their hands with a piece of bread. Then they would dump the piece of bread onto the floor. The poor man’s not begging for leftovers or scraps. He’s literally begging for the rich man’s trash. Instead Jesus says dogs from the alley treat him like garbage, licking his open wounds- which, just to add insult to injury, makes the man ritually impure. Evidently, the poor man is too weak to even scare off the dogs.

The poor man is a contrast to the rich man in every way. As much as the rich man has, the poor man lacks that much more. Just as the Pharisees would’ve assumed that the rich man was blessed, this poor man- they’d say- was cursed. He must have done something to deserve his life.

But Jesus sets up an even more striking contrast. Notice: the rich man doesn’t have a name, but the poor man does. Lazarus. The poor man’s name means ‘God is my helper.’ You can even translate it: ‘God is on my side.’

In all of Jesus’ parables, in all four of the Gospels, Lazarus is the only character with a proper name. The rich man has everything, but he doesn’t have a name. The poor man has nothing, but he does have a name. What’s Jesus getting at?

The rich man is nothing more than his possessions; what he has is all that he has. He’s built his identity around his possessions so that he has no identity apart from them. This is Jesus saying that if you don’t build your primary identity around God, you don’t really have a ‘you.’ You’re defined instead by your stuff, success, things, title, job, or rank. Like any story, Jesus wants you to wonder who you are in the story. Do you have a name? Do you have an identity rooted in God? Is there a you beneath your material life? Are you about something bigger than you?

Verses 21-22: “The poor man died…” 

Death comes to both men, Jesus says. No one tries to save Lazarus’ life, but neither can the rich man’s wealth protect him from death. The rich man is buried because he can afford it. Lazarus is not because he cannot. Probably his body just lay abandoned in the alley until it was scavenged by dogs, burnt or carried off to a dump. In Jesus’ day, not to receive a burial was considered a mark of shame, a sign of being cursed by God.

Instead of shame, Lazarus is carried off by angels while the rich man, Jesus says, goes to Hell.

Verse 23- “In Hell, where he was being tormented…” 

I imagine this is the point in the story where Jesus really had the Pharisees’ attention. Dennis begged me this week not to say anything at all about Hell- especially given that it’s the stewardship campaign and we’re running a deficit- but I just want to look at what Jesus is getting at here, and Dennis can plug his ears for the next few minutes.

Sometimes people will ask me: ‘You don’t believe in a literal Hell, do you? With literal flames and physical torment?’

And to be surly, sometimes I respond by saying: ‘Oh no, I think Hell is much worse than that.’

Today’s parable gets at what I mean when I say that. Probably, most of you all have in your minds a caricature of Hell. Hell, you probably think, is a place God sends people against their will for some sin or lack of faith they committed. Hell, in other words, is where God sends such people and shuts the door and closes off any chance for them to repent. And maybe you even think God enjoys the justice of it.

Now compare that to Jesus’ parable. According to scripture, no one’s trying to get out of Hell- that’s what makes it Hell. According to scripture, you’re only in Hell as long as you choose. Hell according to Jesus isn’t a place God sends people. Hell is us holding onto our freely chosen but false identities. Look at verse 24 to see what I mean.

Verse 24- “Father Abraham have mercy on me, and send Lazarus…” 

So, he’s in Hell. Notice what the rich man doesn’t ask for:

  • He doesn’t ask to get out.
  • He doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
  • He doesn’t ask for God’s presence.

What does he do? He says: ‘Father Abraham, it’s kind of hot here. Send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Those of you who are perceptive, close readers will notice something: the rich man knows Lazarus’ name. It’s not that Lazarus was hungry and begging outside the rich man’s gate and the rich man was ignorant of his need. No, he knows his name. The rich man ignored him. It’s not that he didn’t know. He didn’t see Lazarus as someone worth the expense of his time or his wealth.

‘Father Abraham,’ the rich man says, ‘send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Even in Hell, the rich man still sees Lazarus as an object, as someone who should serve him. In other words, he doesn’t see Lazarus at all because, even in Hell, the rich man still clings to his false, material identity. He still thinks his stuff makes him something above others.

Verse 27-28: “…send Lazarus to my father’s house…” 

Skip down to verse 27. The rich man still shows no repentance. He still doesn’t ask to leave. He still sees Lazarus as someone who exists only to serve him.

“Send Lazarus to my father’s house,” asks the rich man, “send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that they won’t end up here too.” Now the rich man is worried about his brothers, but he has yet to realize that his problem, his sin, is that he never saw- still doesn’t see- Lazarus as his brother. The rich man goes to Hell not because he’s rich but he’s let his wealth pull down the shades on his brother’s need.

Actually, the rich man’s not really concerned about his five brothers either. Look again at what the rich man says in verses 27-28: “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that this doesn’t happen to them.” What’s the implication of the rich man’s request? He’s saying: ‘I didn’t know this was going to happen to me. This isn’t fair. My judgment’s unjust.’

Verse 29: “They have Moses and the prophets…” 

In effect, in verse 29, Abraham replies to the rich man: ‘You don’t need special signs from God to know what God wants with you in the world. What are you waiting for? God has told you again and again, in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Amos and Hosea and Micah and Zephaniah and Malachi and Isaiah and Jeremiah. God has told you over and again that you’re to care for the poor. You’re to lift up the lowly and bring your brother to the Table. That’s what the Kingdom of God looks like.’

Verse 30: “…if someone goes to them from the dead…” 

But the rich man doesn’t give up. He says: ‘Still, if you send Lazarus back from the dead, then you will get my brothers’ attention and they’ll repent.’

Verse 31: “…neither will they be convinced…” 

You know…some people are scared of fire and brimstone. But scares me…what’s terrifying about the way Jesus ends his story is his warning that we can believe more in the worth of our material lives than we believe in what God finds worth in.

What scares me is Jesus suggesting that we can get so caught up in ourselves, in the importance of our stuff, our possessions, our self-made, false identities- we can get so caught up in our material lives that not even a message from someone who died and rose again will get us to change. That, sounds like Hell.