Beggarman, Thief

Sunday sermon from September 29, 2013
Text: Luke 16:19-31
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst VA

A man dies and goes down to the underworld. And like in most good jokes about the underworld, it starts with a tour. So, Satan is showing him around the place. They come to a set of three doors. Satan opens the first one, and the man peers in and beholds, as far as the eye can see, hundreds if not thousands of people writhing in fiery agony. Their bodies are in chains; the flames are beating around them; it’s the stuff of your most vivid nightmare. He says to Satan, “So, who are those people,” and Satan says, “Well, those are the Catholics who didn’t go to Confession.” Next door. Satan opens it up, the man peers in, and again, as far as he can see, thousands of people howling in agony. “And who are they?,” he asks, and Satan says, “Well, those are the Baptists who went dancing on Saturday night.” Last door. Inside, once again, thousands upon thousands in absolute torture. And Satan says, “Well, those people are the Episcopalians who used a salad fork instead of a dinner fork.”

So, that joke is older than all of us. Maybe older than all of us put together. And I’m sure you know that it’s part of a storied genre of guy-goes-to-the-underworld or guy-goes-to-the-pearly-gates jokes. That joke has many, many brothers and sisters. But what I want you to realize from the beginning this morning is that the whole joke — even the whole genre — has no real theological content. It’s not like the joke is saying something about what Heaven or Hell actually look like. It’s not like you would go home today — or at least I hope this isn’t the case — it’s not like you would go home and somebody might ask you what the sermon was about and you would say, “Well, the preacher says that Hell is made up of these three big rooms.” At the risk of trying to explain the joke, which is always something of a fool’s errand, it’s not funny because of what the afterlife looks like. It’s not even really about the afterlife. It’s about the now. It’s funny because of what we look like, right now, or, you know, what Episcopalians look like.

I give this preface because it is entirely too easy to let the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man tempt us into thinking that Jesus is talking about the afterlife, when in fact he’s talking about the present. An obscenely wealthy man dies around the same time as Lazarus, a beggar living outside his gates. Much to everyone’s surprise, we have something of a social inversion: the wealthy man finds himself in Hell while the forgotten Lazarus feasts with Abraham and the saints. But that’s just Act 1. In Act 2, even though Lazarus is the only named character, the story sticks with the wealthy man, who uses all of his wiles to try to wiggle his way out of his fate. He calls out for Abraham: “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames,” as if Lazarus was still to be his messenger boy even despite their newfound positions. So when that doesn’t work, he tries again on behalf of the family he left behind, that they might also be warned, which almost begins to sound like concern for the welfare of others until you consider that the rich man is only really concerned for the people in his immediate circle and not for the other servants and beggars and slaves that would have circulated through his household. So the persistent characteristic of this wealthy man is not simply his wealth but rather an unshakable conviction that the he should get some kind of special treatment, that he should be above the rules, and remember, lest you think that the parable is talking about who we become in the afterlife, remember that it’s really about the present. Jesus is saying that one of the trappings of wealth is an insistence that the wealthy get to play by their own set of rules.

Some of you know that I first came to central Virginia about a year after graduating college as a volunteer at Innisfree Village, just northwest of Charlottesville up in the foothills of Shenandoah. Innisfree is an intentional community of volunteers living with people with disabilities, but it has a very strange economy to it. Most of the workforce there were much like me: overeducated and impoverished twenty-somethings making room and board and a $200 monthly stipend. But because the level of care provided is so personalized, the costs of sending a family member with retardation or downs to Innisfree are astronomically high, meaning that in some cases the residents we cared for belonged to families from America’s super-rich. In fact one of the residents in the house I lived at was the brother of one of the founding partners of America Online, AOL, the internet before we had the internet. He existed mostly in legend; he never really came down from DC to visit his brother, until one Friday in the Spring of 2003 when he in fact did come for a visit: he chartered a small private jet from Dulles Airport, flew down to Charlottesville, hired a car, and drove out to Innisfree.

It so happened that I was planning a trip to DC for that very weekend to see some college friends. I was going to leave after lunch and beat the afternoon rush hour traffic into town, so there I was, standing outside of our house, throwing my beat-up duffel bag into a 1997 Saturn when Tom’s fabulously wealthy brother overheard my plans and asked if I instead just wanted a ride up to the city. I didn’t really know how I was going to get home from that, but, really, what’s the point of being 23 if you’re not going to say yes to that invitation, so, in fact, off we went. Back down to the airport in the hired car, but we went around the back way, through some private gate, directly onto the tarmac, parked right next to the jet. Eighteen months after 9/11, but we had no TSA screening of any kind. We just walked right on board. We were in the air for about half an hour, after which we landed at the private-plane-only terminal at Dulles, and about three minutes after touching down we were sitting in the back of a private Bentley heading towards downtown.

Now, so far, this had all gone incredibly smoothly. But I’d lived in DC for five years. I knew something about these roads, and I knew something about Friday afternoon rush hour, and since it was about 4:15 by that point I knew beyond any doubt that I was going to have to get very comfortable in the back of that Bentley. Sure enough, when we came out onto the Beltway, the traffic was at its usual standstill. But not for us. Because as soon as the traffic appeared, our driver just pulled onto the shoulder and drove past. For several miles’ worth of beltway traffic, we just cruised by on the shoulder. We turned onto 66 and it was the same story — whenever a patch of traffic would show up, the driver would find the shoulder and just cruise around it. And I’m sure that he had somewhere to be. But it wasn’t a hospital. There wasn’t an emergency. There wasn’t a police escort. Though it’s not like the man in the chauffeured Bentley would have lost much sleep over a run-in with a traffic cop. No, I’d found myself in this strange world where the rules didn’t seem to apply, where you didn’t have to find airport parking, where you didn’t have to stand in the security line, and where even the most basic human condition of Northern Virginia life, Beltway traffic, didn’t even apply. From Dulles to Capitol Hill, Friday afternoon at 4:15, in about twenty minutes. It’s not possible unless you think some of the rules don’t apply to you.

So when the rich man in the story asks for some special favor to be visited upon his family and his friends, some special warning so that they might avoid his fate, Abraham says: no, we all play by the same rules. Your family, your friends, just like everybody else, they have Moses and the prophets; they have all of the Old Testament law to guide them and shape them and warn them and that law is given equally to all of God’s children. Everybody’s in the same boat. In some ways it’s an odd turn for this text; after all, Jesus has set his sights on the Pharisees, those religious authorities whose love of wealth is equalled only by their love of the law; it’s not like they don’t know the law. In fact they have good legal precedent for their love of wealth itself; you see, if you read the scripture just right, you can convince yourself that God rewards faithfulness and trust and good works with all of the trappings of material bounty. That’s what the Pharisees believe, that the wealth they have is not a stain upon them but rather instead a sign of God’s blessing upon them; it’s not that they’ve ducked the rules. It’s rather that they’ve followed them even better than everybody else.

We don’t need America’s super-rich to illustrate this one. We can just walk into some of the largest churches in this country and hear it preached from the rafters. Call it the Gospel of Wealth if you want to; call it the Prosperity Gospel if you want to, much to my amusement I found a Time Magazine article that listed the Prosperity Gospel among its “Ten Worst Ideas of the Last Decade”, as if it was such a new phenomenon. But see how deep its roots go. Here’s the pitch: God wants you to be happy. God wants you to succeed. God wants you to grow and and prosper and pay your bills and enjoy your life – Reverend Osteen would call it Your Best Life Now – and in fact God blesses those of us who are faithful with precisely all of those trappings of prosperity. So it’s not wrong to seek out the big house and the fancy car and all of the finer, finest things in life; it’s not wrong to yoke ourselves fully to that packaged vision of American material joy; in fact it’s what God wants for us, and every new gadget we buy and every new fancy outfit we bring home is just further and further reinforcement of just how much God loves us.

Now, all of this may sound totally foreign to you; you’ve never wandered in to one of our most successful American megachurches; you’ve never sauntered through “that section” of the airport bookstore; and maybe you just know the smell of theological manure from a good distance. But the Pharisees love this stuff. It turns out that they have been reading a lot of Joel Osteen. And of course they love it, for the same reason the millionaire preachers of modern religious consumerism love it: it gives legitimacy to their pre-entrenched positions of political and religious authority; it gives theological cover for just going out and rolling around in large piles of money, and, of course, best of all, it’s not against the rules. Or at least it’s not against some of the rules. Or, I guess, if you decide to only read a small fraction of the rules, then it’s not against those. But if you read this text. Where everybody has to play by the same rules. By all the rules. By all of the Jewish rules that speak about community obligations to the poor and the outcast. By all of the Jewish laws that speak about the interconnected fabric of God’s people, about mutual obligation and mutual entanglement. By all of the laws throughout the whole of the Jewish story, the whole of the story of God’s people, the sum total of that story that says that God’s people sink or swim together. No, if you read that story, and this one, then Lazarus is not simply the character who has chosen the wrong rules. No, more than that, by his very condition, forgotten, rejected, poor, hungry, dying, by his very condition he is a stain upon the soul of a community that has not only forgotten the rules, but forgotten who and whose they are. God’s children sink or swim together. So I wonder who stands outside our gates, forgotten, rejected, poor, hungry, a sign to us and to God and to the world of the parts of our story we have chosen to forget.

God’s children sink or swim together. God’s children prosper, or not, together. For all of the things that the Gospel of Luke despises about wealth – and that list is significant indeed – for all of the things that Luke despises about wealth, surely this is at the very top: that the most pernicious thing about wealth is not wealth in and of itself but rather what wealth does to us, that it turns us inward, that it makes us selfish, that it makes us think first and only of ourselves, that it enchants us into breaking that blessed tie that binds us all together in the single story of God’s people. God’s children sink or swim together, but give them a dollar, and watch what happens. You will find yourself soon enough in the back seat of a chauffeured Bentley, driving down the Beltway shoulder past hundreds and hundreds of rush hour commuters, each of them in more of a legitimate hurry than you are, and, if you’re like me, you won’t say anything at all. You’ll find yourself wondering when God will bless you with a mansion of your own, with a little slice of that American Dream that we all know only goes to the best and most beloved Christians, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll twist yourself into deciding that that sounds totally reasonable. How easy we forget, when money’s on the line, that God’s children sink or swim together.

I suppose the exhortation you might expect would be that we should better remember the poor and therefore spend some money. But I’ve come to think that we’ve got it backwards. Maybe we can’t remember the poor until we spend some money. Maybe it sits in our pocket and blinds us from seeing anywhere beyond ourselves. Maybe it’s the idol that makes us forget that we all sink or swim together. Last week I talked about Luke’s confounding parable of the dishonest manager and invited us to imagine how we can spend the resources we have while we still have time to spend them. It was a question about what we do as money burns a hole in our pocket. But maybe there’s more than that. Maybe it’s burning a hole in our hearts, and maybe we can’t remember the poor, maybe we can’t remember the hungry, maybe we can’t even remember who we are until we spend it.

I got to DC in a private jet and chauffeured Bentley and I went home on the bus. I really didn’t want to go home on the bus. I’d been hoping that some other Innisfree person would find their way to DC that weekend and give me a ride back, or that I could at the very least take the train, but alas, nothing worked, nothing lined up, and so on Monday morning I took the bus. A long trip across town to the bus station, a long, meandering trip through central Virginia – I think via Fredericksburg – back to Charlottesville, and then I waited around for a ride back out to Innisfree. It took most of the day to accomplish a journey that had taken about an hour and a half not three days before, and I’m on this bus with all of these bedraggled people and in one of my less flattering moments I’m thinking “Man, I don’t belong on this bus – three days ago I rode into town in a Bentley! I am so not like all these other riders. I am so above this.” And I’d love to tell you that there was some cathartic moment, like somehow we all connected and discovered each other and burst into song, but no, it’s a bus ride, and I sat there, malcontent, for some interminable length of time. I’m not going to lie to you: it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t exciting, I missed feeling like I was above it all. I missed feeling like the world had been laid out just for me. But you know, sooner or later, all God’s children ride the bus. All God’s children ride the bus together, because the bus is the only way home, and the powerful Gospel of Jesus Christ is that all God’s children get home together.

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