Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon; Proper 21C; Amos 6:1a, 4-7, Luke 16:19-31

The connection between Amos & Luke should be obvious – both readings are extremely critical of the wealthy who ignore those who are in need. And just like last week, both readings address the misuse of wealth, power and privilege against those who have neither.

One of the most insidious beliefs about God to infiltrate religion is the belief that God will bless those whom he favors with material wealth. The sign of God's blessing and favor upon a person will be seen in their bank account. After all, how else can we tell if God loves us?

But the misguided theology of the Prayer of Jabez, Joel Osteen and other disciples of the prosperity gospel is not a modern phenomena. It goes back to Calvin's theology of the elect, and it goes back to misreadings of Deut. 28. When people look to see who God has blessed, they often look for those things which we think determine signs of blessing and favor. And a common thought is that we can tell who is blessed and who is cursed simply by looking at them.

Jesus turns this idea on its head with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus, who was a poor, sickly, homeless beggar is raised to an eternal life of love and care; while the rich man is condemned to a life of eternal torment.

But again like last week, wealth is not the reason the man was condemned. Like last week, and like many, many other places in scripture, the overriding concern is with correct living. Along with that is also a concern for a correct interpretation of scripture.

The prosperity gospel has taken a few verses of scripture and built a theology that says, “If God loves you, you will be rich.” The problem is that this totally ignores passages of suffering and responsibility. It's a theology that says, “God gave me mine, good luck getting yours.”

But that theology ignores scriptural mandates about how we are to use our wealth, power and privilege. It ignores the law to care for widows, orphans and aliens. It ignores the reason Sodom & Gomorrah were destroyed. It ignores the prophecies of Nathan, Joel, Amos and Micah. No matter our personal position, left or right, liberal or conservative, we cannot simply choose a favorite verse or two that supports our favorite position and disregard all the rest.

A correct reading doesn't stop with the passages we like. A correct reading involves all of scripture in an effort to live within its vast guidelines. Yes, you will be blessed if you obey the law. But the law also includes instructions on caring for the widows, orphans and poor. It includes sharing your harvest with transients. It includes welcoming the stranger. And it includes striving for justice and freeing the oppressed. And it's all summed up in loving your neighbor as yourself. Because if you wouldn't treat yourself poorly, why would you treat others poorly?

The Gospel of Luke is very much concerned with reversing the power structure of the world. It started in the Magnificat, goes up through today's parable and beyond. We are called to care for and protect those less fortunate than ourselves – the “least of these.”

This parable of Lazarus and the rich man isn't about reversing the eternal fortunes of the rich and poor because they were rich and poor; this parable is about the misreading of scripture and the failure of the rich man to care for Lazarus.

This is the danger we run through misreadings of scripture, that our wealth is a blessing from God which carries no responsibility for others.

But Amos, the other prophets, Jesus and God have other ideas. Over and over, scripture tells us that those who are blessed and privileged have a duty to care for the less privileged and those living on the margins. Over and over again we are shown what happens when people of wealth, privilege and power either simply ignore that duty or intentionally abuse those living on the margins.

One of the things we hold True is that scripture is the living word of the Living God. If that is the case, then we must remember that these words and stories from two and three thousand years ago are being addressed to us today.

The sin of Israel wasn't that they were wealthy; the sin of Israel was that they failed to use their wealth in ways that aided those in need.

The sin of the rich man wasn't that he was rich; the sin of the rich man was that he not only never aided Lazarus, but that he failed to even SEE Lazarus.

As we move into our pledge season, how do these scripture passages speak to you? Will you take time to reevaluate your own position on wealth, privilege and power and how you can use what you have to aid those on the margins and the excluded?

I'm not normally a big fan of changing the liturgy just to make it more current, but there's an alternate closing to lectionary readings that I think is appropriate here. As we listen to these words from Amos and Jesus, as we consider the proper use of wealth, privilege and power in our immediate lives and in the community at large, the closing that comes to mind is this:

Hear what the Spirit is saying to God's people.



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