“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
I am glad that this morning’s lectionary is not next week’s when we launch our annual giving campaign. It feels a bit awkward to preach on money as the root of all kinds of evil and then ask you to consider giving some of yours to the church. It is like we are making a limited time offer of karmic money laundering services. Wash that sin right out of your cash.
Our scriptural theme today addresses the hazard of wealth in terms of reversal of fortunes, the poor will have plenty and the rich will have nothing. In St. Luke’s Gospel, we hear the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the classic reversal of fortune story… the rich man in purple and fine linen, feasting sumptuously on one side of the gate, and Lazarus on the other, starving, dogs licking his sores. In death, Lazarus was taken into comfort, while across the great chasm, the rich man suffered endless torment.
We all know that message, that God will lift up the lowly and cast down the mighty. Having too much is bad for us. (Of course so is having not enough, but that is bad for us in different ways).
Particularly in Luke’s Gospel, that message is repeated over and over again. We don’t maybe hear it so well, I know I don’t, it is pretty challenging. We don’t, the vast majority of us, follow the wisdom of it so well, again I surely fall short in more ways than I like to admit. You know your story in relation to money. Keep trying. (And do consider the spiritual practice of giving when we start talking about it next week).
What I want to lift up today is not that, but the rich man’s plight down in Hades. This is not a description of the afterlife! The Hades scene with its agonizing flames and un-crossable chasm is a literary device helping describe what too late looks like. It was too late for the rich man. No one, not even the once lowly Lazarus could bring even a finger dipped in water to cool his burning tongue. Realizing his plight, he pleads with Father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. (He’s still treating Lazarus as a lesser who should do his bidding, but good for him having concern for others). But no. Father Abraham tells him, “They have Moses and the Prophets; they should listen to them.” The rich man responds, “but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Yes, they would believe a resurrected one! But no, says father Abraham, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
This is a cautionary tale and its lesson? We’ve been warned. And that is true. We have been warned by Moses and the prophets, we have been warned by Jesus Himself. It could not be more clear than those who “lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches… who drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils… shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass.” Or “Money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Or the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
Will Willimon, a Methodist Bishop and theologian tells a story of going to a funeral in a real “thump n’ holler” church in rural North Carolina. The preacher got up and gave one of those “It’s too late for Brother Bill to repent, but it’s not too late for you” sermons. Rev. Willimon was then a recent Yale Divinity graduate and his educated, liberal theological sense was grievously offended. He railed on and on as he and his wife drove home. “That’s not how you talk to grieving families, all that Hell and damnation. Scaring people. Primitive theology. Primitive!” I can totally imagine. Eventually his dander came down, and his loving wife looked over at him and simply said, “But he’s right.”
Jesus did not come to make life easy for us; He came to make life, abundant life, possible.
He warned us. Jesus did. So did Moses and the prophets and Paul. We have been warned, are being warned in all sorts of ways about all sorts of things. This week I am in particular thinking about climate change. I am thinking about the rally last week, and the Churchill High kids marching into Free Speech plaza just as a group of us from Resurrection arrived. And then the South Eugene kids came, rank after rank of them. There was a great street puppet theater and speeches and music and witty signs… but mostly it was those young people. Their presence, their spirit. We’ve been warned.
I am thinking about Greta Thurnberg and her speech at the UN, her stark, unequivocal warning to us. Not a scientific warning, though that is obviously part of it, but a moral warning. That is why we are talking about this in church. We know what to do: stop flying, drive much, much less, stop eating commercially produced meat and dairy, and limit our consumption of everything else. We have been, are being warned.
Now there are all sorts of opinions about Greta. Anyone who speaks so clearly, who pushes on everyone, will be treated sometimes as a prophet, sometimes as a naivè child, and sometimes with suspicion or downright hostility. Always and everywhere that is true. This is a foundational theme of Christianity. And I don’t know her. My opinions about her come from either watching her speak online or reading other people’s opinions about what they experienced hearing her online or in a few instances conducting brief interviews with her.
Her warning is clear: listen to the scientists. I don’t know about the science. John Orbell used to send me articles (and his were social science, not atmospheric physics) and I couldn’t make sense of them. But what I do know is that the people who do know the science best are the ones who are most alarmed.
Alarmist. Hysterical. Imprecise or inconclusive science. Biased science. Those are the critiques of the climate activists who are sounding the warning bells. Again, I don’t know the science, but it is interesting that the people with the most to lose from things changing are the ones arguing most vociferously against making any change.
That scares me. Years ago I worked on anti-globalization, the movement against NAFTA, the WTO like up in Seattle, the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec City (that what I did), more recently the Trans Pacific Partnership. I also worked in the movement against the second Gulf War and our invasion of Afghanistan. In both cases it has turned out so, so much worse than even the most dire warnings. The loss of manufacturing capacity, of living wage jobs, the exponential increase in wage disparity, poverty and homeless is so much worse that we were saying it would be because of globalization. And no one imagined we’d still be there 16 years later. (And still losing in Afghanistan). Or that there would not be a single WMD found. Or that ISIS would arise. Or Syria and Yemen and Libya would fail . 16 years.
We are being warned now. It is hard to imagine it being worse than we have been warned it might get, but in the two major movements I have been involved in, it has turned out to be dramatically worse than we predicted. What if that is the case now? What if it is only as bad as predicted? “Rapid reduction of fossil fuel emissions is required for humanity to succeed in preserving a planet resembling the one on which civilization developed.” That is what James Hanson of NASA and Makiko Sato of Columbia wrote.
My take away is that just because the predictions of radicals are dire doesn’t mean that they are not true. Radicals brought us emancipation of slaves, women’s suffrage (and women deacons, priests and bishops). Radicals brought us weekends and OSHA, public education and the Civil Rights Act. Radicals got rid of DDT and got us out of Viet Nam. World class radicals founded this nation. The naïve wackos on one generation are so often the heroes of the next. Is now any different? Of course not. We have been warned.
My point is not make a case for climate action or to make anyone feel bad about how we are living, (I’ll leave that to Greta, and she does a piercing job on both fronts). My point is to wonder why we don’t heed the warnings. Nearly half a million people die every year from smoking and cigarettes are sold everywhere, yet 12 died from vaping and there is a shelf-emptying panic? Why?
Why don’t we listen? As Paul ponders, why do we do the things that we know we should not and why do we not do the things we know we should? The human condition! That’s why. Original sin! That’s our story about it. Somehow we are, most of us, fundamentally separated from the ground of being, from God. Being groundless, unrooted in God, adrift in the sea of existence, we see the future in terms of fantasy, the past in terms of nostalgia, and right now more with the existential myopia of the ant in Aesop’s fable than as the sacrament of the present moment.
Maybe you listen. God Bless You. But if you don’t, why don’t you? Why don’t you heed the warnings from Jesus, from scientists, from your mother that you are given over and over again? One of my hobbies is observing my own sinful nature, pondering why I do some things and not others (or at least what I would do or ignore if left to my own unexamined devices). And since I heard Greta a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking and praying hard on that. (And it has been hard). And that is my first conclusion: listening is hard. Listening to the stark, intensely simple wisdom of God is hard, it is challenging, it makes me think about myself honestly and goodness, it is hard to see how selfish I can be; how lazy I can feel; how much I can just decide not to deal with something. Like that noise under the hood, or your child’s change of behavior, or your spouse’s distance or that gap in the budget. Maybe it’ll go away on its own? Maybe I’m imagining it? It is hard to really see how far we are from what we know is right.
Another reason I don’t listen is that doing what I am supposed to do is hard. I don’t want to deal with it. The effort to actually do what we are told by Jesus is immense. Love your enemies? I sometimes have trouble loving people who annoy me, so to do that to someone who seeks to harm me or those I love? Facing climate stuff, I know I should not fly anywhere, ever. How many flights do we and our families take to and from Boston? My mother-in-law is in the air right now. I should not eat meat or dairy (certainly never from an industrial source). We should live in town and have one car. So what, am I supposed to rearrange my entire family’s life because of this stuff? I don’t want to do that, so I don’t listen.
I also don’t listen because it is scary to really listen. Not just scary because of the effort required, but scary to admit that it might be that bad, that it might be as scary as you imagine. The middle to worst case scenarios of climate change are apocalyptic. I don’t even know if I can imagine what it might be like; I do know that the implications are so dire I certainly don’t want to. Ignorance, willed or otherwise, can feel blissful.
I don’t listen because I rationalize myself out of it. It couldn’t be that bad. Or, if it were that bad this many people couldn’t ignore it, it would have to be front and center of public debate. I don’t know… when was the last time you heard a presidential candidate say the word poverty? Hunger? Homelessness? Or question how much we spend on defense?
I don’t listen because sometimes I worry that it is that simple: love your enemies; give away all your possessions and follow Him; consume less of everything, teach our children the life skills they or their children may need in the lean times that are coming. It is that simple.
I have some homework for you. This is not a one-offer, but is an invitation to a life of discernment. Ponder an impossibly simple and yet impossibly hard warning that you do not heed. Maybe it is as simple as asking yourself why don’t you exercise as much or eat as well as your doctor tells you to. Maybe take advantage of our annual giving campaign season and ponder how much you give, and maybe why you don’t give more. Or consider the doozies: if you have options, why do you keep at a job you don’t believe in, or not any more? Why don’t you give away all your possessions and follow Jesus? Why don’t you turn the other cheek when you are wronged, or why aren’t you doing every conceivable thing you personally can do in the face of the looming climate disaster? Ask and honestly follow the answers.
Knowing ourselves opens channels to God. Ponder what troubles you the most, where you struggle to bear God’s loving image in this world and the truth you find may set you free, and who knows, might save the world. Jesus did not come to make life easy for us; He came to make abundant life possible. We’ve been warned. It’s not too late. AMEN