Sunday, September 25, 2016

19th Sunday after Pentecost

We brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.

In last week's sermon, I talked about mammon which is a word used in the Bible to encompass material things and money. It is all things of this world of which we claim possession. In the sermon on the mount, our Lord said that we cannot serve God and mammon. Divided loyalty does not work. The parable in the Gospel last week told of the unjust steward who gave away his lord's assets so that he would gain friends and sympathizers to take him in after he was removed from office. Our Lord's admonition is to make for ourselves friends using the mammon of unrighteousness, and I described how William Tyndale the great English reformer argued that this really applies to the poor. To paraphrase Tyndale, use your money to supply the want of the poor. This concrete love for the those in need will be the outward sign of your inward and true faith in God. It is not that money or mammon is evil. Rather our Lord calls it unrighteous mammon because it leads us into temptation. As Paul writes in the Epistle this morning, those who desire to be rich fall into temptation. Notice how he says those who desire to be rich not those who are rich. You see, as Augustine of Hippo pointed out, it is possible to be rich and greedy, but it is also possible to be poor and greedy. In each case, one thinks that money and material possessions will give lasting happiness. Our readings this morning, as I am sure you noticed, all continue this theme of mammon.  

The problem with mammon is actually an identity problem with ourselves. In our VBS this summer, we talked about the crux of the story about the Tower of Babel is really an identity struggle. Those who built the tower, we are told, wanted to make a name for themselves. They were building fame and earthly reputation. It is significant I think that in the story that succeeds that of the tower of Babel, the narrative of the patriarch Abraham, God tells him that if he will follow his leading into the land of promise, God will bless him and give him a name. This is the truth that the Bible stresses. It is not we who decide who we truly are—we don't forge our identity through a long voyage of self-discovery. Rather, it is God who tells us who we truly are: he gives us a name; you are his creature; you are made in the image of God so that you are endowed with reason and creativity and the ability to choose right and wrong; you are also a wayward sinner who has run away from your Creator again and again; by adoption and grace you are his dearly beloved child. God reserves the right to show us our name, our identify, because he has created, redeemed and sustained us. Today's readings speak a powerful word to us about our identity: your identity, my identity does not come from mammon. You are not what you own. We live in a society that largely lives by such metrics—there is a reason why they are called status symbols. But the happiness material wealth can give is tenuous at best: the material thing can break, the money can be lost or squandered, and most importantly, inanimate things don't go very far in filling our deepest needs for love, joy and communion with others.

The Epistle opens with a common place truism that is all too-easy to forget: we brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of it. Job lost first his family and all he had, and then he lost the most unnerving thing of all: his good health—many ancient commentators made a lot of the fact that Job still had his wife after all that—but Job recognized that all those transitory things—his possessions, family, and health—are just gifts of God, gifts that in this temporal and mortal life must have a termination. After his wife incites Job to curse God and die, he famously says, the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord. To quote a country song from a few years back that makes the same point: I ain't never seen a hearse with a luggage rack. If you believe in that greater life, and you're hope and identity is in things that you can't take out of this world, you are bound to be disappointed and broken by very things you trust so much. Mammon is a god that can seem to give such a quick high, but it will cast you down with blind cruelty.

In reading the Lesson from Amos and the Gospel, I couldn't help but think of our Lord's words in last week's Gospel that in Luke directly precedes today's Gospel. He told his listener's, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. Are those who as Amos says, lying on beds of ivory, and who stretch complacently on their couches, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, are these making friends of their poor with their unrighteous mammon, or are they making friends of themselves? They expend what they have in pleasing themselves, while great suffering and pain and injustice pervade the city of Samaria. The same thing could be said of the rich man in the parable of Lazarus. What friends does he have who will testify of his faith from his unrighteous mammon? He certainly does not have a friend in the poor man Lazarus, who has his sores licked by stray dogs. It has often been pointed out that Lazarus is the only named person in any of our Lord's parables. The very person who in real life nobody would know his name is the very person named explicitly by our Lord. Such is the upside down way that God views the world. So, my friends, two questions for you: where is your identity? Is it in the perishing things of this world or is it in the fact that you are child of God, loved completely by the Lord? In addition is there is a person in your life that is nameless, a Lazarus if you will, to whom you extend in the name of the Lord a few crumbs. Maybe it is a kind word, an encouragement or counsel, or just a helping hand that you could offer? Our society might say that people are expendable, but this idea can be given no quarter in the Gospel: Perhaps, my friends, we should start seeing the world “upside down” where those who are nameless are loved and treasured and find a home in the family of God and God's kingdom. 

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