Today’s scripture lessons are a bit uncomfortable. The gospel and the epistle lesson really hit the rich hard. We hear that familiar tale of the rich man and Lazarus and we almost sympathize with the rich man. As he blindly goes about life ignoring Lazarus, we want to shout out to him, “Pay attention to Lazarus! Take care of the poor!” Of course, our reaction is much like the rich man’s once he realizes how doomed he really is. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus or anyone from the dead to warn his brothers. But Abraham responds with a deafening, “no,” and the silence at the end of the lesson is heart-wrenching. This stark judgment is only heightened by our Epistle lesson, which boldly proclaims, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” The writer does not simply say that wealth can be dangerous, but instead declares that the desire for wealth drives people to ruin and destruction. There is a little bit of grace at the end of the lesson, which declares that the rich can somehow mitigate this fate by not being haughty, by setting their hopes on God, and by doing good, being rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. Not all hope is lost, but we are also clear that the rich have a lot to worry about and a lot of work to do.
The biggest challenge about our lessons today though is not just the judgment of the rich, but the fact that we do not think of ourselves as being rich. We can think of hundreds of thousands of people who are in better financial positions than we are. Many of our members are struggling to get by – either because of fixed incomes or unexpected situations. And even if some of us are making all our bills, we still have to watch our budgets – perhaps spending less on leisure, clothing, or the foods that we might like. The last two parishes I served had a one and two million dollar budget respectively – we could easily look at our budget and the last two years of deficits and say that St. Margaret’s is not a place of rich people. All you have to do is look around at our come-as-you-are culture, and assume that our parishioners in jeans and t-shirts do not have much money.
Of course, all of this is false. All of our rationalizations and mind-games can never erase the fact that based on worldwide standards, simply by living in this country, we are rich people. These lessons are not about “those people.” These lessons are about us. That is what makes them so hard. We secretly want them to be about other people, but at the end of the day, we are the ones in danger of stepping over Lazaruses everyday and we are the ones who must struggle with our own love of money. We are the rich in today’s lessons.
In the aftermath of the crisis of the Kenyan Westgate Mall Terrorist attack, an article surfaced about the media’s treatment of the crisis.[i] In the first days of coverage, the mall was described as “being popular with ‘wealthy Kenyans, expatriates, and diplomats.’ It was also referred to as an ‘upscale mall’ ‘frequented by foreigners.’” On the face of things, the description seemed relatively accurate and harmless. But what the author of the article noted was that the sentiment that began spreading was that maybe the rich were getting their due, being terrorized in ways that the poor feel terrorized everyday. But by the second day of reporting, the language started to change. People began to see that not just the rich were suffering in the attack – ordinary people were being injured and killed too – in fact, even Muslims were being killed, despite the fact that the attack was committed by the so-called Islamist terrorists. As pictures emerged of Kenyans helping internationals, and Muslims helping Christians, the vulgar labeling of “otherness” had been put to shame by the people’s common humanity and decency. What I appreciated about this article is how the author saw our tendencies to not see ourselves in the other – how quickly we want to remove ourselves from judgment instead of seeing ourselves in the sinfulness of the world. What happened in Kenya is not far from what happens every time we open our wallets and decide that we are not the rich man in our gospel or epistle lesson today.
Seeing our own culpability in our lessons today, what can we do from here? There are two gifts in our scripture lessons today. First, by watching the story of the rich man and Lazarus unfold, we get the benefit of what the rich man wanted for his brothers. We are reminded through Abraham that the warnings are all there for us. Though the rich man’s opportunity for repentance and renewal is gone, ours is not. We have Moses, the prophets, and even Jesus himself rising from the dead as our reminder that our wealth is gifted to us to use for good. Second, the hope of the epistle lesson is our hope as well. We too can be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. Even when we feel like we have nothing left to share, all we have to do is remember that our sharing is our active relinquishing of the power that the love of money has over us.
This week, a priest friend of mine was featured in a story in Chattanooga, Tennessee for the bold move his church is taking. Another church in town erected three 100-foot crosses on their property at the cost of $700,000. On reflection, my friend and the Episcopal community of faith that he has gathered began to wonder how else they could spend $700,000. In response, the community established the Southside Jubilee Fund.[ii] They will raise $700,000 themselves in order to give all the money away. Considering the call for Jubilee in Leviticus, the requirements for receiving money from the funds will be biblically based – any group doing work feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing those in need, caring for the sick, loving your neighbor, forgiving your enemies, honoring widows, or healing the land can receive from the fund. Who knows whether the church will be able to raise the full $700,000, but that kind of boldness is the kind of boldness our epistle lesson calls for today.
We at St. Margaret’s are embarking on some of our spending. We are finally fixing a long-term water problem that has been plaguing our undercroft. As we repair the years of damage, mold, and old asbestos tiles, and as we restructure our outdoor drainage, we will also be reconstructing a space that not only holds our social events, but facilitates education and formation for adults and children, welcomes support groups, and perhaps can become used for more community gatherings. This kind of expense may feel like the expense of the rich – but I actually think this kind of spending is a bit like the kind of spending the epistle encourages. We will have to be both generous to fund the project, but also use the space for good works and share the space with others. And if we are really embracing the call to share, perhaps we can consider some sort of matching program – matching the dollars we spend on our building with the dollars we spend on outreach. That matching might not be dollar for dollar like in Chattanooga, but the invitation for boldness is there.
But the invitation for boldness is not just for St. Margaret’s. The invitation for boldness is for each one of us here. I would like us each to take a moment and pull out our wallets. Look at how much cash you have in there. I want you to make a mental note of that amount, and then I want you to watch over the coming week or weeks how you spend those dollars. I want you to watch where the dollars go and what your spending says about your relationship with money. Even if you cannot be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share those specific dollars, perhaps you can spend the next month watching the ways you do and do not share your other dollars and what that says about the power that the love of money has in your life. If you find that those dollars are not being used boldly for good works and generous sharing, perhaps you and your family can consider how you might live differently: how you might, as our epistle says, live the life that really is life. And as you make those observations, I hope you will share that experience with me and one another – so that we might encourage one another on the journey toward bold living. Amen.
[i] Charles Onyango-Obbo, “Nairobi Westgate Mall Terror Attack, And The Folly Of ‘Otherness’ – What Al-Shabaab Revealed About Us,” as found at http://nakedchiefs.com/2013/09/24/nairobi-westgate-mall-terror-attack-and-the-folly-of-otherness-what-al-shabaab-revealed-about-us/ on September 26, 2013.