Monday, September 26, 2016

Hope. Help. Humanity.

The date is 587 BC.  The place, Jerusalem.  Zedekiah has been king for ten years.  He was put in this position by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.  The Babylonian army has already laid seize to Jerusalem twice, in 605 and 598.  But now Zedekiah is stretching his wings and testing the limits.  The Babylonians are back for a third and final time.  They surround the city and intend to tear downs its walls, burn its gates, destroy the Temple, and lead every healthy survivor into captivity.  It will be complete devastation.

The prophet Jeremiah warns the king and the people about the consequences of what he deems “sinful behavior.”  He proclaims God is going to use the Babylonians to punish the people of Jerusalem for disobeying God.  Jeremiah is also practical.  He confronts Zedekiah seven different times, telling the king it is foolish and folly to test the power of the Babylonian army.  Jeremiah gets very specific.  He warns the king his eyes will be put out and his sons killed if he continues to test his superior enemy.  It is not a popular message, to say the least, and it lands Jeremiah in the court prison at the king’s house.

In the short run, Jeremiah’s preaching is one of gloom and doom.  The fall of the city, the destruction of the Temple, and people led into captivity is not a happy scenario.  But Jeremiah also has a message for the long run and it is one of hope.  He looks at the world through the words God spoke to him in 29:11: “I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope.”  For Jeremiah, impending calamity is the prospect of the near term, but he is bullish on the long term future.  Over and over, he says God will lead the people back home to the land of Judah.   

Jeremiah is from the city of Anathoth, which is located about 2½ miles from the Temple.  His ancestral home is now in the hands of the besieging army.  God speaks to Jeremiah, saying his cousin is going to visit him at the prison.  When he does, God says, tell him you want to buy his field in Anathoth. 

The cousin appears and invokes an ancient Levitical law, asking Jeremiah to redeem his field.  The cousin has fallen on hard times and sold the land, but God intentions for property to remain in the family forever.  The law requires a relative, if able, to buy the land until the one who sold it can buy it back or until the Year of Jubilee (which occurs every 49 years) when it will be returned at no cost.  Of course this law does not apply to the Babylonians.  There is no guarantee it will ever come back into the possession of the people of Judah.

Jeremiah recognizes immediately why God commands him to buy the field.  His act will be a sign of hope, promising one day the people will return from captivity.  He goes through a very public process to buy the field.  Everyone knows an unpopular prophet in prison is purchasing a piece of property occupied by a foreign army.  Everyone must think him a dope.  Jeremiah is concerned the transaction documents be stored in a manner to preserve them for a long, long time.  He wants them in tact when the hoped for day arrives.  Once all the paperwork is complete, Jeremiah proclaims, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be brought in this land.” 

We have an expression today, “Put your money where your mouth is.”  Jeremiah reverses this.  He uses his mouth to explain what he is doing with his money and why he is doing it.  The prophet uses his wealth to promote hope.

Jesus tells a parable many know.  The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is easy to remember because of its retching details and its ominous reversal of fortunes from this life to the next.  It is tempting to construct a theology of the afterlife based on this parable.  Some have.  The reversal.  The torment.  The suffering.  The dividing chasm.   More than one commentator warns of the danger of pushing the details of the parable too far.  So what should we to take away from it?

That the poor beggar is given a name while the rich man remains anonymous is telling.  This reversal certainly is intentional and significant.  In life, everyone knows the names of the rich and powerful.  Few, if any, know the name of a homeless person scrapping to survive.  That we are told this person’s name is Lazarus tells us much about God’s love for every person and particular concern for the poor and needy. 

Notice another detail.  In spite of passing by him every day and doing nothing to help him, the rich man also knows Lazarus’ name.  Once in Hades, he asks Abraham specifically to send Lazarus with just a drop of water to sooth his agony.

As Jesus spins his story, the problem does not appear to be the rich man’s wealth.  Nowhere is he condemned for having means.  Jesus is critical because he does nothing to help a person he knows, a person in deep need he encounters day after day after day.  Should the rich man have used his position and his wealth to foster adequate opportunities for work in his society?  Should he have fought for health care and housing for the indigent and poor in the land?  Should he have brought Lazarus food and water?  Should he have provided bandages for his sores?  Should he have taken him into his home or given him shelter or done something to keep the dogs away?  Yes.  Yes, he should have done all of this and more.  He should have done something.  But, as Jesus tells the story, he does nothing.

And as Jesus tells the story, there will come a day of judgment for every person who shows similar disregard for the basic humanity of another person, for every person who grows callous or indifferent to human need and does nothing to help. 

For the past few weeks we have been reading Paul’s letter to his young protégé, Timothy.  Today we hear his counsel to seek godliness and contentment.  He warns of the dangers inherent in making money and possessions the main goal of your life.  “You bring nothing into this world, and you can take nothing out of it,” Paul says.

In lieu of the love on money, he instructs Timothy to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”  “Fight the good fight of faith,” he writes, “take hold of eternal life.”  These personal qualities we cultivate are far more important in life than the quantity of stuff we accumulate.

Woven together, these readings challenge us to use our wealth, our resources, and our influence to provide help, to foster hope, and to acknowledge the humanity we share with every person on our planet.  As we walk this path in life we become more godly and more content. 

The Rev. Walter Whichard served as Rector of St. Paul’s from 1955-1963.  Back then we mailed the weekly bulletin to each home prior to Sunday services.  It often included reflections and teachings and Mr. Whichard was fond of passing along inspirational quotes and comments he received from others.  He shared what was titled “English Churchyard epitaph” in the December 12, 1962 bulletin:

“What I have spent, I had: What I have kept, I lost: What I gave, I have!”

Almost 64 years later, I can’t think of a better or more concise way to end today’s sermon.

“What I have spent, I had: What I have kept, I lost: What I gave, I have!”

Hope.  Help.  Humanity.