(A sermon for Pentecost 18C September 26, 2010 Luke 16:19-31)
Saturday mornings, my dog, Sam, and I go down to the Farmer’s Market at Deering Oaks Park in Portland. Those of you who have your own gardens, or who live near farms, will probably chuckle at the excitement of a city girl perusing the Delicata squash and choosing apples with names she needs a guide to pronounce. Macoon? Macown? Either way, I love them.
Often this summer I would see a man in a wheelchair, with hat or jacket marking himself as a military veteran, asking people to sign something. One day I stopped to speak with him. He was looking for signatures in support of the casino proposed for Oxford County. I smiled kindly, I hope, and said, “I’m a pastor, and I don’t support gambling.”
Let me assure you that this is not a sermon about politics. It’s about passion. For the people who support a casino, the potential for new jobs and tax revenues matters. Those benefits outweigh the concerns voiced just as passionately by opponents, such as the cultural impact of a business devoted to a pastime that for many participants is an addiction. The man in the wheelchair gave me a strange look, as if the statement I thought of as clear and conclusive—“I’m a pastor, and I don’t support gambling”—made no sense at all.
We did not connect. Even though we each spoke, and we presumably heard each other, we did not connect.
Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees, told the story we heard this morning. A rich man ignores a poor man in life, sees him only out of the corner of his eye. The poor man sees the rich man clearly enough. He wishes he could eat even the crumbs swept away from the rich man’s banquet table. His predicament is terrible. He lies outside, with sores on his body, and dogs come to lick them, dogs being considered ritually unclean and thereby making his situation even worse than being poor and ill. The licking dogs set him outside the beloved community.
We need to remember it was the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke. These religious leaders criticized everything Jesus said. They upheld the religious law followed by all faithful Jews, and they knew very well that is was much easier for a rich man to observe them than a poor one. It took time and resources to follow the law to the letter. If rituals must be practiced just so, and you have a family and servants to help you make sure it’s all correct, you have an advantage. If you are poor and sick, what chance do you have to show up with the right clothes on or the right amount of money to buy the right kind of dove for a sacrifice?
Somehow in the Pharisees’ minds, the Old Testament injunctions to show love for neighbor did not include the outcast and the downtrodden, although they should have, and that irritating fellow, Jesus, was much too quick to call attention to the problem.
But Jesus had a passion to tell us what matters to God and how much God loves us, and as he realized the time for describing that passion was growing shorter, he felt the pressure to make people understand. Of course, we might well ask, why use these stories? Why not tell us straight up?
In an act of remarkable political theatre, the pop star, Lady Gaga, made a trip to Portland last Monday, to that same Deering Oaks Park that hosts the Farmer’s Market. At the very modest little bandstand, she stood dressed in a suit and tie. Well, hold on. How many of you know who I’m talking about?Honestly, I didn’t know anything about this young woman until last spring, when her music played a central role on the TV show, “Glee.” It’s a favorite at my house. One night we sat down to watch, and all the Glee Club kids were dressed in crazy clothes, and I had no idea what was happening. LP assured me that the singer whose music was being sung was sort of gross, and that she was the new Madonna—and she didn’t mean the mother of Jesus.
To be clear, that was the extent of my interest in her, until last Monday morning, when suddenly Facebook and Twitter friends announced this Lady Gaga was coming to Portland, on that very afternoon, to give, of all things, a speech! She came to participate in an already planned rally encouraging our Senators to vote against a filibuster and therefore in favor of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Now, this is definitely not a sermon about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – not exactly – but what happened on that little bandstand was a brilliant act of political theatre. Using a tag line that played on a dress made of meat…I am not kidding, she really wore a meat dress on TV…Lady Gaga declared, “Equality is the prime rib of America!”
I watched the speech on Channel 6, and then on their Internet feed, while LP walked over to hear it in person with some neighbors. It wasn’t the most brilliantly thought out speech I’ve ever heard, but Stephani, which is her real name, delivered it with passion. There was no question that the issue mattered to her enormously. At the end of each page of her text, she threw the sheet of paper into the air with a flourish. She knew how to keep the crowd’s attention.
And so did Jesus, or at least he hoped he did. The story he is telling reaches a heightened dramatic level when he moves from the two men in life to the two men in death. Suddenly the tables are turned—oh, woe to you who live an easy life and do not take care of the poor and suffering who are right in your line of vision!!! When you die, you will find they are living peacefully in heaven, surrounded by the saints and the prophets, while you? You will find yourselves IN HELL.
We don't like this story, we Congregational Christian types, because HELL makes us very uncomfortable.
The time grew short. Earlier in Luke, we hear that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, and for the rest of the gospel he is clearly on the road, moving from one place to another, spreading the word, the Good News, to all people. This is the Jesus heralded by angels to the shepherds, the Jesus whose mother, that other Madonna, sang of God’s desire to see the captives freed and the poor cared for and the world pretty much turned upside down.
But this is not a sermon about Hell. It really isn’t. It’s about trying to get the message across to others using whatever means work. Lady Gaga at Deering Oaks on Monday and the man in the wheelchair on Saturdays at the Farmer’s Market each have a gospel to preach. She failed to connect with our Senators, who don't necessarily disagree with her but wouldn't vote the way she wanted the next day. He failed to convince me about the casino, and he never had a chance.How do we try to communicate our passions? Lady Gaga used metaphor, and the man at the market used a direct appeal. Jesus almost always used a story.
And really, it’s the end of this story that matters most. It’s not a story about avoiding Hell. It’s a story about how to live our lives, yes, but mostly it’s a story about Jesus. It sounds like he wondered whether anyone would ever listen to what he taught. He wondered whether anyone would ever get the message.'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' (Luke 16:31, NRSV)
Even if he rose from the dead.
Which of course meant dying first.
Here’s something I’m passionate about: Jesus.
I cannot get over my wonder that God would decide that the best way to mend things with messed up humanity was to actually send part of God’s own self to live in a human body and get to know us, right up close. I can just barely begin to comprehend the kind of love God must have for us, to do such a thing, knowing that there was a high likelihood the message of love exhibited passionately in the life of a God-Person would lead to chaos and death.
Sometimes we get the message across with sacrifice.
In the end Jesus laid down his life, wondering if people would ever connect with who he was. That’s the other part that boggles my mind. God’s own self, in a person’s body, had to wonder if God’s loving work would take in human hearts and change human lives.Not everyone listened, it’s true. Not everyone listens now. But the Good News survived the darkness of human betrayal. The Good News connected through the Passion of Jesus Christ. And here we are, singing it out together, living it out together. What he feared might be lost is risen from the dead. Thanks be to God. Amen.