It’s been an interesting week here in Greene, Iowa! Between Wednesday night and Friday, we received over 10 inches of rain, and much of the city of Greene near the Shell Rock River flooded.
This week’s sermon is based on the lectionary texts of Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19, as well as what I’ve witnessed with the flooding.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I came to Greene, I thought living somewhere with a nice big river would be great. Christin and I were hoping to go canoeing, maybe buy kayaks. I have to say, I’m a little less convinced of the river’s benefits right now!
Several people have said in the last few days, “Welcome to Greene. Aren’t you glad to be here for this?” And to be honest, I am. I’d been told this community comes together in times of need, and I’ve seen that these last few days.
I’ve been so impressed with both the amount of effort it takes to put up sandbag walls and the number of people who’ve dropped whatever they were planning to do and come out to fill up bags, clear branches, help empty out homes and businesses, as well as all the volunteers and offers to help from out of town.
I’ve asked a lot of people how their homes are doing, and I don’t know how many people have said something like, “Well, we have some water in the basement. But that’s nothing compared to what others are going through.”
Instead, I put up what it says right now, “Thank you for loving your neighbors” because I’ve seen a lot of people showing love to their neighbors this week.
If you were here last week, we heard Jesus tell a story about this dishonest manager who used money to buy himself favor. The point of the story was that money is a tool, something to be used, not a goal in itself to be served.
No one can serve two masters; you cannot serve God and wealth. In the Old Testament reading, we heard about people so focused on making money that they’re willing to cheat and deceive to make a profit.
I asked last week what it would be like if we as Christians could be as creative about finding ways to help people in need, to help our neighbors, as the people in this story are to find ways to cheat them and profit off of them.
What if we spent as much time trying to serve our neighbors as we do trying to make and save money for ourselves?
When I said that, I didn’t realize we’d get so many opportunities to creatively serve each other so quickly!
This week, we get a lesson about the dangers of wealth. I have to say, I’m not sure I’m very happy with the lessons we have this week. In particular, this reading from 1st Timothy.
Several of my seminary classmates asked me how Greene is doing, and I shared the situation with them, and said, “I don’t think I can stand in front of people this weekend and talk about a reading that says: ‘We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.’”
That’s a lot easier to talk about when it’s hypothetical than when your house or business is full of water.
I kept reading, though, and the end of that reading says, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”
I haven’t seen one person this week who I would describe as haughty, boasting in their riches, or how much they’ve lost, or even that their house is dry. I have seen a lot of people being rich in generosity and ready to share.
In this passage from Luke, Jesus tells a story about a rich man who dresses in fine clothes and feasted every day. For him, life is good, and he’s proud of it. He doesn’t notice this poor fellow named Lazarus, who stays outside his gate.
The rich man thinks of Lazarus as someone below him, of a different class maybe, or just not someone he associates with. He’s not cruel, or mean, or racist, or anything like that, he just doesn’t notice Lazarus’s problems. Their experiences are different.
He doesn’t need to notice Lazarus, because his position in life is secure. After all, he’s rich. What does it bother him if this beggar needs something? Not his problem.
In fact, I can picture him complaining, shouldn’t that beggar get a job? If he’d just try harder, he wouldn’t have to beg. After all, I’m doing fine. That poor guy over there can deal with his own problems.
Then in this story, they both die, and the poor man, Lazarus, ends up in heaven with Abraham, and the rich man ends up in a place of torment.
I wouldn’t read too much into this story for a detailed description of heaven and hell or how you get there. That’s not the point Jesus is making. Anyway, the rich man can see Lazarus and Abraham, and he asks Abraham to have mercy on him and to send Lazarus to give him just a little bit of water to cool him down.
Even in death, this guy is still doing the exact same thing! He’s still not noticing Lazarus as a person, only as someone who can serve him. He still only cares about his own benefit!
Abraham answers and says he can’t help, because there’s this great chasm fixed between them. I want to focus for a minute on this idea of a chasm.
Again, I don’t think this is meant to be a tour book describing the geography of heaven and hell. The point Jesus is making is not about being poor and suffering here so you get rewarded later with getting into heaven.
Rather, the point he’s making is about the importance of noticing our neighbors, really seeing those in need, and doing what we can to help. This chasm between them isn’t something new in the afterlife. They’ve been separated by a chasm for a long time.
It’s fascinating: the rich man knows Lazarus’s name, but not anything about him as a person.
Who is on the other side of the chasm from us? I thought about this idea of a chasm this week, looking at the flooded river and thinking how hard it would be to get to the other side, but I don’t think that’s quite what Jesus is talking about.
There’s not really a divide in Greene, as far as I’m aware, between the people on one side of the river and the other. But there are chasms separating people in our world.
Where do you see chasms? Between rich and poor? Between Republicans and Democrats? Between owners and tenants? Between citizens and undocumented immigrants? Between flooded and unfolded people? Between retired or working or employed or unemployed or addicted or recovered or…what?
Imagine, who is lying at your gate that you’d prefer not to look at? That’s who Jesus is talking about in this parable for us. Whose name do you know, yet not know anything else about them? How can we cross these chasms?
One way we cross those chasms is by listening to each other, by – as Luther put it – interpreting all our neighbor’s words and actions in the best possible light. For those of you who have had the chance to watch the news beyond the part our town is starring in, I think part of what our country needs is just that – more listening to each other, more willingness to assume the best about others.
And ultimately, all these chasms are bridged by Jesus Christ, the one who came to be with us and to die for us, the one who notices those begging at the gate and comes to be with them. Our hope is in Christ alone.
In the midst of all the flooding and struggles we’re dealing with, this week has given me hope, because I’ve seen people come together to help each other, to love their neighbors. As we go on and start to recover, to clean up, how can we keep coming together?
No one shoveling sand into a bag asked if the person holding it was rich or poor. No one loading a truck asked if the person taking the sandbags was Lutheran or Catholic or even if they went to church, or who they’re voting for. How can we hold on to that?
This week, I’ve seen the church hard at work. Not necessarily through this building, or as an institution, but through the people who make up Christ’s body serving one another, whether that’s by making meals, moving brush, or praying for each other.
I’ve seen God at work through you. May God continue to be at work through you, and may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.