A Baptismal Meditation by Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, September 30, 2001, Pentecost 18, dedicated to the honor of Eddie Emanuel Anderson IV on his baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
I Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
He seemed like a contented man. He was rich, successful, dressed for success, and well fed. Outside his house on the streets lay a homeless man named Lazarus. The homeless man had nothing. He was hungry and found his only food from the crumbs of the rich man's table. Lazarus had open sores on body which the dogs on the streets licked. He was not a contented man. One day he died and went to heaven and in the arms of the angels of mercy and everlasting life, he found eternal contentment.
The rich man (with no name) died too. He was buried. He went to Hades which is a pleasant way to say, "Hell." He went to Hell. From Hell he looked up and saw Father Abraham with Lazarus by his side. They both looked content. The rich man was in torment, not content at all, now. The rich man cried out for mercy and asked for Lazarus to come and grant him peace from his agony. But, Abraham pointed out that during his lifetime, the man never even noticed Lazarus groveling for crumbs from his table and struggling to keep alive. Now, with Lazarus in glory and the rich man in eternal agony, Abraham responded - it was too late - the huge gap between heaven and hell could not be traversed after death! "Forget it." Since you forgot it in your lifetime, forget it now!"
Realizing all was lost for him for eternity, the rich man then changed tactics - begging Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth and warn his five brothers. In the exchange that follows Abraham says, "They have Moses and the prophets to convince them. If they cannot be convinced to change because of Moses and the prophets, then someone rising from the dead has no chance to convince them either!" With that, the story abruptly ends!
I find this story worth repeating - obviously - since you just heard it read in the scriptures. It is a window given to us from Jesus to glance eternity! "When we hear this, most of us plummet right into our own chasm of guilt, even though that is not the point. The point of the story is tell us a truth that we need to know in hopes that it will change our lives. Otherwise, God could care less about our guilt. (In fact) the only thing guilt is good for is move us to change. If it does not do that, then it is just a sorry substitute for new life. I am sure the Lord Almighty, like Father Abraham has absolutely no interest in hearing us babble on saying, `O Lord, I can't change at all, but I sure do feel bad about it. Can you settle for self pity, and no action to change my behaviors?'" (Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Mass, p. 111). Come on, do think God is going to fall for that?
This story contains very guilt. At the beginning, the rich man feels no guilt about his place of luxury. He likes the distance between himself and the groveling poor man whose name he knows! He was content. No qualms about it. This story contains an abundance of contentment - first for the rich man and then for Lazarus. But, it doesn't contain contentment for us - unless we move beyond guilt to receive this story for what is really worth!
Although this story has a awfulness to it, I give it to you (as Jesus did!) For its goodness. This story is for us, not against us. I am sure Jesus enjoyed putting the fear of God into his money-loving listeners, but I would be shocked if that's all he was after. Even when he got angry, he got angry for a reason, usually because people loved money and objects and the "things" they could get for themselves more than the things God wanted to give them. God wanted to give them the kingdom of heaven, while people were content with their little fiefdoms of power and glory. They were content with poor folks serving them and Jesus wanted them to see all people as their brothers and sisters. They were content with the parts of the Bible which backed up their way of life (like Deuteronomy 28 and Psalm 1), while Jesus wanted to give them new life altogether (like Dt. 15:11 and Proverbs 14:31 talk about).
What they didn't seem to understand is that we all become victims of our own way of life. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:
When we succeed in cutting ourselves off from each other, when we learn how to live with the misery of other people by convincing ourselves that they deserve it, when we defend our own good fortune as God's blessing and decline to see how our lives are quilted together with all other lives, then we are losers. Not because of what God will do to us, but because of what we have done to ourselves. (Taylor, Bread of Angels, p. 113).
Who do you think fixed the vast chasm between the rich man and Lazarus in this story? Was it God or was it the rich man?
This story doesn't really end at Luke 16:31. It continues on because you and I - we are the five brothers of this story. Even though Father Abraham doesn't let Lazarus come back to warn the five brothers of the rich man, Jesus got this story back from the grave to us! Although we also have Moses and the prophets to warn us - we also have someone else, too - someone who is risen from the dead to convince us of the truth of this story. Don't say, he didn't warn us. Don't ask for someone else to come and tell us - we have the Risen Christ, the son of the Living God speaking to us across thousands of years - and that is sufficient...
But, if it's not sufficient for you, Jesus' Apostle Paul, also speaks to us - and so do Jesus' disciples, saints, and seers through the ages - John Chrysostem, and John Calvin, and St. Augustine, and St. Jerome, and Gregory the Great, and Pope John XXIII, and Martin Luther King, Jr of Montgomery, Alabama and Oscar Romero of San Salvador, and Steven Biko of Capetown, South Africa and Mother Teresa of Calcutta - to name just a few!
In I Timothy 6:6-19, Paul warns Timothy about the snares of riches and the importance of calling the wealthy to be rich in good deeds. You have heard it said, "You can't take it with you!" Paul addresses that in this passage. The early church was a collective of rich and poor. Some have portrayed the church as a church of the poor and slaves. But, throughout the scriptures it is clear, those who material wealth were drawn into the fellowship of believers. Paul's concern for those with wealth was that they thought more highly of themselves than they should. They should not use their wealth as a form of lording power over the faithful who do not have riches. Paul has seen this happen in the synagogues of Jerusalem and doesn't want the new Jesus movement to reflect this separation of rich and poor.
What brings contentment in Christ? Contentment in Christ comes when a follower of Christ discovers that his or her soul is already filled with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; that his or her emptiness has been filled with God's love. The fruit of "Godliness is spiritual contentment, not worldly gain; for spiritual contentment bears the fruit of a contented spirit. And such contentment may result from either having what one desires or from not desiring more than one has.
John Calvin wrote, "The best bridle is, when we desire nothing more than the necessity of this life's demands, yet our anxiety extends to thousands of lives which we falsely imagine." (Calvin quoted in Thomas C. Oden's Commentary on I and II Timothy and Titus, John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky, 1989, p.105). It is true, that the human heart is satisfied finally only in God, not in worldly accumulations.
In his book City of God, St. Augustine commented on the paradox of wealth with these words:
From the goods which they have distributed to others and so placed in greater safety, they derived more happiness than they incurred sorrow from the goods which they had anxiously hoarded and so lost more easily. Nothing could be really lost on earth save what one would be ashamed to take to heaven. (From Augustine's City of God I.10,VI, 35).
For the Apostle Paul, contentment in Christ boils down to two simple beliefs, shared in I Timothy 6:7-8: First, we brought nothing material into the world at birth and we can nothing out of it at death. Greed makes no sense at all in the face of such simplicity. Andrew Carnegie who accumulated vast amounts of capital realized this toward the end of his life. He gave away literally hundreds of millions of dollars. He died with almost no money. And as he approached death, he said, "my soul is rested now." You can't take it with you.
Second, Paul added, "if we have food and clothing, we will be content in that." True Godliness is true contentment.
In the aftermath of the September 11, I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of life. I know you have been, too. Today's Gospel text looks at this from hell to heaven and back to earth again through a parable of Jesus. Jesus gives us an opportunity to see the story through the eyes of the five brothers - who we never meet. Almost like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, our eyes are opened as we glance the future and ask "Spirit, tell me, Is this what will be, or what might be?" And the answer comes, as with Scrooge, in the power of our response.
Today's epistle lesson, opens another door, asking and then answering "What brings contentment in Christ?" With Moses, the prophets and over 2000 years of witnesses for Christ, all that remains to be seen is how will we respond and what contentment in Christ we will seek. Amen.
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