September 25, 2016 – 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Ordinary 26C
Proper 21

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

The subject line read: “The sweet smell of self love.”

The email went on to tell me: “It’s important to be yourself – whether it’s naughty, charming, playful, artistic or adventurous. … Each fragrance is paired with a soul-enriching mantra!” The sender was selling perfume. A free sample was mine for the asking. This perfume would help me express myself, show the world my true self. The name of the fragrance? “I am.” The whole package – subject line, sentiment and brand name – was a preacher’s dream. If this didn’t preach I don’t know what would. Pair this little ditty with Jeremiah, Timothy and Lazarus at the Gate and bada bing, bada boom, sermon complete!

Seriously, the contrast this offers is too good to resist. Our culture touts perfume as the purveyor of identity and meaning. We are sold the bill of goods that says worth can be purchased. Purpose can be put on like an expensive coat. Our souls can be enriched by a mantra or a spa day or a new car. What’s more, we are worth it. Whatever “it” may be. No, we aren’t just worth “it,” we deserve “it.” (See last week’s lectionary reflection on getting what we deserve… or not.) And also, we should not have to wait for “it.” In this scenario, God isn’t “I am” – we are. No wonder we don’t think a thing about stepping over Lazarus at our gates.

This time reading about the rich man and poor Lazarus, I noticed that Lazarus is asking only for crumbs; like the Canaanite woman in Matthew and Mark, he doesn’t want the sumptuous main course or even the leftovers that taste better the next day – he longs for the scraps that fall unnoticed from the table. He will be satisfied with the rich man’s detritus. Lazarus would be satisfied with scraps, the Canaanite woman with crumbs, the wayward son with the pigs’ pods. But when those who dine sumptuously every day, dressed in purple and fine linen, believe they are entitled to those luxuries or have earned them or have failed to recognize them as luxuries, others needlessly suffer.

I recently read a blog post that resonated loudly with this text from Luke. It has some salty language, but I am trusting you’ve heard such words before so I will link to it and hope you don’t get the vapors. What struck a chord with me was the author’s assessment that we mistake charity for aid:

“Don’t confuse aid with charity. Charity is old coats. Donating a coat doesn’t make you a good person but I bet it makes you feel like one. You didn’t even want that coat anymore, what you wanted was the closet space.”

She goes on to say that what is needed is, “Your vote. Not your coat.” The call is to consider the impact of policies on others, not necessarily their impact on us. “Vote for a Living Wage for others. Vote for health insurance for others. Don’t get in the way of food stamps for others.”

The aspect of this sentiment that links to Luke (and also to 1 Timothy) is that sense of other. The rich man has no sense of others until verse 27. Once he realizes that his lot is cast and Lazarus can’t be his heavenly servant, he asks for something for someone other than himself. He asks for intervention for his five brothers. This is not hugely magnanimous – he is still keeping his circle of concern within the immediate family – but still it offers a glimpse of hope that maybe he realizes “it” isn’t all about him. He isn’t the only “I am.” Abraham says that intervention has been sent, in the form of Moses and the prophets and that ought to be enough. Is it enough for us?

We, too, have Moses and the prophets and also the One resurrected from the dead. Are those witnesses enough to get our attention, impact our living, give us a sense of other, point us to the true I am?

Jeremiah’s word this week is one that counters our desire for immediate gratification. The prophet calls us to take the long view. The prophet tells us that God’s promises are sure even when Jerusalem is under siege and we are in locked in prison. This text brings to our consciousness those earlier words in Luke 12 to invest in things that do not wear out. Put our time and energy and attention into the kingdom, not our possessions. In front of God and everybody, no matter how foolish it looks, lay out your coins, buy the field in Anathoth, bury the deed and trust that investing in God’s work is a sure bet.

What if we listened to Jeremiah this week and took the long view – the really long view –believing in God’s promises to provide, to save, to see us through the darkest valley, to bring us home no matter how long the exile… would we more eagerly let go of our coat, our crumbs or care?

We have Moses and the prophets and the One who returned from the dead, too. Is that enough to give us the eyes to see Lazarus and the willingness to respond to him with not scraps but an invitation to the sumptuous feast?

What about the witness of Timothy? Can we heed his word to not be haughty, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share? Or will we get caught up in the “I am” culture that causes us to wander away from the faith?

The texts for this week, particularly the New Testament offerings, could come across as finger wagging or, dare I say it, “preachy” in the worst sense of that word. I recognize, too, that I am assuming we are the rich man, not Lazarus. That is certainly not universally true in our congregations. What is at stake for all of us, rich man and Lazarus alike, is our true identity, our created good humanity and the abundant life that results when we recognize who we are, who others are and who God is.

This Sunday is an opportunity to listen to Moses and the prophets, to Luke, Timothy and, most importantly, the One who returned from the dead who said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled … the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”

Is that enough for us? Are we convinced? “It” isn’t about us. The one who returned from the dead did so for all the nations, for the rich man and for Lazarus, the Canaanite woman, her daughter, the wayward sons still far off and the ones who never left home. We aren’t called to indulge in the sweet smell of self love, we are to follow the fragrance of the One whose feet were anointed by the sinful woman. I am certain he will lead us to the hungry and all will be fed, enriching both body and soul.

This week:

  1. Jeremiah is able to take a very long view. When have you been able to act with a long, future view in mind? When has your congregation done so?
  2. 1 Timothy talks about being content. Are you content? What makes for contentment or not?
  3. The verses from 1 Timothy contain several sayings that have become commonplace. “We bought nothing into the world, so we can take nothing out of it.” And, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Where have you heard these expressions outside of church? How do they shape your view of money and possessions?
  4. Neither the Luke text nor the passage from 1 Timothy condemn money, but they do contain pointed admonishments about wealth. How do we recognize when we are being good stewards or when we are justifying our wealth?
  5. In Jeremiah the phrase “in the presence of” is repeated. Why is having witnesses to this purchase so important?
  6. Try to notice those “at the gate” this week. Who do you see? Where are they? What are they longing for? 

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