Archive for September, 2016

Rich like Lazarus

Posted: September 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

25 September 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

James 2.1-10  Luke 16.19-31

Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom?

We are all one in the body of Christ, and rich in God’s blessings
But this reading from James shows how even in the early church, when the good news of Jesus seemed so fresh, social distinctions were so ingrained that the poor were often treated badly compared to the rich

This morning I want us to think about the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and reflect on the kind of life we aspire to
I want us to reflect on the biblical relationship between suffering and reward
I want us to think about what it means to be lost – relating what we heard in the readings this morning to what we heard two weeks ago, about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son

We have to ask what kind of life we aspire to, because in theory at least our values as Christians are so diametrically opposed to the values of the society that surrounds us

The god of the modern world is the economic god
The god of higher growth and higher productivity
The god we serve by always striving to earn more and spend more
The god in whose service we push to the margins all those who don’t earn or can’t spend

The life style of the rich man shows these aspirations are not that new
I don’t know where his money comes from, but he spends extravagantly
He consumes conspicuously – he feasts every day – he wears robes fit for an emperor, or a god
Yet the story has barely begun, before these things are snatched away from him by death

So what was it all worth? What does the rich man’s life amount to?
What does it amount to compared to the life of Lazarus?

It’s very easy to say the life of Lazarus is good, and the life of the rich man is bad
But I don’t think that’s a fair summary of the gospel
Is the gospel just pie in the sky when we die?
Are we meant to applaud the suffering of others, because it is morally good for us to see it and for them to endure it? Surely not

The Bible says different things about wealth in different places
Sometimes it says wealth is a sign of blessing – a reminder of God’s covenant with us
If you are right with God, God will prosper what you do

There’s a problem with that doctrine, because sometimes the wicked appear to prosper
You can comfort yourself, as the Psalms do, by saying those apparent blessings will not last
Because they do not come from God

But we know from our own experience the world is not always like that
We do not often see the rich come to grief
If anything, people with lots of money are likely to enjoy a longer and more comfortable old age than the rest of us

It doesn’t even solve the problem if we push back the solution to the time after death
It doesn’t sound convincing to say, go and sit in the dust with Lazarus and be happy – because one day the rich will burn
That thought doesn’t bring much satisfaction
Do we really imagine the gospel asks us to rejoice in the suffering God will eventually inflict on someone else? Are we not supposed to be praying that they will come to Jesus and be saved?

I think there’s a better answer, which is still a biblical answer
It’s an answer which turns the focus away from ourselves, and towards our relationships

There’s an old show business saying that goes, Be nice to the people you meet on the way up; because you’ll meet them all again on your way down
Which is basically a way of saying, fame doesn’t last
What remains in the end are the friends you make

I don’t think the rich man in the story paid much attention to that advice
The rich man actually leads a very impoverished existence
An existence impoverished by the absence of relationships
And that comes out most strongly in his complete lack of compassion for Lazarus

The text says Lazarus longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table
Possibly what is meant here is the bits of bread the diners wiped their fingers on and threw away
The question is academic, because I don’t think Lazarus ever had any – he’d just have liked to
But he didn’t, because no one came from the rich man’s house to offer him scraps

The rich man is eventually punished for his indifference
He is punished in the next life, because he was blind to Lazarus’s misery in this one
But I think you can say he is punished in this life too, because he is blind to the emptiness and futility of his own existence

Wealth and poverty have more in common that you might think
Suffering is monotonous
It’s the absence of hope, the lack of anything to look forward to, that really grinds you down

But even a life of pleasure has its own monotony
There are only so many rich clothes you can put on
You can only eat so many banquets
If you sit down to a banquet every day, for you it’s just an ordinary meal

The self-centered pursuit of pleasure is ultimately boring and self-defeating
What is there to look forward to, if you think you already have everything you could ever want?

What makes our lives rewarding, no matter how materially poor we may be, are our relationships
First with God, then with one another

Think back to last time I was here, and the story of the prodigal son
The turning point was the moment he realised he was lost
Lost, not because he was far from home, not because he had surrendered his dignity, but because he had denied his relationship with his father
And so he repented – he turned around. He went back home, prepared to beg to be taken back

Without relationships, all of us are lost – as the rich man is lost
Think of the contrasting fates of Lazarus and the rich man in the next life
But think of those lives, not as a reversal, not as compensation or punishment for the lives they led on earth
– But as a continuation of the lives they led on earth

Lazarus rests in the bosom of Abraham
He is gathered to his ancestors, as the Old Testament puts it
He enters into the blessings of God promised to his ancestors – a community of blessing

Lazarus knows he is found – but the rich man is still lost
The rich man continues to live in an empty hell cut off from others
Even now, he does not truly repent – he still thinks only of his body and its comfort

That, for me, is what this story is really about
It’s not a vengeful reflection on what we hope is going to happen to people better off than we are
It’s a consideration of what it means to be lost
It’s a reflection on how the blessings of God can still be discovered, at the heart of suffering, as long as there is compassion

Having no money is a problem – but to have no compassion is a tragedy
Compassion, for us, is simply the love of Christ – the love of Christ for us, that inspires our love of God and our love for the strangers in our world

Our mission is to search for people living lives without compassion – either people who receive none, or people who seem to have none to give
Our mission is to teach them to love God and other people, through the compassion we show for them

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Amos on the free market

Posted: September 18, 2016 in Uncategorized

18 September 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Amos 8.4-8

We’re eager to trade silver for the poor, a pair of sandals for the needy!

Whenever there’s a harvest, we know it won’t be shared out equally
The labourers get their wages, but the farmer owns the land, and the farmer gets the crop

Of course, the farmer has to find the money from somewhere to buy the farm
The farmer has to sink money into growing the crop
If the crop fails, the farmer carries the can
But more often than not, the crop is good and the farmer takes the profit
Who is always richer – the farmer, or the worker?

Wealth equals power, power equals wealth
Wherever there is inequality, there will be wealthy people who take advantage of their position
So that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer
Amos says, wealth comes with the responsibility to treat people decently and not exploit them

The prophet Amos is talking here
He is angry, because he believes God is angry
What sort of things make God angry?
Lets go through the passage one verse at a time, and see

When will the new moon festival be over, so we can sell grain?
When will the Sabbath end, so we can open up the grain bins?
Amos is annoyed by rich people who think there should be no days off – they should be allowed to make money every day
I suppose we could talk about all those adverts on the TV on Christmas Day, for sales that start on Boxing Day – and the people who have to cut short their holiday, to serve in the stores
We could talk about parents who don’t have a day to spend with their family, because their boss makes them work at the weekend

We’re eager to sell less for a higher price,
and to cheat the buyer with rigged scales!

Have you noticed how chocolate bars and tins of tuna have got smaller, but the price is still the same?
Amos talks about rich people who know they can charge what they like, because they’ve bought up every scrap of grain that’s available and no one can buy from anyone else
We could talk about shops in poor areas that charge more, because they know their customers don’t have cars and can’t afford to travel to cheaper shops
We could talk about big businesses who dodge their taxes, so that other people end up paying more

We want to mix in some chaff with the grain!
Poor people often have to put up with food that has been adulterated – mixed with cheaper ingredients
We could talk about food manufacturers who bulk out their products with extra sugar and fat
The food looks like a bargain, but it isn’t. It isn’t healthy, it isn’t nutritious

We’re eager to trade silver for the poor,
a pair of sandals for the needy!
Amos is talking about slavery – about people so poor, they have to sell themselves and their families to clear their debts
You might say we don’t have slaves any more, but I know people who have to do at least two jobs to make ends meet
People who work so many hours, they hardly see their families
They are not slaves, but they cannot call their lives their own

We hear a lot of talk about free trade and free markets
Just let market forces decide, some people say, and the world will be better for everyone

I’m not sure I agree
If grown-ups allow big children to take sweets from smaller children in the playground, does everyone eventually have more sweets?

It’s possible market forces could work in a perfect world
But this is not a perfect world
The so-called free market is never truly free
It’s always the richest people and the biggest companies and the most powerful governments who decide how markets really work

Even the rich suffer in the end – because no one is secure when we are all at the mercy of the market
If one person is cheated, other people can be cheated
If one person goes hungry, other people can go hungry
No one in the world can be truly happy, said a philosopher, if even one person is not happy

We do not make people prosperous or happy by making an idol of the market
Market forces do not make us free
Freedom for us lies in obedience to the will of God
Only the will of God can set us free from the forces of the market and the dictates of ideology
Only God is good; only God can make us free and happy

11 September 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Luke 15.1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling.

Once again, we see a teaching situation where the people around Jesus are divided
– scribes and Pharisees on one hand, tax collectors and other outcasts on the other
The so-called sinners flock to stand next to Jesus
The so-called righteous stand apart, and judge him for welcoming the sinners

The teaching Jesus gives here shows us he knows exactly what is going on
– exactly what is in the hearts of the different people around him
He teaches all of these different people something about themselves
– as well as something about who he is

There are three parables in Luke 15, of which we heard two
Those three parables are collectively known as the ‘parables of mercy’. They are:
– The parable of the lost sheep
– The parable of the lost coin
– The parable of the prodigal and his brother

The messages of the first two parables are stated clearly in the text
The message of the parable of the lost sheep is, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
The message of the parable of the lost coin is, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents

The parable of the prodigal son and his brother has no explicit moral like either of these
The message we probably read from the parable is that it is easy for the host of heaven to rejoice over repentant sinners
– much easier than it is for flesh and blood human beings

The parable also begs the question, who has the authority to decide who is righteous?
Who has the authority to brand someone a sinner?
Who has the authority to decide whether or not someone’s repentance is genuine?

What sticks in our minds at the end of that parable is the rejoicing of the father
But it actually ends with the grumbling of the older brother
– his refusal to celebrate his brother’s return
– his rebuke to his father for his generous forgiveness

The parable of the prodigal ends this way for a reason
The difficult ending brings us back to the setting of this teaching
It makes a link between the parables, and the audience

The elder brother’s grumbling echoes the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees
The way they stubbornly stand apart from Jesus
So Jesus has once again created a teaching situation where the reaction of part of the audience reinforces the lesson he wants to give to the others on the scene

Does anyone in this scene really have the right to call themselves righteous?
We might feel sympathy for the tax collectors and the other so-called sinners
The people in the crowd probably had a lot of respect for the scribes and the Pharisees
But as Jesus himself says later, in Luke 18.19, No one is good, except God alone
How can we stand before God with confidence? What attitude do we need?

To answer that question, we have to think very hard about what happens in these parables
The endings of the first two parables are simple
The shepherd finds his sheep; the woman finds her coin
They both rejoice with their neighbours

But the ending of the parable of the prodigal is unclear
And the ending of this whole episode is also unclear
We know neither whether the brother in the parable joins the celebration, or whether the real-life scribes and Pharisees come to Jesus

The endings of the first two parables are simple – you might almost call them too simple
It’s easy to rejoice when the lost sheep is found
It’s easy to rejoice when the woman finds her coin

But how did these things come to be lost?
There’s nothing to suggest the man is a bad shepherd
There’s nothing to suggest that the woman is careless
We can’t blame the sheep or the coin

And that’s where the first two parables are different from the last
We keep in our minds the image of rejoicing in heaven over the saving of the lost
But we introduce the complexity of a situation where human beings refuse to share the joy that is celebrated in heaven

Because we can blame the prodigal son
Perhaps we can also blame the father who lets him go, and welcomes him back
Although if we do, we do a very harmful thing
We place ourselves in the position of the resentful elder brother

The fundamental difference between the tales of the lost sheep and the lost coin on the one hand, and the tale of the prodigal son on the other, is this
– The lost sheep was probably grazing quite happily when the shepherd found it
– The lost coin was lying in a dark corner, in the cobwebs and the dust
– Of the three things that were lost, only one had the capacity to realise that he was lost
– Only one had the capacity to search for his rescuer

That is the point for the crowd around Jesus, for the scribes and the Pharisees standing apart, and for us sitting here today
We are not the ones giving directions – we are the ones who are lost
We are not the ones deciding who should be saved – we are the ones in need of rescue
So we should not be the ones dispensing judgement – we are the ones who have to beg for mercy

Jesus is only here for the lost sheep of Israel – the people who admit they are lost
The lost are the ones who recognise the voice of their shepherd, and flock to be near him
They recognise the voice of Jesus as the voice of their rescuer

The scribes and the Pharisees are not the lost sheep
– because they are too proud to admit they are lost
– in fact they are the bad shepherds, responsible for the loss of the flock
They do not recognise the voice of Jesus as the voice of our rescuer
– because they will not admit they need to be rescued
– and because they will not admit that there are others God wants to rescue
Their denial of their need is a denial of Jesus himself

There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents
– The one who admits to being lost, and asks Jesus to show the way

There is joy on earth when someone who was lost is found
Is there anyone else we know who deserves to share that joy?

Because to seek and save the lost is the task we have been left with
And no real joy is possible for us in doing anything else