Sunday Sermon – September 29, 2019

Following Jesus is simple, but it’s also complex. It requires us to wrestle and pray and think. Some critics of Christianity and religion in general, say that faith is just a crutch to help us make it through life, as if Christianity is just a set of pat answers given to us so that we can be comfortable and don’t have to think about how to live our lives. But I find the opposite to be true. Jesus makes demands on my life, demands that stretch me and push me past what I’m comfortable with. 

Our faith can be summed up like this: Love God with all you are and love your neighbor. This isn’t a pat answer. It’s actually a demand to wrestle and struggle and to think very hard about what a life of love looks like in different situations. For example, what does it mean to love someone who is struggling with addiction? We may think it’s our job to cover for them, make excuses for them, and bail them out whenever they make bad decisions. But the recovery community says that the most loving thing you can do for someone in addiction is to let them experience the consequences of their actions. That covering up for them, making excuses for their behavior, or bailing them out are not the most loving things, because those actions actually help keep them stuck in their addiction. 

Christianity is simple. But it’s also costly and complicated. And I’m feeling this tension in today’s Gospel reading from Luke. 

There’s a wealthy man who eats well and dresses in purple and expensive clothes. This is an important detail, because in Jesus’ day, purple dye was incredibly hard to produce and only royalty and the wealthy could afford clothes that were purple. Poor Lazarus lays at the rich man’s gate and wishes he could eat the crumbs from the rich man’s table, and instead of purple and fine linen, Lazarus’ body is covered with sores. But in the afterlife the rich man is in torment and Lazarus is in the comfort of paradise with Abraham, the father of the faith. It’s a great reversal. It should also be pointed out that the rich person is so entitled that even in the afterlife, he treats Lazarus and Abraham as servants and tries to boss them around. The point of the parable is clear. Loving God and loving our neighbors means that we will not hoard our resources, but instead, we will give them to relieve the suffering of the poor. 

This is Christianity 101. To follow Jesus means that we generously give our resources to relieve the suffering of the poor. This is a theme that Jesus talks about throughout the Gospel of Luke. He repeatedly shares the good news that those who are poor and forgotten will be comforted in the afterlife. This is the great reversal he speaks of: “Those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last.”

A natural question to ask is why Jesus is so concerned with the poor. The first place to begin is the Hebrew Scriptures that shaped Jesus’. One thing is clear as you read Moses and the prophets is that God cares for the poor. Moses tells Israel that they should leave the corners and edges of their fields unharvested so that the poor can come and harvest what’s left. He also tells Israel that every fifty years there is to be a year of Jubilee: all debts are to be forgiven, all enslaved persons are to be freed, and all land that has been purchased must be returned to its ancestral owners. In fact, there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that deal with justice for the poor. Jesus’ concern for the poor was formed by Moses and the prophets. 

But Jesus’ concern for the poor is also influenced by Jesus’ own life. According to Moses, after a woman gave birth to a child, she was to offer a sacrifice of a lamb and a turtledove. But there’s a provision that Moses gives for poor women. If they’re too poor to afford a lamb, they can offer two turtledoves. And at the beginning of Luke, what does he tell us about the sacrifice Mary offered for Jesus? She offered to God the sacrifice of a poor woman–two turtle doves.

Jesus came from a poor family and a people who had been oppressed and occupied for centuries by world superpowers. It was the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. One after the other, they claimed the land and resources and submission of Israel. When Mary was pregnant with Jesus she sang a song of praise to God we know as the Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke. Mary was probably thirteen to sixteen years old when she sang it, and you can hear the revolutionary tone in her song as part of an oppressed and poor people when she sings: 

He has shown the strength of his arm, *

 he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *

  and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *

  and the rich he has sent away empty.

Luke also writes that one time someone said they’d follow Jesus. Jesus responded by telling the would-be-disciple that “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus says that animals have places to go, but that he himself doesn’t have a home. This same Jesus, who came from an oppressed people, a poor family, and who was homeless during his ministry, can’t stop telling the poor that they will be remembered in the life to come and that the rich had better give their resources to help the poor who are suffering in this life.  

There’s a controversial sculpture called “Jesus the Homeless.” It was designed by a devout Catholic artist, Timothy Schmalz, and copies of the sculpture have been installed around the world. The sculpture looks like a normal park bench with a person laying on top of it. They are wrapped in a blanket with only a little bit of their face showing. The only other discernible feature of the person are the bare feet sticking out of the blanket, and as you look closer, you can see the scars of crucifixion on each foot, two holes where the nails were driven through their feet. The homeless person on the park bench, wrapped in a blanket is Jesus Christ. 

In 2014, a cast of this sculpture was installed at an Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina. Some people loved it, others didn’t. A woman in the well-to-do neighborhood was driving by after it was installed, and called the police because she thought it was an actual homeless person on bench at the church. She didn’t know it, but she had just called the police on Jesus. 

Jesus’ teaching for us is clear: To follow Jesus means that we generously give our resources to relieve the suffering of the poor. But I don’t have any easy answers to give you this morning. 

Before I came to St John’s, I had a very idealized vision of following Jesus’ ethic of helping poor people. But the truth is that poor people are just that—they’re people. And as people, they are individual children of God. We get a lot of people here who come to church asking for financial assistance. Some are kind and grateful. Some are bitter and hardened by life and the suffering they’ve endured. Some are in real need and some are trying to get a little cash to spend on bad decisions. 

It’s simple, help relieve the suffering of the poor. But it’s also complicated. 

Sometimes I think it’s fine to tell people no. Sometimes I say yes and help. But there are far too many times when I don’t see the humanity of the children of God in front of me, or take into account the suffering they may be experiencing. And I’ve acted just like that woman, who’s called the cops on Jesus. Or the well dressed and well-fed rich man who ignores the suffering of Lazarus. 

And I trust that God is merciful and forgives my blindness, but I can’t stop hearing the poor young mother singing about her son:

He has shown the strength of his arm, *

 he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *

 and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *

 and the rich he has sent away empty.