Sermon: “The Life that Really is Life” (September 25, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Life that Really Is Life” (1 Timothy 1:17-19)
September 25, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Back in the fall of 1995 my family and I lived in Wyoming.  A friend of mine from college named Kevin lived in Colorado Springs, and managed to score two tickets for a Denver Broncos versus the Oakland Raiders Monday Night Football game at the old Mile High Stadium.  So Steph and I loaded up our (then) two kids into our Honda Accord and headed south to Denver.

We stopped for lunch at Hardee’s in Cheyenne, and afterwards, as we were loading our fussy toddlers back into their car seats we were startled by a poor man standing behind us.  “Could you please spare a dollar or two for lunch?” he asked.  I was selfishly preoccupied about getting back on the road and irritable because, as you know, traveling with squawking toddlers is not always as fun as you might think.  “No!” I snapped at him, as I got into the car.

As we pulled out of the parking lot and headed back to the highway I felt like such a jerk—me, a minister of the gospel, acting like that to this poor man?  Really?  What a hypocrite!  So I turned the Honda around and went back to the Hardee’s parking lot, looking for the man…but I never found him.  “I’m so sorry, God,” I prayed, “please give me another chance.”

There is no getting around the central theme in today’s scripture readings—God’s command to look out for the poor.  The Old Testament prophet Amos warns “those who are at ease in Zion…those who lounge on beds of ivory…and anoint themselves with the finest oils” that because of their negligence of the poor “they shall now be the first to go into exile” (Amos 6:1a, 4-7).

And if that is not enough to make you squirm a little bit, the Apostle Paul has some sobering words for all of us in our consumer-driven, materialistic culture:

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.  But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains (1 Timothy 6:7-10).

Paul concludes by pointing to the need not “to set (your) hopes on the uncertainty of riches,” but rather on God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” and moreover, “to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for (yourselves) the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that (you) may take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

“The life that really is life” has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with your financial portfolio or possessions or 401K or any other material goods in which you may be tempted to put your trust.

And yet we are fascinated, or at least amused, by examples of extravagant riches.   Who does not want to know that Paris Hilton spent $325,000 for a mansion for her dogs, that Victoria Beckham has a $33,000 cellphone, that Nicolas Cage spent $276,000 for a dinosaur skull, that Daniel Radcliffe has a $17,000 custom made mattress, that television mogul Aaron Spelling has a 56,000 square foot mansion with 120 rooms worth $150 million, that Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal enjoys traveling in his $500 million dollar private jet?  Some of you may remember the hit television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous narrated by Robin Leach and his signoff to the viewers at the end of each episode—“champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

You may remember Michael Douglas’ Oscar-winning performance as Gordon Gekko, the tycoon from the 1987 film Wall Street—and this excerpt from a speech:

“I am not a destroyer of companies.  I am a liberator of them!  The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed—for lack of a better word—is good.  Greed is right.  Greed works.  Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.  Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.  And greed—you mark my words—will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

Greed, materialism, disregard for the poor are contrary to the heart of God—but lest we begin wagging judgmental fingers at the likes of Gordon Gekko or the rich and famous, let us examine our own hearts in the light of today’s scriptures.

If the words of the prophet Amos and the Apostle Paul make you squirm, well, it gets worse, because today’s gospel reading is one of the most sobering and convicting passages in all of scripture.  Throughout his account of the gospel Luke gives particular attention to Jesus’ heart for the poor and marginalized—particular attention to Jesus’ heart for the least, the lost, the left out.

Luke is the only gospel writer to include today’s passage in which Jesus contrasts a nameless rich man “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” with “a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  Jesus says that both Lazarus and the rich man die, because as you know, regardless of how rich or poor you are, death will eventually knock on your door, and you will not be able to pay off the Grim Reaper.

This reality is simply and vividly portrayed in one of my favorite songs from when I was a young boy in the 70’s, a haunting hit by the British progressive rock band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (ELP), the final song on their 1970 eponymous debut album called “Lucky Man”:

He had white horses and ladies by the score
All dressed in satin and waiting by the door
Ooh, what a lucky man he was
Ooh, what a lucky man he was

White lace and feathers, they made up his bed
A gold covered mattress on which he was laid
Ooh, what a lucky man he was
Ooh, what a lucky man he was

He went to fight wars for his country and his king
Of his honor and his glory, the people would sing
Ooh, what a lucky man he was
Ooh, what a lucky man he was

A bullet had found him, his blood ran as he cried
No money could save him, so he lay down and he died
Ooh, what a lucky man he was
Ooh, what a lucky man he was

After the rich man and Lazarus died, Jesus recounts what happened to each of them afterwards.  Lazarus is in heaven—no more hunger, no more thirst, no more being covered with sores, no more being marginalized and ignored—and not only that, Lazarus is accompanied by none other than Abraham.  Lazarus’ dreams had come true.  The rich man is in Hades—tormented, in agony—his “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” transformed into his worst nightmare.

And Jesus emphasizes that, as Abraham tells the rich man, “a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”  The rich man begs Abraham to somehow help him get word to his family so that they could avoid his fate, but Abraham tells that rich man that not only will his brothers not listen to scripture, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

The truth is that spiritually, without the gospel, all of us are like Lazarus.  In his 2009 book, The Furious Longing of God, the late Brennan Manning tells the following story:

It was April Fool’s Day, 1975, and I woke up in a doorway on Commercial Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale…I had been out on the street for a year and a half, drunk every day, sleeping on the beach until the cops chased me away…The morning I woke up in the alcoholic boozy fog, I looked down the street to see a woman coming toward me, maybe twenty-five years old, blonde, and attractive.  She had her son in hand, maybe four years old.  The boy broke loose from his mother’s grip, ran to the doorway and stared down at me.  His mother rushed in behind him, tucked her hand over his eyes, and said, “Don’t look at that filth.  That’s nothing but pure filth.”

Brennan Manning then comes clean:

That filth was Brennan Manning…And the God I’ve come to know by sheer grace, the Jesus I met in the grounds of my own self, has furiously loved me regardless of my state—grace or disgrace.  And why?  For His love is never, never, never based on our performance, never conditioned by our moods—of elation or depression.  The furious love of God knows no shadow of alteration or change.  It is reliable.  And always tender (34-35).

And out of his furious, reliable, tender love, and because as we prayed in the collect for today, God declares his “almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity” (The Book of Common Prayer 234), Jesus became the rich man and Jesus became Lazarus.

In his passion Jesus, like the rich man, was arrayed in a purple robe—and on the cross Jesus, like Lazarus was marginalized, ignored, ridiculed by passersby as “nothing but pure filth,” covered with the sores from being beaten and punched and flogged.  Our sin “had found him, his blood ran as he cried, no money could save him, so he lay down and he died” for the rich man, for Lazarus, for you.

No money can save you, but Jesus can, and Jesus has—his death and resurrection have bridged the “great chasm” between you and God.  And part of our response to that immeasurable love of God is to look out for the poor.

Back to that Monday Night Football Game in October 1995…Kevin and I were driving to Mile High Stadium and on the way we took a quick detour through a McDonald’s drive-through (yes, Hardee’s and McDonald’s on the same day—because when I was in my twenties, it was nutrition first).  We headed off with our bag of burgers and fries and came to a stoplight and, lo and behold, there was another poor man standing there with a sign asking for food.

I remembered earlier that day that after refusing to help the man in the Hardee’s parking lot I had prayed for another chance.  Well, here it was.  But Kevin beat me to it, and he rolled down the window and grabbed the bag and gave it to the man—“Nice and hot,” Kevin grinned, “enjoy”—and Denver won 27-0.  God gave a hypocrite like me a second chance—and to be honest, many chances since then.

When it comes to looking out for the “Lazaruses” in your life, God, who has always looked out for you, has offered you a second chance too, a second chance to look out for the poor, and in so doing, “to take hold of the life that really is life.”

Amen.