Rev. George Miller
“Listening to the Prophets ”
Sept 26, 2010
I didn’t know this before, but the Gospel of Luke spends a lot of time on the subjects of poverty, possessions and wealth. The gospel is full of songs and sermons, parables and prophecies, warnings and woes that deal with issues of giving and not giving.
For example, near the end of Luke, two people on their way to Emmaus meet a stranger who teaches them about the prophets. They ask him to share a meal and as they break bread, they realize the stranger is actually the resurrected Christ.
A lesson we gather from this Easter tale is that when we welcome the stranger, when we share what we have, we are also welcoming and sharing the resurrected Christ into our midst.
In other words: sharing resources is sharing Christ.
Now, I’ve been reading a book called Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Its author makes the claim that churches can not continue doing and believing what they have believed and done in the past if they wish to survive.
In chapter 11 the author writes about the two functions of the church. The first, most important function is the gathering of people each week for “divine worship.”
The second function is that worship services are attached to important life moments. Birth may be met with baptism, love is connected to a wedding ceremony, death is followed by a funeral service.[i]
I don’t disagree with the author’s claim, but I was surprised that he missed a third, very important function: that the church is a place of mission, called to be Christ to a wounded world.
“The church is mission!” is what Michael Kinnamon, one of my professors used to always say, and it would drive me crazy. In my head (and to my friends) I would disagree, holding fast to my belief that the church, first and foremost is for praising God and offering up our thanks.
But after surviving unemployment, after living through this recession that’s supposedly over, after reading that 1 in 9 Americans are now living in poverty, I can’t help but to admit that Professor Kinnamon was onto something.
I may not go as far as to say that the church is mission, but I am now more inclined to say “Church is a where we praise God and mission is one of the ways in which we show our praise.”
Mission is that concept of reaching out to others. To assist our neighbors who are in need, whatever that need may be: clothes, comfort, food, shelter. And our neighbors do not have to just be the person next door, but the person in the next town, the next state, perhaps even in the next country.
In an age of internet, Facebook and C-Span everyone is now our neighbor. And so many of them are in need.
But their needs can seem so overwhelming.
In today’s reading Jesus tells a story, a fictional tale, about two very different men. There is Lazarus, very poor and very hungry. And there is the unnamed man, very rich and very satiated.
Lazarus lay by the gate, where dogs licked his sores, while the rich man sat at the table filling his face. Both men died: starvation? Gout and heart attack? We don’t know.
Lazarus finds eternal comfort. The rich man eternal thirst. He begs for his brothers to be warned, but is basically told “What makes you think your kin will listen if they couldn’t even listen to the prophets?”
What was it the prophets said? What was it that the rich, well-fed man should have listened to? Don’t eat so fast? Don’t talk with you mouth full? Don’t wear purple after Yom Kippur?
No. None of those things. Most likely what the prophets would have said was “Look outside your window. Walk out your door. Open up your eyes to the man right outside your gate and do something, anything, to alleviate his pain, even if you can only acknowledge that he has a name.”
And of course he had a name: Lazarus, the only person in all of Jesus’ parables to be given one.
The prophets cared about many things. But they particularly cared for those in need.
For example, Isaiah 58 reminds us to share our bread with the hungry, show hospitality to the homeless and to clothe the naked. The Law of Moses states that we are to “open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land (Deut.15 7-11).
Yet, it is so easy for us to close our hand, to seal it shut, even when throwing our money away.
I am ashamed to say that last week I went to the International Plaza in Tampa, a very high-end mall. I am not ashamed that I went there shopping, because I bought things I needed and some treats that make life fun.
But I am ashamed to say that I passed by two traffic lights in which there were men; grown, real men, like me, looking for assistance. One carried a sign asking for nothing more than work.
The other was a father of four, who had lost his job. While one of his sons stood on the grass, he walked towards the cars with a sign asking for help. All I could think of was “Don’t look at me. I hope he doesn’t look at me.”
I had three dollars of loose change clanging about in my brand new 2010 car and all I could think about was myself. I might as well have been wearing purple linen and stuffing my face.
And today I ask the Lord to forgive me for not doing something, anything to at least acknowledge that man’s humanity and plight.
Because just like Lazarus, that man had a name too, perhaps Al or Charles, Duane or Ed, Glen or Herb, Jim or Kirk, Sam or Tom. Or George.
Just as we all have names, so do the poor, the needy, the lonely and the alien. And they are all right outside our gates, deserving some help.
And one way we help is through our mission. Or Service, as we call it here at Emmanuel UCC.
And it is our offerings, our financial contributions that help make that happen.
Soon it will be that time of the year in which we’ll be hearing facts and figures, budgets and plans.
And I know that for some people the talk of money scrambles the brain and upsets the stomach. I know that for others the talk of money is personal and taboo.
But for us, to continue to function and grow as the Body Of Christ, it is very real and very necessary. For money is what we use in this earthly realm, and money is what our acts of mission, our service, requires.
In just the few short months I’ve been here I have already witnessed the amazing generosity of our congregation. In the spring, when a stranger was released from jail without even a pair of underwear, we rallied in such a way that the hallway was filled with socks and shoes, shirts and shampoos and stuff that was enough for two, three, four men.
Two weeks ago our Global Mission Fair raised over $600 for Heifer International. When I asked for $20 more to buy ducks, we received over $100.
The folks of Emmanuel UCC clearly know how to give to individuals and to individual causes. So now I encourage you to please keep giving. To our church, to our community, to those who you can see with your own eyes are in need.
You don’t have to give it all, but what God has called you to give.
Last week, our “guest” Safari Sam told us about the giraffes; how they give their tears to the basket-weavers of Botswana, reminding us that everyone has something to give.
The prophets tell us to give to those right outside our gates, and with 1 in 9 Americans living in poverty, they will not be so hard to find.
For when we push ourselves away from our sumptuous feats, when we take our attention off the purple and linen we’ve been blessed enough to earn and to wear, we discover there are many who will be happy with even a tenth of what we have.
And like those two people on their way to Emmaus, we may be surprised to find that when we reach out, when we invite in, when we’re brave enough to share, we not only embody Christ but we are experiencing the resurrected Christ who dwells among us.
How, through our generosity, will we ensure that Emmanuel UCC will keep reaching out to the Lazaruses in our midst?
All thanks to the God of the prophets, the Spirit of visions, and for our story-telling Savior.
Amen and amen.
[i].John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, 1998, pp.169, 172.