Proper 21C Sermon (2016)

Proper 21 (Sept. 25-Oct. 1)
Texts: Luke 16:19-31;
Amos 6:1, 4-7; 1 Tim 6:6-19


We Christians have gotten in the habit of using the Bible as a fortune-telling document, as a predictor of what will happen — of not just what might happen, but will happen. If the Bible predicts that bad things will happen — maybe even the end of the world — we want to know about it.

But why do we want to know? Isn’t it so that we might somehow avoid the worst? If something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. We can’t avoid it. Or are things more gracious than that? When Amos the prophet says in our First Reading today, for example, that the rich will be the first to go into exile, are they locked into that fate? Is there no turning back? Or is the prophet telling them this as a warning, so that they might choose a different course? That they might choose not to ignore the poor? And a similar question with Jesus’ parable today. Is Jesus locking rich people who ignore the poor into a certain fate? Or is he giving them a chance to choose a different course?Let’s watch together a view minutes of a more recent parable, that well-loved tale by Charles Dickens about the fate of Ebenezer Scrooge. Here is one of the final scenes, where the Ghost of Christmas Future takes Scrooge to a grave yard:

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It includes the following words from Scrooge:
“Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

The questions from Scrooge to the Ghost express exactly the more gracious aim of the biblical prophets, including Jesus. Prophecy is not about showing us the shadows of what will be, but of what might be. It shows us courses, paths in life, that if we persevere in them will lead to certain ends, but it’s precisely so that we might depart from those courses and choose a different path in life. That’s what Scrooge does, and why it’s such a beloved parable for us.

Now, there’s another element of these two parables today — both Jesus’ and Charles Dickens’ — that we need to consider together. I begin by asking, do you think Charles Dickens requires us to believe in ghosts to get the gist of his story? Do we need to believe that the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future could visit someone in one night like happens in A Christmas Carol? Well, no, we say. The ghosts are simply a fictional element for being able to tell a compelling story. I’d like for us to see the same in Jesus’ parable, with the picture he gives of the afterlife. There’s clues — that he uses the name of the Greek underworld, Hades, for example — that Jesus is simply using a common folktale to tell his story. We’ve come to see it as a prediction of what the afterlife is like, but I give us a strong word of caution against that. Jesus is using a fictional element to tell a compelling story, one that gives his listeners a chance to depart from their courses, to choose different paths. The immediate setting of this parable is that Jesus has called the Pharisees lovers of money. When they respond negatively, he is telling them this parable about their potential fate if they don’t depart from their courses.

So even though I caution about taking verbatim the picture of the afterlife here, it is compelling to see how Jesus describes it: namely, as a great chasm that opens up and separates people. I think the image of a chasm is the compelling, instructive part of this parable.

We can ask ourselves: what happens when groups of people ignore each other over time? Isn’t it like a great chasm continues to widen until it seems like it becomes uncrossable? And the greater responsibility generally lies with the group of people with more power. In the case between rich and poor, for example, it is the responsibility of the rich to not ignore the poor. And this parable is a warning against the bad things which happen when we allow a great chasm to grow between groups of people. What happens in history when the chasm between rich and poor continues to grow?

What are the chasms today?

  • Still the rich and poor
  • White people and people of color
  • What about heterosexual and LGBT persons?

Good news! God has made the first step in bridging the chasm between God and humans so that we might see how to do so between human beings. As St. Paul put things in Phil 2: even though Jesus was equal with God, he took human form, taking the place of a slave, becoming obedient even unto death on the cross. God in Jesus Christ literal crossed the chasm! God has begin filling the chasm with love, and calls us to follow.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, September 24-25, 2016
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