The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, 25 September 2016

Track One:
Jeremiah 32:1-3a,6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

Track Two:
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146

I Timothy 6:6-19
Saint Luke 16:19-31

Background: The Gospel of Prosperity
Given the texts for today (and last Sunday for that matter) it might be good to look at the so-called “Gospel of Prosperity,” and its influence on American life.  To get a good background, you might want to read Russell Conwell’s sermon “Acres of Diamonds,” or Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth”. A quote from the Carnegie piece concludes this background section below. In our own time it is Joel Osteen who has taken this nineteenth century notion and made it available to the contemporary American public. Its transmission to us was largely through the Pentecostalist healing crusades of the last Century. Oral Roberts was one such transmitter of this theology. Common to these theologies is a covenant-based understanding that God will provide blessings (material and healing blessings) to those that honor him, and use his name. Thus, “in the name of Jesus” many a healing has been proclaimed, and financial blessings promised. Here is a Joel Osteen quote that summarizes the approach, “God has already done everything He's going to do. The ball is now in your court. If you want success, if you want wisdom, if you want to be prosperous and healthy, you're going to have to do more than meditate and believe; you must boldly declare words of faith and victory over yourself and your family.”[1] This theology is a sort of background radiation that informs a great deal of American culture and life. For the preacher, then, it is good to explore what is said and being taught here and balance it against what we hear Jeremiah, Amos, and Jesus teaching in our readings for today. I conclude this with a quotation from Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth.”

In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to use the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all. Neither the individual nor the race is improved by alms giving. Those worthy of assistance, except in rare cases, seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do, except in cases of accident or sudden change. Every one has, of course, cases of individuals brought to his own knowledge where temporary assistance can do genuine good, and these he will not overlook. But the amount which can be wisely given by the individual for individuals is necessarily limited by his lack of knowledge of the circumstances connected with each. He is the only true reformer who is as careful and as anxious not to aid the unworthy as he is to aid the worthy, and, perhaps, even more so, for in alms-giving more injury is probably done by rewarding vice than by relieving virtue.”[2]

Track One:

The First Reading: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours." Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, "Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself." Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.

And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

The connection of Israel to the land has more to it than the mere possession of wealth, for in having the land one is aware of the gift of the land from YHWH. That is why the Law takes such a dim view of selling the land outside of the tribe or family, for the possession of the land is a sign of that people’s connection to God. This reading from the so-called “Book of Comfort” (Chapters 30-33), gives evidence of Jeremiah’s hope in spite of the difficulties that Israel will/has experienced. What is seemingly a simple financial transaction is executed in the direst of circumstances. The city is being besieged by the Babylonians, and Jeremiah himself is under arrest. In spite of these difficulties (which seem to stem from God’s judgment) God authorizes this act. This is done in the face of deportation – the forced relocation of nobles and families of the elites to a land distant from their land. Yet, there will be a place in the land of the fathers and mothers to which the community can return.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.     How is this transaction a sign of hope?
2.     What is possible for you when you are in a hopeful mood?
3.    For what did Israel hope?

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 Qui habitat

      He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty.
2       He shall say to the Lord,
"You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust."
3       He shall deliver you from the snare of the hunter *
and from the deadly pestilence.
4       He shall cover you with his pinions,
and you shall find refuge under his wings; *
his faithfulness shall be a shield and buckler.
5       You shall not be afraid of any terror by night, *
nor of the arrow that flies by day;
6       Of the plague that stalks in the darkness, *
nor of the sickness that lays waste at mid-day.
14     Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him; *
I will protect him, because he knows my Name.
15     He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; *
I am with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
16     With long life will I satisfy him, *
and show him my salvation.

This is a psalm of protection which at least one commentator has called an “amulet psalm.” The protection may be effected by the saying. What we are met with are descriptions of the means of God’s protection, such as the protection a large bird offers to her young. This is one of several instances in the Scriptures where God is imagined in this guise. The difficulties that cry out for God’s protective stance seems to revolve around disease and pestilence, “of the plague that stalks in the darkness.” The closing verses of the liturgical selection suddenly have God as the speaker, who reiterates the relationship and connection of God to the one who puts his trust in God.

Breaking open Psalm 79:1-9:

1.        How do you picture God’s protection?
2.        Where and when has God protected you?
3.        Why would God protect you?


Track Two:

The First Reading: Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

The alas phrases that pepper this reading from Amos make this reading a “woe oracle” – a lament that was sung or said over the dead. For whom, then, are the woes intended, and by the implication of the form itself, who are “the dead”? Amos’ words are addressed to both the northern and southern kingdoms, but his primary interest and concern are the notables of the north. We need to remember that the northern kingdom was an economically successful experiment, and the evidences of its success are enumerated for us in the reading – “those who feel secure,” “those who lie on beds of ivory,” “(those who) eat lambs, and calves.” These are the first people of the land, who seem to be unconcerned with the fate of their country, “(they) are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” Their primacy will be seen in another aspect, according to the prophet, for they will be the first who shall be led into exile. Their fate at the hands of the Assyrians would be more severe than at the hand of the Babylonians. The Assyrian policy was to resettle the population in another part of the empire, and repopulate the captured lands with a new people. Thus Israel’s demise would be total.

Breaking open Amos:
1.     What do you regret about the wealth in your life?
2.     In what ways are you a member of a privileged class?
3.    In what ways are you poor?

Psalm 146 Lauda, anima mea

Praise the Lord, O my soul! *
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
2       Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.
3       When they breathe their last, they return to earth, *
and in that day their thoughts perish.
4       Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! *
whose hope is in the Lord their God;
5       Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;
6       Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
7       The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
8       The Lord loves the righteous;
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
9       The Lord shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

Verse 2 of this psalm announces a theme of contrast between the princes and rulers, “For there is no help in them,” and the behavior and action of God. This psalm is an excellent commentary on the reading from Amos in that it models the behaviors that would have saved Israel and its people. First of all, the psalm makes assertions about the rulers and princes of the earth. Not only are they useless in enabling the lives of those dependent upon their leadership, but also they are mortal, prone to death. Thus their ideas and their notions are only but a passing fancy. God, however, is there for the people – God is their hope. The listing begins with existence itself, remembering God’s role in the creation of the earth, and by implication, humankind as well. Now to those, whom God has made, come blessings: justice, food, freedom, sight, care, and sustenance. Unlike the passing rule of nobles, God’s reign is forever.

Breaking open Psalm 146:
1.     Where do you see the mortality of world leaders?
2.     How do their promises live in the world?
3.    How is God king?

The Second Reading: I Timothy 6:6-19

There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for 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.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time-- he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Paul continues his instructions to his protégé, Timothy, enjoining him to stand firm in the face of conflict. The first paragraph of the reading confronts the temptations of wealth, and its stance runs counter to the Gospel of Prosperity proponents noted in the Background above. From that point, Paul leads Timothy to the center of the faith, “it is (Jesus) alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light.” The glories of this time are not counted as much. It is providential that the second reading, in a modified lectio continua seems to match the concerns and themes in Amos and Luke.

The final paragraph recognizes the presence and persistence of wealth, and Paul offers some considerations about the life and behavior of the wealthy. Paul sees such dependence upon riches as “uncertainty.” Paul offers a substitution, a God that “provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Thus the riches of the Christian are the good works that proceed from their faith.

Breaking open I Timothy:
  1. How does Paul counter the ideas of the Gospel of Prosperity?
  2. How does what Paul says mirror the reading from Amos and Luke?
  3. What is the real wealth of a Christian?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us 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.' He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

This is not a form peculiar to Luke or to Jesus. We have examples of both Egyptian and Jewish folktales that contrast the fate of rich and poor. These stories stem not so much from a theological interest as a practicum of death and dying. Jesus takes the time to get us to think about the ramifications of such and inquiry in our life of faith. The poor man is given a name, which is unusual in the parables, but even the name informs us. Lazarus is a form of the name Eliezer (God is a source of help). Again we meet the scraps that fall from a rich man’s table, and just like the Syro-Phoenician woman, Lazarus feels worthy of them in spite of his status and illness (both of which would have made him suspect in Jewish society). Lazarus lies at the gate of the rich man’s house. In ancient cities, the gate was the place at which justice was dispensed, but here it is a place of injustice oblivious to the fate and life of the poor man.

With death comes a reversal of fortunes, a classic outcome of stories such as this one. The rich man is aware of his new status, and begs Abraham for some small mercies. Abraham, whom we know as the heart of hospitality, is not moved by his entreaties. The separation between the two men is not just conceptual, for Abraham makes us aware that there is an actual physical separation between the two as well. Life is an opportunity for us to live the goodness that God has given us. If we fail to see and help the poor in our lifetimes, we cannot rectify that following our death. There is almost a cynical appraisal of life and the living as being impervious to God’s word, even if it were to come from one who is dead. This is the difficulty that those who would proclaim the Gospel face.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What do you understand in this parable?
2.     What does it call you to do?
3.    What does it call you to leave behind?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[2]    Carnegi, A. (1889), Wealth, North American Review, No. CCCXCI, June, 1889.


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