The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

One of my favorite sayings about optimists and pessimists runs like this: the optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist agrees. In that context, we might hear Paul’s words as hopeful: there are alternatives.

On the one hand, Paul tracks with the cynic and stoic philosophers: choosing contentment is key to happiness. Then and now that means swimming upstream in a culture that constantly and stridently proclaims that happiness depends on always having more. (It takes effort to swim upstream, hence our collect’s “running to obtain your promises.”)

Notice that the problem is not wealth, but the desire for wealth. Good work can produce wealth, but when the desire for wealth replaces a commitment to good work, it’s never pretty, as in the typical grocery store: too many products that are simply bad for our health, produce like tomatoes that retain the name, but not the taste.

But Paul sets his invitation to contentment in the context of our confession of God as generous Creator (“God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”). Luke Johnson puts this provocatively: “human existence is in itself a gift from God that cannot in any significant fashion be improved by material possessions.”

But preacher, doesn’t “contentment” mean “boring”? Well, notice how Jesus does contentment, spending so much time at the table that his enemies: “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt. 11:19). OK, preacher, but doesn’t “contentment” mean stagnation? Here the historian Lynn White Jr is helpful: technological progress—harnessing water and wind power—is driven by the monastic commitments to find an alternative to slavery (the source of this power in the classical world) and to live out Paul’s injunction “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” Contentment—Paul thinks—frees us to mirror God’s creative generosity.

“God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” That’s deeply rooted in the opening chapters of Genesis, and it’s easy to forget how counter-cultural it was/is. Israel, remember, lived between the two cultural powerhouses of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Egypt, with Mesopotamia being more relevant in this context.

The creation stories in Mesopotamia ran something like this: sowing, harvesting, keeping the canals dredged: that’s backbreaking work, and finally the minor gods had enough and revolted. The major gods solved the problem by creating humankind—to do the work no one else wanted to do. So if you’re wondering why life is the way it is…

In that context—and that’s the context in which these chapters of Genesis took their present shape—one of the big surprises is that we humans aren’t created to solve a divine problem. So if we weren’t created for that, what were we created for? Genesis—and the rest of Scripture—wonders about that question.

But back to our reading. Living like the gods is a common human dream. And Scripture happily encourages it—as long as we remember how the Living God lives. “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” So go and do likewise: “do good…be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”

Jesus’ story in our Gospel reading covers much the same ground as our second reading. No surprise: Jesus and Paul are drinking from the same wells. We might notice the last bit: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” As Christians our faith is properly centered on this someone. But if “they” aren’t listening to Moses and the prophets, that “someone” isn’t going to be convincing. Moses and the prophets: to hazard a summary: the generous Creator expects us to live generously. If “they” find that unbelievable Jesus isn’t going to register. This is why the quality of our parish life is so important: the world badly needs to be able to see what living generously looks like. Our common life is an intrinsic part of our message.

We can imagine responding to Jesus and Paul in good weather; what about in nasty weather? I’m thankful for Jeremiah. In the middle of the Babylonian siege Jeremiah’s cousin comes to him asking him to buy up some family property—a field. The timing could not be worse, for that field is almost certainly currently occupied by some unit in the Babylonian army. Responding to the request and to the divine word, Jeremiah buys the property and dots all the legal i’s and crosses all the legal t’s so that the family’s ownership will remain undisputed. Even in nasty weather by God’s grace Jeremiah is able to act generously, in imitation of this generous God.

Now, a sidebar. While today’s texts have a lot to say about what we do, our images of God are equally important. Jesus is not the Son of just any god, but of the God revealed in Moses and the prophets, the generous God who digs very deep for our healing. Do I believe in that God? Most days that’s a work-in-progress. And what image of God reigns in my gut profoundly shapes what I feel, think, and do.

We might wrap all this up by noticing that the story Jesus tells is open-ended. On the personal level it challenges us: how are things around my gate? On the local, state, and national levels, who are getting our votes? Those concerned that the rich man continue to feast undisturbed, or those concerned that Lazarus not lay at the gate indefinitely. We pray “God bless America;” what are we doing to encourage God to think that’s a good idea?

It turns out that imitating God and encountering God dovetail in surprising ways. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?… And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matt. 25:37-40).

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