09/29/2019 ~ Proper 20 ~ Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13 ~ Elijah Kellogg Church.
The Law, the Prophets
“‘Please, I beg you,’ the man who had been rich said. ‘If someone would only come to them from the dead, they would repent.’ ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,’ Abraham and Sarah replied, ‘neither will they be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.’” — Luke 16:30-31.
Here’s a little secret about most pastors. We all have certain preachers we admire. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to know that preacher personally.
Here’s a second little secret. Most pastors are professional plagiarists. We appropriate— all right— we steal… one another’s sermon illustrations.
I once heard a sermon given by a pastor who is a good friend, a good preacher and someone I admire. In that sermon my friend made a very old sermon illustration sound new and exciting.
Perhaps what makes a sermon illustration effective, even an appropriated, stolen sermon illustration, is the ability of a pastor make old illustrations sound new and exciting. How old was this illustration? My bet is most of you have heard that illustration my friend used at least once if not numerous times.
So what was this illustration? It was about different kinds of thinking. Some people think inside the box. Some people think outside the box.
After the service I approached my friend and did a little leg pulling. “You fully explained one of my life long issues. Some people think inside the box, others outside the box. I say, box? There’s a box? Why was I not told!” (Slight pause.)
To reiterate something I said last week, we are all human. To the extent that we are human we all really do need boxes.
Despite my protestation, I need boxes. Bonnie will tell you I need boxes, or I at least need to pay attention to them.
But it does not matter if you are an inside or an outside the box person. Either way we all are still looking at lines which make boxes. We look at them from the inside or we look at them the outside. But the boxes, the lines are a reality.
So the issue boxes might present is simple to define. Real lines, real boxes are a good thing. We all need them. But the lines and the boxes we imagine, non-existent lines and boxes— not so much.
You see our tendency is to imagine and thereby to create non-existent lines, non-existent boxes. We then allow non-existent boxes, lines, these boxes and lines we create, to distract us so much that we ignore the real boxes. When that happens— when we ignore real boxes in favor of imaginary ones— we start to ignore reality. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Luke: “‘Please, I beg you,’ the man who had been rich said. ‘If someone would only come to them from the dead, they would repent.’ ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,’ Abraham and Sarah replied, ‘neither will they be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Slight pause.)
I maintain imagined, imaginary boxes confine us, confuse us, trap us, rule us. Let me turn to Scripture to illustrate.
Here’s a non-existent, imaginary box we’ve created: many claim the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, the God of the Hebrews, is a God of anger, a God of wrath. But, on the other hand, Jesus and the content of the New Testament represents love. Many claim the God we find in the Hebrew Scriptures is, therefore, somehow different than the God we find in the New Testament.
Why do I say this separation is a non-existent, imaginary box we’ve created? Here’s something many people ignore: Jesus refers to “Moses and the Prophets,” the Hebrew Scriptures.
In most translations the phrase used here is “The Law and the Prophets.” But what does that mean really?— “The Law and the Prophets.” And why would Jesus emphasize the Law and the Prophets? (Slight pause.)
For Jewish people in the First Century of the Common Era— and please remember Jesus is a Jew—“Law” did not mean what it means to us. When we hear the word “Law” we think it’s a set of rules. It was not thought of as a set of rules by First Century Jews.
Indeed, those who lived in that era thought of the Pentateuch, the first five books in the Hebrew Scriptures, thought of what is often referred to as the “Law,” not as a set of rules but as instructions, as teachings, as an opportunity to learn. Again: these were not rules.
Further, for First Century Jews, the “Prophets” predicted nothing, foretold nothing. To say prophecy is a foretelling of the future is a very secular definition.
Here is the Biblical definition of prophecy. Prophecy is to speak the Word of God, to speak the truth of God. Prophecy is not about events. It’s about eternal truth. What real prophets do and what prophecy does is speak the Word of God, the truth of God.
Hence, for First Century Jews the writings of the prophets were an elaboration of the instructions, a commentary on the instructions, an interpretation of the instructions. These were and are, thereby and also an opportunity to learn. (Slight pause.)
Well, within the context of said instruction, within that context, the Bible gives an amazing amount of attention to material possessions. In parables and oracles and stories it warns about the delusions, the created boxes and the created lines of material possessions. Scripture directly addresses the way we humans make idols of our possessions, repeatedly directs our attention to the poor and the destitute and the need to help.
Indeed, in this story it’s clear the rich person knows about Moses, about the Law, about the prophets. Further, the story never says rich person mistreated Lazarus.
So, the issue is not about someone being mean or abusive or even arrogant. To again reiterate what I said last week— in one sense this story is about mindlessness. The rich person simply never notices Lazarus.
On top of that, the rich person clearly never even noticed Moses and the Prophets. They were just there— a part of the environment— unnoticed.
So, as to what this story is about, it is clearly not about any reward in the afterlife and should not be read that way. This story should be seen as an instruction for us. Why? It is a story about what is happening here, now, about what we might need to do here, now.
You see, the rich person does not recognize what’s happening here, now. So perhaps, the key question for us is simple. What is happening here, now? And to be clear, this question primarily applies to what we do not notice, the boxes which are there but we do not see, boxes which are right in front of us but go unnoticed. (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to thinking inside the box and outside the box. How we think about boxes is not the issue we need to tackle. The issue we need to tackle is the non-existent lines and non-existent boxes, imaginary boxes that confine us, confuse us, trap us, rule us— boxes we create. We need to overcome those.
And, yes, Scripture is really clear about what the Prophets said it is about. Scripture is about the Word and the will of God. First, love God. Second, love everybody.
So, since we humans continue to commit acts of violence, acts of injustice, a prime question for us becomes ‘what part of love everybody do we not understand?’ What part of God’s justice— not our justice, God’s justice— do we fail to understand?
Of this I am actually quite sure. Perhaps most the prevalent injustice I know about happens simply because we do not notice the boxes God creates. These are the real boxes, the real lines, concerned with the real needs of people. But we pay attention to the boxes we create. Need I say more? Amen.
09/29/2019 ~ Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Earlier I said Jesus is a Jew. Please remember the only Bible Jesus knew was what we call the Hebrew Scriptures. And the New Testament constantly quotes the Hebrew Scriptures. My point is there is a continuity, an arc to Scripture. That continuity, that arc, can be summed up in one word: covenant. And, in the words of British theologian Nicholas Thomas Wright, entirety of Scripture points toward Jesus and the fulfillment of covenant which continues with us.”
BENEDICTION: There is a cost and there is a joy in discipleship. There is a cost and there is a joy in truly being church, in deeply loving one another. May the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ rule among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.