[Texts: Amos 6:1,4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31]
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thyself. Amen.
I started a new volunteer position yesterday, helping shelve books and do various other duties at a thrift bookstore whose proceeds benefit the public library. After a brief tutorial on how to ring up a customer and a basic idea of where things are, I was given a red canvas smock to wear, which designated me as a volunteer.
I placed a small, bright yellow object in the front of my smock, which caught a coworker’s eye and sparked her curiosity. She asked what it was, and I told her it’s an epi-pen. I explained that it’s a small shot of epinephrine– another name for adrenaline– that will help open my airway in case I am exposed to peanuts or tree nuts and begin to have a serious allergic reaction.
While it’s not uncommon to know what an epi-pen is and what it’s for, especially now that the price of refilling one has become a subject of public debate, many people have misconceptions about how they work. They think I have to measure the medicine (I don’t– it’s pre-measured) or that the needle is, like, ten feet long (it’s probably about half an inch) or that it requires some special expertise to administer. (It’s actually pretty simple.)
Then came the morbid question that I think everyone wonders about but most people aren’t brave enough to ask: What would happen if my particular epi-pen turned out to be faulty and failed to deploy properly?
The answer is that I could quite possibly die of anaphylaxis if that were to happen.
Her next remark threw me off a little bit: “That’s a whole lot of trust to have to put in something so small.”
Well, I suppose that’s not an incorrect statement. Of course, people with severe allergies who use an epi-pen aren’t the only ones who entrust our very lives to medical devices. There are oxygen tanks, insulin pumps, pacemakers, and many other marvels of modern technology that help people with serious medical conditions live longer and healthier lives.
More broadly, most everyone has relied on some sort of technology to save or protect their lives at some point. Do you trust that your cell phone will be able to get service if you ever need to call 911? Do you trust the brakes on your car not to fail going downhill at 60 miles per hour– or the brakes on the eighteen-wheeler behind you? And if you are in a crash, do you trust your airbags to deploy on time?
In theory, of course, any manmade device– including my epi-pen and your car’s brakes– can fail, even when applied immediately and correctly. And yet, we put our trust in them, don’t we?
My coworker’s comment made me think a lot of about trust and security, which happen to be strong themes in each of the readings we have for today. Did you notice that?
I think all four of these passages could be thought of as a way of responding to the question: “In whom do you trust?”
Before we dive into the reading from the Old Testament, we might need a brief history lesson. Israel was, as you may know, made up of twelve tribes. And, just like all priests had to come from the tribe of Levi, all kings had to come from the tribe of Judah. (Jesus was also a member of the tribe of Judah, while St. Paul identifies himself in one of his letters as a member of the tribe of Benjamin.)
We all know King David, right? And then there was his son, Solomon, who inherited his throne. (He’s the same King Solomon who built the temple, received a visit from the Queen of Sheba, and got two women to quit fighting over a baby.)
Well, after Solomon died, which was around 800 BC, the northern and southern parts of Israel were not happy with each other. Some of this had to do with taxation, some of it had to do with King Solomon and his insane building projects, some of it had to do with the fact that some of his wives worshiped other gods, and some of it was just general discontent.
So, Solomon was supposed to be succeeded by his son Rehoboam, who, to put it nicely, had a little bit of an ego. He basically told the northern parts of Israel, who were not fans of the late King Solomon or his policies, “You think my dad was a piece of work? Wait till you see what I’m going to be like!”
As you might imagine, that didn’t go over super well. The northern tribes seceded, declaring themselves to be an independent nation. The new Northern Kingdom was called Samaria, and the Southern Kingdom was Judah.
The residents of Judea came to be known as Jews. People from Samaria were called Samaritans, like our friend the Good Samaritan from one of Jesus’s best-known parables.
(Now, I tell you all of this not just because I’m a total history nut, but because it’s important to know if we’re going to talk about Amos.)
Amos had an interesting occupation before he was called as a prophet: he was a fig farmer. (He’s not the same Amos who makes Famous Amos cookies, of course, but perhaps his descendants had something to do with the invention of the equally delicious Fig Newton.)
Another interesting thing about Amos is that he was actually from Judah, the Southern Kingdom, but he was sent to preach in the Northern Kingdom of Samaria.God called him to be a prophet about fifty years after King Solomon died and the country was split into two kingdoms.
The Northern Kingdom seemed to be doing pretty well for itself by this point– a few military victories later, it had expanded its borders and its wealth– but that mask of prosperity hid a darker truth: the poor were being horribly oppressed, the wealthy were greedy and prideful, and some of the people were even worshiping other gods. As you can see, they were sorely in need of a prophetic voice to come up there and set them straight, and God decided Amos the fig farmer was just the man for the job.
So, that’s who Amos is speaking to in the passage we read today. Those are some pretty strong words, aren’t they? (The Hebrew word that is rendered in English as “alas” or “woe be unto them” has a strong connotation of being a threat.) Those who feel secure and comfortable in their wealth or their status, he says, are about to get a really rude awakening.
Then we have this Psalm, which was probably written by King David, and it’s a song of praise to God. Look at verse three, where it says we shouldn’t put our trust in princes and nobles or the children of men. There is no help– that word, תְּשׁוּעָה (te-SHOO-wah), really means “deliverance” or “salvation”– for us in earthly powers.
In the verses that follow, the Psalmist writes, “Happy (or blessed) is he whose hope is in the Lord” and goes on to talk about God as one who can bring about real deliverance and restoration– he mentions sight being restored to the blind, lifting up the downtrodden, justice being meted out on behalf of the oppressed, caring for the widow and the orphan, feeding the hungry, and setting prisoners free. (This will be quoted almost word for word in a famous passage from Isaiah, which will become Jesus’s first sermon in the Gospel of Luke.)
St. Timothy, to whom today’s epistle was addressed, was St. Paul’s brilliant young protege with whom he corresponded while he was in prison. Paul advises Timothy in this passage to remember that we came into this world with nothing, and we can’t take any of it with us. He talks about how the pursuit of money and wealth can lead people away from God, and admonishes his young friend that it is the duty of a Christian not to pursue the things of this world but to pursue the things which are of God: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. His advice to those who are born into privilege, or gain financial status during their lives, is not to let it make them think too highly of themselves, or to put their trust in their money or status. The rich are to do good deeds, contribute to the common welfare of their community, and care for the poor. He reiterates the same truth found in the Psalm we just read: our only true hope is in God.
And then there’s the Gospel reading. It’s Lazarus and the rich man.
(And, no, this is not the same Lazarus who lived in Bethany with his sisters Mary and Martha, the one whom Jesus raised from the dead. That Lazarus was an actual friend of Jesus’s, and this Lazarus is a fictional character in a parable Jesus is telling.)
Anyway, Lazarus was a very poor man who was obviously homeless. He was also covered in sores– it’s possible that he had leprosy or some other terrible skin disease. He hung out outside the gates of a house owned by a very rich man, whose name we don’t know. All we know about him is that he never did anything to help poor Lazarus out, even though he had lots of money and could easily have given him something to eat at the very least.
Both men eventually died– as all of us, rich and poor alike– one day will. They met very different fates after their deaths. Lazarus, the poor man, was carried off by the angels to what sounds a lot like Heaven. The rich man’s destination sounds a lot like Hell– he was separated by a great chasm from Heaven.
Now, I don’t think this passage is advocating for the existence of a literal Hell– eternal conscious torment, a lake of fire, and all of that. That concept is, in my opinion (and the opinion of many Christian scholars), extremely misguided. Hell is not a real place, but it makes a very vivid illustration for the purposes of this parable– and please remember that this is a parable, not a literal description of the afterlife.
What hell really means is separation from God. Separation from God is something we experience here on earth, and that separation is very often caused by behavior like that of the rich man, who had all the money he could ever need and then some, but refused to use any of it to help someone whom God put in his path. We separate ourselves from God when we choose not to participate in God’s work of salvation, deliverance, תְּשׁוּעָה: all of those things that were mentioned Psalm 146 about feeding the poor and helping those in need and caring for one another.
And it is torture– there may not be an actual lake of fire involved, but think about this: how much energy does it take to hate and fear everyone you meet? How unhappy must a person be who spends their whole life hoarding wealth instead of helping others? People who spend their time hating everyone who isn’t like them, refusing to help the needy, denying justice to the oppressed, and separating themselves from God and all of God’s children are not happy people. They may have money, they may have status, they may have everything they need in life– or so they think– but, as Paul said earlier, you can’t take any of that with you when you die. (Or, as we say in the South: “You ain’t never gonna see a hearse pulling a U-Haul .”) None of that is going to bring you closer to God, and in fact, many pursue it to the exclusion of pursuing God, who is a God of justice and mercy and deliverance, and a God who never fails.
There is no hope for us in money or power, in the golden bulls of Samaria or the false gods we put on pedestals today.
By the way, do you know what the name Lazarus means? It means “God is my help.”
So, the question remains:
Where does your help come from?
Where do you find hope?
In whom do you trust?