Luke 16: 14-3, Jeremiah 32, and 1 Timothy 6 A Rude Awakening September 28, 2016
Good evening ladies and gentleman. We are happy you have come to our drama “A Rude Awakening”. This is a drama with three acts. This drama is timeless as it spans many centuries. It starts back in 586 BC when Jeremiah the prophet was confronted by God and called to act in a way that seemed ridiculous.
Jeremiah was called to follow the law and buy back some family land. This may not seem unusual. Property is bought and sold all of the time. What is unusual is that Jeremiah is called upon to do this as the Babylonians were finishing up their conquest of Judah and about to take the rest of the people into exile. Jeremiah executed the purchase and had the deed recorded and stored it for safe keeping. He remained in jail, the Babylonians finished their conquest, and we think that Jeremiah lost his mind as well as his money.
Jeremiah lost neither his mind nor his money. What Jeremiah did was act with a tremendous amount of faith that God was good to his word and would one day restore the people to their land. When that restoration happened, the buying and selling of land and the building of houses and planting of vineyards would resume.
With his action Jeremiah reminds us to always take the long view. The view of God being faithful even though it may seem like it will take forever. Jeremiah knew what would save him was not his money or the acreage that he owned, but God being faithful to his word of salvation and restoration, provision and making things new.
We tell that story as a reminder that we are called to do things with our resources that may look foolish but they reflect the reality of life lived with complete confidence in God. That brings us to our story for the evening. The house lights go down. A spotlight illumines center stage. The narrator steps out from behind the curtain and begins to speak.
Our story takes place after a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Luke describes the Pharisees as lovers of money. Jesus and the Pharisees have a difference of opinion over what are the visible signs of faithfulness. This group of Pharisees believed that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing upon their faithfulness. They did not make this up to justify themselves. They based it on their interpretation of Deuteronomy that says if you obey you will be blessed with prosperity and if you don’t obey, poverty is your fate. Jesus disagrees with that interpretation.
Jesus believes that faithfulness is not measured in money and material goods. Faithfulness is demonstrated by how one uses and shares what one has. Jesus says you cannot serve God and money. This is what the old folks mean when they say “he quit preaching and has gone to meddling.” The Pharisees don’t buy it. They were faithful scholars. They were blessed with wealth. Who is this wandering teacher, who has no place to live, to tell us that we worship our wealth more that we worship God?
The curtain rises. On stage right we see Lazarus. He is out on the street begging for food, hoping to get a little something, even it is the food dropped on the ground. He is covered with sores. No one wants much to do with him because his appearance causes fear in people. Day after day he goes looking for food. Night after night, Lazarus looks for a place to sleep as he has no place to live.
On stage left we have the nicest house in the neighborhood. It has well manicured grounds, a very impressive gate in the brick wall that surrounds the complex. Each day fresh food comes from the market. The owner dresses in the finest clothes available. It is very impressive to see. The rich man and Lazarus live their lives in separate but parallel worlds. Lazarus knows about the rich man. The rich man knows very little about Lazarus. All the rich man knows is Lazarus is poor. In his world poor is synonymous with being unfaithful. If Lazarus was faithful he would be blessed like the rich man.
For many years these two men lived their lives without their paths crossing in any meaningful way. Lazarus is begging for food scraps to survive, and suffering the pain of his sores, and hoping to sleep dry and warm each night. The rich man had the best of everything, the company of his peers, and he is sleeping in a comfortable bed, with a roof over his head.
In the course of time, the great leveler struck both men. Death came to Lazarus and the rich man. No one noticed that Lazarus had died. Lazarus had no service. The rich man was honored and remembered. The folks of the neighborhood were speculating who would get what, since they knew that he could not take it with him.
The curtain closes and the stage hands set the stage for the second act. The curtain opens. On stage right is a beautiful room with polished walnut paneling, leather club chairs, and hand rubbed wooden book cases with first editions of the Law and the Prophets. The Psalter, resting on an oak stand, is a hand written illuminated manuscript that reflects the glory of the Lord. On the hand rubbed cherry coffee table, is a platter of cheeses, a bowl of olives, and a beautiful bunch of grapes. There is beautiful china to eat off and linen napkins. On the buffet is a crystal decanter of vintage wine with crystal goblets to drink from. There are two men sitting with their wine and appetizers conversing. The men are Father Abraham and Lazarus. The set is quite different stage left.
The lights come up on stage left. There is a sheet metal lean-to. Concrete blocks serve as the furniture. Several men fight for the space. The only source of heat is a fire in front of the opening. The only source of water is a mile away. As the lights come up we see a familiar face. It rattles us for this is the great reversal. The poor have become rich and the rich have become poor.
Back on stage right Lazarus seems very uncomfortable. He has never experienced this before. He is still thinking that he must conserve what is before him to make it last for those days when his pickings at the trash cans are slim. Abraham assures him that this will not run out. He will never have to get food out of the trash bins ever again. God is providing. God’s gifts are abundant and never ending. Take and eat. Enjoy the beauty and comfort that are now yours. Lazarus sits back uneasily, doing his best to comprehend what he now enjoys. Across the stage the scene is much different.
The rich man has had a rude awakening. All that he had is now gone. He is living hand to mouth. He is tormented by the heat. He is tired from the daily struggle to scrounge for food. His body hurts from sleeping on the ground instead of his plush bed. He knows there is a great divide between where he is and what is on the other side. He looks across and he spots Abraham and Lazarus in the library in conversation over wine and appetizers. The rich man cries out. Summoning all that he has within him he calls out to Abraham for mercy. Would you send Lazarus over with some water to relieve my thirst? Abraham hears his cry for help gets up and goes to the divide. Abraham is flabbergasted over the rich man’s request. Even in death he is full of himself. Even in his situation, he has not learned anything. Abraham answers. It is not what the rich man wants to hear.
Abraham says; “remember in your life time you received your good things and Lazarus in a like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. Between us is a great divide so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot do so and no one can cross from there to us.” Abraham’s words do not sink in at first.
Abraham has spoken the word to him. That word was like the ancient prayer Hannah prayed after Samuel’s birth. It was like the song that Mary sang when she found out that she was pregnant with Jesus; “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. God helped his servant Israel in remembrance of God’s mercy according to the promises made to our ancestors.”
The rich man listens. He is the rich man. He is used to getting his way. He is used to the finest of everything. No one tells him no. All of a sudden it hits him. This is his destiny and nothing will change that. He understands that he must live with it. He realizes that he has got to try to prevent it from happening to the rest of his family.
He pleads with Father Abraham. “Please send Lazarus to my brothers so that he can warn them about this place of torment so they can take steps to avoid it.” The rich man still does not get it. He thinks Lazarus and Abraham are at his beck and call. Abraham replies that they have all the warning that they need and are going to receive. Moses and the prophets are sufficient. Please Father Abraham, they need someone who comes back from the dead to cause them to repent. Abraham replies; “If they don’t heed Moses and the prophets, they will heed no one not even someone who rises from the dead.”
All of the color drains from the rich man’s face. His legs go weak and he sits hard on a concrete block. The sweat is dripping off his brow. It sinks in. The words of Amos, declaring that those who have enjoyed the wealth without considering others, who have not grieved over the ruin of the nation, will be first in the line of exile. Those words are now real. The sight of the beggar Lazarus in living in luxury with Father Abraham while he was living in a shack sunk in. The notion that his brothers could be destined to the same end and he could do nothing about it weighed heavily on him.
The lights go down and the curtain closes. The audience sits in silence for a moment. The house lights come up and the intermission starts. As the audience goes out and mills about there are whispers of conversation about the disturbing scenes in the first two acts. People are angry at the characterization of the play. They are angry about being challenged in their thinking. They are angry to see role reversal that changes what they believe to be truth. Others speak words of arrogance. Who is this that thinks this is what God is telling us? Who comes up with this stuff? Others are thinking; it is just as we thought and believed. The rich have theirs in this life and the poor have those in the next. Therefore the poor should know their place and be content with they have until that glorious day when they die and receive their reward in heaven. There are others who are wondering how this is going to end up? Is it true the rich enjoy now and suffer later and the poor suffer now and enjoy later or is there something else? The house lights flash and the crowd make their way back to their seats and waits for the last act to begin.
The house lights dim. The focus is on the stage. The curtain opens. On the stage there are two chairs and a writing desk. In one chair is a young man and in the other is an older man. The older man is gray haired and wrinkled, his body worn from much travel, many beatings, and several stints in prison. The younger man is his protégé. They sit and talk.
We overhear the older man, Paul saying to the younger man Timothy, “there is great gain in Godliness combined with contentment; we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out. If we have food and clothing we will be content with these. 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 the root of all evil. In their eagerness to be rich, they have strayed from the path and pierced themselves with many pains.”
They sit in silence as Paul lets that sink in. Then he reminds Timothy about Jeremiah buying his family property as the country was about to be fully captured. He did that because of his deep faith and trust in God to make good on his word. Remember that example my dear Timothy. Again there is silence as Timothy reflects on what Paul is teaching him.
Paul reminds Timothy of the answer Jesus gave, when he was asked; what is the greatest commandment? Love the Lord your God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself was Jesus’ response. He reminded Timothy of what Jesus had to say about who are our neighbors. He reminded Timothy that all good gifts come from God. Lastly he reminded Timothy that life lived most truly, was a life of generosity and sharing. Seeking the well being of all and not just yourself is what the life of faith is about. The stage lights dim and the curtain close. A single spot light is aimed at center stage. Out comes a woman. She speaks.
As you leave tonight think about what you have seen. Ask yourself where you stand. Are you like the rich man who is unwilling or unable to see the poor around you? Are you like the rich man who only sees the poor as people who exist to serve you and make your life better? Are you like the man’s brothers, whom he feared would never pay attention to Moses and the prophets or for that matter Jesus himself, when he talks about our relationship with our money, possessions and our neighbors? Are you like Jeremiah who does what appears to be unwise and very risky but whose faith and trust in God overcame his fear of losing what he had? Are you like Paul, who was a business man and a missionary, who has learned and wants to pass on that true contentment comes not from money and possessions, but in being extravagantly generous with others? Are you Timothy who is hearing Paul’s counsel for the first time and it strikes a chord with you? Only you know where you are with any of these. The spotlight dims and she slips behind the curtain. The house lights go up and the people file out. Will someone have heard something? Will someone change their life around? Will someone hear a fresh word from God and have their life transformed? What is God saying to you?
Can we pay the cost of discipleship? Luke 14:25-33 September 11, 2016
Intro: There is an interesting show on TV called Property Brothers. The show features twin brothers, one is a realtor the other is a contractor. The premise of the show is a family or couple needs to get out of housing that is inadequate. The future homeowners have their wants and dreams. Drew the realtor, takes and shows them a house that has everything that they want. They love it. They are ready to buy and move in until they find out the price. Their emotions are what you would expect; hurt and anger. After the shock that they can’t afford their dream, Jonathan the contractor says, you can have all that you want if you buy a place that needs to be renovated. They hem and haw. They pick a house and the renovations begin despite their initial skepticism.
Along the way adjustments have to be made as problems come up as they do in any renovation. It maybe a major re-do of electrical or plumbing systems. It may be they need a foundation fixed and sealed or other problems that have to be corrected to meet code. They have to decide what they are willing to cut back on and live without. The work gets done and at the end of the show they come into their newly renovated house proud as peacocks, acting like they never doubted for a minute that the results would be what they are. The people have had to count the costs of getting what they desired.
Right now Milner Memorial is at the point of knowing we must follow Jesus and be faithful disciples. The need for change and new life is clearly articulated. We know we need to do it. We believe we are ready. The question is; is the congregation and its individual members ready to sit down and count the cost of this transformation into new life?
Trans. In this passage Jesus is on the road to his destiny in Jerusalem. Jesus talks in no uncertain terms about what it will cost to truly follow him as a disciple.
The cost of discipleship
Jesus is going down the road to Jerusalem with an enthusiastic crowd who have heard about and seen his healing works, maybe they witnessed some of his miracles, or heard him teaching. They happily join in the throng on the road with him. They like what they have seen and they like what he has said. They want to be a part of it. It seems so easy. When they stop to rest, Jesus causes great consternation among them when he says: Whoever comes to me and does not hate mother or father, wife and children, brothers or sisters even life itself, they cannot be my disciple.
When we hear the words or read them, we draw back. Imagine what his hearers must have felt like. We must keep in mind that the Semitic understanding of the word translated hate in English, means to detach from, rather than the English meaning of a visceral dislike that wants nothing to do with the person and maybe desires them to be harmed.
If you are not willing to detach from these basic human relationships to follow me, you cannot be my disciple. In other words, if you are not willing to put these relationships in a secondary position, then you cannot be my disciple.
That bothers us. It challenges us because this is the opposite of what our culture tells us. Our culture has us idolizing our families to the point of them controlling all that we do. They shape our thinking about who and what we are. That has bad connotations.
When I served in the Kentucky mountains, the family did not take kindly to the children getting an education and moving away. Many times I saw a young person who worked hard for an education and a better life, compelled to come home through the manipulative power of guilt, over the accusation of abandoning their family and heritage. Family connections were more important that having a better life.
Jesus was telling his enthusiastic followers that if you really want to be my disciple, you must be willing to detach from that which you know and whom you love, so that you can do what God is calling you to do. I imagine that he was getting some murmuring and argument that he was wrong about that. Then Jesus puts it another way. He says whomever does not carry the cross and follow me, cannot be my disciple.
The notion of carrying the cross is that dimension of self-denial that enables us to face suffering. To bear the cross means to obey God, even in pain and loss. Following Jesus was not always going to be a time of affirmation, good feeling and laughter. It was going to have times of suffering when you were not welcome with the good news of Jesus. There would be times of beatings and being thrown in jail. There may be a call to move far away from home, family and culture to serve in a place where you do not speak the language or understand the culture. It may mean you stand for justice for a despised people or person and pay the price. Jesus says empathically and up front you must count the cost.
Just like the homeowners on the Property brothers have to count the cost of what they want in a home and if they can afford it, just as we must count the costs of any decision we make, Jesus says you must count the cost before you can sign on as a disciple.
Jesus says, no one builds a tower without making sure they have the money necessary to finish the project. No King goes to war without making sure the number of soldiers is adequate for the battle so he doesn’t arrive and have to surrender to a superior force. None of you, Jesus says, can be my disciple if you are not willing to give up and detach from everything. So what are the costs of becoming disciples of Christ? There are the physical costs and there are the emotional/spiritual costs.
The easiest costs to calculate are the physical costs. By that I mean the financial costs. For an individual the financial cost to answer the call to discipleship might include quitting one job and taking another with a pay cut. It might be in the area of education, or it might be re-locating. When I was in high school there was a man in our church who for part of his adult life did not want to have anything to do with the church. He would not come; he mocked his wife at times. Somehow Jesus broke through to him. He came to church and became active. Over time he felt a call from God to the ordained ministry. He had to count the cost very carefully.
He was the service manager at a local Buick dealer. He had a good paying job. He had a couple of children in their early school years. He had a high school education. To answer his call he would need to do four years of college and three years of Seminary. He and his wife and trusted friends talked about it and prayed about it. He decided that he must answer that call.
He left his job, they sold their house, and he and his family went off with him to college. He earned his degree. His wife supported the family and our church provided a monthly stipend as well. He went right on to Seminary. By the time he graduated the oldest child was ready for her college. He was ordained and his call to discipleship was as a chaplain in a residential Mental Health institution and later a state prison. He and his family counted the cost and decided that with faith and trust in God’s provision, they would answer the call of God to be a disciple. There was great physical cost. There was also an emotional and spiritual cost to be paid as well.
The emotional and spiritual cost to the family included being uprooted from home, job, financial comfort, friends and family. Each spouse had a change in role. The husband went from the chief financial provider to full time student, who was dependent upon his wife to provide. Her cost was giving up being a stay at home mom to having to leave her children and go to work to provide for her family. They counted those costs together and decided that they would pay the cost to answer Christ’s call to service.
That is but one story of what it means to count the cost of discipleship. You may know people who have paid similar costs to answer the call to discipleship. They counted the costs to serve as health care providers, members of the military, police or fire personnel, or school teachers. All of these callings have costs to be paid monetarily or emotionally. The same is true for a congregation. There is a cost to be Christ’s disciple and answering Christ’s call.
In speaking with the Session, I know there is a great desire here to be disciples of Jesus in ways that we may not have been before. They know there is a cost to be paid. I want to ponder with you this morning the question; are you are willing to pay the cost of being a disciple of Christ? There will be a physical cost. As you the congregation listens for and answers the call that God has for you there will be monetary costs. Depending on what your ministry is to be, there may be improvements or changes that need to be made to the building. I do not mean just the ordinary maintenance expenditures. There will be the monetary costs of having Pastoral leadership in whatever form that takes. It may include the costs of consultants to help you decide what your missional service is to the community. It may even come in deciding that the best way to serve is to close the doors and use the assets to help other ministries answer their call. The question that Jesus puts to us in no uncertain terms is; are you willing to pay the monetary costs of being a disciple, carrying the cross and serving Christ through serving Christ’s people?
I can’t answer that for you. The Session cannot answer that for you. Only you, talking, praying, and discerning together, can answer that part of Christ’s challenge. Then there are the spiritual and emotional costs. Are you willing to pay the cost of letting go of old ways and the understandings that you have of what it means to be Christ’s disciples?
One of the biggest challenges any church faces is are we willing to pay the price to change our ways so that we can be better followers of Jesus? For many many years the church has operated with the mindset that we are here and people should and will come. They know where we are. They know we have services at 11:00 on Sunday with Sunday School at 10.
At one time we could assume that was reasonably true. It is not now. People have other things to do that they did not have before. The common cultural vocabulary of the Lord’s Prayer, Apostles Creed, John 3:16 and Psalm 23 is no more. “The Bible says” carries very little weight with people. Then we add to that, we have our particular taste in music, worship style, matters of dress, and who we want to be with us or who we don’t. We have ways of governing our life together that has served us well in times past and we think they will continue to serve us well when they don’t. We are called to count the cost in changing all those ways. It is difficult for anyone.
When I served in Virginia I was active in two different national service clubs. I belonged to the Lion’s Club for four years and the Ruritan Club for about twelve years. Both organizations do great community service. Both organizations were losing members through age and death and not replacing them with younger members. I started to notice in the conversations that they had the same problem that churches were having. The way of being a Lions Club or a Ruritan Club had changed little from their heyday in the 1950’s. Both had bloated structures of governance and required too many meetings and way too much paperwork. The club meetings were centered on a meal with a speaker.
The younger people were not seeking an opportunity to use their limited time and funds to eat a meal and hear a speaker and call it community service. They wanted to do hands on work that made a difference in people’s lives. I was able to point this out to my Ruritan colleagues when they invited a young teacher to come.
He declined many invitations until he came once. He did not return. I am glad he did not. He was an agriculture teacher. He was the father figure that many of his students needed and did not have. Coming to a dinner meeting and hearing a speaker took him away from the valuable ministry he was performing with his students. That is what I mean when I say we must be willing to pay the emotional price of acknowledging that the old way of working served us well but it does not serve us well any more.
I know it is not easy to admit that, much less let go of that. I must make a confession. I have trouble letting go of old ways sometimes. I love the traditional form of worship with our traditional form of hymns. I love new words set to familiar older hymn tunes. I come to worship in a suit or coat and tie. I preach in a robe. I confess when I have tried to go without it I get uncomfortable. I am really uncomfortable without a jacket and tie when I lead worship no matter how warm it may be in the building. Having said that, I am grateful for the people who can lead us in new and faithful ways of worship, using a variety of musical forms. I am grateful for those who are comfortable in jeans, sneakers and a Polo Shirt, leading worship and preaching while not being tied to a pulpit. I am grateful because they are the ones who may reach someone who would be turned off by me and my ways. But it is not about me. It is not about what we like. It is about what does it take to reach out to those who are new? Letting go of old ways has a cost. It can cost us our sense of being in control. We like to think we can control most anything. Heaven knows our country is riddled with projects where we thought we could control water flow, or control nature in some other way. We stand back and look at a project and think we have the job done. Nothing is going to happen. The next thing you know what we thought was going to work gives way and destruction follows in its path such as the Katrina flooding. We think we can take steps to protect ourselves. We have all kinds of security measures in place, we give up some civil liberties and there is a terrorist attack.
We think we have our church life under control and God breaks into our midst and everything is disrupted. Try as we might we cannot stop it. To be faithful disciples we must be willing to let go of control and trust the Holy Spirit to lead us.
We are entering a time in our congregational life where we are letting go of control. We are saying we want God to transform us and give us new birth. We want to become a community of faith that will not just survive but will thrive. The Holy Spirit is working to lead us out of our settled ways of doing and being church, in order for us to be able to reach out and touch the lives of our community in a new and powerful way. For that to happen we have to let go of our old expectations about how people will worship, about who will be welcome, and about how new ministries are born. That is hard. It brings a sense of loss.
It can mean of loss of a former identity whatever that may have been. That must happen for that new identity to be born. Jesus’ call is to come and follow. It is not to try to fit new ideas into old forms. It is not to try to reach new people with old ways. It is to go to whom I send you to and not call out from the safety of the hallway, that the doors are open and it’s time to come in. Can we pay the cost of letting go of our prejudices and stereotypes?
Are we willing and able to see the people around us as people for whom Christ died? Are we able to see the people who need assistance, who need guidance, who need love and encouragement as Jesus in our midst? Are we willing to look past clothes, piercings, tattoos and other exterior styles to say welcome? Come sit with us a while. Come and be loved and welcomed?
Con: That is what I mean by are we ready to pay the cost of discipleship. Are we willing to pay it? It is a high cost. It costs us who we are, what we have been, and invites to become new creatures in Christ. It calls us to be a new church in service to Christ. Will we take up the cross of giving ourselves to others? Are we willing to die to ourselves so we can be raised as Christ’s disciples? Are we willing to let go of all that holds us back and break down the barriers to our discipleship? Can we and will we be willing to pay the cost of discipleship?