Scary Stories

Sermon preached September 26, 2010
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: I Timothy 6:6-10; Luke 16:19-31

Did you hear about the math teacher that was detained by airport security carrying a slide rule and calculator? They were questioning him for carrying weapons of math instruction. (Pretty Good Joke Book, 5th. 24)
Teachers. Good teachers help shape our lives by offering us tools for living and by helping us see the world differently. Do you remember some teachers who made a difference for you – school teachers, Sunday School teachers?
The gospels portray Jesus as an exceptional teacher. His words connected with those he taught and his teaching helped change lives. As he taught, he opened people to God in new ways. Those of us who call ourselves Christian still claim to learn from the teachings of Jesus. One of the remarkable things about Jesus as teacher was his use of varying methods. He used aphorisms to distill wisdom into memorable phrases. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” He told pithy stories that could startle his listeners into seeing the world differently. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Some of these stories, these parables, were funny – the woman who turns her house upside down to find a coin and then calls all the neighbors to tell them what she has done. Some of the stories were like riddles – no easy answer but they got you to think. And Jesus even used scary stories sometimes to make his point – like today.
There was a rich man. Jesus is telling a story, not relating a news item, yet the story weaves in some of the social realities of the day – purple was very expensive and reserved for the rich. Outside the rich man’s home was a poor man named Lazarus. Both men die and their fates differ significantly. The rich man is tormented while Lazarus gets to feast with Abraham. This is a story, not a metaphysical description of life after death. The point of the story is not that wealth is bad, but that how we use our wealth matters. The rich man seems to have no conscience toward Lazarus. Only when it is too late does he seem to develop a conscience. He becomes worried about his brothers. Not only had he failed to use his wealth in a way that helped others, but he had not taken time to teach his brothers about the wise use of wealth, and now he cannot. It is a scary story meant to drive home to listeners the importance of using wealth wisely, compassionately – here, now.
The text from Timothy is a nice accompaniment. The writer of Timothy was someone grappling with what it meant to live as a follower of Jesus years after Jesus had been killed. He, too, grapples with issues of money and goes even deeper than Jesus, in some ways. Use wealth wisely, but know that if you don’t it may use you. Love of money is the root of all kinds of evil…. 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. Talk about your scary story! When we don’t get our relationship with money, with wealth right, it can skew us. It can screw us up. Think Bernie Maddoff. Think Kenneth Lay and Enron. Think of people you know or even times in your own life when your relationship with money or possessions was not healthy.
How we use our wealth matters, matters deeply, matters ultimately. When we cling too tightly, when we pursue too vigorously, when we refuse to share and care, we get it wrong. When we get it wrong it can plunge people into ruin and destruction. It can mess with our own souls. The good news is the church has a solution. Give as much as you can to us and we will unburden you! Yes, that is supposed to be funny. There is truth in the giving part. A healthy relationship with money, wealth, things, knows involves giving for the good of others – giving money, giving time, giving attention. The rich man’s problem went beyond his refusal to share with Lazarus. It was his refusal to see Lazarus as a human being until it was too late.
But I will not turn these powerful teachings, couched in scary stories, into a simple sermon on giving. The teaching is deeper than that. It invites us to a profound self-examination of our values. Maybe one place to begin is at a beginning, with the words we use at baptism – and we are going to use them soon. Will you use the freedom and power God gives you? How we use our freedom and power matters. We can use it well or not. What is using these well? Resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Trust Jesus Christ and God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Build community with all kinds of people who also want to follow Jesus.
Notice what we don’t say. We don’t mention wealth at all. My hope for Keira, and for every child I baptize is that they would never know the pangs of hunger and be unsure of where their next meal is coming from. I hope none of those I baptize ever knows deep economic uncertainty and scarcity. I hope Keira and all those I baptize in the name of the church always have enough. I also hope they grow to understand “enough” so that in their lives they will pursue justice, goodness, sharing, kindness, community, love.
One scary story deserves another. In hell, people are seated at a table overflowing with delicious food. But the people all have splints on their elbows so they are unable to reach their mouths with their spoons, or forks, or even hands. They sit though eternity emaciated, hungry, in the midst of plenty. In heaven, the scene is much the same – a table overflowing with delicious food and people with splints on their elbows. But in heaven they have learned to feed each other and so enjoy the banquet together. (Naomi Rachel Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings, 233). One test of whether or not our relationship with wealth is healthy is whether or not we can feed others, care about and care for others, bless others.
In the end these scary stories are not meant so much to scare us as to scar us, that is to mark our lives like the waters of baptism mark us with the sign of the cross. Grow gently in love of God. Use the freedom and power God gives you to pursue justice, goodness, kindness, community, peace, love. Use your wealth – your money, your time, your energy, your attention – use it well. We don’t have forever. Amen.