Sermon: Getting the Points

People lined along the street in Hilo holding signs during the Climate Strike of 9/20/2019.

September 29, 2019
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 16:19-31

by Eric Anderson

I don’t know if any of you have watched the situation comedy called The Good Place. Created by Michael Schur, it’s set in the afterlife, in heaven and hell, or at least in some version springing from Michael Schur’s imagination.

The plot takes too many twists and turns to describe, and you’ll enjoy it more without spoilers from me. It won’t surprise you, however, to learn that there is a point system that determines who goes to The Good Place and who goes to The Bad Place. Do something good, and you get points. Do something bad, and you lose points. At the moment of your death, you’d better have the right number of points, or…

It’s a nice, simple system, and it’s probably my least favorite part of the show. I think life is more complicated than that. I think human relationships are more complicated than that. I think humans’ relationships with God are more complicated than that.

It’s more complicated than just “getting the points.”

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for simplicity. After last week’s Parable of the Unjust Manager, which had me diving into the lovable rogues of some of my favorite movies (they show up in The Good Place, too, incidentally), the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus has an admirable simplicity. You don’t even have to worry about any kind of symbolism or allegory. Everything is straightforward. There’s a rich man, and a poor man, and there’s heaven, and there’s hell, and it’s very easy to figure out the point. One of this week’s Bible study participants told me with a relieved sigh, “I understood this one!” I know how he feels.

Our relief, however, is short-lived, because while the point is obvious it’s not exactly comforting, is it? “Care for your neighbor or go to hell.”

Can we go back to last week?

I got the point. It’s about… getting the points.

Good heavens. Are we back to that again?

To some degree, we definitely are. God has expectations of us, and we dare not forget them. Those expectations clearly include the insistence that we treat our neighbors with care and compassion – all of them. Not just the ones we like. Not just the ones who can do us favors. Not just the ones who will invite us to dinner. Not just the ones we agree with. All of them.

The ancient law of Israel had been abundantly clear about this. Leviticus 19:17-18: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lend enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” The concerns of the ancients were not limited to people, as in Deuteronomy 22:4: “You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall help to lift it up.”

Jesus spoke from the depth of his tradition. Mitzi J. Smith writes at Working Preacher, “Unlike most politicians today who focus on the so-called “middle class” as if the poor matter less/little, Jesus is concerned with the poor, sick, and marginalized. As wealth becomes concentrated with the top one to two percent of a population, masses live in poverty. Jesus attempts to raise the consciousness of the rich about poverty, compassion, and social inequality.”

Further, the rich man in Jesus’ story let Lazarus (notice that Jesus only gave one of these characters a name – in fact, this is the only character Jesus gave a name to in all of his recorded parables) – the rich man let Lazarus be a stranger. He refused to treat him as a neighbor. Is that, perhaps, why Lazarus has a name and the rich man did not? For us, Jesus’ hearers, Lazarus is the neighbor. The rich man remains a stranger.

It’s much harder to refuse aid to the neighbor, the person whose name you know, the person who has a story, the person whose suffering you comprehend, than the nameless stranger.

Julian DeShazier writes at the Christian Century, “Think about ministries that want to end homelessness without being in relationship with the homeless people in their neighborhood. Think about the last homeless person you saw and whether you thought about their name or their story. See them, Jesus indicates in Matthew 25, and you see me. In this week’s story, Jesus is pushing us into the vulnerability and risk of relationship. What the rich man misses is not merely a chance to redistribute his wealth but a chance to encounter the living God.

“Thankfully, the chasm is not too great for us to overcome nor has it been ‘fixed’ as it has been for this rich man. Even in Hades he wants a dead man to visit his father and five brothers—he knows they won’t convert without being taken to the extreme. But to this request we hear perhaps the mightiest nugget of this story: it shouldn’t take a miracle for us to repent. What we need to do better is right in front of us—no earthquakes, no cancers required—and we should take advantage while we are still in the land of the living.”

So who is waiting at our gate?

I am very proud that this church voted to become a Family Promise Host congregation. I understand and applaud the compassion and the bravery it required. Family Promise will not, however, be setting up a chapter here in Hilo, and for the best reason of all: we are so close to functionally eliminating family homelessness on this island that we’d be out of business almost as we started. That still leaves many other people, however, some of them still struggling to find new homes since last summer’s eruptions drove them from Leilani or Kapoho. Can we summon the courage to learn their stories? To work with them? To help them find solutions to their needs?

Who is waiting at our gate?

It’s too obvious to ignore: those seeking refuge, or opportunity, or sanctuary in our nation. The barriers we’re raising at the border, both the physical and the legal – the administration now seeks to reduce the number of refugees admitted each year to zero – the barriers we’re raising at the border are not simply awful, hateful, and racist. This story says they’re damnable.

To keep people at our gates is… damnable.

There’s another picture that leapt to my mind this week, though. Greta Thunberg began her students’ strike outside the Swedish Parliament building in August of last year. Just thirteen months ago. A photographer named Adam Johansson took a picture of her sitting all by herself with her backpack and her sign. In contrast, organizers estimate that 4 million people participated in the climate strike on September 20th, including a group waving signs here in Hilo.

She spoke to the United Nations and said this: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

“For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”

The entire planet, my friends, is sitting outside the gates of the wealthy and the powerful. Our gates. And we won’t have to wait for death to find out the consequences of ignoring it.

She went on to say: “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”

“Then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”

Can we get the points? Can we make the connections? Can we do our part? Can we care for our neighbors? Can we care for our planet?

Can we confirm the faith of a sixteen-year-old girl that we will act? That we will care? That we are, as we claim to be, good people?

The homeless, the refugees, the sick, the poor, the unloved, the planet itself, lie at our gates.

They wait for us.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Getting the Points

This week’s recording differs, in part, because of some popping in one of the microphones and a quick switch by the pastor. It is not, of course, the only difference from the prepared text above.

Photo of the Climate Strike action in Hilo, Hawai’i, on September 20 by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on September 29, 2019

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