Lectionary 26C (September 25, 2016)

“Take hold of the life that really is life.” The author of 1 Timothy urges it. I’ve been saying it at the breaking of the bread. It is a calling into a life of stewardship. By stewardship I do not just mean the narrowest definition of money; I mean Christian life: trusting that life comes from God, and living and giving accordingly. Such calling often gives us pause. We Lutherans are sensitive to works righteousness, as we should be. Plenty of preachers are happy to tell you how you can save yourself by believing, praying, or paying a certain way. But we say these words in the midst of our worship, and something amazing happens when we worship.

We come in here as humans who by default mistrust other humans. We have to. The world teaches us to look out for ourselves (and maybe our friends) at the expense of others. The system is built on the assumption that we’ll act this way. And then God loves us with a love that cannot fail, that never goes wrong. And God loves our neighbor with the same trustworthy, unfailing love. When we see God love our neighbor with the same love with which God loves us, the Holy Spirit moves in us and calls us to love and trust our neighbors. That love and trust of neighbor is how we love and trust God. It is God’s response to the overwhelming pain in our world.

There are so many things to be upset about today. We have an oil pipeline spilling in the South while another one is slated to cut through Native American burial grounds in the Plains. We have a man bombing New York. We have an attempted ceasefire in Syria broken by every actor including the US. We have unarmed black men killed without recourse. An NFL player decided to kneel during the national anthem to protest how people of color are treated in this country, and our media chose to talk about the manner of protesting rather than what he was protesting. Not wanting to deal with misery seems to be a hallmark of fallen humanity. Just ask Amos.

Israel in Amos’ day was free, religious, patriotic, and prosperous. Their army had expanded their territory (and they believed God had a hand in that) and wealth was now flowing. The problem was it was all flowing in one direction. A handful of elites were becoming rich, keeping everyone else on the edge of survival. They had beautiful patriotic and religious ceremonies and whole lot of impoverished people. So one day God spoke to Amos—not an Israelite, but from Judah, their neighbor to the south. Amos was tending his herds and pruning his trees, and God said, “Go up to the Temple at Bethel. I’ve got something for you to say.” Amos tells Israel, “You all are partying and meanwhile you’ve ruined the country and its people. God is going to get rid of you!”

You can imagine how this goes over…but you don’t have to, because it is recorded in chapter 7 of Amos. Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, goes to King Jeroboam and they decide to construe Amos’ acts as conspiracy. Then, Amaziah confronts Amos, telling him, “We appreciate that you are a professional prophet, but you need to prophesy somewhere else. This isn’t an appropriate venue for prophesying. This is the king’s temple, and you’re upsetting people.” At no point does the priest or king engage Amos over his concerns. They try to change the subject from grinding poverty to the legality or propriety of Amos’ actions. Amos’ response is brilliant. First, he corrects Amaziah: “Hey, I’m not a professional prophet, okay? I tend herds and prune sycamore trees.” And then he dives right back into prophesying. Beautiful. He will not allow the powers to change the subject.

Changing the subject seems to be the problem with the Nameless Rich Guy in Luke 16. There’s nothing outrageous about the reversal of fortunes. The rich believed their riches were a sign of God’s favor, while the poor expected God to stick it to the rich one day. Whatever. The bulk of the story happens after the reversal of fortunes. The Nameless Rich Guy still acts like Lazarus is a nobody, like the barrier between them in life remains in death. Abraham points out the obvious (since the guy doesn’t seem to have noticed it): “Gee, I’d love to help you, but there’s this great big barrier between you and Lazarus. I wonder who put it there….” Clueless, the guy still expects Lazarus to run errands. “Send him to my brothers to warn them!” Abraham replies, “The Law and Prophets are full of warnings. Now, about that barrier between you and Lazarus….” Determined not to talk about how he treated Lazarus, the guy insists, “No, they’d totally believe it if someone dead went to them.” Abraham shoots back, “If they don’t listen to the Law and the Prophets, they wouldn’t be convinced if someone rose from the dead and visited them.”

Both texts sure nail our way of (not) handling problems. I mean, remember, Amaziah in Amos and the Nameless Rich Guy in Luke are God’s people. They are chosen and beloved of God. Both live with at least some knowledge of God’s love. And both have ruined lives. The Nameless Rich guy has ruined Lazarus (and even in death expects Lazarus to work for him). Amaziah represents a section of society that has ruined the whole country. Last week we read about the dishonest steward, or the shrewd steward. Today we read about the crummy stewards. It’s stewardship in the broad sense of living as God’s people. They’re not very good at it.

There doesn’t seem to be much good news in these texts. IN these texts. Maybe the good news is in the way Luke 16 ends. There is no pronouncement from Jesus. No definitive sense that the conversation is over. It remains possible that the Holy Spirit will get through to the Nameless Rich Guy.

The good news is possibility, the possibility that the Holy Spirit will do what we depend upon her to do. The stories illustrate what happens when we don’t trust God. I am not saying that if you work at following the Holy Spirit you’ll be saved. I am saying that the Book of Amos and the story of the Nameless Rich Guy are examples of what happens when we work at not following God. No matter how faithful Amaziah or the Nameless Rich Guy claim to be, their actions in life (and even in death) indicate they don’t think they need God and can take care of themselves. So we wind up with the “Ruin of Joseph” and the top Israelites indeed being the first taken into exile. We wind up with the Nameless Rich Guy in Hades and clueless regarding his relationship with Lazarus. The good news is that the Holy Spirit might yet get his attention. And she may get our attention.

The Danish theologian Regin Prenter long ago noted that for Luther, the Holy Spirit may be present in two ways: either enveloped in gifts as the presence of God in Christ, or as the source and power of the Law—the presence of God without Christ. In Amos’ prophecies and Abraham’s patient refusal to change the subject, the Holy Spirit is with us. When Amos prophesies at Bethel, the Holy Spirit is asking Israel’s powerful to examine what they have done to bring about the disparity in their land. When Abraham refuses to send Lazarus on errands and won’t let the Nameless Rich Guy avoid the obvious, the Holy Spirit is asking the Nameless Rich Guy to examine what he might have to do with Lazarus having been a beggar at his gate. When a famous person of color sits out the National Anthem to protest his country’s treatment of people who look like he does, the Holy Spirit might just be asking us to examine what role we have in our country’s racial issues.

The Holy Spirit asks: Do you love and trust the Israelite poor as though they were God? Do you love and trust Lazarus at your gate as though he were God? Do you love and trust people of color as though they were God? And as this is the Spirit without Christ, she’s looking for one answer: no. No, we don’t. We love God by loving our neighbors, and we’re not doing that, at least not as well as we could.

And then something amazing happens. The Holy Spirit wraps herself in her gifts, and speaks of Christ. She speaks of Christ to Amaziah and Amos, the King and those in grinding poverty. She speaks of Christ to the Nameless Rich Guy and Lazarus together. She speaks of Christ to us and to those who are crying out for our attention. Christ loves each with Christ’s unfailing love. And then the Spirit moves us. She calls us to love the way Christ loves, the way we see Christ loving. She calls us to steward the gift of human community in which we see God, and to treat it as holy and precious. And she dangles in front of us the possibility of love and trust for neighbor. That call to a life of love and trust, not so much a command as a promise: Take hold of the life that really is life.