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Trip or Trap?
a homily bassed on Luke 16:19-31

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by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

It’s all God - that’s why I’m a millionaire," a wealthy man said at the campmeeting revival. "I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. Why, I remember the turning point in my life: I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a church service that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work. I knew I only had a dollar bill in my pocket and had to either give it all to God’s work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give my whole dollar-everything I had-to God. God blessed that decision and allowed me to become a millionaire-because I learned to give my all to him."

There was an awed silence as he moved toward his seat. As he sat down, a little old lady sitting in the same pew poked him in the side and said, "I dare you to do it again."

The millionaire didn’t want to push his luck with God. But I do commend him for one thing: he wasn’t afraid to talk about money at church.

Have you ever noticed how little money-speak comes up in conversation around congregations? You sure don’t hear much about treasures or money from me. One sociologist who has also noticed how little we talk about money says that our attitudes toward money have become a personal choice-just like our faith. Just as many of us seldom talk about our faith in public, we seldom discuss the way we spend our money. We consider our treasures as a private matter, our personal choice.

In a recent survey, when asked "how often in the past year you discussed your personal finances with anyone outside your immediate family, 82% said they had never or hardly ever discussed their income and 92% said that they had never discussed their practice of giving to the church.

But when we hear a piece of the gospel like we did this morning, we know that Jesus is not an American nor is he Pennsylvania Dutch. He is so blunt about money and treasures. We almost want to say, "Shhhh Jesus, you’re embarrassing us. We don’t talk about that around here. Our pastor doesn’t even talk about that. Could you please talk about the Good Samaritan instead? Or the seven deadly sins, or the Second Coming? Anything but our wallets - that’s kind of a . . . well, ah . . . a personal thing.

Jesus doesn’t sit behind his keyboard using the thesaurus to soften his words. He breaks the moneyspeak taboo that we’ve set up about money. Even more damaging is that no one could hush him up about the subject. Did you know that money or treasures is what Jesus talked about most? One writer says, "sixteen of Jesus’ thirty-eight parables were about how to handle money and possessions. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than that on faith, but over 2,000 verses on money and possessions."

Several weeks ago I was in Warsaw returning from a grocery store and walking down one of the main streets. On either side of this expansive boulevard towered beautifully renovated buildings mixed among striking glass-sided corporate offices and stores.

But as I rounded a corner, I came almost nose-to-nose with a man. He lifted his arm to shield his face and then I noticed it: he had no fingers on one of his hands. Just a pink rounded paw. Maybe he had some fingers on the other hand, but I didn’t notice. I was immediately immobilized by the stench of rotting flesh and the gruesome sight of this man. I had no time to react, to turn my head, to ignore the man. He was literally in my face. His feet were wrapped in dirty bandages, but I could tell that he was also missing toes. I wondered if this man were a true leper or perhaps he had been mutilated by the Russian Mafia, or maimed by some other disease.

I could speak no Polish and he no English, but I knew instinctively what I should do, what I was obliged to do, what I must do: he needed a handout, some pocket change, some groceries from my bag. Though I was later ashamed with my response, I argued inside. I was on vacation, for crying out loud-trying to get away from people that demanded so much pastoral care and assistance from me. I felt accosted and held hostage by such grotesque need. In the end, I reached into my grocery bag and gave the man some token of my concern. Of that too, I am now ashamed. I could have done more.

My wife and I walked the final block to the hotel in silence; we had been unsettled and interrupted from a morning of sightseeing and shopping, a morning of enjoying magnificent architecture. Lazarus had intruded into our lives with glaring need and wounds. I wouldn’t want this person at the door of my house every day. He reminded me too much of that other part of the world that I was on vacation from. I had run head on into Lazarus Jesus’ parable.

Standing outside beautiful 12th century cathedrals in Warsaw you will see Death. True to our imagination, Death stands shrouded in burlap, tall, and with a rough staff in hand. At the base of this living statue is a little tin pan for donations. When a curious passerby tosses a zloty into the pan, Death suddenly stirs and lifts its head and raises its staff. Thunk! Down comes the rough, thick staff on to the cobbled stones sending echoes down the corridors of the narrow street. Unsuspecting passersby are startled and embarrassed by the shrieks they’ve emitted.

What an imaginative way to fund church renovation!

Reminds me of this Sunday’s gospel lesson: Death stands as the unseen but ever present guard within the story about two people who live within seeing distance of each other, but on other sides of the tracks. Jesus replays the basic plot: each day is the same. One is dumped on the doorstep of the other in hopes that a friend would take pity and give a handout. Turns out, Jesus says, that his best friend does show up-the local mongrel-to lick his sores. "We are made loveless by our possessions," Elizabeth of Thuringa once said. I wonder if she was thinking of the other guy, the one distinguished by wealth but not generosity.

But as suddenly as the Riga Death statue stirs and flails its stick, so comes the real scythe-bearer just as unexpectedly to ferry off these two guys into eternity. They probably didn’t exit simultaneously. One could afford healthcare-personal choice, in fact. Had a better diet, too. But Death comes for both. The perspective on their departure is intriguing and telling: one is borne away by angels while the other one finally awakens in hell. Jesus clearly suggests reversals-the first shall come last and the last first. The one that fared well in one life, now languishes in the next world. But the one who languished in life, now enjoys comfort in the next world. Reversals-all created by actions in life that somehow get turned topsy-turvy in the transference from one world to the next.

Two people. Living life as far apart from one another as the haves and the have-nots. Yet as close as two next door neighbors. One walks the streets buying souvenirs and admiring architecture; the other panhandles to survive just one more day. Possessions are a sacred trust given to us to share with others. "If our goods are not available to the community," Martin Luther once said, "they are stolen goods." That’s what Luke is telling us. There’s just not a lot of sharing of goods flowing between these two guys.

In the second lesson from 1 Timothy 6, Paul teaches us that there is a sense in which you and I are owned by whatever we cannot, or will not give away. We are defined by exactly what we can or cannot give away.

Why does God condemn the love of money? First of all, our treasures are transient; some perishes (moth and rust), some passes out of our hands (thieves, stock market), and in the end we leave it all behind. I think it was Flip Wilson who said, "If I can’t take it with me, I’m not going." Sorry Flip, we really can’t take it with us.

Second, God condemns the love of money because of what it does to us. It steals our faith and our heart. In the thinking of Jesus’ day, the heart was the seat of the emotions, the intellect, and the will. Jesus meant that our treasure has the potential to capture our hearts-to grab our affections, to preoccupy our thoughts, and to control our actions. Money can make us lose sight of God-even in the midst of ministry. We get all worked up about bottom lines, about lack, about investments, about even talking about it. Our source for moving ahead in this church, in purchasing property to build for greater ministry is not based on how much we have, how little we have, how big we are, how small we are. Our Source for church growth is God and how much confidence we have in God to help us move ahead.

Third, treasures, or the love of money can blind our vision. Jesus says that the eyes are the windows into our body. When we open our eyes wide with wonder and belief, it’s like opening windows in a dark room and letting the sunlight stream in. We can see clearly. But if we hoard, if we go through life squinty-eyed over our treasures, it’s like we’re walking around with the shades pulled down over eyes. That blocks our vision.

Five years ago people in this country gave 2 billion dollars to carry on God’s work. Sounds like a lot until we consider that we spent

Over 2 billion just on chewing gum

More than 4 billion on movies

12 billion on vacations

20 billion on cosmetics

49 billion on Coke and other soft drinks

We could add to this list computers, upgrades, camcorders, sports utility vehicles, and electric toothpaste squeezers.

In American Beauty, Lester Burnam is a man who has lived a meaningless, almost trite life. Throughout the film, he strives to recover whatever it is he has lost in his marriage and family over the years. In one poignant scene he comes close to experiencing the dynamic, joyful quality that he and his wife shared in their early years. The scene takes place in their living room.

Lester(referring to his wife when they first met): "You’ve lost your joy . . . Whatever happened to that girl I once knew? . . . have you forgotten about her, because I haven’t."

They sit together in silence and then he sidles up next to her and begins to kiss her neck tenderly, caressingly. She receives his tenderness and shuts her eyes to take it in. Noticing, however, that Lester has a bottle of beer in his hand, she suddenly reverts back to the present.

"Lester, you’re going to spill beer on the couch."

(Backing away from her and the couch): "So what? It’s just a couch."

"This is a four-thousand dollar sofa. Upholstered in Italian silk. This is not just a couch."

"It’s just a couch. [Long pause] This isn’t life. This is just stuff. And it’s become more to you than living."

Our lessons for this day are not against acquiring wealth, they’re about living. About living fully, generously, deeply. The lessons are also about what our Italian silk possessions can do to us when we lose our focus. When we’re too busy being on vacation and forget the privilege and call we have to be generous with our possessions and wealth. The parable challenges us to ask who possesses us-our possessions or God.

Someone has said that mammon is the largest slaveholder in the world. That may be true. But the Good News of the Gospel is that God is the greatest Liberator in the world. Only God can free us from our possessions possessing us; only God can free us to live generously and abundantly. Only God can make us truly human-even when we’re on vacation. Amen.