Today is Super Bowl Sunday, the biggest day in football and in advertising. Americans must choose, Bears versus Colts. Payton Manning or Rex Grossman. Lovie Smith or Tony Dungie. The nation will stop for a few hours and pay attention only to football and to advertisements. At the end of the day, someone will give thanks to Jesus for helping him achieve his dream! I can make this prediction with some degree of confidence, because it happens every year. For some reason, God seems especially interested in who wins the Super Bowl.
While God is caught up in deciding the outcome of the Super Bowl, there are other questions begging for an answer. Like the AIDS epidemic wreaking havoc on sub-Saharan Africa. Genocide in Darfur, war in Iraq, or the aftermath of Katrina. Poverty in our country and around the world. Global warming and the extinction of species. Corporations giving CEO’s multimillion dollar bonuses, severance packages, and retirement gifts, even while they lay off thousands of workers to save money.
We’ve been raised to believe that good things come to those who are good. We tend to equate wealth and righteousness. In fact, if you read Deuteronomy 28, you’ll discover a list of blessings given to those who obey the Law. But there are other voices. Read Job for instance or listen to Jesus.
Jesus once told a story about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man is dressed in the finest purple cloth, the color of royalty, and he puts on grand feasts each and every day so that his friends can bask in his glory. He’s a man of power and prestige and by any standard of measurement, he has been blessed. The other person in the story is a beggar named Lazarus, who sits by the rich man’s gate hoping that someone would take pity on him and throw him a few crumbs from the banqueting table. The rich guy is too busy to notice Lazarus, and to make things worse, dogs would come and lick the sores on Lazarus’ body.
As fate would have it, both men died the same day. Being poor, Lazarus wouldn’t have been buried. Instead, someone would have thrown his body in a ditch to be devoured by the dogs and the vultures. The rich guy, on the other hand, would’ve had a grand funeral and a proper burial.
They say that death is the great equalizer, and that is true in this story. Poor Lazarus ends up in paradise with Father Abraham, where he finds the rest and sustenance he’d been denied in life. The rich man, however, ends up in Hades, the place of the dead, and instead of the expected blessings, he finds himself in torment. When he sees Lazarus sitting at Father Abraham's side, this rich guy, who in life never lifted a finger to help Lazarus, calls out to Father Abraham: won't you please send Lazarus down to give me some water to quench my thirst? Won't you have him do for me what I never did for him? After all, I am a man of wealth and dignity! Don't I deserve some consideration? Father Abraham replies: you had it good in life, while Lazarus suffered. Now things have been reversed. Besides there’s a great chasm separating you from us, and no one can cross it. You made your bed, and now you must lie in it (Luke 16:25-26).
BLESSINGS AND CURSES
In this morning’s text Jesus says something that sounds odd to our ears:
"Blessed are you who are poor . . . ; blessed are you who are hungry now . . . ; blessed are you who weep now . . . ; blessed are you when people hate you on account of the Son of Man . . ."
These words sound odd to us because we want to believe that the richer you are the better you are. But, Jesus says, no it’s the other way around (Luke 6:20-26)
But how can this be? Our culture tells us to pursue success; our religious leaders tell us to embrace the "be happy attitudes" and to pray with Jabez that God will extend our territory (1 Chron. 4:10). The preachers of the prosperity gospel tell us to dream big and you’ll get what you want. But that’s not what Jesus says. He says to the rich folks: Woe to you, because you’ve received your reward. Once you were full, but now you’re hungry; you used to laugh but now you weep.
WHERE DO WE STAND?
So, what should we do with words these words? Aren't we supposed to better our lot in life? Isn’t America blessed by God? Surely we must be better than those poor people stuck in Africa or Iraq, Bolivia or India? I will admit that Jesus was known to exaggerate things a bit to get his point across, but Jesus was serious about God’s concern for the poor and the oppressed.
The Kingdom of God is no respecter of wealth and power. I know people try, but you can’t buy your way into heaven. It’s not that Jesus wants us to be poor or hungry, but his words stand as a warning: don’t put your trust in your wealth and don’t forget about your neighbor who is in need.
Though most of us don’t think of ourselves as wealthy, by many standards we’re quite rich. I will confess that it’s easy to forget about the poor and the sick among us. Frederick Buechner has written:
The trouble with being rich is that since you can solve with your checkbook virtually all of the practical problems that bedevil ordinary people, you are left in your leisure with nothing but the great human problems to contend with: how to be happy, how to love and be loved, how to find meaning and purpose in your life. (Buechner, Wishful Thinking, rev. ed., Harper-Collins, 1993, p. 98).
And what is our purpose in life? It is the welfare of our neighbor.
Jeremiah said: "Blessed are those who trust in the Lord; whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit." (Jer. 17:7-8). These are the kingdom blessings, the fruit of trusting our lives to the care of our God. And when we trust our lives to God’s care, we can extend our vision to the Lazaruses among us.
In a few weeks time we will take an offering for Week of Compassion. This offering will provide for the poor among us around the world. In a month or so we’ll have the opportunity to participate in the Empty Bowls fund raiser for the Food Bank. Participating in events like these serve as expressions of our trust in God, and they lead to kingdom blessings.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
5th Sunday of Epiphany
February 4, 2007