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Sermon for Sunday 25 September 2016


1“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel comes! 2Pass over to Calneh, and see, and from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is their territory greater than your territory, 3O you who put far away the day of disaster and bring near the seat of violence? 4Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, 5who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, 6who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! 7Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile, and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”


PSALM Psalm 146

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 2Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. 3When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. 4Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God; 5Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; 6Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. 7The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; 8The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. 9The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!


SECOND READING 1 Timothy 3:1-13

1The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. 8Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.


GOSPEL Luke 16:19-31

19{Jesus said,} “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house — 28for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”



For the last few weeks, if not longer, the Bible readings from the lectionary have been troubling; ones that seem to be hard for us to swallow. A couple of weeks ago the gospel lesson told us, that if we wanted to be a disciple of Jesus, we must love everything else, including our family, less and we must also take up our cross daily and follow Him. Last week we found Jesus telling a story about a thieving steward, who at the end of the parable was unexpectedly praised by his former employer. And back in mid-August we heard someone ask Jesus, “Lord will those who are saved be few?” To this Jesus said, “Strive to enter by the narrow door. For many, I tell you will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. (Lu. 13: 23-28) At times the words of Jesus are hard to comprehend and sometimes very difficult to put into practice. And our other lessons, from both the Old and New Testaments, haven’t been much easier.
Last week we read Paul’s letter to Timothy where he tells the women of the congregation to dress modestly, learn quietly in all submissiveness and that they weren’t allowed to teach or exercise authority over men. Furthermore, they were to remain quiet. It’s certainly not a passage that our modern ears are used to hearing. Additionally, our Old Testament lesson from Amos was a sharp rebuke of those who are greedy, who use dishonest business practices and who generally take advantage of those less fortunate. Then at the end of the lesson, there’s a very serious warning: God says, “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” This leaves us struggling to absorb the words never and forget when it comes to God. We find ourselves thinking that never is a very long time and the fact that it’s attached to the word forget, makes this a very sobering statement. So about the only passages over the past few weeks that come with a word of hope is our Psalm readings and even some of those verses came with some stern warnings.
To say that the readings have been hard, is a bit of an understatement. As a matter of fact, much of what has been read in our gospel lessons fall into what some theologians call the Hard Sayings of Jesus. And it doesn’t look like the readings for today are much different. In our gospel lesson Jesus is telling yet another parable highlighting the hardness of some people’s hearts.
In Luke 16, Jesus tells a story about a rich man who neglects a poor man. It wasn’t an issue of resources, it wasn’t an issue of some great distance between the two, the rich man simply didn’t care. He lived high on the hog and wouldn’t even share what fell from his table with poor Lazarus. It was a case of apathy, entitlement, complacency and out and out arrogance. The rich man simply didn’t want to be bothered with the plight of the poor man who sat at his gate. He simply wanted to live in luxury; to eat, drink and be merry and not be bothered by what was going on beyond his walls. Eventually both die and find themselves in their respective eternal homes. The rich man was in torment and Lazarus was in eternal comfort. As we read this parable, we tend to say in our own self-righteous way, all was made right in this teaching. That is until we really consider how Jesus concluded this parable.
The rich man, still feeling entitled, calls to Abraham and asks for him to send Lazarus over to quench his thirst. You see he still doesn’t get it. He’s receiving the punishment he deserved, yet he still looks at Lazarus as a second class citizen, one who is there to serve him. He still looks at himself as entitled. Even in the midst of torment, there’s no real change in attitude or heart condition. And then Jesus drops the bomb shell. Even if someone were to return from the dead, those who fail to see the error of their attitudes still will not listen. No wonder Jesus said, it’s hard for the rich to enter heaven. Maybe Jesus should have added, it’s even hard for those are comfortably well off to see anything else but their own selfish goals and desires to enter heaven. The sad part is, that despite all of God’s warnings, things haven’t changed.
In our Old Testament reading for today we hear Amos, once again, calling out to the Northern Tribes of Israel. The date was somewhere around 750 BC and the 10 Hebrew tribes of the north are enjoying a time of prosperity. Their Army was strong, their enemies seemed to be far away and the economy was flourishing. Many of the people were well off enough to have both a winter and a summer home. As far as the people were concerned, they were doing exactly what God wanted, despite their worship of foreign gods, despite their neglect of the poor, the widow and the orphan and despite their desire to get even richer, no matter who they cheated or hurt. In the Hebrew mind, prosperity equaled God’s approval and blessing, while sickness and poverty equaled God’s curse. So as far as they were concerned, God was on their side wanting nothing else but to prosper them further. The problem was, they refused to listen to God’s repeated warnings coming from the long line of prophets God was sending.
This is where we find the prophet Amos. I can see him standing there on the street corner yelling out to anyone who will listen, woe to those at ease in Zion, woe to those who feel secure, woe to the leaders who think their birthright makes them better than the rest. Woe to those who drink wine freely from oversized vessels and who use only the most expensive hygiene products. Does any of this somehow sound vaguely familiar?
Are we somehow a bit unsettled by these words? Is somehow our inner voice saying, for some unknown reason, that we need to be listening a bit closer to what the prophet is saying here? Well they should and we should be listening to that inner voice because things and human nature hasn’t changed. Then Amos concludes this oracle with a warning. Woe to those who refuse to see the direction the country was headed in. Amos concludes, O you, the ones who think you are blessed, you will be the first to be carried off into captivity. And as we know from history, the people didn’t listen and they were indeed carried off to be enslaved. The problem is, that we, as the current members of God’s chosen people, could very well be in the same boat.
As I sat last Tuesday with the other pastors in our weekly pericope study session, I got to cutting up; or so I thought. As we started pulling this passage apart, I began to think of other ways to read this passage. And it’s no surprise that in the midst of this venomous political season, that my mind would drift to our so called elected officials. You know how it is, it’s easy to look to someone else and be judgmental. Taking a few moments to gather my thoughts, I caught a quiet moment and reread our Old Testament passage in this way.
Woe to those at ease in Washington DC and to those who feel secure on Capitol Hill, the elected officials who feel entitled because they make up the government of this great nation. Look over at the nations of Europe, to Great Britten, and across to the other countries who are prospering. Are you any better than these? Or is this nation in better shape? O you who ignore the warnings of impending danger within our borders choosing instead to encourage those who choose violence. Woe to you who sleep in beds made by the finest manufactures and guzzle wine at parties and invite famous musicians for your entertainment and clothe yourselves with only the most expensive designer fashions and yet you ignore the ruin that is happening in the nation. You are the ones who will be targeted first for slavery and will be stripped of all your possessions and power and will become the laughing stock of your captor. To say the least, the guys got a kick out of this reinterpretation.
But as we sat and thought about this tongue and cheek reading, it caused us to ponder this even further. What if we were to apply this type of rereading to our own more local situation. What if we were to read this passage as if God had sent Amos to warn us today. What if we were to hear this message as if Amos were standing at the front doors of our sanctuary. Could we possibly reread this passage in our own context and hear the same types of warnings as well?
Is it possible that Amos would chastise the people of this community by saying, woe to those who are comfortable in Gaston and Lincoln counties and to those who feel secure away from the violence of large communities like Charlotte? Woe to you who think that just because you call yourself a Christian, that God is blessing you abundantly. Take a look around and compare yourselves to the unchurched in the surrounding communities, are you really any better than they are? Aren’t you guilty of chasing after the same gods as they? Wake up! Disaster is coming, the day of the Lord is near, yet you chose to ignore the signs and continue to live as you do.
Woe to you who live in nice houses, with plenty to eat and drink, while you ignore the physical and spiritual needs of those around you. God has blessed you with more than enough to eat and drink yet you still crave more. You have houses and cars and more, everything you need to live comfortable lives, yet you refuse to look right outside your gates and acknowledge the indications that this country is headed in the wrong direction. You allow corruption to continue in government so long as it doesn’t affect your livelihoods or your retirement plans. You fail to hold those who represent you accountable for fraud, deceit, and power grabbing. You ignore and even idolize those in Hollywood or who are major sports figures who would forward unhealthy and ungodly values calling it entertainment.
You need to wake up O people of God. Disaster is coming. The enemy is at the door and you look away saying it’ll never happen here. Wake up and pray, you followers of Jesus, that God would intervene and return this nation to the way of truth and justice. This country is in need of God, yet you allow the blessings He has given you to cloud your vision. If you don’t stop chasing after the gods of this world and return to the one true God, then it’s you who will be the first to suffer and then where will the rejoicing be? If the prophet Amos were addressing this community, is that the message he would be bringing us from God?
If you’ve watched or read the news at all in the past several days, then you know that these are disturbing times. A local police officer was killed and others injured while performing their sworn duties. There have been terrorist attacks in New York and New Jersey, violent protests in Charlotte and communities have been damaged, looted and put into distress because of rioters. People have been misusing social media to spread misleading and false information all to cover up their true motives; the spread of fear and lawlessness. And even some so called “religious leaders” have been getting in on the action calling for boycotts which does nothing but fuel the unrest.
If Amos was standing at our doors, I believe he would say, people of God, now is the time to act. First, you need to pray for God’s wisdom, God’s peace and God’s direction for your nation, your state and your local communities. He’s say that we need to begin to hold our elected officials, those who serve and all who break the law, accountable for their actions. Amos would then encourage us to bring God back into our legislative bodies, our halls of justice, our schools and our homes. He’d admonish us to be bold in our witness and in our actions by showing love to our neighbors and by reaching out to those in need. I think he’d conclude his oracle by saying, you also need to keep the nations of the world and their leaders in your prayers; praying that God would grant wisdom, restraint and compassion when making and enforcing policies and laws.
If God sent the prophet Amos to us today, is this what he would say to the people of this community? If so, then we need to hear these words and respond. We need to pray and we need to look beyond our own gates to those in need, across the street, across the nation and around the world. God has indeed blessed us and we know that God is bigger than any problems that might be troubling our world. And as disciples of Jesus, we have an obligation. We’re called to pray and to act. We’re also called to pay attention to the signs of the times and with confidence believe that God will fulfill all His promises. We know that the time is short and this world is not the end for a child of God. So despite the unrest all around us, as heirs of the Kingdom, we have the hope of an eternity in God’s presence. But until then, we still need to be about the Father’s business.

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