Sermon for 3-26-17

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching                               

Luke 16:19-31

Estas Satisfecho?                     

         Well that was dramatic. The anthem today reminds me of all those great moralism stories from my grandmother. The naughty boy falls to some nasty misfortune, the disobedient daughter comes to a dreadful calamity for her selfishness.

         My grandma Elvie told me about a little boy named little George Grew whose mama told him never to play with the pedal sewing machine on the front porch. As soon as his mama was occupied shelling peas in the kitchen, little George Grew stood in front of that old Singer sewing machine and put his foot on the pedal, pushing down just a little to see what would happen. For balance he placed his hands on top, probably a child no more than four as he barely reached the top. And you know what happened next. He ran the needle through his finger. And the moral of the story was: Mind your mother.

Then there was the story of the dog in the manger. This moralistic story comes to us from Aesop via my mother.

It seems that there was a certain dog asleep in a manger filled with hay, awakened by the Cattle that came in tired and hungry from working in the field. But the Dog would not let them get near the manger, and snarled and snapped as if it were filled with the best of meat and bones, all for himself.

The Cattle looked at the Dog in disgust. “How selfish he is!” said one. “He cannot eat the hay and yet he will not let us eat it who are so hungry for it!”

Next the farmer came in. When he saw how the Dog was acting, he seized a stick and drove him out of the stable with many a blow for his selfish behavior.

And the moral of this story? Take your pick: “Don’t be selfish”, my mother’s favorite, or “Do not grudge others what you cannot enjoy yourself.

         The story of the rich man and Lazarus looks at first like any good moralistic story. The punch line is clear. Don’t be greedy, or be more generous, or even the surprise moral, Love your neighbor. The story lobs an easy pitch directly across home plate for a pastor. It’s such a great finger-wagging story: “Look at that rich neighbor, how selfish she is, if only she were more generous with her children, with the town, with me…you fill in the blank. Or maybe the story is more personal, dishing up a dire warning. “If you don’t pay attention to the poor people begging on the streets you’re going to hell and there’s no way out.” No, that’s just too easy.

         Or maybe the point is to guilt the listener into changing their behavior, asking: “Remember that time when some poor slob asked you for a buck and you kept walking, pretending you didn’t see him?” Na, I don’t think so. That doesn’t sound like Jesus either. Our story from the Bible isn’t some American 1950’s moralistic lesson told by mothers and grandmothers to keep us in line, nor is it an Aesop’s Fable.

         Instead, this story is a Jesus parable. Jesus doesn’t want us to feel guilty. Jesus wants us to be free.

         Jesus didn’t try to beat people or guilt people into the Kingdom of God. The only people he went after relentlessly were the rigid, religious leaders who spent their lives keeping the letter of the law while forgetting to embody the only law that mattered then or now, the law of love and compassion.

         So what’s up with this dramatic story, Jesus? If you’re not judging people who are stingy and greedy, and you’re not guilting us into the kingdom of God, then what’s the point?

         What if Jesus wants us to shift our world-view? Imagine for a moment that you were born during the great depression, or an economic recession, or right after your parent’s lost their job or went bankrupt. Your world-view would be shaped by their fear of “not enough.” Their anxiety over whether or not they will starve, or be able to pay rent shapes your behavior and you may not even know it.

         When we hoard what we have and cling to our possessions, it can only be a sign of lack of faith that God will keep God’s promises. If God is who God says God is from the beginning, through the law, and Moses and the prophets, then God’s provision will be sufficient.

         When the rich man dies in our story and goes to Hades, he appeals to Father Abraham for a bit of water to quench his endless thirst. After life, as in life, the rich man remains unquenchably ravenous for more. Abraham reminds him that God sent Moses and the prophets to teach him a more excellent way and he missed the message.

         What message about Moses did the rich man miss? He missed the fact that when the escaped Hebrew slaves realized that they had gotten away from the oppressive Pharaoh in Egypt with just the clothes on their backs, they were as scared as your parents or grandparents or great grandparents during World War II clinging to ration card for staples like apples, milk and bread.

         When the Hebrew people grew anxious, they threatened to kill Moses, and they whined, “Why did you bring us out into the desert only to let us die of hunger.” So Moses prayed, and God sent Manna in the wilderness to feed their deepest hunger until they were satisfied day by day.

         When the escaped slaves were thirsty they got scared and rose up against Moses, as if to kill him. And Moses prayed, and struck a rock with his staff, and a spring gushed up to quench their deepest thirst until they were satisfied day by day.

         God doesn’t want our guilt, God wants our trust. When Abraham in today’s story responds to the whining and wailing of the rich man, he asks him to remember Moses. “Remember,” he said, “if you will but trust God in all things, you will be satisfied.” Not some skimpy provision, but manna on the ground as far as the eye can see, so much that bushel baskets of it could not contain its abundance. Not a tiny six-ounce glass of water for a man-sized thirst, but an ever-flowing stream of fresh clear water.

And then in the best tongue in cheek punch line ever written, Abraham says to the rich man, “Your brothers have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ Father Abraham said to the rich man, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” Which of course, someone does, someone will.

Perhaps we don’t see the poor man Lazarus at the gate either, because we’re afraid that poor man is us. The problem isn’t that we want enough. The problem is that we want more than enough as a hedge against the day when what we have might be taken away from us. We wear blinders against the need around us, because we might have to count on that extra bit for a rainy day.

Some years ago a pastor told the story of growing up playing Monopoly against his grandmother. She was a whiz and always played to win. After countless frustrating games as a young boy, there came a day when the real estate on his side of the block started to add up. The five hundred dollar bills formed a neat stack, and he had a get out of jail free card tucked under the edge of the board. When he miraculously procured Park Place and Board Walk and filled them with houses and then miracle of miracles, a hotel, his grandmother conceded the game. She looked him in the eye, congratulated him and shook his hand.

         Beaming with pride, he spread out all his holdings for all the cousins to admire. “Oh no”, his grandmother said, “at the end of the game everything goes back in the box.”

         In today’s story, the rich man is in trouble because he’s as insatiable as a nine-year-old boy. He isn’t satisfied with the gifts God has given him. He takes for granted that he is entitled to all the luxury he experiences, believing he’s earned it. He wants everyone to know about it.

         This story presents a dark vision of the consequences of not trusting God. Jesus said again and again that we have selective vision and selective hearing. “Let those who have eyes to see, see. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.” This is not the case for the rich man. He does not see the suffering of the poor man at his gate in need of mercy because in his anxiety and in his fear, he is consumed with building up his own storehouse against the great depression or a terrorism invasion or what have you, that he’s sure will come. He can’t afford to hear anyone else’s cries for help.

         What a wretched way to live. This is not to say that everyone who has wealth is untrusting of God. That would miss the point. Only God knows whether our posture is one of tight-fisted anxiety that keeps us small, and selfish and mean, or open-hearted generosity born of trust in God’s unfailing mercy. Only God sees our inner motivation of either anxious hoarding or trusting reliance on God’s good gifts.

When we trust God with our life, we are satisfied with what we have. We let go of our anxiety that we won’t have enough. We then don’t have to hoard, clench, storehouse our possessions against the day we believe will inevitably come when whatever we have will slip away from us, leaving us standing on the corner hat in hand.

Jesus doesn’t want us to feel guilty. Jesus wants us to be free.

Has God satisfied you? Do you basically have what you need? In many Spanish speaking homes, this question is asked of guests after every meal: “Estas Satisfecho?” Are you Satisfied? Estas Satisfecho? Have you had enough? In 1996 my son Joshua and I lived for a number of weeks with a retired Guatemalan schoolteacher in Antigua. She spoke no English and when we first arrived, we spoke not a word of Spanish. In the beginning, we had to count on non-verbal cues and context to know what she was talking about. Buen Provecho before eating clearly had something to do with good eating, a kind of blessing. In French we would say, “Bon Appetit”.    

         At the conclusion of every meal, she raised the end of her sentence in what was clearly a question, which we at first could not understand: “Satisfecho?” The first blessing honored God who gives us all good things to eat and sufficient provision for all our needs, Buen Provecho, Bon Appetit. The second blessing was that of the host of the table who wanted to know if we were satisfied, if we’d had enough. God who provides for our every need, greets every new day with “Buen Provecho, good eating to you from my garden.” And as each gifted night brings the refreshment of rest, God asks in every language, “Estas Satisfecho?” Are you satisfied? Have you had enough”.