Sermon
February 11, 2001
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 6:17-26

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.

They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.

And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

"Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

"Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

 

I want to introduce our second reading this morning with a few words of explanation - and explanation is due because I’m going to change what is in the bulletin and what is recommended by the Revised Common Lectionary. Let me begin by taking a step back and give a little history. When the Roman Catholic Church decided to change the language of the Mass from Latin to English at the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s, they also decided to make the reading of scripture a more important part of the service. So they developed a list of scripture lessons - a lectionary - that would be used uniformly throughout the church. It was really a three-year list, designed to make sure that all the important points of Christian teaching were covered during a that period of time. They did a very good job, and slowly other churches started to use this list as well. The advantages of this common lectionary were so clear that a committee with representatives from 25 Protestant Churches was formed to establish what would be read each Sunday in their worship. The first lectionary for Protestants was published in 1983 and revised in 1992, so now it’s called the Revised Common Lectionary.

Every Sunday this lectionary suggests one reading from the Psalms, one from the Old Testament, one from the Letters of Paul, and one from one of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Because so many churches are reading the same Bible passages each Sunday, we can have bulletin covers and children’s bulletins that are related to the theme of the day, usually based on the Gospel lesson. In fact, our whole Christian Education curriculum is based on these selections of Bible stories so that the message you are hearing in the sermon should relate in some way to the lesson the children are learning in their classes. Because it is all tied in together, we try and read the Gospel lesson before the children go to their classes. That way, what they hear in church is linked to what they study when they are in their classes.

The only problem with this, from the preacher’s point of view, is the length of time in our service between the Gospel lesson and the sermon, if the sermon is based on the Gospel lesson. And this is even more of a problem if the second scripture lesson has a strong point or theme which is different from the point or theme the preacher might want to draw out of the Gospel lesson. And that is the case this morning; and that is the reason I want to read more from the Gospel of Luke now rather than read the suggested lesson from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

Well, enough said. Our second reading is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, verses 13 -21.

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."14 But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?"15 And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."16 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly.17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

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 Sermon - Road Signs on the Highway of Life

This morning we read two lessons dealing with the issue of material possessions. Although all four gospel writers cover this ground, it seems to be a particular concern for Luke. His gospel and the Book of Acts, which Luke also wrote, give many lessons about money and material wealth. In some passages Luke remains close to mainstream of scriptural instruction, but in others he presents a radical challenge to the Christian community to divest all wealth, to share with each according to their need, and to let their poverty of material goods bear witness to their richness of spirit.

Here’s one quick example from the book of Acts, chapter 3:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in… When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms… Peter said, "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." And he took him by the right hand and raised him up.

"I have no silver or gold," says Peter. Here we see the disciples following the commandment of the Lord reported in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 9:

Then Jesus called the twelve together and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money-not even an extra coat.

Over the years in the Christian Community many have honored this radical call to poverty. In our own time you have women like Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day, while going back in history you find figures like St. Francis who called people to renounce all worldly goods and enter a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience for the sake of the Gospel.

Now I’m not going to suggest that any of us here today should follow in the footsteps of the Franciscans. I guess if you were interested in that I could refer you to Father Mario at St. Francis Church - he is a Franciscan and traveled widely to promote vocations - kind of the religious equivalent of being an Army recruiter - before he came to New Milford.

And I’m not sure that you would exactly find a life of poverty in many Franciscan communities. I had the good fortune to live with Franciscans when I taught in their high school on Staten Island. Although each of them individually had taken the vow of poverty and had very few possessions, as a group they owned some of the best real estate in New York and lived a very secure abundant life style.

I don’t think I ever lived in a more expensive neighborhood than I did with the Franciscans. Our nearest neighbor was Paul "Big Pauly" Castellano, the reputed head of the Gambino crime family. "Big Pauly" lived on a 3.5 acre estate across the street from the Franciscans in a mansion built as a copy of the White House. Around the corner from Castellano was the house used in filming the first Godfather movie.

It was a very pretty neighborhood without much danger of break-ins or burglary.

So I’m not recruiting for the Franciscans today. But I would like to examine the challenge Luke puts before us and see what, if anything, it has to teach us in our lives.

 

Think of what Luke says as a road sign on the highway of life - a warning, perhaps, of danger ahead; a sign that gives us direction when the road divides and we don’t want to proceed down a dead end street.

Perhaps we should think of Luke’s teaching in the same way we’ve learned to look at the quilts that are hanging in the sanctuary. In your bulletin is an insert that explains some of the story behind them. They come from the time when slaves were trying to escape from the South to freedom in the north. To some they looked like nothing more than complex decorative patterns, while to others they were road signs on the underground railroad, giving life-saving messages to those in need who took the time to notice.

So let us let Luke speak and make his point, and then we can decided if we want to pay attention or want to speed off in a different direction.

Our first lesson this morning was from Luke 6, which started out with a familiar tone, but quickly threw in a few unexpected notes. Luke begins like this familiar passage from Matthew:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

The sweetness of Matthew’s beatitudes is like honey in a hot cup of tea, but not so in Luke. In Luke’s version Jesus is not content simply to bless, but the other side of the coin is revealed in woes to match point for point:

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

"Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

By adding the woes, Luke gives the blessings a double edge - one that cuts both ways. And we find this edge in other places where Jesus speaks about wealth and material possessions. The teaching may be in the other Gospels, but not with the sharpness Luke gives.

 

There are many very familiar stories that are unique to Luke’s Gospel to illustrate this point. - The Rich Fool, the Magnificat of Mary, the Good Samaritan, and, perhaps most pointedly, Dives and Lazarus:

"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

We probably don’t need to go through any more passages to make it clear that Luke has a point of view that he considers very important to explain clearly to all who want to follow Christ and share in the coming Kingdom. Why does he think it is so important?

Luke is likely responding to something that is happening to the church in his day, some loss of the original Christian vision, some dilution of the sense of unity and mutual support, some fragmentation between the haves and the have-nots that threatens to make the church more a mirror of Roman society than a vision of heaven on earth.

Luke points out, in the Book of Acts, that the attitude of the early Christians towards possessions made them stand out among other groups as a powerful witness to the love of God in Christ. He writes:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. Great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Of course, Luke is never content to teach half a lesson, so he immediately follows this passage with the story of Ananias and Sapphira who pretend to give up all their possessions to the apostles but actually hold some back for themselves. Knowing this, Peter says to Ananias: "Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? .. You did not lie to us but to God!"

When Ananias hears these words, he falls down and dies, and shortly after the same fate befalls his wife, and the story ends: "When the men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things."

I guess I would be one of those people filled with fear if that started happening around here. I understand Luke’s point and how this depth of sharing serves as a witness to God’s generous love given in Christ, but I also think that history has shown that even that ideal order is filled with it’s own brand of distinctions, problems, and pitfalls.

Perhaps there is a more practical message that we can put alongside Luke’s idealism that allows us to heed his warnings but avoid signing up with Father Mario and ending up living next door to "Big Pauly" Castellano.

To find this message I want to recall the second lesson for this morning, the parable of the Rich Fool.

"The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

I picked this selection in part because there is a well-known sermon on this parable by Martin Luther King, and during Black History Month it can’t hurt to turn to Dr. King and be instructed by his preaching.

Jesus did not call this man a fool merely because he possessed wealth. Jesus never made a sweeping indictment against wealth. Rather, he condemned the misuse of wealth. Jesus did not condemn this man because he had made money in a dishonest fashion… Why, then, was he a fool?

He was a fool because he permitted the ends for which he lived to become confused with the means by which he lived; he was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others; he was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God.

May it not be that this rich man is our Western Civilization? Rich in goods and material resources, our standards of success are bound to the lust for acquisition. The means by which we live are marvelous indeed. And yet something is missing. We have not learned the simple art of living together. Our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit.

We will not find peace until we learn anew to "Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

Our hope for creative living lies in our ability to re-establish the spiritual ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Our generation cannot escape the question: What shall it profit you to gain the whole world but lose your soul?

Luke is posting a road sign, a patchwork quilt of teaching for us that says: don’t go down the road of material acquisition and expect to find peace, fulfillment, satisfaction, happiness, or love. These desires of the soul are fed by giving, not by getting. The key to life is establishing the connection between your soul and God’s grace. First you must be in touch with your soul. Then you must be in touch with God’s grace given in Jesus Christ. Don’t take a wrong turn here; don’t be distracted by the billboards that advertise fulfillment through acquisition, possession, consumption, and materialism. It can too easily get in the way; it can too easily be the road to slavery and woe, not to freedom and blessing. Put on your signal and take the next turn to the love of God in Christ. Don’t be a fool and wait till you’ve hit a dead end, for that is the end of all possessions and all opportunity. But the road of love in God goes on forever. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

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