Bounty for all - A Harvest Thanksgiving sermon based on Luke 16: 19 -31
There are few occasions when our churches look more inviting than at Harvest Thanksgiving. Displays of food and flowers remind us of our good fortune in living the good life. And so today is a day when it is right to express a hearty "Thank You!"
After all God has been good to us and the promise given to Noah has been fulfilled once again.
So why have I subverted this time of gratitude with a discomforting story told by Jesus?
Well the reason for so doing is based upon a conviction that for Harvest Thanksgiving to be meaningful we need for our gratitude to be linked to justice in our world. After all did not the Old Testmament prophets continually remind the people of Israel that religious observation which blots our the cries of the needy and the urgent call of justice, is worthless in the sight of God. As Micah reminds us what God wants is for us;
"To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God."
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus paints a picture of great extremes. The rich man is incredibly wealthy. we are told that he dresses in "purple and fine linen." For clothes to be purple a special dye would need to have been used, a dye that was quite seriously expensive. Likewise fine linen required a special process which also was seriously costly. And this was not a sunday best for our rich man but a daily occurence. Likewise, the rich man feasted sumptuously every day. And all of this goes on at a home through which access is gained via a gate, a sign in that time of a substantial estate.
Those listening to Jesus would feel no real empathy for such a man. After all this was an age in which most people were peasants struggling to eke out a subsistence existence. And in all their struggles their lives were made harder by the wealthy class to whom this man belonged, a wealthy class that ensured that the odds were in their favour at the expense of those at the bottom of the pile.
On the other hand there is Lazarus. Just as the rich man is a sign of the greatest extremity of opulence, so is Lazarus a sign of the greatest extremity of life denying poverty. Chucked at the gate, Lazarus is left to beg for his existence. And as is so often the case today with poverty comes poor health so that he is so covered in sores that his only relief is from the dogs licking those sores. And at this description we need to be rescued from sentimentality. For these dogs would not be the pet dogs which we know of today but ferocious snarling giard dogs kept so that the likes of Lazarus would not be able to invade the rich man's paradise. Yet the spittle of these dogs would have brought some comfort to the open sores of Lazarus.
Yes, this story offers us a picture of the greatest and most repulsive extremes of wealth and poverty living just a few yards apart. And is there not a touch of irony in the name of the beggar for Lazarus means "God has helped" - oh really?
And yet the story has a twist. The two men die. And now in an astonishing role reversal we find Lazarus carried up to heaven whilst the rich man is condemned to Hell. And at this the protests would begin. After all many would argue that the rich man's material wealth was a sign of God's approval and blessings whilst the sufferings of Lazarus were a sign of judgement and wrath. Deuteronomic theology that was so much a part of religious orthodoxy is now itself under judgement.
For here is the evidence that God's blessings are not for us to wallow in. Far from it, they are to be used to help the poor. You see, we are not told that the rich man was a particularly bad man. According to most people he may well have been a virtual paragon of virtue. But his downfall is an indifference to the sufferings of the poor. The poor Lazarus longed even for the crumbs of the rich man's table. But the rich man though not a jot of Lazarus' needs to do anything about it. Even in the dialogue with Abraham, the rich man sees Lazarus as one who is lesser than him, one to be used to spare the brothers of the rich man from ending up in the same mess as him. Even at this late moment the rich man is breathtakingly indifferent to the wellbeing of Lazarus.
And this is where we return to Harvest Thanksgiving. Being grateful for our blessings is a necessity. But we are not alone in the world. We are in relationship with others. And this means being on the side of the have nots. Justice means that we cannot be indifferent to the sufferings of others or to their being denied the good life that we take for granted.
As a country we navigate some difficult waters. Gamblers in pinstripes who rather than be grateful at their blessings wanted more, have left our country and others in difficult waters. As we enter austerity it is all too possible that those whose lives are most changed will be the unemployed and underemployed, the poorly housed, those for whom every pound matters desperately. In finding a way forwards we will need to protect these who are already blocked out of the good life.
And that which is for the affairs of our nation is also global. After all globally we are the rich man. Indeed as Canon Garth Hewitt puts it in song;
"The rich world makes its living through the poor world on its knees."
Take a look at the website "Global Rich List." This afternoon I put the stipend of a Methodist minister in and found that we are globally in the richest 4%. And many of those below us live precarious lives that are ill befitting the much loved children of God. Thankfully the UK government to its credit continues to be committed aiming to fulfil the UN target of 0.7% of GDP to go in international aid. But already far too many countries are bailing out of such commitments. And empty bellies, dirty water, inadequate shelter, poor healthcare and denial of educational opportunities are the result.
At Harvest we give God thanks for the bounty. But for that thanks to be worth more than a pitch of spit, we also have to empathise with and be in solidarity with all for whom the door of the good life is firmly shut in the face. For people being chucked at the gate is most certainly not consistent with true thanksgiving this day.