Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Creative Contentment

Scripture for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost includes Amos 6:1a, 4-7; I Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

It is no accident that the scripture readings assigned in the church’s high stewardship season include Jesus’s parables about money, wealth, and management. Today we also hear the prophet Amos and the apostle Paul weighing-in on what matters most to them.

As parish leaders gather around the table to find ever-new and ever-old ways to engage us all in the twin tracks of supporting the life and work of the church, on the one hand, and supporting the personal spiritual practice of adventurous sharing, on the other, today’s readings come along like gifts from heaven.

Amos, writing several hundred years before the days of our Gospel, sounds the alarm warning “those who are at ease in Zion, and… who feel secure on Mount Samaria…”, who pamper themselves, indulge every appetite for the finest, most luxurious and expensive sensory experiences, but are not grieved by the ruin of society around them, and are not motivated to lift a finger to help their neighbors who have so little. Alas for them, declares Amos, for “the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.”

I’m going to guess we don’t have many reveling loungers sitting in our churches on Sunday. But we do live in a culture fascinated by such revelry, a culture that seems to aspire to serious lounging. Perhaps Amos had in mind an 8th-century BCE version of XS, a night club at the Encore resort in Las Vegas, where the drinks and cover charge bring in more revenue than the slot machines. $5,000-25,000 to reserve a table near the dance floor—now this is serious lounging—and for that your table is stocked with Belvedere vodka and Perrier-Jouet champagne, silver ice buckets, and more. A state of joyful delirium is promised from electronic dance music engineered by celebrity djs, and at 3:00 a.m. confetti cannons go off, showering the club with ribbons.

Probably not many of us will hear the siren call of that particular temptation. Personally, I can’t imagine a more apt description of Hades, where the rich fellow in our Gospel is undergoing torment. More on him in a moment.

First, we need to stop at the classroom of St. Paul, writing to his protégé Timothy. His subject appears to be wealth and money. He observes that as we bring nothing into the world, so we’ll take nothing out of it. He warns that the rich fall into temptation. They get trapped, caught up in distractions (just the opposite of what one might expect, since the rich appear to have many more options than ordinary people have, surely more than the poor—yet the multiplying of options opens the barn door to senseless and harmful desires that wealth makes possible, and in this state of distraction some people “wander away from the faith and pierce themselves with many pains”).

It is not wealth that Paul blames. It is the love of money that he calls “a root of all kinds of evil.” The Christian Gospel is not based on the claim that money is the root of all evil. It is the love of money that Paul criticizes, and that little word “love” is critical, for his subject is not money but contentment. Paul values contentment for everyone, but hear again how he defines it.

His theology of contentment starts with the liberating assertion that God richly provides everything for our enjoyment. A Christian’s hope is not in the accumulating of as much of that provision as possible. Our hope, our trust, our faith is in the sufficiency of God’s provision. That hope, that trust, frees us to be part of the pipeline of provision, to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for ourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.”

Notice how without apology Paul teaches the importance of contentment. It is for this that God frees us. Unless we claim that freedom, we will not have the contentment that Paul describes, the contentment that comes from behaving like God, acting in the likeness of God that both Old and New Testaments of the Bible insist God has placed in us, the image of God. Paul says that likeness is action. It is the doing of good for others. It is generous sharing of oneself. It is taking hold of real life.

The rich man in our Gospel today is, therefore, very poor indeed. He has the wardrobe of a rich man, and his table groans with the sumptuous dishes of the well to do. But he does nothing Godly. Most of all, he does not even notice Lazarus, a beggar whose health is so poor that his skin is covered with sores, and whose stomach is empty. He keeps hoping that crumbs will drop from the rich man’s table. He has no finer hope because the rich man has no fine hope, none of that contentment and truly rich faith that Paul values, faith that frees a person to be like God, to be a channel for providence, to generously share.

Maureen Dowd writes about how, in 1996, billionaire Ted Turner upbraided fellow Forbes 400 List members Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, calling them old skinflints for not loosening up their wads. At that time, Buffett and his wife were focusing on how to share their wealth after their deaths. But by 2008, Buffett and Gates began plotting philanthropy that would not wait.

They’ve enrolled 115 of their wealthy friends and associates to join them in a pledge to liberate a majority of their net worth. Buffett calls his recruiting campaign, Dialing for Dollars. He says he gives a warning to each billionaire. “If I’m talking to some 70-year-old fellow, I say, ‘Do you really think your decision-making ability is going to be better when you’re 95 with some blonde on your lap, or now?’”

Like all of Luke’s parables about wealth, the crucial moment now is highlighted in his story today. At virtually the same moment, both the nameless rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus die. It’s a dead giveaway that this story will have a surprising outcome, one that turns privilege on its head. The one who is honored by name is carried away by the angels to be with Father Abraham in heaven. The unnamed rich man also dies, and is buried. Period. No angels, no heaven, no companionship with Abraham. The last will be first, and the first last. This is more than death being the final equalizer: this is death transforming injustice, revealing truth, accomplishing judgment.

One person I visited this week, hearing this Gospel when we had eucharist together, angrily rejected this parable: God could not be like this, punishing beyond death, making salvation and damnation outcomes that are based on what a person deserves.

I could agree with her that “just deserts” is poor theology. Grace is the foundation of Christian theology, and our catechism teaches that grace is unearned and undeserved.

But, for heaven’s sake, it’s a story. And isn’t there something profoundly satisfying about one of these two reversals? Lazarus has been taken up in life that really is life. Moses the lawgiver, and the prophets like old Amos, and Father Abraham the exemplar of hope and trust and faithfulness, they’re all rejoicing at this vindication, aren’t they?

And the other reversal? Well, isn’t that for our instruction? There is the rich man who has, just like Amos’s lounging revelers, never grieved over the ruin of the poor, never noticed the underclass that cleans house, does the grunt end of landscaping, works at the casinos and swabs the toilets at Club XS for next to nothing—or has no work, and no prospect, no hope. The rich man has had countless moments of now when he could have looked, seen, noticed, responded, related, helped—but never did, never reached across the chasm between them.

And now? What a revelation, as he looks up across this even greater divide and sees the apotheosis of Lazarus! You would think he might be left speechless, but his self-care instincts are intact: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue…” Send Lazarus. The very person he never lifted a finger to help…

Abraham responds tenderly: Child, remember… Get real. You are where you are because of all those countless moments of now when you did not choose to be aware, and so did not act.

No, I do not believe that we’ll get anyplace good by suggesting a stewardship of fear: Be generous, or else… We will not use this parable that way.

The poet Hilaire Belloc wrote about this parable. He imagined himself and the rich man arriving at the River Styx at the same moment. Each is bent over, shouldering an oversized duffel bag. In the rich man’s are “The fifteen sorts of boots you kept for town, the hat to meet the Devil in; the plain but costly ties; the cases of champagne…”

In the poet’s bag are “a mist of shadowy things; laughter and memories, and a few regrets, some honor, and a quantity of debts…” We may assume that each person has his or her own bag full of… whatever.

My own at the moment is full of projects, the garden to put to bed for the winter, ducks to get in order as I prepare to get away, always another sermon to write…

And, while praying yesterday, didn’t Amos and Jesus gang up on me and get me asking whether I’m grieving the ruin of lives here in the Berkshires, as drug trafficking and drug abuse spread like a plague… Am I noticing what the predatory industry of casino gambling will bring with it to Massachusetts? Really considering the results of terrorism in Kenya and Pakistan and Iraq and Syria? Grasp the dislocation of tens of thousands of people in Northern Colorado; and, two years after our flooding here, the ongoing unsettling of life for our neighbors at The Spruces?

Now, in every moment of now that God provides, we may become rich in awareness so that true needs are seen, neighbors met and served, the ruin of our society grieved and stopped, turned to take hold of life. We are called to get real, to recognize the seeds of our own creative stewardship, the makings of our own best contentment.

Maureen Dowd’s column appeared in the September 22nd issue of The New York Times. Hilaire Belloc’s poem “To Dives” is included in “Chapters Into Verse”, Volume II, edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder.