September 29, 2019 Worship Sermon - "The Chasm Between Rich and Poor"

Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146;  1 Timothy 6:6-19;  Luke 16:19-31

Abraham said to the rich man, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.”

This past week, the census bureau released a report showing that economic inequality has risen to its highest level in at least fifty years, since the census started keeping track of that information.   Economic inequality is so great that the three richest Americans, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Bill gates, now have more wealth that the bottom fifty percent of the U.S. population. 

That's an enormous concentration of power in the hands of a very few people.  It's naive to think that this much power in this few hands doesn't undermine the very foundation of our democracy, that all people are created equal.  Meanwhile, many Americans are one medical emergency, one layoff, one family disaster away from bankruptcy or losing the roofs over their heads.

These are depressing statistics, I know; and I don't think any of you came to church this morning hoping to hear the same depressing news that you could have found in the New York Times.

Do the scriptures offer any insights?  Do they give us a perspective from which to approach these challenging - and divisive - issues that our society is facing?   I think so.  All of our readings this morning talk about wealth and poverty.  Actually, the whole Bible has a huge amount to say about economic justice.  It talks more about economics than just about any other topic. 

One thing that gets repeated again and again throughout the Bible is that God cares for those who are poor.  We hear this in our psalm this morning:

The Lord gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.
  The Lord sets the captive free.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
  the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord cares for the stranger;
  the Lord sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.

It's not that God loves the poor more than God loves the rich.  God loves all people equally.  But it's kind of like a fire-fighter, who cares about every house equally, and yet focuses his care especially on those houses that are burning.  In the Bible, God focuses so much attention on poor people because usually they're the ones who are suffering the most. 

Because God cares about poor people, and because we are the hands through which God demonstrates God's care, God wants all of us to care about poor people.  God's people are to be God's instruments for bringing about economic justice.

In some places, the Bible offers very specific commandments about how an economy should function.  For instance, there's the commandment about the year of jubilee.  Every fifty years, God's people were to cancel all debts and return all property back to its original owners.  And there was the commandment about gleaning.  A farmer was not supposed to harvest every single ear of grain from his fields or every single bunch of grapes from his vineyards.  The farmer was supposed to leave some of the food in the fields so that poor people - those who had no land - could come through the fields and harvest some of the bounty of God's creation. 

These specific commandments were written for an agrarian society, where land was really the only form of capital and the only source of wealth.  We can't implement these laws directly into our own modern economy, but we can adapt the principles underlying these laws. 

The year of jubilee was commanded to prevent too much power and wealth from being concentrated in too few hands.  It was commanded in recognition of the fact that sometimes catastrophes happen and people become impoverished through no fault of their own.  The principle of jubilee should shape how we Christians view tax policies and social security programs.  Estate taxes are one way that we can ensure that concentrations of wealth don’t get passed on from generation to generation.

The principle of gleaning should shape how we Christians view work and access to the means of production.  People who want to work should be able to find a job.   That's what gleaning means: if you want to go out into the fields and gather a harvest, you should be able to.  Those countries that make full employment a priority, especially during economic downturns, are the countries that tend to have a strong and stable middle class.

Our scripture readings this morning lift up two spiritual booby-traps that prevent us from demonstrating God's care for poor people.  In Timothy, the spiritual booby-trap is envy.  "Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction."  In any economy, some people are going to be richer than others.  But if a person makes the desire for wealth his or her ultimate concern, that person ceases to cherish the eternal life that is found only in our relationships with God and with other people. 

In Luke, the spiritual booby-trap is narcissism.  The rich man seems to care only about himself - or maybe his five brothers.  In so far as he even sees Lazarus, he sees Lazarus only as a servant.  "Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and quench my thirst.  Send Lazarus to warn my brothers."  The rich man's narcissism - his sense of entitlement - prevents him from seeing Lazarus as an equal human being. 

Paul Pif, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has performed numerous studies on the relationship between wealth and how we relate to others.  His studies show that increasing wealth tends to increase our sense of entitlement and decrease our sense of empathy for those who are suffering.  That’s because people who are poor need each other more, while wealth can lead us to feel independent from each other.

That's not to say that all wealthy people are narcissists or law-breakers.  But wealth does seem to pull people into a mindset of entitlement, a sense that their needs are more important than the needs of others.  So those of us who are rich need to be on guard against that mindset, lest we fall into the trap of the rich man in Jesus' parable. 

Perhaps the most important thing for all of us to remember - rich and poor alike - is that everything we are and everything we have comes from God.  As I Timothy puts it, we come into this world with nothing.  Our chromosomes, our families, our talents, our brains, our bodies, our assets... everything comes from God.  So, while we might feel entitled to recognition for our accomplishments and for the good works that we do, ultimately we recognize that it is God's doing and we are only stewards of the gifts that God has entrusted to us. 

In our story from the Gospel of Luke, Abraham warns the rich man about the huge chasm that divides him from Lazarus.  It’s scary to think that such a chasm could exist, but perhaps that chasm was built by the rich man himself, over the many years that he ignored the poor man lying at his gate.

If such a chasm exists, perhaps Jesus is the bridge over that chasm.  Christ stretches his hands wide upon the cross in order to bridge all the chasms, all the polarities, all the enmity that human sin creates.  In Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female, and it's not pushing it to say there is no longer rich nor poor; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  Christ is the rich man who becomes poor so that the poor may become rich, rich not in gold and silver, but rich in relationships.  

Let this gathering be a sign that the one who bridges all humanity on the cross continues to live among us today.

Christ Lutheran Community Church

Christ Lutheran Community Church