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September 30, 2007
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord.” The United Church of Christ proclaims “God is still speaking” and this affirmation is at the heart of the prophetic message. God is at work in the world. All things reveal God’s presence; all persons can be media of divine revelation. The universal God speaks uniquely and variably in each moment of experience. Divinity chooses all of us, but each one has a differing role in the interplay of divine call and human response. In his youth, Jeremiah experiences God’s personal call to speak a word of challenge, condemnation, and hope to a country that has lost its bearings and is on the verge of military disaster.
Jerusalem is under the siege and Jeremiah is in prison. Yet, the one who has spoken words of doom does the unpredictable and irrational – he is not desperate, he purchases a plot of land as an “image of hope” for life beyond destruction and captivity. Jeremiah’s hope is not wishful thinking or denial of the stark realities of imminent national destruction, but a recognition that God is at work in the world and that, even amid rubble, new life can spring forth. God’s “initial aim” in each moment is the “best for the impasse” and though the best for the impasse may be “bad,” that is, painful and limited (Whitehead), God continues to offer a way toward the future.
Psalm 91 speaks of divine protection in a time of conflict and threat. Taken literally, the promise of the Psalmist is improbable, if not impossible to believe. Persons who love God experience pain and suffering, have homes foreclosed, and die in battle. Faith does not insulate us from tsunami, cancer, heart disease, or random gunfire. Can we truly affirm that God will “deliver us” from pestilence or violence? Or, is Psalm 91 an invitation to experience something more than physical protection – the faith that the ultimate issues of our lives are in the context of divine care and wisdom, regardless of what befalls us?
When Paul says “nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39), he is well aware of the persecution that he and the Christian community are facing. Still, in all things, Paul asserts that God is with us and cannot be defeated by what we most fear. God is alive in every situation, positive and negative, presenting us with possibilities, guidance, and energy.
The Epistle to Timothy urges us to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
While First Timothy notes that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, contentment and peace of mind come from holding fast to what truly matters in life. “Eternal life” is not mere subjective endurance but the experience of divine presence and guidance in the midst of our lives now and forevermore. Continuous existence, apart from God’s presence, would be hell rather than heaven! Living in light of eternity places our lives in a larger perspective, and enables us to choose between possibilities that give life and possibilities that turn us from our fullest identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters.
The gospel reading presents a vision of what happens when we turn away from justice. As a result of his neglect of the beggar Lazarus, the rich man is condemned to an “eternity” of torment. In contrast, Lazarus, the beggar, is resting in the presence of Abraham. The gulf between Hades and the realm of Abraham cannot be crossed. Yet, amid his torment, the rich man reaches out in one last act of generosity – he wants his brothers to hear the good news; he wants them to change their ways and adopt a new set of values. He wants them to be saved! But, in gospel story, even this generous intention, this loving request, is rebuffed.
Perhaps, this parable is not as clear-cut as dualistic thinkers of the left or right might suggest. While Lazarus receives a reward with Abraham, is he unambiguously good? While the rich man experiences “eternal” punishment, is he unambiguously bad? Will his torment last forever or is there hope in this life and the next for those who have lost their way in this lifetime? Are the poor closer to God than the wealthy? Are we among the rich or the poor in this world, and what will that mean in terms of our post-mortem destiny?
Process thinkers can recognize the truth in Reinhold Niebuhr’s and Paul Tillich’s recognition of the ambiguities of life that even include the relationships of the righteous and unrighteous and the rich and the poor. This does not take us off the hook or excuse the obvious and growing disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” even in our country, but opens the possibility for the redemption of the wealthy as well as the poor.
The dynamic inter-relatedness characteristic of process theology challenges any dualistic understanding of rewards and punishments or absolute chasm between saved and damned. We must take the story of Lazarus and the rich man seriously. Our actions and values in this life have consequences in this life and the next. But, these consequences are relative, never absolute. Redemption is always possible because God’s grace is extended to all persons all the time.
In a process-relational world, God’s love is everlasting and ever-active. Death is not an ultimate barrier to God’s love. The God who constantly presents possibilities to us in this lifetime will not change God’s attitude toward us at the moment of death. In contrast to the dualistic vision of the gospel story, process theology asserts that there is hope for transformation for both the rich and the poor. Still, the image of a chasm between Lazarus and the rich man reminds us that our values and behaviors place limits on our future decisions and may also place limits on the transformative possibilities of divine activity. Wealthy North Americans may have to account for our indifference to poverty and global warming, despite our moral rectitude in daily life. Grace does not exclude regret and the pain of missed opportunities to follow God’s way.
The gospel story is a reminder that we are all connected. Poverty and riches are interconnected. The day to day decisions that individuals, corporations, and governments make may be the difference between life and death for millions of persons. At some level, we are all “guilty bystanders” (Thomas Merton) whose ordinary choices have consequences far beyond what we can imagine in the present moment. In a process-relational world, there is no “other.” In the spirit of the parable of the lost sheep, Lazarus and the rich man both need each other in order to experience the fullness of God’s presence. If any are lost, all are diminished. With fear and trembling, we are called to work for the salvation of all creation.
In an alternative reading of this passage, we might imagine the rich man, like Ebenezar Scrooge, receiving one more chance to mend his ways and welcome Lazarus into his home as a friend and not a charity case. Perhaps, it was a dream after all, and when he awakens, the rich man will become a new creation – such impossible possibilities are not “happy endings” but calls to change our ways (yes, our ways), to recognize our solidarity with the Darfur child and the homeless adult. Though the best for the impasse may not be ideal, it may – if we attend to the road toward wholeness that lies before us – be the first step toward a truly abundant life all of us.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.