The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 21 (Year C)

“The Kingdom of God”

A sermon by Deacon Erika Hagan

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty

Hello! I am so thrilled to be here – to be here today in this pulpit, and to be with you this year as your curate. I am currently a deacon, and God willing and the people consenting, hope to be ordained to the priesthood here at Christ Church next year. One of the roles of deacon which I love is getting to proclaim the gospel, the good news, of the story of Jesus Christ incarnate among us, as I carry the gospel book down to the front there to read the gospel lesson for the day. The first time I did it, I said the words “and Jesus said to them,” and the power, the wonder, of declaring the words that Jesus said then to God’s people now almost overwhelmed me.

One of my favorite professors in seminary used to assign us, not chapters, not excerpts, but full books. One book a week. The whole thing. It became a sort of a joke when someone new would be in class. The professor would say “read Howard Thurman for next week” and the new person would say “what chapters?” and the rest of the class would say “THE WHOLE BOOK.”

It seemed like a lot at first, but over time the rhythm of taking in the whole arc of the story, the big picture of what the author is trying to say, became illuminating. We could consider a small chunk of the text – a chapter, a paragraph, even a sentence –  but because we had the big picture in mind, we could be more astute, we could see more, in our conversations and learnings around that small chunk of text.

As someone tasked as a deacon with sharing the Good News of God Among Us to God’s People…I invite us to look at the gospel lesson today with a slightly bigger frame. Don’t worry, we don’t have to read the whole gospel of Luke…although if you ever want to as a spiritual practice, I highly recommend reading a whole book of one the Gospels some time. Pro tip: The gospel of Mark is the shortest.

The scripture we use each Sunday is set for us in a common lectionary. This is a calendar, a three-year cycle, that sets out what the old testament, the psalm, the new testament, and the gospel reading will be each Sunday. The one we use in the Episcopal Church is called the revised common lectionary, and it’s used by many different denominations. In churches all over this Sunday, everyone is hearing about the rich man who stepped over poor Lazarus each day in life, and who ends up tormented in Hades with a gulf so wide he can see Abraham in heaven but cannot receive comfort.

I love a good calendar, and as we get to know each other better over this year, you will surely learn how much I love our liturgical calendar. I have a whole social media presence about feasting and fasting around the liturgical calendar. But, as ordered as I am, I get a little frustrated with the lectionary. It cuts up the stories, creating associations between different scripture sources sure, but also removing the bigger context of what Jesus was saying when, and to whom. For example, our story today of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it’s not an isolated parable. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells this story in response to the sneering of those around him, and that sneering is the response of the gospel lesson we heard last Sunday, where Jesus declares that No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Jesus says You cannot serve both God and money, and those around Jesus laugh. They enjoy their money. They consider themselves to be good moral people. They see no problem in being both things, people who work for money and people who honor God.

Jesus replies that everyone he’s talking to was raised on the stories of the forefathers and the prophets – about the foundation of our faith in Abraham and Moses, about hearing the wailing of the prophets like Jeremiah and Amos. – but Jesus then says that ever since John the Baptist started proclaiming his good news in the wilderness, the good news of the kingdom of God is something new, something that is at hand, and everyone is figuring out their way into it. Everyone is picking a path. Everyone is putting their energy, their focus, into something, into some way of being, believing their way is correct.

And then…he tells the gospel story we heard today. With the story bracketed off it could seem to be only about the corruption of wealth, and how it stops you from helping the poor man at your feet. Or it could seem to be only about the final judgement, where you will either go to heaven or hell. It could seem to be a sort of moral lesson about how you can’t take your wealth with you after you die.

But with this larger picture, I wonder if Jesus tells this story, of the rich man and Lazarus, as a parable about how you can’t serve more than one master, you can’t serve both money and God. Which master you choose to serve – the rise and grind culture of working for and obtaining wealth…or of God…that is your focus when you leave your house each day. I wonder if Jesus is telling those around him sneering at his framing of the kingdom of God that this is how it works. You can serve the master of working for wealth and be fine for a while, but you will miss out on the kingdom. You will miss out on the big picture. By the time you can see it, you can see the kingdom of God where those with the least like Lazarus are lifted up, where the story begun with God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled, you will be too far away to be in it. You, like the rich man’s brothers, will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. I read someone describe the theology of the Episcopal Church as this: we in the Episcopal Church are Easter People. We celebrate the resurrection of our Lord every time we celebrate the Eucharist, every time we take communion. Our hope, our focus, is in the belief in rebirth, in renewal, in resurrection. If we get so far away, so focused on our own stuff, that we no longer recognize the Easter among us, with us, within us…well, we feel like the Rich Man, lost across a cavern and unable to quench our thirst.

Jesus talks about money a lot in ways that make us, we comfortable folk in a 1st world country with 1st world problems, uncomfortable. At least, it makes me squirm a little. Part of this bigger story in the gospel of Luke is a place where Jesus tells someone to sell all their belongings and to follow him. The idea of doing that terrifies me. But remember, too, in this larger story that Jesus is friends with many who are wealthy – he eats with tax collectors, he feasts at parties, he is eventually buried in the tomb of a wealthy friend. The problem isn’t the money or wealth that life may or may not send your way. It is what that money means to you.

What Jesus is trying to tell those around him, what I think we hear in this story when we take a step back and look at the larger picture, is that it is important who we work for. Do we wake up and work for money to maintain our lives to go out and work some more? Or were we maybe created for something bigger, for something more than the rat race of our modern time. My brothers and sisters in Christ, when we are baptized into the body of Christ, we are invited to participate in, to work for, the kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven. We serve God.

We call Jesus the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. We sing of Crowning him with many Crowns. In a country like ours that fought not to be a monarchy, not to be ruled by a King or a Queen, but instead to be a democracy where an individual can make their own choices to pursue their own life, it is not intuitive or automatic to declare your allegiance to someone else, as you would a King. I watched a lot of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral on Monday, and there were some things that felt very familiar – the church service is extremely similar to what we experience in our worship, as we are in and grew from the same Anglican Communion with the Church of England. But when the attendees stood and sang “God Save The King,” and got to the words “crown him victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us.” I realized I couldn’t imagine saying those words about another human being. It’s just not my framework at all. No one rules over me.

No one except the God I serve. Not a human King. Not a job, even this new job here at Christ Church I am so thrilled to have. Not money – the desire to obtain it or the fear of losing it. When we take the time to remember the bigger story of God’s love, of Jesus among us, of the Holy Spirit within us, this bigger story that our small lives are a part of, we get glimpses of the kingdom of God. We can see it. We can taste the living water. We are not separated from it, in this life or the next.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty

Amen. Alleluia.