Sunday September 29, 2019

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 2019c

Old Testament – Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

New Testament – Luke 16:19-31

The Treasures Of The Church

INTRODUCTION: Back in 1870, an attorney named George Vest in Missouri was representing a farmer, who was suing a neighbor for shooting and killing his dog named Old Drum.


And in his closing remarks at the end of the trial, Vest offered these words about dogs as part of his final pitch to the jury, which by the way, helped win him the case and $50 bucks for his client: “The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.”


Now according to the historians, Vest’s declaration lauding the loyalty of dogs would eventually morph into that familiar phrase we all now know which likes to state a man’s best friend is always his dog.


In fact, in 1958 the people of Warrensburg, Missouri, where the trial was held, even went so far as to place a statue of Old Drum on the courthouse lawn with the words “A man’s best friend is his dog” etched underneath it. 


And truth be told, there is some legitimacy to the claim, isn’t there? For dogs really can be a person’s best friend.


Whether wagging their tails as one walks in the door after a long day of work, defending a home from an intruder, or bringing the newspaper in from the street while gently clutched between their teeth, dogs are genuinely faithful and loyal creatures, aren’t they?


Yep, in a world that can indeed be a selfish and treacherous place, dogs are often one of the few dependable and reliable friends a person can have.


Well, poor old Lazarus, of course, knew about the loyalty of dogs from personal experience as well, didn’t he?     


While many often see the wound-licking dogs in Jesus’ parable as just waiting for Lazarus to finally die so they can devour his bones, Kenneth Bailey, a Presbyterian minister who spent 40 years teaching in the Middle East,  claims the dogs are really doing just the opposite. Rather than circling Lazarus like vultures ready to feast, they are actually trying to tend to him the only way they know how - by licking his wounds. With his body covered in sores, which are unable to heal due to being malnourished, dogs tend to poor old Lazarus as best they can by licking his open wounds.


You see, it turns out recent scientific research seems to be confirming what people dating as far back as the Egyptians have long believed – which is that wounds heal faster when licked by dogs. Yep, according to some recent studies, dog saliva, much like human saliva, contains an assortment of antimicrobial enzymes and peptides, which fight harmful bacteria and facilitate healing.


Perhaps that helps explain an old French proverb which says, “A dog’s tongue is the same as a doctor’s,” or that for thousands of years there were people who apparently made a living by charging a small fee to have their dogs lick the wounds of injured or sick people.


And so it goes for Lazarus. Destitute and clinging to life, it is dogs that come to his rescue. While they can’t give him any food, they do their best to tend to his wounds by licking them.


What’s interesting, then, is that the dogs actually provide a stark contrast with the rich man, don’t they? While they seek to provide comfort to poor, old Lazarus, the rich man, for his part, can’t seem to be bothered with such trifling matters.


“Once” begins Jesus’ description, “there was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”


Perched at the top of the social food chain, the rich man lives a life of decadence that would make any of the Kardashians envious. With a closet full of Versace and Armani suits, the rich man also daily dines on $200.00 cans of caviar. His habit of feasting on rich foods, by the way, is a coded way of saying that the man refused to observe the Sabbath for his staff. So while Lazarus sat outside the gate with his stomach growling, the rich man also kept his staff busy seven days a week in the kitchen preparing his fancy meals.  

And then there is the way the man dresses. Kenneth Bailey, again drawing on his forty years of living and teaching in the Middle East, calls the rich man a “clothes horse” who has a constant need to remind everyone of his special status through his fancy attire. Why ,Bailey even goes so far as to claim the “fine linens” the rich man is described as wearing, well, that’s actually the Bible’s way of saying he also liked to don the best and fanciest underwear!


Or as Bailey comments, “There is light humor [in this depiction]. This man not only had expensive outer robes, but in case anyone was interested, he also wore fine quality underwear.”


No Jockeys or Hanes for the rich man, then. Instead, even under his Armani suits the man wore the best money could buy. And he does it all while poor, old Lazarus lies at his gate on the verge of death.


Of course, if we’re not careful, the rich man can become such a caricature in our minds we can easily take a moral holiday when it comes to our own lives.


After all, the rich man, understandably so, is such an enticing target for ridicule, it can be easy to overlook the ways we all struggle to be compassionate people, right? The rich man’s behavior is so egregious, it is so blatantly cold and detached, he can become a whipping boy of sorts allowing us to collectively minimize our own, sometimes, detached and distant behavior.


Again, Kenneth Bailey is helpful. For rather than simply see the rich man as a whipping boy for our sanctimony, Bailey suggest he suffers from a major case of compassion fatigue. Relating his own experiences while working in the Middle East, Bailey has these words to offer, “Having faced the beggars’ gauntlet on numerous occasions for decades in the Middle East, I know something of the dynamics of the scene. It is easy to survive by developing compassion fatigue. Beggers are ever present. There are so many of them...Finally one doesn’t notice them anymore. Compassion fatigue becomes a way to cope and a strategy for survival. Perhaps that is what happened with the rich man.”


Well, we can certainly relate, can’t we? For if we look closely enough, it’s always easy to see and find people in need. The world, as we all know, is full of folks teetering on the edge needing help. No wonder someone has said the heart of Christianity is really a lifelong process of training people to look upon the world the way Jesus did. Because to see the world the way Jesus did is to see human need just about everywhere one turns. No wonder even Jesus sought quiet times away from the crowds during his ministry. For he was constantly bombarded by an endless parade of people desperate and in need.    


The burn-out rate among clergy, as many of you probably know, is through the roof. And my own hunch? Well, it has to do, more often than not, with compassion fatigue. Overly eager to meet people’s needs and provide care, a whole lot of ministers just get to the point where they are totally out of gas.


No wonder there is now a growing movement and a plethora of literature to help clergy learn how to avoid compassion fatigue. For trying to maintain that balance, trying to see the world the way Jesus did while also not getting overwhelmed by it all, can be tricky. Not just for ministers, of course, but for everyone.                 


You see, we can forget all these years removed from Christianity’s birth and early growth just how revolutionary the faith really was.


For unlike every other faith in the Roman empire at the time, Christianity stressed above all else the principle of charity. Or as David Bentley Hart claims: “Christian teaching, from the first, placed charity at the center of the spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.”


So by 251 the Church in Rome was apparently providing regular care for more than 1500 dependents, and smaller churches in the area kept storerooms of provisions and clothes for the poor and the elderly. And while that might not seem like such a big deal, when cast against a cultural environment where no one else, including pagan religions or the state, had any interest in doing such things, well, such charitable acts take on a whole new meaning. No wonder countless scholars have argued that Christinaity, initially, was a religion composed primarily of slaves, women, and the poor.


In 258, the Emperor Valerian ordered the death of all bishops, priests, and deacons unwilling to worship the Roman gods. One such leader eventually put to death was Saint Lawrence, who was also the treasurer for the church’s funds in Rome. 


Ordered by Roman authorities to turn over the church’s treasury, Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the various funds. During the three days, however, he did just the opposite. Rather than gather together the funds, he furiously distributed the church’s funds to the indigent, needy, and the down-and-out.


At the end of the third day, when appearing before the Roman authorities as ordered, Lawrence also brought with him the various people who had received funds from him. Pointing to the destitute and impoverished throng behind him, Lawrence then reportedly declared that he had kept his promise. For before the leaders of Rome, he claimed, stood the true treasures of the church.


CONCLUSION: Well, as those who are supposed to look at the world the way Jesus did, Saint Lawrence’s remark makes all the sense in the world, doesn’t it?


For based on the way Jesus lived and what he taught, the real treasures of the church, in the end, are people - especially the hurting, lonely, and the downcast.


And if all the hurting, lonely, and downcast of this world really are the treasures of the church, then we are, near as I can figure, rich beyond all measure. 


Now to the Ruler of all worlds, undying, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.