Friday, September 23, 2016

Year C, Proper 21, Luke 16.19-21, We are beggars. . .

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen

“We are beggars.  This is true.”
These were the last words of Martin Luther, as he died February 18th, in 1546.
He had worked tirelessly as a reformer of the Church.
He had written volumes about the Gospel.
His preaching was powerful.
In addition to all that he did for the Church, his legacy also includes having set the stage for the independence of Germany and its emergence as a modern state.  He is Germany’s “George Washington”, its founding father.
He translated the scripture into German, and in so doing established the norm for the German language for generations to come.
To this day, Protestant and Catholic Church’s alike owe a huge debt to Martin Luther for his articulating of the Gospel. 
All this said,
When he came to the end of his life, his last words were simply “We are beggars.   This is true.”

Paul writes to Timothy:
we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”

The thing about recognizing that we have nothing, is that then everything becomes a gracious gift of God.
We are beggars.  This is true.

The readings for today are particularly challenging for rich people.
Amos warns those that are at ease in Zion, that they will be the first to go into exile.
In our Psalm we hear about the God
Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
The Lord sets the prisoners 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; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

Paul writes to Timothy that
the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,

And if that isn’t enough to make us squirm at bit, we have the story of the rich man and Lazarus from the Gospel lesson. 
Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 

Are you rich, or are you poor?

Actually, most of us would identify ourselves as being middle class.  We look at the world around us, and see that there are some who have far more than we do, and some far less.  We are somewhere in the middle.
Early on in my life when I was a self employed woodworker I received a commission to do a couple of desks for a German couple that had a summer home in Gig Harbor, where I lived.
I felt like the beggar at their table.
As I dealt with them, I became increasingly aware that these were no ordinary folk.  What I learned about them is that they were from the aristocratic class from Europe, “old money”, with worldwide holdings.
I had a friend who owned the lumber yard that I did business with who related a story about this couple, Erivan and Helga.  As prominent business people in Gig Harbor, George and his wife Pat had gotten to know them, and one day were invited out to their place to enjoy an afternoon relaxing by their pool. 
At one point in the afternoon, Helga turned to Erivan and said “Isn’t it lovely being in Gig Harbor, where we can just enjoy ourselves socializing with the peasants.”
True story.
I found out later that the Haubs were listed in Fortune 500’s top ten of the world’s most wealthy people.  Billionaires, many times over. 
And I felt quite poor, needless to say.

And yet, I am rich.
I traveled to Russia a couple of times to visit a sister congregation that my congregation in Sandpoint supported.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russians experienced great financial hardship.
They had very little.
Most of them had a flat, a small apartment in the city that was part of the public housing that was a left over from the communist era, and in addition to that they had a garden plot in the country where they could raise much of their food.  An average income for a family might be $100 a month.  Somehow, they managed.
But even more heart wrenching were the beggars that would gather around any public place.  Many of these beggars were veterans of the Soviet’s involvement in Afghanistan, and often had lost limbs, and were severely handicapped.  But if being a beggar was not bad enough, they were also subject to their “pimp”, or “protector” as they were known.  These pimps, or protectors, would oversee a bunch of beggars, making sure they got to their begging spots, and making sure no one robbed them.  In exchange, the pimps took much of what the beggars received.
Prostitution was also rampant. 
Karla had accompanied me on my second trip there.  I was blown away by being propositioned three times before it was even breakfast time, our first day there.  Beautiful young girls, willing to sell themselves to an American tourist, because they could earn more in fifteen minutes doing that, than they could in a month or more of regular work. 
I bought a book at one museum.  $125.  I didn’t even think about how this must have struck our Russian hosts.  Here I was, so rich that I could without even a serious thought purchase a book that cost more than they earned in a month. 

So when I listen to these biblical texts dealing with poverty and wealth, I ask myself, “Am I rich?  Or am I poor?”  Where do I fit into these pictures?

My mother and father-in-law traveled to Germany to visit some of their relatives there.  One of those visits was particularly striking.  These cousins had lived a good life and had good jobs as professionals.  But when Karl and Becky visited their home, they were struck by how simple it was, and how little they had.  Just a small apartment, simply furnished. 
What they learned was that this couple, and their families had lost everything in the War.  What they decided during the post war era, was that never again would they devote their selves to accumulating stuff that could be taken from them in a moment.  As a result, rather than gathering “things” all around themselves, they chose rather to travel.  Their point was that no one could take their memories from them, so the devoted themselves to “making memories”.
We are beggars.  This is true.
If you think that you are rich, remember that you brought nothing into this world, and you can bring nothing out of it. 
But, if you think that you are poor, consider all that God has blessed you with. 

We are beggars, this is true,
But beggars that have been richly blessed at the Lord ’s Table.

Spiritually, this is even more true.
We are studying the book of Romans in our adult class.
Three statements from Romans lay out the Gospel message:
No one.
And Nothing.
No one is righteous, no, not even one.  None of us is rich with respect to righteousness.
All are justified by God’s grace, as a gift.  Once we realize our spiritual poverty, we open ourselves to recognize how richly blessed we are by God’s grace.
And nothing can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.
No one.
And Nothing.
And that, my dear friends, is sufficient.

Sufficient, yet it’s a hard lesson to learn.
In my own life there have been three unwelcome teachers that have helped me learn.
The failure of my health.
The risk of losing everything I’d worked so hard to accumulate.
And being confronted with my own sinfulness.
Until I came to be aware of how impoverished I was, I was simply not able to see how richly blessed I was by God’s grace. 
I had to realize that “I once was lost” in order to appreciate that I “now am found”, I had to be blinded, in order to see, to quote from that dear hymn, Amazing Grace. 
To put it differently, forgiveness means nothing until we become aware that we actually need forgivening.
Having a savior in meaningless, unless of course, we actually realize that we need saving. 
We are beggars.  This is true.
And richly blessed by God’s grace and mercy.


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