Sunday, November 23, 2008

Which Way Will You Turn?

My mother tells a story about my grandfather that I think many of you would appreciate. My uncle used to live in Miami so every winter my grandfather would spend several weeks on vacation enjoying the sun and fishing almost every day in the ocean. One time, as the story goes, my grandfather was really excited about a fishing trip they were going to take the next morning. You see, two days later he was going back to Chicago. This would be his last trip out for the season. He couldn’t sleep that night, not because he was so excited….just the opposite. He couldn’t sleep because he was so anxious about how he was going to get all that fish back home in the airplane. What would he do if he caught too much? Would they even let him carry it on the plane? He didn’t want to just leave it in Miami. That night anxiety kept him from sleeping.

Anxiety is exactly the same emotion the rich farmer felt in this morning’s Gospel story. “The ground of a rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’” (Luke 12.16-17) You can almost feel his pain. After a long season, the harvest arrived and he had no place to store so much food. But the anxiety was blinding and he didn’t know where to turn for help so he looked to himself for the solution.

There were so many other places he could have turned for help if only he didn’t let anxiety get the better of him. The Gospel calls him a rich man, so he must have had servants. In fact, I would doubt he actually tilled the land himself. He may not have gotten very dirty at all. If we look again at the story it says, “The ground of a rich man yielded” This suggests that Christ wants us to see that the rich man was in total isolation from the work. He didn’t do the work, the ground did….and actually we know as Christians that it was God who made the earth yield a plentiful crop. And still the rich man turned to himself for the solution.

By turning to himself the rich man revealed his lack of consideration for others. The Gospel continues, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods.” (Luke 12.18) His barns were already full. It would not have been difficult for him to give some of his crops away, but he was thinking only of himself. He said, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’” (Luke 12. 19) A blinding anxiety had total control of the rich man. Not only was he blind to those around him, he was blind to God.

“But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’” (Luke 12.20) The rich man spent so much time worrying about where he would store the crops (crops he didn’t even need) that he was blind to the fact that his wealth would not help him after he died. Christ says, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12.21)

What does it mean to be rich toward God? St Cyril of Alexandria says, “He who does not love wealth but rather loves virtue is rich toward God.” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 89) We are called to take care of each other. The rich man kept turning only to himself. He was blind to the needs of others around him so when he died the food was wasted. Another saint of the Church says, “How will he know where to look, when at the trial he starts hearing the words, ‘I was hungry and you did not give me to eat.’” (St. Augustine Sermon 36.9) The rich man did not cherish love for the poor; he only had love for himself. Otherwise, he would have looked to others for a solution.

The real solution, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is to look to God. If we look to God then anxiety cannot blind us. If we look to God we will see the needs of others and the excess we have to share. If we look to God, we will be rich toward Him. Christ says, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.” (Luke 12.22-23)

We live in a society that tells us: “Be your own person!” or “Don’t depend upon others, but depend upon yourself!” and the worst, “God helps those who help themselves.” This last one by the way is NOT in the Bible and it is nowhere in our Orthodox Christian Tradition. Today’s Gospel lesson teaches the exact opposite. The rich man said to himself, “Eat, drink, and be merry.” He was being his own man, and that didn’t get him very far.

“This night your soul will be required of you.” If we die tonight how would we respond? Have we spent more energy worrying about where or how we were going to store our wealth instead of how we could use our wealth to help others? When the Stock Market lost billions of dollars last month, did any of our worrying beforehand keep it from happening? Has our worrying helped since? We can only look to God.

Christ says, “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” (Luke 12.24-25) The rich man turned to himself and was condemned, the birds turn toward God and are saved. Which way will we turn?

By the way, after a long night with no sleep, my grandfather didn’t catch one fish. A lot of good all the worrying did.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Don't Be A Scrooge...Your Life Depends Upon It!

It has been getting colder lately and before we know it Christmas will be here and our time will be filled with many traditions. One tradition which I really enjoy is Christmas TV - Charlie Brown, Frosty, Rudolph, and one of my favorites, A Christmas Carol. The story is about a banker who gains a huge fortune by being stingy and “all about business” instead of noticing the suffering around him. He receives the blessing though to see what the world thinks about him in the future when he is dead – they hated him – but this was all a dream. He has a change of heart and lives the rest of his life not only noticing the suffering around him, but making the world a better place. If only we could all have the chance to see what we would be like after we’re dead….maybe we would change too.

Seeing what life is like after death is exactly what this morning’s Gospel is about. The scene is much like that in A Christmas Carol: “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously ever day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at this gate, desiring to be fed with crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16.19-20) They both died and Christ allows us to see what their life after they died was like.

After they died we see them both in the presence of God; both being able to talk to God; both being able to see each other; but not both in torment. When Lazarus died the angel came and took him straight to be with God. “The rich man also died and was buried.” (Luke 16.22) In this scene we have been blessed to see how our life might be when we die. The rich man, who had everything he could have imagined when he was alive, was suffering. Lazarus, who had nothing but the compassion of a few dogs, was comforted in every way.

In almost every way of life the rich man was superior, at least by human standards, to Lazarus. He had more money more food more clothes and more of everything than he probably needed. Only the richest people wore purple! There was only one thing the rich man lacked – compassion. “Moreover the dogs came and licked [Lazarus’] sores.” (Luke 16.21) Christ says, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.” (Luke 16.25) It seems that in almost every way after life, Lazarus had more than the rich man. There was only one thing Lazarus didn’t have after he was dead. He didn’t suffer.

Suffering is a part of life. It was a big part of Lazarus’ life and it was a big part of the rich man’s afterlife. We will suffer either way, either now or later, so I don’t wish to dwell on suffering today. Today I want to jump to the end of the story.

The rich man begged God to send Lazarus back to life to warn his brothers to live a better life. He thought that at least they would believe the word of someone who was brought back to life. Christ said, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” (Luke 16.31) We should understand from this that, if the rich man knew the Holy Scriptures – if he knew his bible which in his case was what we call the Old Testament – he and his brothers would not have suffered.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, God speaks to us through the Bible and tells us exactly how to avoid suffering like the rich man. Let me first say, the Church does not teach and the bible does not say that simply being rich caused this man to suffer but the way that he ignored Lazarus. There are so many references to how we can avoid suffering, please allow me just a few moments to read some of them to you. I have them in the order they appear in the Bible.

Genesis 1.26 – “Let us make man [human being] in Our image, according to Our likeness.”
Genesis 2.18 – “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.”
Exodus 20.1-17 – The Ten Commandments (among others) “You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet”
Matthew 25.31-46 – “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”
Mark 12.30-31 – “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
John 15.12 – “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

It is clear my dear brothers and sisters from Holy Scripture, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament that God desires us to live in love and harmony caring for each other just as God cares for each of us. We were created in the image of God. The Holy Trinity is a communion of love and total self sacrifice. If we love each other like God loves us, then we will not suffer after death.

After death the rich man suffered because he was unable to show compassion and love for Lazarus but God still loved him. He still called the rich man son, but the great chasm made it impossible for the rich man to have comfort. St John Chrysostom said the chasm was caused because the rich man didn’t know scripture. “The ignorance of Scripture is a great cliff and a deep abyss. It is impossible for anyone to be without benefit if he reads continually and with attention.” (St. John Chrysostom – On Wealth and Poverty)

Ebenezer Scrooge was a new man on that Christmas morning after he saw what life would be like after he died. Now that we have seen what life might be like for us, we must become new people. We must become transfigured. We must find the time to read Holy Scripture as often as possible and learn to recognize how God wants us to live so we can avoid suffering. But most importantly we must see other people for who they are…..our fellow human beings….and we must love them just as God loves us.