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A Whisper or a Shout?

October 1, 2013

“A Whisper or a Shout?” Luke 16:19-31 © 9.29.13 Ordinary 26C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Mr. Corn drove a huge late ‘70s model Cadillac that suited both his considerable girth and his back-slapping style. The entire Outreach Committee, as I recall, could fit into that car as we went out on behalf of the church to call on newcomers to Mobile. I suggested that we should as a courtesy phone the people first, but I was always overruled. I was just the newly ordained Associate Pastor after all, so like the comedian used to say, I didn’t “get no respect.” In fact, I was constantly called “the little minister,” so you know what high regard I was held in. Totally cold, then, we would knock on the door of some home or apartment and show a bulletin cover to identify ourselves as representing Westminster Presbyterian Church. Most times we were invited in.

Of course, since no one had any idea we were coming, there were the typical apologies about the house being a mess. And inevitably, the TV was on at considerable volume. Sometimes, the people would turn off the set; other times, they left it on, and we had to try to talk above it. I forget from whom, but I finally heard a strategy for getting people to turn off the tube. When ushered into the den, you went and sat as close to the TV as possible, then whispered everything you said. I suppose the idea would have worked; I never had the courage to try it.

Now just suppose the Westminster Outreach Committee, or any evangelism team, had visited the mansion of the rich man in Jesus’ story. Probably he would have had a separate room for his home theater, but perhaps he would also have a 32-inch flat screen TV in his den. I don’t think the whispering idea would have worked on him. He would have preferred a shouting match between his visitors and the latest episode of his favorite reality show.

But truth be told, he would rather have not listened to us at all. There was no voice or idea more important or worthy to be heard than his own. No more important task than the one he was engaged in, even if was just watching trash TV. No more urgent need than the one he was feeling at the moment, like to pour himself another glass of expensive wine and savor its flavor. The gentle invitation of visitors to be part of a caring community of faith would not have appealed to him, unless perhaps attending on Sunday could bolster his standing in the town—what I call “résumé” or “obituary” faith—or perhaps he could make business contacts after church. Or maybe he would have come if the hour—and no more than an hour—offered a diverting and well-choreographed bit of entertainment, though it be labeled “worship.”

His attention was not captured easily. And certainly not held. Nothing much affected him except the taste of the lobster at dinner or the ad in a men’s magazine for the newest tailored suits and trendy ties by his favorite upscale designer. He was always on the lookout for some new experience, something more thrilling and exciting than the last. Never had it entered his mind or his cold, cold heart that a great challenge to imagination, creativity, and action was languishing right outside his gates. There lay a homeless man named Lazarus, not to be confused with the brother of Mary and Martha in the Gospel of John. He was terribly sick and constantly, chronically hungry. He lacked strength even to move from his spot, and his only comfort were the dogs who came to minister to him in their own way.

But the rich man never saw Lazarus. Even if he should notice him on the video cameras that scanned the exterior of the compound night and day, the man muttered to himself that the poor were not his responsibility or his fault. And why didn’t the guy get a job, take a bath, at least shoo the dogs away? How dare he deface any street with his disgusting presence, much less the landscaped entrance to the rich man’s home?

Life goes on like this for many years. Finally both men die. In the afterlife, their places are reversed. Lazarus is safe and comfortable in “Abraham’s bosom,” as Paradise was sometimes called by the Jews. It conjures images of family, connection, peace, safety, attention—all the things Lazarus lacked during his physical life. The rich man, on the other hand, is tormented in flames. He longs for even a drop of water for his tongue, even as Lazarus must have desired just a scrap from the crusty Italian loaf that the rich man dipped in seasoned olive oil at dinner.

Apparently, each side can see the other. The rich man spies Lazarus all comfy and cool, and hatches a plan. He has a trans-dimensional smart phone plan with universal coverage, so his cell works even in Hell. He calls across to Heaven and amazingly reaches Father Abraham himself. The rich man asks the patriarch to send Lazarus to help him. Some premium bottled water and some crushed ice in a silver bucket would be really nice. Even now the rich man believes he is in control and a position to command.

Finally, though, he gets it. He’s in a tight spot. There’s no way the great chasm between comfort and torment is going to be crossed. Funny, he had often thought the same about the gulf between rich and poor, those who made it in life and those who barely got by, people at the top like him and the great masses underneath.

But even if his destiny were determined now, it was not too late for his brothers. They could still be warned. They, like he, responded best to something big and showy, an unforgettable demonstration that would grab the attention of busy, jaded people. Nothing would be better than if somebody rose from the dead, maybe looking like something from a zombie movie, knocked on their front door, and said, “Hi! Got a message from your brother in Hell. Shape up!”

Once again, the rich man wants Lazarus to be his servant. Let Abraham send the former beggar back from the dead with a solemn message. He could materialize out of thin air at the next family reunion, an apparition in the arboretum. That would get ‘em!

“Nope,” Abraham responds. “I won’t do that, because it’s not necessary. Your brothers have all the guidance they need to live a righteous life, just as you did. Let them listen to Moses and the prophets and do what they say.”

The rich man persists. “No, no! You don’t understand. They have to have something big and showy and grand to grab their attention. They aren’t going to care about stuff written by dead guys a thousand years ago in another country. Don’t you know this is the first century? We do things differently now. Your approach is so boring, so old-fashioned, so out of style. Razzle-dazzle, spectacle, state-of-the-art holographic special effects. Visuals! Bullet points! You gotta grab ‘em in thirty seconds! Speak to their self-image!”

“Who are you trying to kid?” the ancient patriarch barks. “If they haven’t changed and they’ve known what to do all along, they won’t be convinced by the best show anyone can offer. Listen to the Scriptures. That’s what they must do. And by ‘listen,’ I mean obey their call to justice and compassion.”

“They won’t be convinced.” Enticed, excited, enthralled, enthused, entertained, frightened, frazzled, intrigued, thrilled, puzzled or peeved even, but never, ever convinced.

What about you and me? Our neighbors? What persuades people to live righteous and caring lives, to repent and obey God, to rely on God for everything?

Maybe it will be a crisis like an near-fatal accident or a terrible mistake with bad consequences for ourselves and others. As the movie line has it, “in ruin there is transformation” (Eat, Pray, Love). In the aftermath comes the chance for renewal and change. Some folks might respond to fear, intimidation, and being screamed at by some authority figure, scared or forced into changing and living upright lives. On the other end of the spectrum is the “mountaintop experience,” when a person feels humbled and awestruck and moved to do something to show his or her gratitude to the One who made it all. I have even known of open-heart surgery changing people spiritually; having one’s heart stopped seems to do that.

Others, of course, want scientific proof or else a supernatural event, a miracle. That tends to be the approach of fundamentalism. These believers hate and deny science, but they need and expect it to undergird their religion and prove the Bible is true. So they try to find Noah’s ark, analyze the Shroud of Turin, set out to prove that a virgin could really conceive a baby, compare the Trinity to the behavior of water or marshal logical arguments for the existence of God. Those who rely on miracle are all the time asking for a sign from heaven, or like Herod in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, they want to see Jesus “walk across my swimming pool.” I wonder what they make of Jesus’ insistence that only an “evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign.”

I’ll admit that all these ways of convincing people have their place and can be used by God. But they’re rather like a burst of energy from a sugary drink or a candy bar, the rush of caffeine from a cup of Starbuck’s coffee. They help for the moment, and they get us going, but they aren’t much good long term. Eventually we crash.

Instead, what we need for the journey is a reliable and ready supply of nourishing food. The saints—God’s people—need to be like the Energizer Bunny. We have to keep going, and going, and going. We are not called necessarily to be heroes. We need heroes, to be sure, but they arise for the moment, in dire straits, an emergency, perhaps even giving their lives for others. Saints are long-suffering, in for the long haul, patiently and persistently doing what they do without much notice or fanfare.

What gives them their spark? What keeps lighting the flame of love inside them? What keep convincing them that God is good, God is present, God cannot fail?

The Spirit speaking through the Scriptures.

It is the Bible that testifies to the providence and presence of God through the ages. When we read and digest the stories we find a God whose patience and care is enduring, even when his people forsake him. A God who keeps on calling for justice even when only a few are listening. A God who challenges and invites us to a task beyond ourselves. A God who insists that we face as well as celebrate the truth about ourselves: that we are deeply flawed yet specially gifted. In the daily encounter with the Bible, in hearing it in corporate worship, we are found out, lifted up, held accountable, inspired, enabled, and energized.

It was the Bible in the translation of his day that inspired John Bunyan as he wrote his Pilgrim’s Progress. It was memorized texts from the Bible that sustained missionary Ben Weir as he was held hostage in an Iranian prison years ago. It was the Bible that remained with my parishioner Mary Kennerly in her old age. As I have told you before, even as the names of her children faded from memory, the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 1 did not.

Now when I talk about the Bible I mean the real Bible. Not the Bible as weapon. Not the prop for our prejudice. Not the source for our proof-texts to support what we already believe. Not the coffee table book to dust off and put out when the preacher comes over. No, I mean the real, dynamic, powerful, unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, the living and one Word of God we have to hear in life and in death. The Bible that sets us on fire for good and for God. As Walter Brueggemann says, it ignites “fireworks of alternative imagination,” the text “sets people on fire” (Inscribing the Text).

When the people of God are called and sustained by the Scriptures, and convinced of God’s presence and true promises, they have their lives changed; they act differently; their priorities are rearranged; they have a mission. They let their belief get inside them and change their whole outlook on who they are, who their neighbors are, what the world and the universe are all about. They say things like: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else that is in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” They testify: “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him….”

Yes, they are strengthened by miracle and wonder, by the special, unexpected intervention of God’s providence, by going to the mountaintop, by the good news of the resurrection of Jesus. But that is not why they believed or continue to believe; that is not why their lives are righteous examples of kindness and justice. They pay less attention to earthquake and windstorm than to the still, small voice of the One who guides and provides for them. The rich man and his brothers would not have believed, not have been convinced, even if someone rose from the dead, even if the truth were right in front of them, even if someone shouted it out clearly and compellingly. But for the saints—the faithful and attentive people of God—even the smallest whisper of the voice of God speaking through Scripture is enough for the journey.

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