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A Whisper or a Shout?

September 26, 2016

“A Whisper or a Shout?” 1 Kings 19:7-13; Luke 16:19-31 © 9.25.16 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 bulk and his loud, 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 routinely suggested that we should phone the people first as a courtesy, but I was always overruled. I was just the newly ordained Associate Pastor after all, so what could I know? In fact, I was constantly called “that little minister,” so you can imagine 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 place 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 what was then “the tube.” When ushered into the room, you went and sat as close to the TV as possible, then whispered everything you said. The idea might have worked; I never had the courage to try it.

Now just suppose that, like the Westminster Outreach Committee, a team from the local synagogue had visited the mansion of the rich man in Jesus’ story. Imagine further that they had actually been allowed into the high-walled compound, though of course only after a thorough security interview and search. Probably the man would have had a separate room for his home theater, but perhaps he would also have had a 60-inch flat screen TV, with 5.1 sound system, in his den. That’s where the callers would have been seated by the snooty butler, to await an audience with the master of the house. I don’t think the whispering idea would have worked on the rich man. He would have preferred a shouting match between his visitors and the latest episode of his favorite reality show, which he turned on despite having guests.

But truth be told, he would rather have not listened to the evangelists at all. There was no voice or idea more important or worthy to be heard than his own. His were the only solutions to society’s ills; his opinion was the only one that mattered. He couldn’t imagine a more important task than the one he was engaged in, even if was just watching trash TV. There was no more urgent need than the one he was feeling at the moment, like pouring himself another glass of fine wine and savoring 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 Sabbath could bolster his standing in the town—what I call “résumé” or “obituary” faith—or perhaps he could make business contacts after worship. With a little persuading, he might have come if the hour—and no more than an hour—offered a diverting and well-choreographed bit of entertainment with a little God talk thrown in to provide a “thin veneer of religiosity” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

His attention was not captured easily. And certainly not held. Nothing much affected him except the taste of the lamb at dinner or the fit and look of his newest hand-tailored suit or his ridiculously expensive custom shoes. He was always on the lookout for some new experience, something more thrilling and exciting than the last. Never had it entered his senseless, depraved mind; his deadened soul; his hardened 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 comforters were the dogs who came to minister to him in their own way.

But the rich man never saw Lazarus. Even if he were informed about him in the daily briefing from his private security officers, the man would have felt nothing. The poor were not his responsibility or his fault. 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, filthy 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 hereafter, 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, just 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 devises his greatest scheme ever. He has a trans-dimensional smart phone with universal coverage from AT&T—Afterlife Telephone and Telegraph—so his cell works even in Hell. He calls across to Heaven and amazingly reaches Father Abraham himself, instead of a recorded menu. Getting right to the point without the usual pleasantries, the rich man asks the patriarch to send Lazarus to help him. Some premium bottled spring water and finely crushed ice in an engraved 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 in the top one tenth of one percent like him and the great unwashed 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 five hundred years ago in Babylon! 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! Motivate them!”

“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 heart bypass 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 paradoxically need and expect it to undergird their religion and show the Bible is factually, literally 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 or a man rise from the dead, 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 [their] 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 big mug of strong coffee. They help for the moment, and they get us going, but they aren’t much good long term. Eventually we crash.

Instead, what’s required for the journey is a reliable and ready supply of nourishing food. The saints—God’s people—need to be like the famous battery bunny. They have to keep going, and going, and going on a journey that requires “commitment, fidelity, and vulnerability” (David Van Biema, “Her Agony,” Time, 9/3/07: 43).

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.

Now when I talk about the Bible I mean the real Bible. Not the Bible as weapon. Not the prop for our idolatry, violence, and prejudice. Not the source for cherry-picked verses to support what we already believe. Not the coffee table book to dust off and put out when the preacher comes over. Not a substitute for a science text. Not the volume in which we stuff clippings and family records. 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 read critically and thoughtfully, interpreted using the best scholarship available today. The Bible regarded as a very human document, reflecting the times in which it was written, but also inspiring us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God in any age. 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’s not why they believed or continue to believe; that’s not why their lives are righteous examples of kindness and justice. They pay less attention to earthquake and windstorm and fire 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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