Proper 21, 16th Sunday after Pentecost (9/25/22)
Jeremiah 32: 1-3A, 6-15
Psalm 91: 1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6: 16-19
Luke 16: 19-31
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I have a question to ponder this morning that I’ll get to a little indirectly. What does it mean to say, as we just sang in our opening hymn, “All my hope on God is founded?”
But first the gospel. This is, of course, a very apt reading to open our stewardship season, which, as Kathryne Ann reminded us in the weekly newsletter, begins today. As many of our recent lessons have done, this lesson points us to reflect on our use of resources, material resources of course, but time and talent as well.
Here Luke draws a vivid picture. It is so vivid that these few verses became a subject for artists over the centuries. The rich man, in his purple and fine linen, feasting sumptuously every last day of the year. And the poor man. We imagine with no family, no resources, shunned for likely leprous sores. He waits in vain for kindness from the rich man’s store. In one of these 17th century paintings, the image of suffering is the more painful because even the dogs, licking his sores, are emaciated.[i]
But then, the reversal. The rich man is consigned to torment in Hades. Lazarus, who suffered greatly in life, is taken by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man does not even merit a name.
We get the message.
Collects typically open by reminding God of God’s nature as a segue to our petition. God, your nature is to show mercy and pity. So we pray: Grant us those blessings of mercy and pity. We know well that they are not earned, and that like the rich man we falter, not least in showing the generosity, our mercy and pity, so needed by those around us.
If our collect encourages us to think about the rich man, another of our set prayers points us to Lazarus, whose life was so desperate, so precarious. This suffrage from Morning Prayer jumped into my mind as I read these verses. And now we get to the issue of hope:
- Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
- Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
Lazarus had to have hope, hope in human kindness, hope in God.
Our OT reading today is about hope, about hope and trust in the face of obstacles. It is set at a time when Babylon was besieging Jerusalem. Jeremiah himself was in jail. God told Jeremiah that his cousin was going to come to him and ask him to buy a field. The field was probably already under Babylonian control. Jeremiah was not naïve. He was in jail because he had been saying that Babylon would triumph. He knew the future was not good.
Nonetheless, when the cousin came, Jeremiah said he’d buy the land. And he prepared all the papers that would confirm his ownership, documents that would be meaningless in any foreseeable future. But Jeremiah, we learn in the last verse of the reading, knew from God that Jerusalem one day would be restored.
The unnamed rich man of the Gospel reading thought he was behaving rationally, cost/benefit: giving to the poor man would gain him nothing. Jeremiah by that measure – even if he knew that someday things would change — behaved irrationally, throwing his money away. He acted by a different measure than the rich man did. He acted out of hope, hope, or trust, in generosity, mercy, honor. He recognized laws that required land be transferred within the community, and he helped someone in need. In the words of the epistle, he sought to be rich not in wealth but “in good works, generous, and ready to share.”
Jeremiah hoped in God. Lazarus, we can imagine, lived in hope. And so my question: What does it mean to enjoin “hope in God.” Try to explain that to an unbeliever. How do you know what to hope for? Who exactly is it you hope in?
There was a lot of talk of hope this past week in the commemoration of the Queen, hope for the future, hope for her values. Our opening hymn may well have been one she chose since, apparently, she was involved in the planning of the various ceremonies. This hymn was sung at the memorial services both in Edinburgh and Westminster Abbey. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the Queen’s “uncomplicated Christian faith.” Why did she like that hymn? I return to the question: What did she or anyone mean by saying “all my hope in God is founded”?
Maybe she shared the view of Cynt Marshall, the new CEO of the NBA basketball team the Mavericks. In an interview on PBS Newshour last Sunday Marshall spoke of what hope in God means to her, and probably to many other. For her, faith is the need to trust, to never lose hope, to believe, as she put it – and this seems to me the key phrase—that “the Lord has a plan.” As someone who has faced professional challenges and overcome cancer, she explained her conviction, to paraphrase, that she has seen God act in the people he has put into her life when she needed them. She, in turn, has tried to embody that help in helping others. For her, she has seen the Lord’s plan work out tangibly.[ii]
This is a moving statement of faith, an energizing force. Hope is not the same as optimism, especially not the “Panglossian” optimism Voltaire long since satirized that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Job’s hope in God did not depend on the happy ending that he in fact got.
The hope of anyone who says “all my hope in God is founded” is shaped by what that person understands the symbol of God to mean. Cynt Marshall believes in a God who works his plan through humans who serve God’s will. The hymn knows God’s nature to embody goodness, wisdom, light, life, and beauty. These are qualities one ought to trust in. In an incarnational faith, it is qualities like these one cultivates oneself and finds in others. And the hymn invokes the reward in this life of such hope and trust – rewards of love and of joy. It is a glorious hymn.
Our closing hymn’s title, “Lord of All Hopefulness,” makes hope essential to the nature of our Lord who is, the hymn tells us, a Lord of hope, eagerness, kindliness, gentleness, love, what we then hope for, pray for, as the hymn takes us through the stages of a day.
We have hopes for ourselves and our loved ones. These hopes are embedded in hopes for larger collectives. We may have hopes for a specific loved one, but those hopes depend on the larger world: What kind of a world will our grandchildren grow up in? It is easy to despair, but there are signs of energizing hope: hope in Ukraine; hope for the five-month “long march” going on in India these days and the protests that broke out in Iran last week, both against right-wing authoritarian regimes; hope for concern for the plight of refugees in the response to the transcontinental walk of the twelve-foot puppet, Amal, whose Arabic name means “hope.”
Not everyone’s hopes are the same.[iii] Are our hopes the right ones — for ourselves and loved ones, hopes for our respective nation and the world? We need always to seek to know the nature of the Lord in whom our trust is founded.
What are our hopes for St Alban’s? This is assuredly one of the collectives those of us here care about. We set a good foundation for looking forward in our discussion last week when we talked about where we are as a parish after all these long months mostly on zoom. Stewardship season invites us to look ahead – with our hopes founded in God.
Vestry members will be offering their thoughts during these next weeks, and Susan Matteson is ready to start —
[iii] There was a certain amount of discussion this past week about Britain’s national songs, with one poll showing a majority favoring replacing “God Save the King” with “Land of Hope and Glory.” Opponents say the hope celebrated in the song is nationalism at its worst with reference to empire and the resounding chorus of “God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier still.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lymc9Jj_E3U
Even a map spreading red to the old empire. The author of “God of all hopefulness” was Jan Struther (d.1953) who also wrote the novel, Mrs. Miniver, which celebrated British family love and sacrifice in World War II— the movie version, ends with singing “Land of Hope and Glory.”