Global Warning

September 29, 2019
I Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

These two texts, taken together, give us more than enough to grapple with this morning. In the global context, we are considered wealthy, even quite wealthy. What might we hear in these ancient texts?

The epistle called I Timothy is purported to be written by Paul to Timothy, though many scholars believe it was written some decades after Paul by one of his disciples. The letter is all about how to conduct community life among the followers of Jesus. I and II Timothy and Titus are usually taken together as the “pastoral letters.” They are prescriptive, sometimes specific, about how this new thing called “church” should function. Most of the time I try to avoid the pastoral letters; they are so particular to a certain time – and they have been used so harshly against women, for century upon century. Yes, they are part of the tradition but that was then. Do we really need to deal with them now?

And yet, when I read this particular passage from I Timothy alongside the parable from Luke, I almost hear this fragment as a commentary, maybe even a sermon on the parable about the rich person and Lazarus.

And the parable? Well, it stops me in my tracks, with how it speaks to me as a wealthy person, as a person with more than enough but each day wants just a little bit more. I try to live a conscientious life of integrity and yet, most days it feels like the TV comedy The Good Place, where the characters discover (spoiler alert) that life is so complicated in the 21st century, that no one can earn enough points to get into “The Good Place.” Does that mean we stop trying to live an ethical life, paralyzed by despair and the impossibility of ever making a pure and right choice? Or do we dare to do the impossible and keep trying as I Timothy says “to do good and be wealthy in good works.”

While we might think that there is no way to live with true integrity in the 21st century, and that it is just our dumb luck to be born into such a hard era in which to live, we would do  well to pay attention to this parable that Jesus tells. It seems that it was no easier for wealthy people 2000 years ago than it is now.

This parable introduces us to two characters: a nameless rich person, who in later translations gets called Dives, which in Latin means “rich.” And Lazarus, the only person with a name in all of the parables – and though he has a name he never speaks for himself in the parable. Lazarus means “God helps” or “God is my helper.” (This is probably a different Lazarus than the best friend of Jesus in the gospel of John.  Though they both die in their respective stories, in John, Lazarus seems to be quite wealthy; here in Luke’s parable, Lazarus is impoverished) So, we have an unnamed rich person, and an extremely poor person named “God helps.” For some people, just this much of the parable is already very encouraging – and it is a clue to some of the rest of us to be on alert.

Lazarus is described as the person who hopes for the crumbs that fall from the rich person’s table. Maybe he has Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy as it’s known, for he is covered in sores that the dogs lick. Lazarus spends most of his time just outside the gate of the rich person but these two don’t seem to have much contact. Until they both die.

In life, Lazarus and the rich person are in close proximity to each other. In death, they are separated. Lazarus is carried far away by the angels to be embraced by Abraham and Sarah. The rich person is buried and then somehow is also far away, in Hades, what the Greeks called the home of the dead.

In life, the rich person passes by Lazarus every day, never looking down, not meeting his eye, not offering even a crust of bread to momentarily stop the gnawing hunger. In death, a huge gulf separates them. It is only after death that the rich person chooses to see Lazarus. And though the rich person looks far in the distance and sees Lazarus, lounging with Abraham and Sarah, the rich person doesn’t talk directly to Lazarus. The rich person talks only to Abraham, assuming that since Lazarus was poor in life, he can still be ordered around. “Have pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue. These flames are torture!” Across the chasm, the rich person, in pain and misery still clings to an imagined power. They can tell Abraham to tell Lazarus what to do. But now, the distance is such that even if Lazarus wanted to respond with compassion, it is not possible.

Instead, Abraham responds on behalf of Lazarus. “No. No drips, not even a drop of water for you.” Then, the rich person makes a request that sounds just like it comes from I Timothy. “If not for me, then please, at least tell Lazarus to go warn my siblings.”

Warn those who are blessed with this world’s goods not to look down on other people. They are not to put their hope in wealth, for it is uncertain. (I Timothy 6:17)

But Abraham doesn’t have much patience for the rich person. “Your siblings have Moses and the prophets. Let your siblings hear them.”

The rich person, can’t get done ordering people around. They are used to finding a way to get what they want. “Yes, but if someone comes back from the dead, if poor Lazarus comes back from the dead, they surely will believe. Then they will change their ways.”

This time, in my imagination, Sarah responds: “Look, don’t try to push us around. If they didn’t listen to Moses and the prophets, you think they are gonna listen to a ghost or zombie? I don’t think so.”

Are we to feel sorry for the rich person? It does sound miserable in Hades and yet I have a hard time finding compassion. How could they have lived all those years with Lazarus right under their nose, ignoring his pain and agony, his hunger and his wounds? Are we supposed to have sympathy for this person?

This parable might get a little too close for comfort. What if we step back and squint just a wee bit and see it in a slightly different light. Will that make it any more palatable?

There is Lazarus, an African American man, sitting in a crumbling apartment, gated off from the rich people who barely take notice of him. He has asthma from the moldy drywall and the local incinerator that vents poisons straight into the air. His only access to water is what comes out of the corroded and leaky lead pipes. His food comes from the old corner store, in plastic packages, that leach toxins. The corner store food is loaded with sodium.

There is a rich person who drives by every day, in their Hummer on the way to their office tower where they study ways to increase mineral extraction. The rich person wonders why someone doesn’t do something about this mess of an apartment complex, at the foot of the express ramp; it is an eyesore. Who would live there? How could anyone possibly live there?

Then they both die, the rich person and Lazarus. And you know what happens, where they end up. Lazarus is comfortably seated at a sumptuous table with Abraham and Sarah, the fresh water and organic wine are flowing, the table is constantly refilled with the most beautiful foods, seasoned with the finest spices and freshest herbs. Lazarus is healthy, his breathing restored, his skin radiant.

The rich person looks from afar. They can scarcely believe it. There is that man who must be from that hovel. Before, he could barely stand, he looked like a shell, and now here he is, sitting with Sarah and Abraham, feasting. The rich person can barely speak for the dryness in their throat, from the desolate and flaming desert. The person musters all their strength and croaks to Abraham, “Have that man bring me some drops of water, just a few to soothe my burning tongue. And then have him go warn my business partners to clean up their act, to cut their emissions, reduce their carbon footprint. Tell them to ride bike, become vegan, stop using plastic.”

There is a great distance between Abraham and Sarah, and the rich person, so great a distance that it is probably hard for the person to see the side eye that Sarah is giving. But Sarah lets loose anyway. “So you do know what should be done. In fact, your partners have had their warnings. Did they not hear Greta Thunberg from Sweden and her school strike for the climate. [1] Or Autumn Peltier, the Anishinaabe chief water commissioner from Wikwemikong First Nation. For half of her life, and she is only 15, she has been pleading for clean water, warning of the dangers of water pollution[2]

Did they not hear Isra Hirsi, the teenaged Muslim girl from Minnesota, the executive director of Youth Climate Strike.[3] Or Jamie Margolin and Nadia Nazar, the teenage founders of Zero Hour,[4] a youth movement to call adults to take action on climate change. The truth is, there have been warnings. You did not heed the countless warnings of indigenous peoples and scientists, and your own holy scriptures. You and your partners were willfully ignorant of the consequences of your actions. Sometimes you even justified yourselves by claiming God would save you from this earth rather than through the renewal of creation.”[5]

Father Abraham and Mother Sarah speak truth, a hard truth for all of us. They are yet one more warning that is sent to us. Can we hear them? Can we listen to the young people? Can we let go of some of our comfort here and now so that there might be a future for our children and grandchildren, for the creatures and plants, indeed for the planet?

The fact of climate change, and the human role in it, feels so big and overwhelming how can we even start? One way might be to admit that we are addicts, we are as addicted to fossil fuels as the rich person is to their money. It is at least as hard for us as it is for the rich person in the parable. As addicts, if we want to survive, if we want to find life again we will need to reach out to each other, maybe through meetings in church basements.

Just like meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or any of the other “Anonymous” groups, we need to admit that we are helpless in the face of this great addiction to fossil fuels. By admitting our addiction we can move forward every day and begin letting go of what is ruining us. And we will need to admit we need help from a higher power, and I don’t mean 5G. Only by admitting that we cannot do this alone can we live into the (biblical) promise of a renewed creation.

And yet, this is not the whole picture. It is also important to remember this wisdom from Benjamin and Rianna Isaak-Kraus. “The truth is, while we have gotten ourselves into this mess, we cannot get ourselves out of it. As we struggle with our personal addictions to fossil fuels, we know that individual change will not save us. Only a great awakening, a global conversion of our economic system might have a chance to stave off the worst catastrophes. Only the mysterious guardian of creation can protect us from the waters of chaos”[6] from which creation began.

Where does that leave us? Certainly the parable does not wrap up nicely with easy answers.

In the Christian tradition, we practice confession. In some churches this is individual confession. Here at Hyattsville Mennonite most weeks we practice corporate confession. It reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We experience brokenness as individuals and we are part of the brokenness in the world. Are there ways that confession, individual and corporate confession, might move us forward. How might taking responsibility move us toward action and accountability? Toward calling others to action and accountability?

In the Jewish tradition, the tradition of Jesus and Paul, tonight at sundown the new year begins. It is Rosh Hashanah, the year 5780. As the new year begins, Jews around the world ask forgiveness from those they have wronged. We might join them this evening and tomorrow, asking forgiveness from the earth, from the creatures, the plants, the creator. And as we ask forgiveness, we are given a chance to begin again, to try anew each day, to not pass by Lazarus languishing in the street, to pay attention to the the rivers running with plastics, the sea creatures overcome with chemicals in the oceans in which the live.

Friends, this is the reality in which we live. It will not be easy. More than ever, we need a community of faith to remind us of our commitments to our mother earth and all that comes from her.

Receive this encouragement from I Timothy: Tell them they are to do good and be wealthy in good works. They are to be generous and willing to share. In this way, they’ll create treasure for the future and guarantee the only life that is real. (I Tim 6: 19)

And hold these words from our brother Jesus in your heart:
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:5






[5] adapted from AMBS Chapel 9/20/10 Global Climate Strike.

[6] adapted from AMBS Chapel 09/20/19, Global Climate Strike

(Created by Benjamin and Rianna Isaak-Krauss, Sep. 19, 2019)