Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 9/26

I think most of you know that I have a discretionary fund here at the church.  You’re the ones who supply the money for the fund but then it’s my discretion that determines how the money is used.  That gives me a degree of power and fair amount of leeway but I’m pretty sure the understanding of those who make donations to this fund is that mostly it is to be used to help people looking for assistance in buying food or gas or in paying their bills and that in fact is how most of the money in this account is used.  

Of course the reason why many pastors and churches have such funds is because the teaching of Jesus and the prophets before him is pretty clear on the fact that we are to help those in need.   I assume though, that when you give to this fund, you understand that there are no guarantees regarding the effectiveness of its use.  I know that I’ve been burned by con artists and it’s probably safe to say that I’ve said no to people who have legitimately been in need.  Sometimes my discretion is mostly about what mood I’m in.

          One thing I never do anymore is give cash; it’s always vouchers for food or gas, bill payments go directly to the bank or the utility involved, rental assistance goes to the landlord, although in my cynicism I always wonder if the landlord isn’t just a partner in the scam.  I do try to be as certain as I can though, that the money is used well and that the recipient is worthy of my help.  I still have to confess that for a long time I’ve been at the point where whether I help someone or say no to them I don’t feel very good about it unless I really do know the situation and know that the need is real. 

          You see how this gets tricky though?  I decide if someone is worthy.  I congratulate myself for being a discerning judge of worthiness and I can argue that I’m just being a good steward of this fund; it’s your money after all and you’ve given me this responsibility and you wouldn’t want me to use your money foolishly.  That makes sense, but it also feeds into feelings of “I’m better than these people”, feelings of control over others along with cynicism and self-congratulation, none of which, in this instance, are very good things. 

And what if someone came to me and didn’t want food or gas but wanted money to help pay their cable TV bill?  Would I think they were worthy?  Probably not.  Something like that has never happened and probably never will but I did have one guy looking for help once back in Massachusetts and I wound up going to his house and while there wasn’t a whole lot in the way of furnishings there he did have a state of the art TV, much better than my own and I was put off by that.  I did wind up helping him and his family but a part of me was saying, “If you need money why don’t you sell that big screen TV.”  Implied in that is, “You and your family aren’t worthy of having any source of enjoyment and relaxation in your life.    

There are times I wish I didn’t have a discretionary fund because becoming the judge of worthiness does get tricky, but the truth of it is, we all have our own personal discretionary funds that are just as tricky.  We hear the teaching of Jesus on this which echoes the teaching of the prophets and it’s clear; we know that we’re supposed to do something.  But how much are we supposed to do?  You can’t give to every cause that sends you mailing labels.  And you would like to know the worthiness of the recipients, you would like to know that your money is doing some good.

Lazarus needed a voucher.  He was hungry, starving, in effect picking through the rich man’s garbage, hoping for something.  The rich man had a discretionary fund as we all do and the implication is that he had quite at lot at his discretion.  The parable doesn’t tell us though, if Lazarus was worthy of the rich man’s assistance.  It also doesn’t tell us that greed was reason the rich man didn’t help.  We tend to read those details in and assume that Lazarus’ need was legitimate and that the rich man was greedy; but the parable itself doesn’t concern itself with those details.

As Jesus tells this parable though, it seems that that regardless of worthiness, the rich man should have done something.  That sets up another disturbing possibility with this parable, disturbing to me anyway because it declares me guilty, and that possibility is that greed wasn’t the issue with the rich man, but that he failed to act simply because he didn’t want to be bothered.  I said before that sometimes whether or not I provide assistance out of the discretionary fund is just a factor of what mood I’m in.  Well, sometimes I just don’t want to be bothered.  As greed isn’t mentioned here, it may be that it’s an unwillingness to be bothered that Jesus is really getting at.

After all, we worship a bothered God.  In the Noah story that the Sunday School kids heard last week, God was bothered enough with the failure and misdeeds of the people to want to wipe out pretty much everyone; he’d had it.  But the story ends with the rainbow, God’s reminder to himself that never again will I do that.  The people hadn’t changed, but still, God was bothered enough to give them another chance and that giving of second chances becomes a core characteristic of this God.

Another characteristic of this God is that he allows himself to be bothered by the cries of his people.  In the Exodus story he hears the cry of the slaves in Egypt and responds!  The Psalms are full of voices that cry to the Lord, voices that bother the Lord and the Lord responds to being bothered.  And of course God was bothered enough, he cared enough to become human in the person of Jesus, and Jesus was bothered enough to go to the cross for our sake.

Being bothered is at the core of God’s identity so not surprisingly much of Jesus’ ministry was about him being bothered by and bothering with all manner of people, including many who were not considered worthy.  Added to this is the fact that justice is also at the core of God’s identity as witnessed in today’s Psalm.  It’s a psalm of praise, but besides being praised for being the creator of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, this is also the God who give justice to those who are oppressed, food to those who hunger, the God who lifts up those who are bowed down, who cares for the stranger and sustains the orphan and widow.  A claim to follow Jesus has to take this divine commitment to justice seriously, as Jesus himself did, and that means being bothered. 

There’s another aspect of this parable that bothers me.  There’s a finality about it that’s disturbing.  There’s the suggestion that as much as we talk about a gracious God of second chances, there are limits and in this parable, the rich man had reached those limits.  The chasm was too wide, it couldn’t be crossed.  We want to think that it’s never too late, but the words of Father Abraham in the parable suggest that there is a point of no return. 

We do well to pay attention to this caution, centered as it is on the call for justice and care for those in need.  I do believe that the core biblical witness does describe a God of grace and second chances, but care for those who the world deems unworthy is not just out there on the fringes for this God but is also part of the core biblical witness and so it must also be at the core for those who follow. 

Last Tuesday we talked about this text at the pastors’ weekly study.  I came back here after lunch knowing I had my Lay School class to teach that night and I wasn’t quite ready for it so that had me a little frazzled.  Then I called the courthouse in Marquette to see if I had to show up for jury duty on Wednesday and I did so now I’m even more frazzled realizing that my Wednesday could be shot; I could be there all day getting nothing done.  You can probably guess what happened next.  The phone rang and it was a woman with an eviction notice wondering if I could help.  I don’t know if she was worthy or not and I really didn’t want to be bothered, on another day I know I would have just said, “Sorry, I can’t help you,” but with this gospel text rattling around in my head, what else could I do except help her?  From my perspective, she was lucky.  But maybe Jesus was smiling somewhere, saying to me, “No, she wasn’t the lucky one.”`         

Rev. Warren Geier                          

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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