The Presbyterian Church at Woodbury
September 25, 2022
16th Sunday after Pentecost
Mighty and merciful God, we meet to celebrate your greatness.
We join with the hosts of heaven to sing your praise and to offer you worship.
For you are worthy of adoration from every mouth, and every tongue should praise you.
You created the earth by your power; you save the human race by your mercy; and make it new by your grace.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we offer you our grateful praise.
CALL TO WORSHIP
Come and worship!
We will praise the One between, within, and over.
Trust in the One who co-creates the was, the now, and the will-be.
Our hope is in the One who creates expansive love calling us to do the same.
Follow the One who never breaks covenant.
We follow the One whose extravagant love calls us to co-create justice for the oppressed, feed the hungry, unlock prisons, and welcome strangers, orphans, and widows.
Praise the One whose justice is grace-full and inclusive.
We praise the Spirit that spans the ages. Amen!
*HYMN No. 821 “My Life Flows On”
1 My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the clear, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?
2 Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing? (Refrain)
3 What though my joys and comforts die?
I know my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth. (Refrain)
4 The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine since I am his!
How can I keep from singing? (Refrain)
*CALL TO CONFESSION
In God’s presence, our lives are exposed, our words are shown for their hollowness, our need is revealed. Let us confess who we are, as we ask God to embrace us with grace and hope.
*PRAYER FOR CONFESSION
We need to confess, God of Abraham and Lazarus, how often we are not content with the simple gifts and lives you offer. Tempted by everything, we can become insensitive to those who have nothing. Encouraged by the world to accumulate more, we may miss the chance to gather your goodness and godliness. Chasing after all which has no value, we may not have the energy to pursue the faith, the love, the gentleness you have for us. Forgive us, God of Reversals. You have sent the One who speaks the words we need to listen to in order to have life. Help us to remember how you have redeemed us, and in remembering, may we make that good confession that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, now and forever.
Silence is observed
*ASSURANCE OF PARDON
This is the good news that comes from God: I will hear your prayers, I will answer with hope and peace, I will deliver you from your sins.
God has covered us with grace; under God’s hope we will find shelter. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*RESPONSE No. No. 581 “Glory Be To the Father”
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen, amen.
*PASSING OF THE PEACE OF CHRIST
Since God has forgiven us in Christ, let us forgive one another. The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. And also with you.
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock, and our redeemer. As we approach your Word, may we be ready to receive the message you intend for us today. Amen.
SCRIPTURE – Luke 16:19-31
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
SERMON “a huge chasm set between us”
As someone who grew up in the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed tradition, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the possibility that a God of steadfast love, a God who forgives all our iniquities and remembers our sins no more would sentence anyone to a lifetime of eternal torment. But as someone who grew up in the South, I am very aware of the concept of Hell. When I was in high school, and later when I was in college, whenever I went to football games, when I was in college, I would often encounter someone holding up a sign that read “all sports fans are going to Hell.” I can also recall having been asked on numerous occasions if I knew where I would go if I were to die today. One of the first times I remember being asked this question was when I was in college. At Hampden-Sydney College, we would often encounter students from the Liberty University. It was apparently part of their training to ask us heathens enrolled at non-Baptist colleges if we knew the final destination of our souls. When first asked this question, I became confused, because being the good Presbyterian that I was, I could not imagine the possibility of not going to heaven when I died. Because of my confusion, I asked my questioner for further clarification and he, it was always a he, said that if I had faith in Christ, I would go to heaven. He also made it very clear that if I were not a follower of Christ, I would spend eternity in Hell. Knowing that I had faith in Christ, I answered confidently that I believed I would go to heaven when I died. He seemed to find that answer acceptable and provided me with additional literature that he encouraged me to share with others.
Did Jesus really believe in Hell? Or was Jesus just using the imagery of Hell to make a point? While I cannot say for certain whether or not Jesus believed in Hell, I think it is safe to say that Jesus had some conception of the afterlife. At that time, Jewish people had many different ideas about what happens to us when we die. There were some groups, such as the Sadducees, who spent very little time thinking about the afterlife and focused their attention on living a good life in the here and now. The Pharisees, on the other hand, took ideas about the afterlife from the cultures around them, with the heaviest influences coming from the Persians and the Greeks. From this amalgamation, the Pharisees and other Jewish groups came to believe that people judged to be worthy went to some version of heaven when they died while those deemed to be unworthy went to some version of Hell. Conveniently enough for the religious leaders of Jesus’s day, they were often the ones who got to judge who was worthy enough to be sent to heaven and conversely who was unworthy enough to be condemned to Hell. This arrangement also proved convenient for the rich and those of good social standing, as they were usually deemed worthy of heaven. Being poor, on the other hand, usually resulted in also being a social outcast, which often led to being deemed unworthy of heaven and thus destined for Hell.
It may appear at first glance that Jesus’s concern in this story is the afterlife, but as is often the cases, Jesus is more concerned with how a person treats their fellow humans in the present. At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has been talking to the Pharisees about money. With this story, Jesus is trying to teach the Pharisees, who Luke says are lovers of money, about what is truly important in this life, while at the same time turning their conception of the afterlife on its head. As I mentioned before, it was the prevailing wisdom of Jesus’s day that those who were rich would be welcomed into heaven while those who were poor would be condemned to Hell. Prior to the telling of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus tells the story of a dishonest manager. The story ends with Jesus telling the Pharisees that they cannot serve both God and wealth. Because this story of the rich man and Lazarus is coming right behind Jesus’s admonition about money, it is clear that this story is not really about the afterlife. It is instead a call to the Pharisees to carefully consider how they are treating their fellow humans. It is also, despite what it may seem like, not a condemnation of accumulating wealth. The issue in this story is not that the rich man is rich. The issue is that the rich man does not see Lazarus. Despite the fact that Lazarus sits at the rich man’s gate, which means that the rich man likely has to walk by or possibly even step over Lazarus every day, he never appears to even acknowledge Lazarus’s existence. The other issue is that the rich man seems to be disconnected from the community, appears to have walled himself off from the community, and has evidently chosen to close his eyes to the plight of his neighbors in need.
Upon reading this story, some questions we might want to ask ourselves are, do we as a congregation see the people in need in our community? And, are we willing to form deep, long-lasting connections with those in need in our community?
In our story of the rich man and Lazarus, it certainly seems like there is nothing that can allow the rich man to begin to see Lazarus, not even the torment he experiences in the afterlife. Notice that after the rich man is condemned, he appeals to Abraham and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drink of water. Even in death, the rich man still does not see Lazarus as a person and continues to see him only as a poor servant. The rich man even sees Abraham, great ancestor of his faith, as someone there to do his bidding. The rich man asks Abraham to go to his brothers and warn them so they will not meet the same fate. Abraham responds by telling the rich man that his brothers have the words of Moses and prophets as a guide and that they should listen to them. As we heard in our passage from Amos, the prophets can certainly be a wealth of good advice. In Amos, the prophet is trying to warn the leaders of Israel, especially those who are wealthy but unconcerned with the plight of their people, that they will soon be sent into exile if they do not change their ways. These warning to the Pharisees and the leaders of Israel can also be a warning to us. We too must be careful that we do not become disconnected from those in need in our community. Throughout scripture, we are told of the special place God has in God’s heart for the poor and oppressed. The Psalmist commands us to sing praises to God “who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry.” Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus speaks in the temple and gives his mission statement, that he has come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. The apostle Paul writes to Timothy that followers of Christ, especially those who are rich, should “do good, be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” We are reminded then that seeing those in need in our community is not just about connection with our neighbors, it is also about connection with God.
In this story, Jesus speaks about a great chasm that exists between Lazarus and the rich man. Abraham tells the rich man that the chasm cannot be crossed. In the United States today, there is a great chasm between rich and poor that is only getting bigger. In 2019, it was reported that income inequality is the largest it has been in fifty years, despite the fact that annual household income hit a record high in 2018. I believe this widening gap in income has also caused us to become more and more disconnected from each another. Because of the widening gap in income, we often no longer form relationships with people of higher or lower income. As a result, we no longer see our neighbors, especially our neighbors in need. I will admit to being as guilty of this as anyone. When I am in downtown Woodbury, or Philadephia, or any major city, it can be easy to look past those in need. In many cities, there are so many in need that it can feel like you are in a no-win situation because you cannot help everyone you meet on the street who appears to be homeless or in need. Even in our community, where we may not encounter homelessness as often as in other places, there are still plenty of people in need, and it often feels like there are more people in need than any one person or organization can help at any given time. So, what are we to do when we encounter people in need?
Unlike some of his other parables, Jesus is not commanding the Pharisees to give away all their money. He is not even telling them not to accumulate wealth. Jesus’s point is that they should not allow the wealth they accumulate to separate them from the community, and especially from those in their community like Lazarus. Despite the imagery used in this story, I would not go so far as to say that Jesus believed in Hell. I think what Jesus believed in was turning the tables on conventional thinking and teaching people what it meant to be a citizen of the kingdom of God, where the rich are brought down, and the poor are lifted up so that everyone is on a level playing field. In order for the kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven, we are going to have to see the people in our community who we may not normally see. We are going to have to make a connection with the people in our community who are like Lazarus. We do this not so we will avoid eternal torment, but so that others will avoid the torment that comes as a result of disconnection from the community.
To help people avoid disconnection, we first have to see people in a way we might normally not see them. It may be rare that we fail to notice people at all, but I’m sure there have been times we have been guilty of ignoring people and failing to ask if they are in need. Our congregation is blessed with an abundance of resources. We have a wealth of financial, human, and physical resources that can be used to form deeper connections with our community. But if we only use these resources for ourselves so that we have a nice building to come to on Sunday, are we really seeing our neighbors? If we hope to bridge the chasm between us and our neighbors, we must be willing to see our neighbors, listen to their stories, and respond to their needs. So, the next time you find yourself in conversation with someone in the community, ask them what they need right now. Do they need prayer? Do they need a meal? Do they need a ride to the doctor? How can we be of service to them? Only by asking these questions will we have any hope of deepening our connection with our neighbors and with God. Amen.
Commentary and Liturgy provided by David Lose, Richard W. Voelz, Bill Chappell, Peter Gathje, Caroline Lewis, and Scott Hoezee.
*AFFIRMATION OF FAITH From a Brief Statement of Faith
We trust in God, whom Jesus called Abba, Father. In sovereign love God created the world good and makes everyone equally in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community. But we rebel against God; we hide from our Creator. Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God’s condemnation. Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation. In everlasting love, the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people to bless all families of the earth. Hearing their cry, God delivered the children of Israel from the house of bondage. Loving us still, God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant. Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.
*HYMN No. 724 “O Jesus, I Have Promised”
1 O Jesus, I have promised
to serve thee to the end;
be thou forever near me,
my Master and my friend;
I shall not fear the battle
if thou art by my side,
nor wander from the pathway
if thou wilt be my guide.
2 O let me feel thee near me!
The world is ever near:
I see the sights that dazzle;
the tempting sounds I hear.
My foes are ever near me,
around me and within;
but, Jesus, draw thou nearer
and shield my soul from sin.
3 O let me hear thee speaking
in accents clear and still,
above the storms of passion,
the murmurs of self-will;
O speak to reassure me,
to hasten or control;
O speak, and make me listen,
thou guardian of my soul.
4 O Jesus, thou hast promised
to all who follow thee
that where thou art in glory
there shall thy servant be.
And, Jesus, I have promised
to serve thee to the end;
O give me grace to follow,
my Master and my friend.
PASTORAL PRAYER & THE LORD’S PRAYER
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
The flowers today are given in the glory and honor of God by Thomas Moore in memory of his parents Mr. and Mrs. Ellison T. Moore Sr.
OFFERING OF TITHES & OFFERINGS
God is always with us, not just when everything seems clear and times are good, but also when we struggle with questions and doubt. When we cry out to God, our prayers are heard. When the world cries out to God, we are part of God’s answer, offering water in the desert, offering nourishment to a world that is spiritually hungry. Our gifts this morning are our answer to God’s own goodness. Let us gather our gifts together and offer them to God in gratitude and praise.
Praise God, from whom all blessing flow, Praise God, all creatures here below. Alleluia, Alleluia Praise God in Jesus fully known; Creator, Word and Spirit one. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
* PRAYER OF DEDICATION
Almighty God our refuge, you provide all things for those who wait upon you. We present these offerings to you as signs of our trust, knowing that your angels guard all our ways. Show us your salvation, today and forever, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
*HYMN No. 547 “Go My Children, with my blessing”
1 “Go, my children, with my blessing,
Waking, sleeping, I am with you,
you are my own.
In my love’s baptismal river
I have made you mine forever.
Go, my children, with my blessing,
you are my own.”
2 “Go, my children, sins forgiven,
at peace and pure.
Here you learned how much I love you,
what I can cure.
Here you heard my dear Son’s story;
here you touched him, saw his glory.
Go, my children, sins forgiven,
at peace and pure.”
3 “Go, my children, fed and nourished,
closer to me.
Grow in love and love by serving,
joyful and free.
Here my Spirit’s power filled you;
here my tender comfort stilled you.
Go, my children, fed and nourished,
joyful and free.”
God sends us from this place with a word of hope.
We will offer the shelter of grace to all in need.
Jesus sends us out with the word of life.
We will seek to share community with those we will meet.
The Spirit sends us into a world which longs for justice.
We will trust that God’s freedom will be offered to all people.