September 29, 2019 – The Rev. Hugh Stevenson

Proper 21, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
Amos 6:1a,4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Amos 6:1

+ + +


Back in 1972 when we were married, my aunt gave us £30 which we spent on a Vango “Force 10” tent from Blacks of Greenock.[1] I was glad to see that in a photo of one of the Everest expeditions they were using our tent. We spent our days off camping in different parts of Britain; we still have it, though we do not use it often. It protected us from hurricane winds and torrential downpours. On various occasions we hosted friends whose tents leaked, soaking their clothes and sleeping bags.

On a number of occasions I have been backpacking in the Sierra. I enjoy the sensation that I am carrying everything I need on my back far from civilization. Life becomes very simple. There’s nothing to do except hike to our next campsite. At night I hear the sound of the wind in the trees and I look up to see the stars and in August the Perseids (shooting stars). There are no shops to buy things–so there’s no point in having a credit card; and there’s no cell-phone coverage. Up above 10,000 feet the air is thin, the sky is blue, the lake water is clear and stocked with golden trout.

For forty years the Children of Israel camped out in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses. They were nomads with no fixed habitation, looking for pasture for their flocks. They were like the Bedouin tribes of today in the Arabian Peninsular.[2] It was the formative time in their nation’s history. Looking back they realized that it was the time that they felt closest to God. The Hebrew word for “wilderness” is midbar רמִדְבָּ which is derived from the root, דָּבָר  which means “word” or “speech”.[3] In the wilderness God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, to Elijah at Horeb and to the Israelites. They could hear because they were not distracted by the trappings of civilization. As pilgrims, they were all equal and no one was superior. God fed them all equally with manna from heaven and water from the rock.[4]

The wilderness is a place of order where all of nature is in a perfect balance of harmony. By contrast cities are places of hurrying, rushing and crime. Some get ahead and take advantage of their position to exploit the poor and vulnerable. There are traffic jams and nowhere to park. Often the air is polluted by ozone or noise or light. Cities can easily be seen as places of chaos.

The prophets reminded the Israelites of their time in the wilderness.[5] They did not need all the trappings of civilization and settled living that they adopted when they reached the Promised Land. But the people rebelled (according to those prophets) and they were blinded by the accoutrements of the surrounding nations. They wanted a king, and a temple made of stone with an altar for sacrifice and hierarchical leadership.

David thought it would be sexy to have a temple in his new capital of Jerusalem. His prophet, Nathan agreed with him,. But in a dream God said, “Not so fast!” God reminded Nathan, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”[6]

They didn’t drink wine in the wilderness, not because they were teetotal but because it takes three years for a vine to produce grapes and they were never in one place long enough to grow grapevines. They were people on the move. When they arrived in the Promised Land they found “a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing.”[7] Nevertheless there were radical types who refused to farm the land or live in cities or drink wine, because they regarded those practices as alien, borrowed from the locals. Some were called Rechabites,[8] and another was Samson who was a Nazirite, a wild man who did not cut his hair.[9]

Moses warned the Israelites not to be arrogant and say to themselves, “my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.”  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.” [10]

The prophet Amos was one of those who harked back to the blessed time in the wilderness. He was appalled at the corruption of the Israelites. It was not just that they took advantage of the vulnerable and sold the poor for a pay of shoes. It was their lavish lifestyle. So he prophesied, ” Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.” They lounged around on beds of ivory, sang idle songs, drank bowls of wine and anointed themselves with the finest oils.[11] “Watch out,” he said,” you’ll be the first ones to be carted off into exile.” And so it happened less than 40 years later.[12]

Luke has much to say about having a right attitude towards wealth and property. Last week among other things we heard the warning of Jesus, “You cannot serve God and Mammon. You’re going to have to choose.” This week we hear the story of Dives and Lazarus. Dives obviously chose to ignore the blessings of the wilderness. He had a lavish lifestyle. Purple clothes were worn by royalty. Purple dye was very expensive. So this was a good way to impress your neighbors.[13] He feasted every day, not just once in a while. He had plenty to eat even when there was a food shortage. No doubt he and his guests drank bowls of wine.

But Dives is not the central character of the story. That’s Lazarus. he lay outside Dives’ house. He was homeless and starving. Life, as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote (in Leviathan,1651) was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” No wonder his life expectancy was short. Then comes the reversal (there are number in Luke’s Gospel; this is not a literal description but a fantasy), Lazarus was whisked off by the angels to Abraham’s bosom, not only a place of comfort and feasting, but also a seat of honor. It would have been better if Dives had taken to heart the lessons of the wilderness. Instead he languishes in the flames of Hades, which is where his family will end up.

And we too can learn the lesson of the wilderness. There we will hear the word of God. There will be no ostentatious lifestyle. No claiming, “mine all mine!” No haughtiness in bragging, But as we heard in the epistle, “do good, be rich in good works,  and be generous, and ready to share… Thus we will lay up treasure for the future and take hold of life that really is life.”[14]

Proper 19, September 29 2019

[1] It’s still on the market, but its price is now £400
[2] See Johannes Pedersen, Israel: its life and culture (1926).  Pedersen was a Danish scholar of the Old Testament.
[3] for midbar see Strong’s concordance #4057; for dabar see Strong’s #1697
[4] Deuteronomy 8.
[5] “The Nomadic Ideal” See Jeremiah 2:2: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride,  how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” Also Hosea 13:5, Amos 2:10 etc
[6] 2 Samuel 7:5
[7] Deuteronomy 8:7f
[8] Jeremiah 35
[9] Number 6. Samson is found in Judges 13f.  Another was Samuel, 1 Samuel 1:11, 1:22 etc
[10] Deuteronomy 8:17f
[11] You can read all this in the bulletin, Amos 6:1a, 4-7
[12] In 722, Sargon II deported the residents of Samaria to Assyria.
[13] See Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple (1982) about abject poverty in the American South.
[14] 1 Timothy 16:18f (today’s epistle)