Beds of Luxury, Beds of Straw


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

October 6, 2019

Texts: Amos 6:1-7; Luke 16:19-31

      Driving down from a court hearing in Warren County, the only radio station I could find was playing bluegrass. The song that struck me was the one about the man on the corner who was asking for handouts—of course, he’s the son of God in disguise. Though I gener-ally don’t care for country music this song hit me be-cause I know that whenever I’ve seen someone pan-handling on the street, I always wonder what brought that person to that low point. Drugs? Booze? Mental illness? And I always wonder where we failed them or where they failed themselves. 

      There are many ways to look at Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. One way, of course, is that what we do or don’t do will come back at us. Another is that in God’s kingdom the power structure is turned upside down: the poor will have riches and the wealthy will learn what it means to be poor. But I think the most disturbing is that at some point there is a limit to mercy, even the mercy of God. We really don’t like to think much about judgment in our theology, but here it is. And there is no escaping it. 

       Are there limits to God’s mercy? We sing the old hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy . . . ” and it sounds so comforting. The God most of us believe in is one of seemingly limitless mercy, but Jesus in this parable seems to say that even God has a breaking point, even God. 

       Each of us, of course, has our breaking point. The question is where it is. Is it in our personal relationships with family members? Is it in our national decisions in areas like child care, health insurance, or foreign aid? Each of us has a limit beyond which we cannot extend mercy. That makes sense because we are only human, but does God have a limit on mercy? We generally don’t think of God as having parameters to mercy, but this parable seems to say there are limits to even God’s mercy. 

       Amos lived in the days of King Uzziah of Judah while Jeroboam II was king of Israel. Although Amos was born in Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah, he prophesized in the northern kingdom of Israel during a time when the gap between rich and poor had grown to astronomical amounts. He warned that God’s judgment would lead to the destruction of Israel because, as this morning’s text says, “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches . . . .”  Needless to say, his message was not welcome. 

       During that time Israel’s power and influence had grown because of international events in the region. But Amos called the nation to recognize the effects that its internal disparities of wealth would have on the spiritual health of the nation. Amos, however, also said that God promised hope to Israel if the nation would mend its ways. Just before this morning’s reading we hear the words, “Let justice roll down like waters, and right-eousness like a mighty stream.” These are words that apply to us today.

       We must ask whether there are limits to God’s mercy. That is certainly different than asking if there are limits to God’s grace. I think one way to approach this question is that it is God’s grace that enables us to become instruments of God’s mercy. Remember the prayer of St. Francis: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . . .

      What are the limits of mercy, or as Willard Gaylin, the medical ethicist, asked, what are the limits of benevolence? When does doing good not result in good? He asked those questions in the context of the science of neonatal and end of life situations, but his analysis applies to social situations as well. 

     How do we make our decisions where to give our money, for instance? Do we support development and microenterprise groups like Accion International, Finca, or our local New Jersey Peaceworks that supports development in Nicaragua or do we give our money to local groups? Or do we support efforts like Crop Walk and Church World Service? None of us has limitless resources, not even Bill Gates. 

       We can also make the conscious choice, through God’s grace, to be instruments of mercy. The current administration in Washington wants to set a limit on the number of refugees admitted in the next fiscal year to 18,000. For years it has been at least 50,000. Our neighbor to the north Canada with a population of 37 million, give or take a few, one tenth the population of the United States continues to admit more than 25,000 refugees per year and, I should add, has a more generous asylum policy. 

       Our government made promises to translators and persons who provided assistance to the United States during the heavy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they are caught in a policy that reneges on its promises. Who would believe anything we say when we won’t even protect those who helped us. But unfortunately, that is part of our pattern. How can any of us forget that photo of people scrambling to get into the U.S Embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese army rolled in? 

       The second opportunity is the DREAM Act, a pro-posal that would enable those persons brought to the United States as children but who remain in the never-never land of having no legal status, to gain that status based on (1) high school graduation; (2) enrollment in some form of national service––does not need to be military––could be Americorps; (3) some form of college or technical training at no cost to the government.                  Almost all of these kids function in English; most don’t even speak their parents’ native language, and very few remember what their so-called home really was. This proposal is simple mercy. Nothing more than that. Estimates vary on the numbers, but we’re talking about maybe 200,000 kids, maybe a few more. Simple mercy, that’s all. 

      How can we even begin to call ourselves instru-ments of God’s grace when we turn our backs on those whose assistance was utterly indispensable for our crazy foreign adventures? How can we call ourselves as instru-ments of God’s mercy when we seek to deport kids who have no memory of the countries where they were born?

       And to move a bit closer to home, let’s look at the issue of affordable (read low-income) housing in Middle-town. The township officially withdrew from its man-dated affordable housing requirement under the Mount Laurel settlement so that the luxury 180 units at Bamm Hollow and the 226 units at Four Ponds need not admit any scruffy low-income people that might upset the neighborhood––not to mention selling prices. And it received an approval from Superior Court Judge Jamie Perri, now retired. No mercy here, to be sure. 

       And I am sure that the folks who pushed this through consider themselves pious something or others. Middletown has discovered its limit to mercy, to be sure. Who wants those people, anyway? 

       It would seem that if we are instruments of God’s mercy through grace, we should flood the White House with emails or calls on the total abandonment of people who risked their lives for us. We should really care about young people who have grown up here and consider themselves as American as you and I.

       And, we should tell the Middletown Township Committee what we think of their plan to keep Middlet-own nice and rich. If not, are we any better than the rich in Amos’ time, and find ourselves as did the rich man in Jesus parable discovering that even God has limits?

      Let us come to God in prayer: God of grace and God of mercy, pour your spirit on us as you did on Amos enabling us to speak truth to power to create a just and righteous world. In the name of the One who confronted wealth with your commands, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.