The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Stick to the Fundamentals—A Sermon on 'Moses and the Prophets'

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

As you spend more time here at the Belfry, you will see that I do not go anywhere without a certain book. It is leather-bound (fake, vegan leather, don’t worry); it is full of information that guides my daily life; it is full of wisdom for my self-improvement; it is full of history (mine and others’); it is full of scribbles and highlights and post-it notes; I refer to it before I make plans or do anything important. No, dear ones, this book is not the Bible. It is my Passion Planner.

Whether you keep your schedule in your phone, or in your UC Davis academic planner, or scrawled on a napkin and shoved in your pocket, you are probably aware of the benefits of an organized mind.

Every once in awhile, I get really busy with unexpected stuff and I don’t even open my planner for a couple of days. Maybe this does not sound dire to you, but this is dire. I am so to-do-list centered, that when I start several projects without adding their component parts to the list, I run the risk of losing track of them completely. On one of these occasions, I’ll open my planner and see that nothing on the list has been accomplished, and that I’d even forgotten something—having been busy non-stop for days!

The solution to this problem is so easy, it’s almost impossible for me to understand why I don’t just do it the right way every time. I just have to take a deep breath and head back to basics: write down the stuff that needs doing and then do it. Genius, right?

There are plenty of complicated things in our lives that we started out with basics. You take Spanish 101 before Spanish 201; you learn to catch and throw a baseball before you learn to pitch a curveball; you start small with a 5K before training for a marathon; you learned to read at your grade level before moving onto the next.

Our life in faith is the same. Our introduction to the gospel is not likely to be a jaunt through The Complete Works of Martin Luther. That would likely be somehow simultaneously boring and overwhelming at the same time. Too much deep detail too fast, right? You’d skip right past the fundamentals.

When you were in Sunday school, or confirmation, or wherever you were introduced to learning Christianity, you may have started with the Lord’s Prayer or the 10 Commandments or the Apostle’s Creed. In mainline Protestant churches, we often look to these places for the fundamentals of our church. These come out of our scripture directly and from the first few centuries of Christians interpreting our scripture.

In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus is talking to some Pharisees—religious leaders—long before the word “Christian” entered the fray. From what we read of them, these men are Jewish leaders, teachers, and rule-enforcers, it seems. They're the ones who are always just off-stage, ready to jump in and ask Jesus a “gotcha” question. They’re just trying to do their jobs.

Jesus answers them by telling a story, called a parable, in which there is more to the story than just the literal, face-value. No parable is intended to encapsulate the entire gospel, but each tells a particular piece of the story for the listeners at hand. In today’s parable, a rich man and a poor man (Lazarus) live and die in the same community. Lazarus spends eternity with Abraham, while the rich man is in “agony” in “flames” (v 24).

Through these three characters, we learn that this rich man did not do all he could have—or, perhaps, anything—to help Lazarus or anyone else other than himself in his life. It would be easy—but inaccurate—to say that this is a cause and effect story about the afterlife. The life you live does not dictate your salvation or not, so don’t worry about that. If you’re going to worry about something, worry about what causes us to treat each other the way we do.

In this parable, “Jesus is describing the effect of living by the chasms of our world, not prescribing God’s eternal response to our sin.” [1] Jesus is not warning us about eternal consequences, but present-tense realities that we have the power to change. The rich man is worried about his brothers, and so wants them to be told about his fate so they might not suffer the same. This is my favorite part of the whole story. I can just hear Abraham chuckling, and with maybe even an eye roll or a knowing sigh, saying “they have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (v 29).

There’s a rad scholar named Amy-Jill Levine, who I think I’ve preached about before; she’s a Jewish woman who teaches New Testament at a Christian seminary. She knows a lot about Jesus the Rabbi. She wrote a book about parables, and there’s a chapter about this one. I highlighted like the whole thing, but here’s what I think the crux of it is:  “The rich man knows Abraham’s name and Abraham’s role, as he knew the name and the circumstances of the man in anguish by his gates. Knowledge without action will count for nothing. He refused to recognize on earth that Lazarus too was a child of Abraham and so should have been treated as a welcome member of the family. He had the resources; he had the opportunity; he had the commandments of Torah. He did nothing, and he still does nothing.”[2] Oof.

Through this story and the words attributed to Abraham, Jesus is reminding his listeners that they have all the tools they need to build a more just society: the Torah and the prophets. “The problem,” Amy-Jill Levine says, “ is not the message. The problem is that people don’t listen.”[2] If they are truly good people of faith—which they would claim to be, just as we would—they will have learned these fundamentals. It is not that there are more proscriptions to follow, more rules to learn, more admonishments to hear, more commandments or laws. If they would just follow all the ones they already have, they might get somewhere.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus rarely said anything new. He reiterated—often verbatim—Moses and the prophets. Stick to the fundamentals. There are things we can and must do to better our world, on a personal level and on a communal level. The rich man did neither.

And so, “The parable is not simply an indictment of personal behavior; it is an indictment of institutional behavior. It asks us, as the church, to look at the gates we have erected and to consider who lies just on the other side, suffering. Have we listened to ‘Moses and the prophets’?”[3]

There was a system at work in the society that the rich man and Lazarus lived and died in, and there is a system at work in ours.[4]  So what are we to do, then? Stick to our fundamentals. Take stock of our society—our Church, our school, our city, our nation—and notice the ways in which the systems we have built, participated in, benefited from—or been oppressed by—can be changed through the love of God.

Since we live in the United States, we are among some of the wealthiest people to have ever lived. However, we also live in a deeply stratified nation, where income inequality is as wide a chasm as the one between the rich man and Lazarus. The way our society is structured, wealth for a few is made possible only by the poverty of many. [5] This is not a critique of comfort, per se, but of disregard for those who lack. [6] It is not money and wealth intrinsically that are bad, but rather the love of money and of wealth that endangers us.

As we engage with one another in many and diverse ways—in class, at the grocery store, in our romantic relationships, in our families, in our churches, at our protests, in our voting booths—we must be conscious of our interconnectedness. We must not pursue domination or control over one another; we must not pursue wealth and material success at any cost; we must not devalue the lives of our siblings in the family of God. As we have read in the Torah and in the words of Jesus alike, we must love our God and love our neighbor. And like it is written in 1 Timothy, we must “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of...eternal life” (v 11-12).

Stick to the fundamentals.
Stick together.

[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
[3] Noelle Damico, "Proper 21 [26]" in Preaching God's Transforming Justice
[4] Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, "Luke" in True to Our Native Land
[5] Clarice J. Martin, "1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus" in True to Our Native Land

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