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Sunday, March 20, 2011


A sermon based upon Numbers 22: 21-34
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March 20, 2011,  Second Sunday of Lent

For several weeks now we’ve been studying the seven most deadly sins.   Thus far we’ve been considering Christian scholars have defined as the “cold” sins: pride, envy, sloth, and greed.    The final three sins we’re going to discuss in the next few weeks are defined as the “warm” or “hot” sins.   To help us talk about the first of the “warm sins”, we’re going to begin with one of the most interesting and intriguing passages in the Bible.  It’s the story of Balaam’s talking donkey.  

It always makes a very interesting story when animals talk.   In my childhood I knew about three talking animals: Mr Ed---the sit-com about the talking horse; Francis---the talking army mule in old movies; and of course, since I grew up in Church, I was always delighted as a child to hear a sermon about Balaam’s donkey (and if you grew up in a King James church, it was expressed in a word we shouldn’t use in church).  Of course today, most children know about the notable animated Shrek movies,  which features Eddie Murphy’s voice as the beloved talking donkey.    This Biblical story is serious story about a very serious situation, but it’s also filled with some humor along the way and it can give us some much needed insight on the deadly sin of anger.  

This story is found in the book of Numbers; a book which tells the story of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness following their exodus from Egypt.    When the Israelites, still lead by Moses at this time, began settling into the plains of Moab, northeast of Egypt, the Moabite king of the desert named Balak started to get a little nervous.    With all new people crowding into his territory, he did not know what to think.   Since they were out- numbering his own people, he worried that the Israelites might rise up try to conquer.  He decides it is time for action.

Like most warrior kings in the ancient world, before he went into battle, Balak wanted to make sure the gods were on his side.   He had heard about a prophet for hire, named Balaam, who lived in the Euphrates River area.  It was said that he had a real knack of invoking the gods to curse the enemy.  So he sends envoys with money in hand to pay for the divination or cursing fee.

Well, the story goes that the team of emissaries arrives to make their bid to bribe Balaam the prophet to side with them in divining and cursing.   But it doesn’t work, at least at first.   After a night of prayer, Balaam – not an Israelite mind you – tells the envoy that God told him not to curse these Israelites because they are a blessed people.    So, the bribery band returns to Moab with the news, but King Balak won’t take no for an answer.    He sends a larger commission back to Balaam, with more money.  But to his credit, Balaam, tells them “no” again. He says, in fact:  “Although Balak were to give me his whole house filled with gold and silver, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God.” (v.18).

That’s a pretty good answer for a non-Christian, non-Jewish Arab believer, right?   But then something happens.   We don’t know why he does it, but Balaam said he would pray about it one more night.  This time the LORD tells him to go with the envoy back to Balak, and to wait only for God’s next instructions about the Israelites.  So, this is where the pick up the story, as Balaam sets out toward Moab, riding his trusty donkey.   And this is where our story picks up this morning.

We join with Balaam on his journey toward Moab and something very strange, complicated and confusing is happening.   Either Balaam has misread God’s mind, or God has changed his mind (which God certainly can do and does several times in the Hebrew Bible, particularly when he “repented” or “changed his mind” about creating humans {Gen. 6: 4}.   What is even more important for us to observe is, as the story goes,  God gets very angry with old Balaam’s decision to answer King Balak’s summons.    Interestingly when the text tells us “God's anger was kindled because he was going..” (Num 22:22 NRS), the Hebrew taken literally could read: “God’s nose was burning hot!”   What an amazing and alarming picture this is:  God gets angry and anger is one of the seven deadly sins!   I told you this would get “complicated.”    This gets complicated because, the anger being expressed in the text is what Bible scholars call “the divine anger” and while anger can indeed be a sin, it is not always a sin.   The divine anger being expressed here, and at many other places in the Bible is a “righteous” indignation and is motivated by God’s love, not sin.  

With this understanding of God’s anger, we can see that God sends an angel to block the road.  But the funny thing is that Balaam cannot see the sword-wielding angel in the middle of the road, but the poor old donkey can.  So what does the donkey do?   The donkey tries to go around, off the road, runs into a field.  Not sure what in the world is going on, Balaam takes out his stick and strikes the animal trying to get him back on the road.    A little further down the road the same thing happens, but this time the donkey sideswipes a stone wall scraping Balaam’s leg.   With a scratch on his leg, Balaam gives the burro a good lashing again.   But then a third time the angel appeared, but this time the donkey can’t get around and lays down.    Balaam strikes him again, but now the deadly sin shows up.   Our text seems to imply that Balaam is so mad, he’s doesn’t  realize “the Lord has opened the mouth of the donkey” (vs. 28) and his donkey is talking to him(vs. 28).   He continues growing in his rage and tells the donkey:  “Because you made a fool out of me I wish I had my sword in my hand and I’d kill you right now! (29). 

What is most important for us in this story is that it is out of the mouth of this “dumb” animal that we a most intelligent challenge to examine our own human anger.  Do you see it?  “What have I done to you that deserves you beating me three times (vs. 28)?  Am I not the same donkey you have ridden all your life?  Have I ever been like this before?   As an ESPN football broadcaster says:  C’Mom, Man!   O.K.  Balaam lost it.  Most all of us, have at some time or another have lost it?   Haven’t most of us taken our frustration out on someone?

We can’t be sure what Balaam was really mad about.  It is God who had told him twice not to go to Moab, but he believes God has changed his mind.  Maybe they threatened him, or the envoy made him “an offer he couldn’t refuse.”  Whatever happened, we do know that all of us have been there when life went off in a direction Balaam had not counted on, he started to take his anger out on the poor little donkey.   Who hasn’t been so angry at something or someone?   Or who hasn’t been the recipient of someone else’s anger, which seemed unfair, whether it was justified or not?
·         Haven’t we all got angry at the invasive sales call who was just a person trying to make a living? 
·         Haven’t we all been mad at someone, but did not realize what was else was going on?
·         Haven’t we all been both the angry person and the person who had to bear another person’s rage?
I recall once trying to find a parking space in a heavy populated city in Germany.  I had waited about 15 minutes and then turned into the first space that came open.  While getting out of my car, a German woman comes up to me enraged and shouting.  I could only guess what she was saying and when I did get a word in I responded, “I’m sorry I only speak English.”  Hearing my words, she calmed down and walked away.   Thank God! 

We’ve all been there on both sides of anger and we know that anger can be a very complicated issue.  Christian moral teaching throughout the history of the church reminds us that there are always “two sides” with anger:  Every one of us has been Balaam, and unfortunately, every one of us has also been the poor donkey.  

But not only are there two sides to anger, there are also two possibilities:  Anger in and of itself is not a sin.   Anger can be a great force for good in the world.   Didn’t Jesus get angry when he cleaned out the temple of the money changers?   Doesn’t Jesus also get angry when the religious leaders kept following the Law without love and compassion?  We also know that if people don’t speak up and speak out against evil and injustice in this world, things will get worse, won’t they?  Our fallen sinful world needs for us to get angry at times when we are angry in the right way and for the right reasons.  In the Bible, Paul even tells the Ephesians that they should “Be angry, but do not sin.  Do not let the sun go down on your anger (Eph 4:26).   Phyllis Diller, the comedian even recommended to married couples that they would “be better off to stay up and fight, than to let themselves go to bed mad.”   Scripture and human wisdom reminds us, that anger is not in and of itself a sin, but it can become a sin.  And when it does it is one of the most deadly. 

In Genesis 4, we read how Cain killed his own brother Abel because of anger.  In that story we read how the LORD came to Cain confronting his wrong-headed anger straight on: “Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; it’s desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4: 6-7).   This very graphic description of anger as “sin lurking at the door” is another very revealing picture of the very complicated, complex, and even paradoxical nature of “anger”.   But it also gives us an important insight:  In the moment of anger we make a choice to let “anger” master us or we decide to master it.    Can our Old Testament story about the talking donkey give us some insight in how we can get angry, but not sin?

For a clue on how to look into this story for a hidden truth, we need to know how a 5th century Christian leader named John Cassian once defined anger in terms of spiritual blindness.   Cassian once wrote: “For any reason whatsoever, the movement of anger may boil over and blind the eyes of the heart.”    Could it be that this boiling over of anger that becomes “blindness” is exactly what kept Balaam from seeing what the donkey saw?   Perhaps he was in some way “blinded”, not just to the angel of the LORD, but to the LORD whom he needed most to settle with----both blind to the messenger and blind to the message God was trying to get through to him.  (This Idea and the idea of this sermon is from Ted Smith’s “From Anger to Patience”, First Presbyterian Church, Catersville, GA, 2/21/10; ).

Indeed, great spiritual leaders have said that this is exactly how human anger grows.  The deadly sin of anger grows out of a “blindness” in our hearts – when either we are blind to God, blind to our own shortcomings, or when we are blind those around us.   It is in our spiritual “blindness” that we start to use anger to abuse others, to “kick the cat” (or to beat the donkey, whichever the case may be).   As Will Willimon has written, in his book “Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins:  “Perhaps all sins….are paradoxical.  On the one hand anger can be righteous indignation at injustice; (but) on the other hand, anger can be that blind rage in which we see nothing but ourselves…. Anger is surely one of the most self-delusional and destructive, usually self-destructive and potentially violent, of the Seven Sins.” 
Whenever anger becomes “blind rage”, when we lash out beyond all reason and we choose only to see what we want to see, this is when we have decided to “give in” to our anger and  refused to try to “master it”, as God told Cain.     In this way, anger is no longer a normal, emotional human response to hurt and injustice, but it now has become one of the 7 most deadly sins.

If the sin of anger is connected to our inability to see what we need to see, then the control of our anger must be connected to being able to see what we need most to see.

 Poet Mary Rose O’Reilly tells about a Quaker friend of hers who, despite her pacifist beliefs struggled with anger.   She says her friend was sitting in a Quaker meeting one day (that’s a worship service for you and me!) when she noticed a man across the aisle she did not recognize.  She assumed him to be perhaps an emissary from the NRA, the National Rifle Association, because he was wearing one of those T-shirts that read, “Support the Right to Bear Arms.”  It made her furious! Her anger began to rise. She says her friend stewed during the whole meeting, building up quite a headache.  Later in the fellowship hall, her friend discovered that she had misread the man’s shirt, which instead proclaimed a comic takeoff, “Support the Right to Arm Bears.”

 O’Reilley goes on to add:  “So much of our anger is based on misunderstanding.   It’s not what see, but what we think we see, what we interpret, and construct in our own minds that causes so much pain in our own (heads) and in the world where we act out our misinterpretations.”   (The Barn at the End of the World, p.200).  Our popular culture often makes it easier to frame issues and see difference in ways that make us constantly mad at each other.  We need a different set of eyes in our soul to see our way through life to resist the sin of anger. 

In the film, The Mission, a true but tragic story about the colonization of South America, we find these two different ways of “seeing” contrasted in dramatic fashion.   Rodrigo, is a slave trader played by Robert De Niro, comes home to find his woman sleeping with his brother.   In a fit of rage, Rodrigo kills his brother Felipe and watches him die.  Later, feeling great remorse in prison and wanted to end his life, a Jesuit priest, Father Gabriel visits him and Rodrigo finds salvation and decides to become a priest.  In working out his salvation, Rodrigo goes with Father Gabriel beyond the Falls to work with the Guarini Indians, whom earlier he’d been capturing so he’d get rich off of the slave trade. 

In a terrible turn of events, the peaceful village where Rodrigo and the other Jesuits minister to the Indians is threatened by extinction; as an army bears down to force into slavery or death.  Rodrigo goes to Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, and tells him his decision to take up arms to protect the village.   Father Gabriel turns in righteous anger, saying “You should have never become a priest!”  Our Lord said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword!”   “Can’t see that this is wrong?  You have given your life to God and God is love!”   (Illustration recounted from Rebecca K. DeYoung’s Glittering Vices, Brazos Press, 2009, p. 126).

The story ends tragically as the soldiers destroy the village and kill all the Priests.   There is no good ending.  But very troubling is not only the killing of priests and Indians, but the great lasting tragedy is that Rodrigo’s can’t see beyond his own anger and fails to trust everything into God’s hands and keep following Jesus, just as he had promised in his vows. 

In our story of Balaam and his talking donkey, the donkey speaks the final word.  (Which means that God is really doing the talking, as donkey’s don’t talk).  And what I believe God is saying through this donkey to Balaam and to us is basically this:  “I’m the one who has been with you from day one.  Don’t you trust me by now?  Don’t try to play God with your anger.  Get control of yourself.  Open your eyes and see who really with you on the road of life.   I might look like a “dumb” donkey to you, I see something you don’t.   Even in your times of great pain and hurt in this world and also in your struggles to know and accept God’s will, you can still choose to control your anger.    Take your anger straight to God.  Only God’s angel has the right to carry the sword of anger.   Don’t try to play God with your anger.   The only way through is to Surrender.   Give your anger to God and he will give you his peace.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."  20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:19-21 NRS)

Enough said: Donkey Out.   Amen.    

Sunday, March 13, 2011


A sermon based on Luke 12: 13-21
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin,
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March 13, 2011,  Lent 1st  Sunday

Right after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the death of Communism in Eastern Europe, then Chancellor of West Germany Helmut Kohl’s public words made headlines: “Marx is dead; Jesus is Alive!”    In a moment of great euphoria Europe shared the Chancellor’s enthusiasm about the death of Karl Marx’s communism, but I’m not sure they shared his enthusiasm about Jesus.   

I’ll never forget the question put to me by a young German who worked for Emergency Medical Services and was a member and deacon of the German Baptist Church where I was pastor.  He came to me, his new American Pastor and asked: “How is it possible to be a rich American and still be a Christian?” 

His question floored me.  I didn’t see it coming.  The only people he had known that owned their own homes and drove their own cars were communist bosses who enjoyed luxury while they oppressed the masses, keeping them nearly impoverished.  Now, this young man was wondering: with all the new opportunities of freedom, democracy and the coming growth of free markets and capital, he wondered: how will people who are getting rich keep from losing their faith? 

This brave new, free world seemed threatening and frightening.  The increasing excesses of western style capitalism seemed more challenging to the Christian faith than communism had been.   At least under communism, the lines of faith and unfaith were clear, firm, and obvious.  Faith even seemed stronger, at least among the faithful.  But under capitalism faith was being threatened in a whole, new, and even more dangerous way.  Now people had an unlimited chance to make money.   Under communism, most all the people had basically the same economic status and were politically equal, and were good neighbors to each other out of necessity, but now under democratic capitalism, people no longer felt the need to know or care for their neighbors, and equality was the new myth, because now, most people were trying to outsmart and get ahead of each other in a dog-eat-dog world.
A very similar perspective on money and wealth was heard on lips of Jesus by his disciples, when he said: That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:23).

Why does Jesus say such a negative thing about people who have or want money?  Our text today gives us a clue.  In this story, Jesus tells about a man who starts out like most of us.  He’s a hard working man, working for his daily living and he’s a farmer, living off of the crops he raises.  Then something happens.  Evidently, he has a made a bumper crop.  He suddenly finds himself without enough space to store the harvest that keeps coming in.  So, what does he do?  Instead of sharing his good fortune, which is far beyond his needs with the poor around him, he decides to build storage barns.   We are told that he “tears down barns and builds bigger ones.”  He is not doing this for an investment for his old age, but he’s doing this so he can retire early, “take life easy” and enjoy the good life of eating, drinking and being merry.”   But just as soon as this guy makes it on easy street, something happens.  God comes calling and says to him in very uncomfortable language: “You fool?  Tonight you are going to die and so what do you think is going to happen to all that wealth you’ve stored up for yourself?” 

There are challenging images in this text.  What this guy is doing is what any good, red-blooded, business person would do on Wall Street or any other Street in America.   This guy has made some good returns on his investments.  He has invested his profits to grow capital, to protect his assets.   He looks like a “smart” guy, doesn’t he?  He made his money honestly.  He was hard working.  He invested, expanded and protected his assets.  He is planning for the future.  He is storing up an Annuity so he can relax, retire, kick back and enjoy the rest of his life.  What’s wrong with this?  Isn’t this what most people try to do?  Doesn’t this make him look “smart”?  

One of my teachers once said that “you’d better be careful when you decide in your own mind who the smart folks are.  Your decision about who you think is “smart” may say more about who you are, than who they are.”  (From “Luke: A Kingdom of Surprises; by Cecil Sherman, Broadman Press, 1985).   It is rather interesting, isn’t it, that this guy of whom most of us would call smart, God calls a “fool”!   Most Bibles qualify this by labeling him “The Rich Fool”.  I guess if you’re going to be called a fool, it sounds better to at least be called “rich”.   

It is said that Jesus had more to about money than about heaven or hell.   We all know that money is a necessity in our culture for us to buy the goods and services we need to sustain our life and living.   We should know that neither Jesus nor the Bible is against “earning” or “having”; nor is it technically against being or becoming rich.  The problem is not with money itself, but the problem is with “the love of money” which said to be “the root of all kinds of evil“ (1 Tim. 6:10, NRSV).    We can see a good example of how the “love of money” can work against human relationship just before this parable of the Rich Fool.  This parable was prompted by a real-life situation, where someone in the crowd listening to Jesus makes a very legitimate complaint against their brother, saying: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”   This poor fellow is attempting to gain some “leverage” over his older brother’s legal right to double the amount of inheritance he is getting, according to the Law in Deuteronomy 21:17.  But Jesus doesn’t fall for this trap.  He doesn’t want to get into this family’s internal affairs.  “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”   Instead of challenging the Law’s legitimacy or settling this man’s claim, Jesus makes a claim on this man’s heart:  "Take care!   Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (Luk 12:15 NRS).     What set off Jesus’ telling this parable, was not “who had the money”, or whether the older brother had a right to it, but the issue was what was going on in this younger brother’s heart.

The sin of “greed”, also called “Avarice” (Latin), has been officially declared one of the top 7 deadliest and most destructive sins.   What is so deadly about this sin of greed is not the money we have or hold in our hands, but the sin of greed is about money or wealth we inordinately desire and what it can do to our soul and our heart.    In other words, the most foolish thing about money, wealth and possessions is not that we every really possess them, but that the desire for money, wealth and possession can possess us.   This is why Jesus’ warning to the brother was “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15).  This is why Jesus warned in this story of barn builder, than the danger was that  he had “stored treasure up for himself, but he was not rich toward God”   (12:21).  The problem with Greed in the New Testament vision of morality is not really about what we have.  It’s about what we often don’t have when we become greedy for more and more wealth.    All the many spiritual blessings the Bible says a greedy person will not have, all starts with this one thing the greedy person never has:  When you are greedy you have become the kind of person who, no matter how much you have, you never, ever, have enough.  

Today, in this time of great economic recession, we know more than we want to know about the dangers of greed.   One thing that should be made clear is that the source of our economic downfall and recession was not because people wanted to get rich, but it came about primarily because rich people, both on Wall Street and in many large Banks and Mortgage Firms, who were already dominating the market, where already rich and wanted to get even richer. 
Even when this was done on backs of the poor who could not afford what was being sold to them and even when it was putting the entire free-market system at risk, the slogan became enshrined and echoed on the street and in the movies that “Greed is Good!---good for the market, good for America, and of course, good for their pocket books.

The tragic story of Pozi-schemer Bernie Madoff and how he stole billions of dollars from client investors is a case in point that the primary motivation of his greed was not to get rich, but to get richer, and richer and richer.  Bernie Madoff was already a very wealthy millionaire investment broker making over 100 million a year before he started his fraudulent practices that robbed people of 20 Billion dollars in cash and over 50 Billion on paper.   In a recent interview with the New York Magazine, the interviewer put the question to Madoff that everyone was a mystery no one could answer: Why did he do it?  

The New York Magazine article opens in a very interesting manner.  You are in the cell with Madoff overhearing a private discussion.    The article begins: 
            “Bernard L. Madoff is in therapy. Each week, he waits for the signal that prisoners are allowed to leave their housing units, then he walks the five minutes from his “room,” as he calls it, to the psychiatric unit at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina, where he can unburden himself. The sessions are often teary.
            “How could I have done this?” he asks. “I was making a lot of money. I didn’t need the money. [Am I] a flawed character?”….
            Madoff has not tried to evade blame.  He has made a full confession, telling me again and again that nothing justifies what he did.  And yet, for Madoff, that doesn’t settle the matter.  He feels misunderstood. He can’t bear the thought that people think he’s evil. “I’m not the kind of person I’m being portrayed as...”
….Sitting alone in his prison khakis with his therapist, Madoff seeks reassurance.
            “Everybody on the outside kept claiming I was a sociopath,” Madoff told her one day.
            “I asked her, ‘Am I a sociopath?’
He waited expectantly, his eyelids squeezing open and shut, that famous tic.
            “She said, ‘You’re absolutely not a sociopath. You have morals. You have remorse.’” Madoff paused as he related this to his interviewer.  His voice settled. He said, “I am a good person.”
            Few would agree that Bernie Madoff is a good person.   It is much easier to say that Berine Madoff is a monster, who is unlike most of us.   He betrayed thousands of investors, bankrupted charities and hedge funds.  The effects of his Ponzi scheme spread across five continents. And he brought down his own family with him, which is a more intimate kind of betrayal, causing him to lose his wife and depressing one of his sons enough to commit suicide.”  I guess you could still say that Bernie Madoff was a good person in that he had “a great work ethic” but “he had no ethic in his work.”
But I’ve not yet answered the one question that is still a mystery:  Why did he do?  Listen to what Madoff said in his own words:
            It feeds your ego. All of a sudden, these banks which wouldn’t give you the time of day, they’re willing to give you a billion dollars.” “It wasn’t like I needed the money. It was just that I thought it was a temporary thing, and all of a sudden, everybody is throwing billions of dollars at you, saying, ‘Listen, if you can do this stuff for us, we’ll be your clients forever.”  (

There you have it for what it really is: GREED!  “Watch out!”  Jesus said: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed!” (NIV).  Bernie Madoff was, in his own words, a good man, a family man, and a very rich man who in one single moment, “let down his guard” and got caught up in giving in to the sin of Greed.  What will you do when the opportunity for greed arises?  

The story is told that a Mafia Godfather finds out that his bookkeeper has stolen 10 million bucks from him. The bookkeeper is deaf. It was the reason he got the job in the first place, since it was assumed that a deaf bookkeeper would not be able to hear anything that he’d ever have to testify about in court. When the Godfather goes to shake down the bookkeeper about his missing 10 million bucks, he brings along his attorney, who knows sign language.

The Godfather asks the bookkeeper, “Where is the 10 million bucks you embezzled from me?”
The attorney, using sign language, asks the bookkeeper where the 10 million bucks is hidden.
The bookkeeper signs back, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
The attorney tells the Godfather: “He says he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”
That’s when the Godfather pulls out a 9 mm pistol, puts it to the bookkeeper’s temple, cocks it, and says, “Ask him again!”
The attorney signs to the underling, “He’ll kill you for sure if you don’t tell him!”
The bookkeeper signs back, “Okay! You win! The money is in a brown briefcase, buried behind the shed in my cousin Enzo’s back yard in Queens!”
The Godfather asks the attorney, “Well, what’d he say?”
The attorney replies, “He says you don’t have the guts to pull the trigger”  (As told in
In his lesser known book, “When All You’ve Wanted Isn’t Enough,” Rabbi Harold Kushner said: "Money and power do not satisfy that unnamable hunger of the soul. Even the rich and the powerful find themselves yearning for something more. They know something the rest of us have yet to discover. Even if we have it all, we still won't be happy." (As quoted in  a sermon by Howard Olds, “From Greed to Generosity,” in Faith Breaks, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 3/12/2006). 

But the message that Jesus leaves us in this parable of the “Rich Fool” is an even greater warning than “money can’t buy happiness!”  

 A reporter recently asked a young Wall Street broker on the fast track what his chief goal was in life. "To make my first million dollars by the time I am 28," was the answer.
"Then what?" the reporter continued.
"Well, I suppose I would like to become a multi-millionaire." The news man pressed on.
"Then what?" 
Beginning to get a bit irritated, the broker said, "I want to have a family and enough money to retire at 40 and travel around the world."   
Do you see the next question coming?  "Then what?"  
Exasperated, the would be multi-millionaire said, "Well, like everyone else, I guess someday I will die!"
Of course, now the question comes still again: "Then What?"

Again, the greatest problem Jesus had with the rich fool who built bigger and bigger barns is not he had possessions – but it was that his possession had him so much that he had no time for that which was most important---the needs of his own soul.   One thing that wealth, riches and money can never do save your soul.    Greed became his sin because he had used all this time for making and keeping his wealth.  He had done nothing that made him “rich toward God!”
"No one can serve two masters.”  Jesus said.  “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Mat 6:24 NIV, cp. Luke 16: 13). 

Again, the greatest problem with Greed is not what you do with money, wealth and prosperity, but the greatest problem with money is what you can’t do with it.  You can’t serve God and money.  You can’t save your soul with money.   You can’t even buy one second of time with all the money in world.  You can’t make somebody love you for who you are.  When it comes to time and eternity, when money is only used to make more and more of it, it has no real value at all.  This is why Jesus has a different command for his disciples.   Rather than build bigger and bigger just to make more and more, “Instead, strive for the kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.”  "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms (to the poor).  Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:32-34 NRS).  The whole point he is making is that giving your heart to God rather than to money and to greed, is not settling for less, but it is waiting for and working for more---more than money could ever buy.  

Do you know the name of Orville Kelly, founder of the organization “Make Today Count?”   Orville was faced with the tragic news that had terminal cancer.  After struggling with anger, denial and depression, one single thought dominated his being until the day he died. "Make Today Count"   As Orville Kelley struggled with this verdict on his own life, he finally came to affirm that the news he had received became a “life sentence” rather than a "death sentence".  After his terminal diagnosis he came to lived, love and to make his days count like never before and he helped many others do the same.

Learning how to “count” differently is how we learn to overcome the temptation of greed in our lives. The Rich Fool got the shock of his life when Almighty God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you..."   Just then, when his end was announced, he realized he’d been counting the wrong things---things that didn’t count nor matter at all.   He was a called a fool because he should have known. He should have known what mattered and what counted most to God as well. 

What does it profit, if a person gains the whole world and loses or forfeits themselves?”  (Luke 9:25).  This is the one question from Jesus that the greedy person forgets to ask and to answer.   And the answer can’t be made with the riches in our hands, but it can only be answered with the riches in our hearts.  The price on your soul is a “cost” the currency all the world’s wealth can’t pay.  It can’t be paid because your soul belongs to the God, who requires nothing less than your whole heart.   God will not give you back what you haven’t given him.   Amen.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 25: 1-13
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Last Epiphany/Transfiguration, March 6, 2011

I want to start with a familiar story most all of you know:

“One day as the Little Red Hen was scratching in a field, she found a grain of wheat.
"This wheat should be planted," she said. "Who will plant this grain of wheat?"
"Not I," said the Duck.  "Not I," said the Cat. "Not I," said the Dog. 
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did.

Soon the wheat grew to be tall and yellow.
"The wheat is ripe," said the Little Red Hen. "Who will cut the wheat?"
"Not I," said the duck. "Not I," said the cat. "Not I," said the dog.
"Then I will," said the little red hen. And she did. 

When the wheat was cut, the Little Red Hen said, "Who will thresh the wheat?" 
"Not I," said the Duck. "Not I," said the Cat. "Not I," said the Dog.
 "Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did.

When the wheat was threshed, the Little Red Hen said, "Who will take this wheat to the mill?" "Not I," said the Duck. "Not I," said the Cat. "Not I," said the Dog. "Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did.

She took the wheat to the mill and had it ground into flour. Then she said, "Who will make this flour into bread?"
"Not I," said the Duck.  "Not I," said the Cat. "Not I," said the Dog.
 "Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did.

She made and baked the bread. Then she said, "Who will eat this bread?"
"Oh! I will," said the Duck.  "And I will," said the Cat."And I will," said the Dog.
"No, No!" said the Little Red Hen. "I will do that." And she did.

This is a simple story from the childhood of most of us.   It teaches us one of the most basic lessons of responsibility and life, which goes all the back to the apostle Paul in the Bible:  “If anyone is would not work, neither should he eat.” (2 Thess. 3.10).   It’s a lesson familiar to most of us who grew up in the country and on the farm and stands as a valuable lesson against idleness and promotes responsible work ethic.  

It’s the same kind of lesson we find in today’s Bible text from Matthew’s gospel and the parable of Jesus concerning the 10 Bridesmaids; 5 who were wise and 5 who were foolish.  Most of you who grew up going to Sunday School are familiar with this story and it’s lesson, but just in case, let’s consider it once more.
"Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.
 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.
 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;
 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.
 6 But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.'
 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.
 8 The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.'
 9 But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.'
 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.
 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.'
 12 But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.'
 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
(Mat 25:1-13 NRS)

The teaching moral of both of this story which is a parable from Jesus is basically the same as the children’s story of the Little Red Hen:  If you are lazy, and do nothing, you’ll miss out.   Interestingly, the same kind of lesson is taught in the next two stories in Matthew 25, the story about the talents, and the story about the sheep and goats.   In the story of the talents, it’s the servant who does nothing with his talent that gets a harsh scolding by the master.  He’s called “a wicked and lazy servant” and must give up the talent he did nothing with to the others who made an effort with theirs.   Because this servant was lazy, the master calls him ‘worthless’ throws him into the “outer darkness”, where there is “weeping and gnashing (gritting) of teeth (25.30).   In the story about the sheep and goats, who appear before the final judgment of God, it is the sheep on the right who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the imprisoned who inherit the kingdom.  But the goats who did nothing---who did not feed the hungry, did not welcome the stranger, did not clothe the naked, nor did they visit those imprisoned;  these lazy ones are those who are  not only refused entrance into kingdom eternal life but are told to depart from the King’s presence and are thrown into the eternal fires of judgment. 

The teaching contained in each of these stories has a common thread.  In each story, it is the ones who did something, who worked, who made preparations, who are rewarded.  But the ones who procrastinated, who were lazy and did nothing; they suffered great loss.  They failed to obtain eternal life because they did not make the effort necessary to receive God’s blessing.

If it’s not already obvious, the deadly sin we are talking about today is called the sin called sloth.   Sloth is an old English word out of the middle ages.  The word is seldom used in popular culture today, except for referring to that very slow moving, long sleeping, low-energy, leaf eating mammal found in the rainforests of Central and South America.   Users of English today prefer to use the word “lazy” or “lazybones” rather than “sloth” or “slothful”.   But the meaning is the same and in the Bible it is treated as a sin against wisdom all the way back to the writing of the Proverbs, where it says:   
                 6 Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise.
             7 Without having any chief or officer or ruler,
             8 it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest.
             9 How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your                                sleep?
            10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
            11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed        warrior.   (Pro 6:6-11 NRS)

I think most of us are smart enough to realize how “unwise” it is to be slothful or lazy.  We’ve all heard those well worn warnings from our elders like “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop”.   If we have done anything with our lives by now,  we know the value of hard work and the need to make some effort to provide for our families or accomplish dreams and goals.   But the big question comes when we move from calling laziness a sin that is unwise and foolish to calling it one of the 7 most deadly sins----especially making it the kind of capital or “deadliest of sins” that puts us at risk, as Jesus parables suggest,  at forfeiting or losing eternal life.   How does laziness get to be one the most deadly sins of all?   

To counter this line of reasoning, most of us love to quote that great text from the apostle Paul in Ephesians which says, “8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.  (Eph 2:8-9 KJV).   Since salvation is something we haven’t earn for ourselves, we think, how can it be something we can lose; as did the 5 foolish bridesmaids, the person with the single unvested talent, or the goat who did nothing “for the least of these”?  Isn’t this some kind of contradiction--- to say that we can lose a salvation that’s a gift we haven’t earned?  

 I don’t want take this into a theological debate, but Paul’s very next words seem to clarify the issue.  Right after Paul says we don’t earn our salvation, he also says: 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10 KJV)  and in the next letter, an echo of this comes in Philippians, which says that we all must  “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).   The point being,  that though Salvation has been freely provided for us as a free gift if grace, if we reject, neglect or abandon the responsibilities that come with this “free” gift, then we also forfeit the gift and all the amazing grace that comes with it. 

Now, we can see where “laziness” comes into the picture.   Salvation that is not “worked out” and does not result in “good works” puts us, as the stories illustrate so vividly, in danger of being “unprepared” for the bridegroom when he comes, puts us in danger becoming a worthless servant who is of no use to the master, and worst of all, puts us in danger of losing eternal life and being thrown into the fire of judgment which was never prepared for us, but was prepared for the devil and his angels.   In each story the central problem is sloth.  This is what makes being “lazy” with our salvation not just physical laziness, but as Thomas Aquinas, the great mind of the middle ages called it,  “it is an aversion (hate) to the divine good in us” ---What Aquinas means can be seen in a married couple who are having married problems, but after fighting, they keep on refusing to deal with the issues, they keep on going back into their corners and they keep coming back fighting without any progress.  The good of their marriage is right there ready to happen, but they won’t do what it takes to resolve their differences.   They are too busy fighting and too lazy to tackle the hard issues, and this laziness becomes the greatest and most dangerous threat of all.    

Still some of you might be a little skeptical about all this.   Should laziness, the sin of doing nothing really rank up there with all those other terrible aggressive sins like greed, lust, pride and envy?  How does becoming a “couch potato” with our life and our faith become so evil and destructive?   Several years ago Harper Magazine did an article which spoofed the 7-Deadly Sins, joking that if “sloth” had been the original sin, Adam and Eve would have been too lazy to have eaten the forbidden fruit in the first place, and we would all, fortunate for us, still be in paradise (As quoted from Glittering Vices, by Rebecca DeYoung, Brazos, 2009, p. 80).   So, again,   how does a seemingly “small” and “unnoticed” sin like laziness get into the top 7 sins?

Part of the answer comes in understanding that the original word for sloth or lazy in Latin is acedia, which is from the Greek, akadia.   Here we find the same root word we use to form the English word: accident.   And the sin of laziness or acedia carries this kind of sin: is the sin of deciding to live your life by accident---very close to the phrase many youth give when they face a difficult situation in life and use term: “Well, whatever!”    A “whatever,” accidental life is a dangerous and deadly life that can lead to great hardship in living, says wisdom in the Bible, and so Jesus implies in his parable, a “whatever” life will eventually lead to a fate even worse than any accident you’ve ever faced, Hell.

But don’t think that the sin of “living your life by accident” is only understood a sin of being lazy in your work or in your daily life.  The early Church Fathers remind us that the sin of sloth and acedia is not only exhibited in being lazy, but that we can be slothful when we are very, very busy.  In other words, even a workaholic can be slothful and lazy about something they should be doing but keep putting off.  People can busy themselves even very constructive work, and still be lazy about some of the things they should and ought to be doing, like taking time to rest, to worship, to exercise, or to care for their families and the needs of others.  The term acedia, or sloth does not only mean a lack of effort, but the word actually means “a lack of care.”   For the early Church Fathers, the lack of physical effort was always symptomatic of an even deeper problem: not caring in the right way.

We can see this “lack of care” and concern in all the parables of Jesus.  The foolish bridesmaids did not care enough about the wedding to bring enough oil for their lamps.   The man with the one talent did not care enough about his master’s fortune that rather than invest the talent, he buried it.   He made the effort of digging a hole and burying it, but he did only cared to protect the talent for his own good, and cared nothing about his master’s fate.  Finally, the most visible display of this “lack of care” called acedia, or living life by accident, comes in the final parable of the Sheep and Goats.  Do you see it?  It is not that Goat does not work, but that he did not care to look for Jesus in the plight of the hungry, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner, that he lazy and uncaring.   It is because he lives his spiritual life by accident and does not look for Jesus in these places of hurt and does not choose to show love that he proves the “goat” is so busy with others things, and is apathetic and uncaring, that he is separated from the “sheep” at the judgment and proves himself unfit for God’s coming kingdom or for the gift of eternal life.  
When you consider the meaning of sloth, not just as being too lazy to work but as being apathetic and too lazy to love, then we get to the heart of the reason why this sin has made it to the list of the 7 most deadly sins.              

Years ago, as a missionary in Germany, I used the film “Groundhog Day” with youth to draw their encourage them to go beyond life by “whatever” or “Es ist mir egal” in German.  I wanted to challenge them to follow Paul’s admonition to “work out their own salvation in fear and trembling” and not to leave their life “to the snake” as one theologian suggests was the core sin of sloth by Adam and Eve in the primordial garden.    Sloth as being “lazy about love” is dramatically illustrated in this creative story about weatherman Phil Conners.  Conners doesn’t care about anything nor anyone, but himself.  

The story starts with this Weatherman living a shallow life and not caring about the Groundhog festival or anyone else, but then waking up again the next day repeating the same scenario all over again, and again, and again.   He is stuck living out Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.   Realizing he can do nothing to overcome this “time freeze” and thinking there are no real consequences to his actions, he starts to make the most of it, amusing himself by living in pleasure not matter who it hurts, even himself.   Once while eating doughnut after doughnut, someone remarks: “Aren’t you worried about your cholesterol?”  “Oh, I’m not worried about that any more, ” Phil answers.   Since he is stuck living on this day, and now that he believes there will always be tomorrow, he starts taking all kinds of careless risks with himself and with others. 

Of course, as Hollywood has it, finally, he goes after the girl, his producer Rita, and attempts to win her over and to seduce her.  He puts up a false front to win her love.  Through trial and effort, he figures out what she likes.  He takes great pains to play the game well---he learns what she likes to eat and cooks it for her, he learns to read French poetry, he pretends to share her interest in world peace and her taste in ice cream.   All his manipulation goes well until Rita starts to see through scheme and rejects his advances. “I can’t believe I feel for this!” , she cries in anger.  “You don’t love me!  I could never love someone like you Phil, because you can never love anyone but yourself!”   But when Rita accuses him of only loving himself, Phil replies honestly, “That’s not true: I don’t even like myself.” 

You see Phil’s problem is the problem of being too lazy to love, even too lazy to love himself enough to do what love requires.  But fortunately, at least in the move, after several suicide attempts Phil decides to start to do the work of real love.  As he really learns to do constructive things with his life, study medicine, learn poetry, invest in helping some needy people, then Phil not only finds himself busy and satisfied with his life, he is transformed by the unselfish love he practices in the daily disciplines of life.   It is moving away from his “apathy” of love into the “activity” of love that finally releases him from living Groundhog Day over and over again.      

What Phil’s example shows us is that you can be either a “couch potato” or incredible busy and still, in both instances, be too lazy to love.   The great and terrible sin of “sloth” or “laziness” is finally a sin against love, a refusal to do the work of love or it is a continual resistance to the duty and demands which love require.  

Here, I would like to make my final point about sloth and being lazy in love, with some wise words from Novelist Anne Lamot, who recounts some words from a wise older woman in her church who once told her,  “the secret of life is that God loves us exactly as we are….and he loves us too much to let us stay that way!” 

Finally, sloth or acedia; that is deciding to live our life by accident or by “whatever happens” to us, is a sin that is a resistance to making an effort, but not only in the sense of being physically lazy.   Rather, as Rebecca DeYoung rightly says,   Sloth it is the resistance to work, to maintain the discipline and the effort of transformation which is demanded by our new identity is Christ.”    Listen to these words of challenge from Second Peter 1: 3-10: 
3 His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
 4 Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.
 5 For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge,
 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness,
 7 and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.
 8 For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 9 For anyone who lacks these things is nearsighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.
 10 Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. (2Pe 1:3-10 NRS)

What Phil Connors learned in Groundhog Day is that “transformation” and “sanctification” takes time and it order to find the time you have to care about it and you have to be diligent in love.  Interestingly, the word “diligent” comes from the word Latin, diligere, which means “to love”.    To be diligent, disciplined, attentive and careful, you have to love.   And love is, of all things, work.  If you don’t work at love, then love you thought you had doesn’t work, then it gets worse, life doesn’t work either.   The only way to make life work is to work at love.

Ancient people believed that “sloth” was a sin for which it is difficult to find a remedy.  Being too  lazy to care or to love is a self-perpetuating dynamic, like the downward spiral in Groundhog day it is a never ending Merry-Go-Round which is very difficult to escape with a simple one-time method.  The answer of the ancient spiritual advisors is that the only way to overcome sloth and laziness in love is too infuse your life with a regular, daily, disciplined relationship with God, who is the source of love himself.   

Recently I received an email from a pastor friend of mine updating me on a meeting I missed because I had to conduct a funeral.  He shared a resource from a Buddy Shurden, a Baptist preacher I had once met in Georgia, who was now spending his retirement helping busy pastors preach better sermons.   In this particular sample, Shurden was quoting the creative words of one several writers in regard to keeping busy with the right labor; the labor of love  (Walter B. Shurden’s Preaching Journal,  Vol, 3, Number 28, p 1).    He told of how Henri Nouwen, a spiritual mentor to millions, once spent seven months in a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. In his book, The Genesee Diary, he said that he went to the monastery to explore his “compulsions and illusions.”  To do this, he followed a rigorous daily discipline of prayers, manual labor, study, and rest.  He followed this painstaking routine of prayers of manual labor, study, rest; prayers, manual labor, study, rest, and prayers day after day after day for seven months.
Also, Hal Stewart, a former student of Shurdens, once told him once how his daddy told him how to drive a car on a Georgia dirt road after a hard rain: “Put it in low gear and keep the wheels in the ruts. If you get out of the ruts, you’re going to get stuck.”  How different from our thinking today, says Shurden.   The in-words today are “innovative,” “creative,” “thinking outside the box,” and “pushing the envelope.” And, of course, something good can be said for all of that.  But something huge must also be said for “staying in the ruts,” for “prayers, manual labor, study, and rest,” for reading one’s Bible, for saying one’s prayers, for meeting with God’s people for worship, for bringing tithes and offerings to God’s cause, for visiting the sick and lonely, for speaking a word for the poor in a rich society, for staying in the ruts!!! If we get out of the ruts, we get stuck!   If you want to have Christianity, you have to PRACTICE Christianity!!
Fred Craddock spoke about the value work, effort and “habit” in the Christian life. He said that everywhere he turned, people told him to “keep it in the ruts” My doctor.  "Exercise three or four times a week; watch your diet; stay away from the salt and junk food."  "Please," he says, "stay in the ruts."  Good health care requires discipline.   My dentist.  It is the same thing.  "Brush and floss, brush and floss, brush and floss."  Good dental care is a matter of discipline.  "Please! Stay in the ruts!"  My CPA.  "Keep up with your expenses and save your receipts."   My mechanic.  "Grease it and change the oil."  My wife.  "Take out the garbage; take out the garbage."  In all directions and from every corner of life comes the sage counsel: "Please! Stay in the ruts!" 

Finally, Shurden refers to Miroslav Volf, a teacher at Yale Divinity School, who  wrote about “staying in the ruts” when he said, “The Christian Bible makes clear, in manifold ways, that, whatever else the world is, it is a theater of divine love . . . Created as we are in the image of the God who is love, we can live genuinely flourishing lives only when we also make time and effort to love---to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Are you going to live your life intentionally or haphazardly?  Are you going to live capriciously or habitually, purposely or accidentally, caringly or apathetically?   Are you going to keep making the real effort, working in the labor of love each day or are you going to stand on the sidelines and watch the world go to hell and probably you with it?  Learn once more from Peter who reminds us: “Make every effort to support your faith with goodness, knowledge, self-control and endurance, godliness, mutual affection and with love….and IF YOU DO THIS…YOU WILL NEVER  STUMBLE!   If you want your life back to keep love alive:  Please, keep it In the ruts!.”  Amen.