Sermon: Sunday, September 25, 2022

There was a rich man who had more wealth and possessions than he could ever use in 100 lifetimes. He wore the best clothes. He ate the best foods. Every day his servants would pile his table high with food, and he and his wealthy friends would gorge on the piles of food laid out for them. It was an all-consuming, all-engrossing way of life. The rich man spent his days accumulating his wealth, keeping up with his peers by making offerings at the Temple, attending his local synagogue, and inviting his friends and important connections to his home for elaborate banquets. He didn’t much notice anything else beyond his world and his own needs. He didn’t need to, for his wealth gave him power and nobody was going to make him pay attention to anything or anybody beyond himself.

Meanwhile, sitting at his very gate was a poor man named Lazarus who was malnourished and covered in sores. Lazarus didn’t want much, only the scraps that the rich man and his friends did not eat. But the rich man, in his obsession with his wealth and his own needs, never noticed Lazarus sitting at his gate.

As is the case with all human beings, both the rich man and Lazarus died. Much to his surprise, the rich man found that in the next life his circumstances had greatly changed. No longer was he living in the lap of luxury. No longer was he cradled in the finest clothes and full of the finest food. Now he was in Hades burning in the flames of hell. He looks up and sees Abraham, his ancestor, and by Abraham’s side is Lazarus.

Now, before death it appeared that the rich man didn’t even know Lazarus existed, but apparently, he did, as he calls to Abraham and names Lazarus by name. He did know Lazarus was suffering by his gate, he just chose to ignore him. Their circumstances have been reversed. But the rich man doesn’t get it. He says to Abraham, send Lazarus to me. Make him give me some cool water to relieve my torment. The rich man who never once lifted a finger during his time on earth to help Lazarus, now wants Lazarus to take care of him. The rich man remains a very entitled man.

Abraham tells the rich man that what was possible on earth is no longer possible, for his actions on earth created a vast chasm between him and Lazarus. The rich man clings mightily to his entitlement and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers that they should change their ways so that they don’t end up with his fate. The rich man wants Abraham to make Lazarus leave the comfort of heaven to take care of his family, though they never took care of Lazarus when they were able.

Abraham gives him a firm no, reminding him that he and his brothers have been told what God requires of them. They are Jewish men who have walked in the Temple and attended their local synagogues and know the words of the prophets. If they can’t hear the will of God spoken through the prophets, why should they listen to God’s word spoken through Lazarus.

As I reflected on this story, the word “entitlement” kept popping into my head. The rich man is just so entitled. Here he is sitting in the flames of hell, and he has no idea why he is there. His agenda is the only thing that is important to him, and he believes others should meet his agenda. His priorities come before anybody else’s. He seems to believe that he deserves happiness and has no regard for other people. And as I sat thinking about entitlement and wondering what we who are sitting here this morning might need to hear in connection to our own lives and our own world, I had an “aha” moment.

In 2022 the earth (and all its natural systems) is Lazarus, and humanity, particularly those living in developed countries, are the rich man. We have been told over and over again that the way we are living, moving, and having our being is not sustainable and is causing long term irreversible damage to the earth and all the forms of life that live on it. And yet, we continue to go on our merry way, feasting and ignoring what is right in front of our eyes. We continue to act in ways that indicate that we feel entitled to use God’s good creation in any way we please. And we are amazed when weather disasters occur and behave like no one ever told us this was possible. We continue to ask the earth to give and give and give, while giving nothing in return.

Did you know that the first published article about the impacts of burning fossil fuels on the Earth’s climate was published by a Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, in 1897? And his calculations are still considered to be accurate. I can remember seeing Public Service Announcements on tv about climate change when I was a child in the late seventies. We’ve known about this for a long time. Now we can even see it all around us. And yet we don’t change the way we live.

1500 miles west of Seattle in the middle of the North Pacific is a mass of plastic debris and chemical sludge floating around. It is the size of the lower 48 states and suspends to a depth of 100 to 1000 feet. Gases circulate 6 miles above our heads, chiefly CO2, the highest concentration in millions of years, that are changing the thermal balance of the earth and locking us into a future that may see the end of the human race as a result. Long-lived chemicals cycle through our blood, and some are stored permanently in our fatty tissues, causing cancer and disruption to endocrine systems. But we continue on living like nothing is happening. We continue to live as if the earth owes us our living, and nothing matters but us.

I recently watched a talk done about a decade ago by MacArthur Genius grant winner and renewable energy expert Saul Griffith that helped me understand the challenge we are facing and the ways in which I need to change personally in order for disaster to be averted. This is what I learned. The world currently runs on about 16 terawatts of energy, most of it through the burning of fossil fuels. The average American uses 18,000 watts of energy per year and the average person in the world uses 2,200 watts of energy per year.

To level off at 450 ppm of CO2 in our atmosphere, the level that would keep global warming just barely manageable at an increase of 2 degrees Celsius, we will have to reduce fossil fuel burning to 3 terawatts and produce all the rest with renewable energy in the next 25 years or it is too late. The land area we would need to dedicate to renewable energy would occupy a space about the size of Australia.

But this is not enough. In order for all people to have a life that is livable, those using less than 2200 watts per year would need to be able to use more. That means we would need to use less. A lot less. We would need to get to an average closer to 2200 watts than 18000 watts, even if most of this came from renewable resources.

Saul did a deep dive into his own energy usage. He found that he did indeed use about 18000 watts per year. Most of his energy use came from air travel, car travel, and the embodied energy of his stuff. Now he drives the speed limit, seldom flies, eats meat only once a week, bikes a lot, and buys almost nothing. In changing these things, he reduced his usage by 6000 watts per year to 12,000 watts. Not 2200 but a good start.

The bottom line is that we are not living within the limits of the natural systems that support our lives. We feel entitled to use as much as we want. Like the rich man of the parable, we have unrealistic expectations of the world around us. We are convinced that our priorities should come first. We think we deserve happiness. We have no regard for the creation that allows us to live. And like the rich man, we have been told and we see right in front of us the results of our actions.

So, what are we to do? Well, first I think we need to see, really see the pain of the earth and the natural world around us. When you see a goose, a deer or a chipmunk in your yard do you see a valuable part of creation or a nuisance intruding on your territory? When you see a lot for sale in a beautiful, wooded area do you see a new home or the home of countless plants, animals, and insects? What would help you feel gratitude for all that this creation gives to you that you might live? The rich man needed to really see Lazarus as a fellow human being worthy of dignity and respect. We need to really see all of creation as worthy of dignity and respect.

Ask yourself what you really need to live and have a good quality of life. It is probably not as much as you think you need. We are all probably living in homes that are bigger than we need. Do we really need to build a new house when we can renovate an old one? We are probably travelling more than is healthy for the earth. We most likely buy and own more than we can ever possibly use. Do we really need to drive 75 miles per hour when driving 55 miles per hour will use a whole lot less fuel? Is hanging our clothes on a line to dry really that much work? Could we own less and when we do buy purchase things that cost more but will last longer or perhaps, we don’t need to buy new in the first place?

And why aren’t we out in the streets protesting? Why are we not on the backs of our politicians all the time? Why aren’t we insisting that they see the Lazarus on their doorsteps as well? Why are we behaving like we have all the time in the world when we don’t? There was no hope for the rich man. He had his chances, squandered them, and faced his consequences. We aren’t done with our lives yet. We can wake up. We can see our entitlement. We can act. We can change. Will we have the ears to hear and the eyes to see? Amen.