Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 29, 2013

2013.09.29 “Lazarus at Our Gate” – Luke 16: 19 – 31

Central United Methodist Church

Lazarus at Our Gate

Pastor David L. Haley

September 29, 2013

Luke 16: 19 – 31

 

There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

“Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’

“The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’

“Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’

“‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’

“Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.'”

(Luke 16: 19 – 31, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

Slightly less than 2,000 years ago, a poor Jewish rabbi told a story.  No one knew it at the time, but the story was a time bomb, set to go off not only once, but repeatedly, whenever the story is told.

He liked to tell stories, this poor Jewish rabbi, and while the common people loved it, his stories used to drive the religious leaders crazy. It was such stories and their veiled and not-so-veiled messages, along with his enacted parables – such as the cleansing of the Temple – that would get him killed.

For example, in today’s text Jesus had just told a story about a shrewd money manager (the story we heard last week).  Luke tells us their reaction, as rendered by Eugene Peterson: “When the Pharisees, a money-obsessed bunch, heard him say these things, they rolled their eyes, dismissing him as hopelessly out of touch.”

Maybe it was the rolling of their eyes that did it; who likes it that? Or maybe it was their obsession with money that prompted the next story Jesus told, the story we read today, the story of the Rich Man (or Dives as he is often called, from the Latin word for “rich”) and Lazarus.  This is the story that is the time bomb, still going off whenever it is told, warning us about our obsession with wealth and possessions, our apathy toward the poor, and summoning us to a more compassionate life, representative of life in the Kingdom of God.

Speaking of money, as we learned last week, in Luke’s Gospel, the theme of wealth and poverty is a major theme, with Luke using every literary form to keep the topic before us.  What’s amazing is that if we go through and count the verses, we find to our surprise that Jesus talked more about the dangers of wealth and possessions than he did love or heaven and hell, or anything else, other than the Kingdom of God.

In this story in particular, Jesus raises many uncomfortable questions, not only for the Pharisees, but for us. Is he suggesting that the Pharisees (or that we) love our money more than people, our possessions more than the poor, our clothes more than compassion, our extravagant feasts more than sharing food with the hungry? Perhaps Jesus had been a guest in one of their houses and had seen such a sight.  Those of us who know Jesus know by now that just as we would never have the preacher over because we might wind up in his sermon; so we would never Jesus over to our house; we’re too afraid we might wind up in his next story, which might be the Story of the Bible and the TV Guide, or something like that.

By the way, to up the ante, it’s not just Jesus. This story is not unique to Jesus, but is a much traveled story, being found in several cultures. Some scholars trace it’s origins to Egypt, where stories of the dead and of messages from the dead are in abundance.  At least seven versions of this story are found in the Rabbis: in one version the characters are a rich merchant and a poor teacher; in another, a rich and haughty woman and her servile husband; who wouldn’t like to hear that version?

Let me just say here and now, like the Pharisees, I don’t like this story. Hopefully, not because I am a Pharisee, and hopefully, not because I am a lover of money (I’ve given most of my life away), but because I think of this story every time I deal with those who are poor. This story of Jesus is still a time bomb going off within me, giving rising to a combination of guilt and dissatisfaction and frustration and compassion, in short a desire to live better and more compassionately and more generously toward all those in life who are poor or who suffer, as we say, the least, the last, and the lost.

Here’s an example.  Every time I, Rich Man, go down in the city to feast sumptuously at my favorite BBQ place (Smoque), when I head down the ramp of the Kennedy toward Irving Park, there is always (what I assume) is a homeless person there, begging for money. I don’t personally like to do my charitable contributions that way, on the yellow dividing line in the middle of the street, especially when I am the captive audience. But I sit there in my car (usually with my windows rolled up) and wonder about them: a man missing a leg; a woman limping so badly she can hardly walk, a man who looks like Santa in the off season; a very thin younger woman who has either not been getting enough to eat or is sick or seriously into meth (and that’s methamphetamine not Methodism); here’s what it makes me want to do: park my car, walk out there and say: “OK, what’s going on? Surely, there is a better way to support yourself, than standing out here in traffic waiting to get hit and be worse off. What’s the story?” (And they would say, “First of all, my name’s not Shirley.”) Asking such a question face-to-face might in fact be more consequential to both of us than simply giving them $5, as a way of feeling sorry and assuaging our guilt.

Because, you see, in Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, that’s exactly what the Rich Man, Dives, never did.  In the story, he didn’t go to hell because he didn’t believe in Jesus (it says nothing about the faith or moral character of either); he didn’t go to hell because he was rich (some have faulted the story for its economic prejudice; the rich go to hell, the poor go to heaven); Dives went to hell because, blinded by his wealth and possessions, he failed to open his eyes and his heart to his fellow human being. He failed to recognize Lazarus as his brother. Because of that, in the Great Reversal of which Jesus talked so often, Lazarus is in heaven, safely snuggled in Abraham’s bosom, and Dives is the beggar from below, in torment himself.

No matter the context, no matter how we interpret it or attempt to soften it’s message, this story Jesus told is a warning to all of us who are rich in things and poor in soul; and a word of comfort and hope for those who may be poor in things, but seek to live and be treated with dignity and respect from others. God knows what you suffer; better yet: God has your back.

It is a story that needs to be heard by everyone who calls himself or herself Christian, whether President of the United States, a member of the House or Senate, a leader at any level.  It is a story that needs to be told in pulpits and heard in the pews of churches, that Christians of all people – all who seek to follow Jesus – should open our eyes and our hearts to our neighbors, whoever they may be, and treat them with dignity, respect, and compassion. Because whenever this story of Jesus is told, it is like a time bomb going off, exploding our beliefs, expanding our compassion, and reminding us to extend ourselves to others, those less fortunate than us, wherever we may encounter them.

Not 2,000 years ago, but 45 and a half years ago, on March 31, 1968, the son not of a Jewish rabbi but of a Baptist preacher, the most eloquent preacher of our time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood in the pulpit of one of our nation’s most impressive and prestigious churches, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The title of Dr. King’s sermon on that day was, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” While his sermon began with the story of Rip Van Winkle, it wasn’t long before King was telling Jesus’ story, this story, the story of Dives and Lazarus.

Dr. King loved this parable, which had been used before him by Vernon Johns, his predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, as the text for a fabled 1949 sermon. In his sermon, Dr. Johns saw this story – with its “great gap fixed between Dives and Lazarus – as a parable descriptive of segregation.

In that illustrious pulpit on that day, Dr. King said:

“There is nothing in that parable that said Dives went to hell because he was rich . . . . If you go back to the Old Testament, you see that [Abraham] was the richest man of his day, so it was not a rich man in hell talking with a poor man in heaven; it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Indeed, Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.”

And then said Dr. King, in his rich prophetic voice:

“And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world — and nothing’s wrong with that — this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” (You may read – or even better yet – listen to the entire sermon here, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_remaining_awake_through_a_great_revolution

Dr. King went back to Memphis to stand with the families of the two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who had been killed in the back of a garbage truck, like garbage, when they sought refuge from the rain. You may remember or have seen the placards from that strike, which read “I Am a Man,” meaning not a piece of garbage to be crushed and ignored.  It was a sign Lazarus could have worn as he sat at the Rich Man’s gate.

Fours days after his sermon in the National Cathedral, shots rang out, and like the first one who originally told the story, the Dreamer would be dead.

Where are we now?  When King preached his sermon in 1968,  there were approximately 40 million in poverty in the United States.  Last year, in 2012, 46.5 million people, or 16% of the population lived in poverty, including 20% of all children. Sadly, as high as was in the mid-1960’s when the War on Poverty was launched.  Furthermore, due to the economic uncertainty of our times, between the ages of 25 and 75, 58.5% of Americans will spend at least one year of our lives below the poverty line.

For our country, the meaning of this explosive story of Jesus might well have been best expressed by President Kennedy in his 1961 Inaugural: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
For Christians, the meaning of Scripture and the will of God concerning material goods, wealth, and poverty remains a vital debate, except now it is between Jesus and some of his followers.

For all of us, the message is clear: somewhere around us, on our lives, at our gate, there is a Lazarus, to whom we need to open our eyes and our hearts, and most importantly, to treat with dignity, respect, and with compassion. Why? Because as a Child of God they deserve it, and secondly, because, in ways we may not comprehend, our destiny is linked to theirs, to Lazarus at our gate.  Amen.

– With thanks to Taylor Branch for his article, “The Last Wish of Martin Luther King,” The New York Times, April 6, 2008

 

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