Message Delivered at Church of the Cross
Sunday, September 25, 2016
TEXTS: I Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’
My first overseas mission trip happened in 2001. I was on sabbatical that summer. The congregation I was serving in had never done an overseas mission trip. So I took some time that summer, and went by myself to the Dominican Republic to visit and learn about short-term mission trips, because maybe the church might take a team there later on.
I traveled a lot of different places there. One day, I was with a pastor serving in Santiago, a city in the north central section of the DR. Young man with a young wife and a new baby. It was very sweet. He was showing me around, and we went to his church. It was a new church. They were worshiping in a storefront on a busy street in the city.
We came up to the door to go in, and there was an elderly woman sitting on the pavement there by the entrance, alone, begging. She wasn’t literally in rags; but she looked like she was in rags.
Now I was pretty much out of my element on this trip…which was part of its purpose. Though the DR was a nation moving forward…and still is…there were pockets of what can only be described as crushing poverty…hillsides covered with one-room shacks on top of one another, each holding a family, just like mine…which I had never seen before.
So I was a little bit on my heels the whole time, in such new circumstances.
And I was also trying to be a gracious guest. These people were showing me their home; they were kind of excited someone was visiting; I wanted to be polite.
As we were approaching the doorway…or maybe we were standing in the doorway…I don’t remember now…my friend signaled to me to not give the woman any money. And I didn’t. We walked inside and he said something like this “You never know what they’ll do with it; they probably won’t use it the right way.” And I nodded and smiled. Because I’d heard those kinds of words before about people who beg. You probably have, also.
So we went on, and he took about twenty minutes showing me his church set up in a storefront, and told me everything they were working on.
But I’ll share with you that I really wasn’t listening to anything he said. The distance seemed almost physical. Because while this young pastor was talking to me, Jesus was talking to me, too. Not in audible voices. Never had that happen. But he was coming through loud and clear, all the same. What transpired in that full conversation is something I don’t remember now. I just remember how it ended: With this woman I’d just walked by still in my mind’s eye, I heard him asking me this question: “Well, have you used all the gifts I’ve given you the way I’d hoped you would?” And I knew what he was talking about.
And the answer, of course, was that I hadn’t. I’ve been given a lot; I am rich in many ways; and while I hope that more than once I have used those gifts to the glory of God and for the benefit of God’s people and the world, I also know that I’ve sometimes been selfish with them, frittered them away, used them only for my own purposes, or not used them at all; clutched at them rather than shared them.
Sometimes Jesus is really confronting…
So I want to tell you how God answered a prayer that day…that when we walked out of that storefront that woman was still there. And I gave her some money. I don’t know how she used it. I didn’t care. I still don’t care.
What mattered in that moment had nothing to do with what she did with it. Neither her salvation, nor the health of her soul, depended on whether I gave her something or not. But it sure seemed that my spiritual welfare did. It sure seemed that if, in the moment, I had walked by the poor person sitting by the gate…having been given a second chance to stop…it would be a long time coming back to the kind of person I wanted to be, and believed that Jesus was calling me to be.
There once were two men, who lived near each other. One was so rich, he dressed in purple and fine linen. Purple was the most expensive dyed cloth there was. And “fine linen” as used here probably refers to his undergarments, made of the finest fabric. He wears Stanley Korshak suits and silk underwear, and splendidly did he merry every day.
At the gates to his home there was a poor man. He was probably an invalid. He was covered in sores; and was so weak, he couldn’t even keep the dogs from licking the blood and puss off him. It’s almost as if they are consuming him. And what he hoped for…what would have satisfied him…was the scraps from the rich man’s table; the leftovers; the stuff that would be thrown in the trash.
The only thing he has that the rich man doesn’t is a name. His name is Lazarus, which means “God has helped.” Here’s our Bible fact for today: He is the only character in any of the parables to whom Jesus gives a name. No character in any parable Jesus told has a name…except this man, who otherwise was so invisible.
It doesn’t say, but I find it hard to believe that the rich man didn’t walk by Lazarus more than once…
They both died. First the poor man, given no burial, was taken by the angels to heaven. And then the rich man, who was given a proper send-off. One ends up in the bosom of Abraham; and one ends up in a place very far from the bosom of Abraham. If the rich man ends up in the place far away from Abraham because his wealth had been acquired through evil means, there’s no hint of that. Instead, it seems, they end up in their various destinations simply because one was rich and the other was poor.
So sometimes Jesus gives us words of assurance. Sometimes his words are easy, like a cup of hot tea.
And sometimes he says difficult things we’d rather not hear, and says them in ways that make us squirm in our seat some. Sometimes, he challenges us; asks more of us.
I think this is one of those times.
Now it would be bad Bible to take this story and turn it into a theology of heavenly salvation that says rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven because they’re rich or poor. That would be a grace-limiting understanding of God, and God’s grace has no limit. Elsewhere, immediately after he says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter heaven, he says “But nothing is impossible for God.”
But it would also be bad Bible to pretend this story doesn’t show us—dramatically–something about how to live well with wealth and our gifts, and what the Jesus-centered life looks like…
As I mentioned last week, we have a new granddaughter. She’s twelve days old. And it has been very sweet to hear our son talk about his child; to hear in his voice the pleasure they get out of feeding her, and changing her, and cuddling her, and playing with her, and how she is advanced for her age, and is the best baby ever, and perfect in every way…which, of course, she is…
And though I do not know everything they will try to teach her, I’m fairly certain they will teach her things like “Yes, Ma’am;” “Yes, Sir;” “Please;” “Thank you;” and “Share.” Because they are pretty much like all parents, and that’s the stuff pretty much all parents teach their children. Probably very few of us grew up in a household that taught “be greedy, and keep it all for yourself.” The generous life is a vision we hold for our children, and grandchildren…it’s the kind of life we want for them, and for ourselves. All of us want at our funerals the conversation to be about how much we gave, not how much we kept for us, alone.
And while it is a stretch to say that the teaching from Jesus and in the scriptures about how to live with our wealth is uniform, there are the constant themes of gratitude and sharing…that all that we are and have is a gift from God, and that the measure of our soul is not what we acquire and keep, but how we share what we have been given. On that, Jesus is pretty consistent, including here.
Regardless, it seems to be something we need to keep being reminded of…
…because we sometimes forget…because we get scared, or selfish, or slothful, or caught up in the race…
And because it is an essential practice to growing into what Christ intends us to be. Just as our prayer forms us into the image of Christ and makes us prayerful; and our worship forms us in the image of Christ and makes us worshipful; and our service follows the pattern of the one who came to serve and increase in us the spirit of servanthood; so does the practice of giving and sharing bring us closer to the one who was given for the sake of the world. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16)
Now there’s a little bit more going on in this story. The context is that Jesus is telling this story to a group of Pharisees. And one thing some Pharisees believed is that wealth was a sign of God’s favor. If one has a lot, that must mean one has lived a life that makes God happy, and is a sign that one is truly a child of Abraham. And if one doesn’t, that must mean God’s favor, and the comfort of Abraham’s bosom, must be far away.
You can hear a variation of that theology coming from some Christian teachers today…a theology that says “do this” or “do that” and God will fill your bank account.
It’s a bad theology that misreads the scriptures, damages our souls, and increase our temptation to entitlement. It makes us smaller rather than bigger, and compromises the depth of soul desired for us. It leads us to focus on ourselves, which always brings separation from God and others…if not for eternity, certainly in the meantime. And it makes the end of our faith journey “getting” rather than “giving”…which makes little sense considering that for pretty much all of his ministry, all the way to the cross, give is what Jesus did.
But it is an understanding that dies hard. So Jesus challenges it with a startling story, and a startling image, maybe to open our eyes a bit…to God’s abundance, and to the possibility of generosity and sharing.
I gave that poor and lonely woman in Santiago maybe enough for a meal or two. I’m ashamed to say that’s all it was. Had it been a thousand bucks, I still would have gotten the better deal out of the whole thing.
My hunch is that she now rests in the bosom of Abraham, where I hope Jesus has told her the story about the well-ordered and rarely uncomfortable American guy back in 2001 who is still on his earthly pilgrimage, and to whom she taught something about the call of Jesus; and how, should he also end up in the bosom of Abraham, she helped save him simply because she was there, and didn’t move, and gave him another chance.
But we’ll all get another chance.
What do you say we take it?
After the message, the congregation was invited to ponder these three questions:
- Who is the first person who taught you about sharing?
- How is God getting you ready for your next chance to share?
- What gift do you want to thank God for today?