Week of Community Service
“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.’” Luke 16: 19-31
Ahh, one of my kids favorite bedtime stories… “Dad, tell us again how the rich man said to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.” Maybe it is there favorite because of the nice pictures. The picture that shows the contrast of the wealthy man in the royal garb—the finest linens—the guy on the cover of Forbes magazine with the keys to success so you too can build an empire. Dad, tell us that story again…so I work harder, smarter, and go to college. It’s a nice Darwinian survival of the fittest story…
And here we are… in a series of stories that challenge us. It has been a tough stretch—quite frankly, it would be nice to select one of the other texts the last few weeks. It would be nice to focus on 1 Timothy—the nicer sections on conversion, seeking to once again return to the church in its glory days…the days of yesteryear. We could pick the Psalm—for the lectionary tends to take out the hardest parts we don’t want to deal with anyway. So I ask myself, why do I want to avoid this text? As I ask this question, I am taken back into the office of my mentor, the best teacher I have ever been blessed with in areas of conflict resolution. For my friend, Sam Massey is a master with conflict. I won’t bore you with the details that his mastery comes with his education that combines quantum physics with quantum relationships… Confession—it’s not a matter of boring you, but a fact that he is brilliant. So, back to Sam’s office. In his gentle, but strong way—Sam was asked me a tough question. In my crafty way, I answered with a nice story that avoided what he was asking completely—and he called me on it. He confronted me—Rob, why did you avoid my question? And then he went to the source…what is it in your sub-conscience that keeps you from going there? This was my self-awareness lesson—one that will always remain with me to listen with deeper cognition of why we avoid what we do.
With this in mind, I welcome you to join me in Sam’s office. Have a seat, take your shoes off, and stay awhile. In the comfort and safety of someone you trust, after hearing this parable, we are asked why this is the most unfamiliar parable? It confronts us where it hurts. We are brought into the story because that is what parables do. This is what good story-telling does. And this story welcomes us into last weeks text that concludes, “You cannot serve God and wealth” followed immediately by, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money…” And we change the story.
What is the number one thing we avoid talking about in church? Number two is sex (so where are our most influential ears learning about it?). The number one thing we avoid talking about in church is money. Reasons given are, it is private, the church is always asking for it, and deep down I hear the gentle giant asking me, why is it your sub-conscience that has you avoiding this?
So, like Jacob, let’s wrestle with this. This parable takes us into two worlds within two worlds. One world is earth, and the other world is eternity. On earth, fences are built. There is separation, categories. And these categories break down to the haves and the have nots.
And there is motivation…including many good reasons, to work hard to fall into the haves. For the haves come with creature comforts. Nice purple linens and gated communities. But it is more than this. In the last couple of years, there has been a lot of discussion accompanied with the ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement.” Or the 1% compared to the 99%. And we build walls, boundaries, and ideologies on such. As we categorize, the reality is that if we own a car, if we have air conditioning, and if we have food readily accessible in our refrigerator, we all fall into the 1%.
The reason we struggle, is that in one way or another, we identify with the rich-man. Let us enter in, and get to know him. He doesn’t show disdain towards Lazarus. There is no ill-will, he is simply unaware of Lazarus. Lazarus in invisible.
But there he is…named. In fact, the only person named in all of Jesus’ parables. And there is meaning in a name. The fact that Lazarus is named is a marker that says, ‘pay attention.’ For Lazarus means ‘God helps.’ God helps…and God knows him by name.
What happens to Lazarus? Does he die hungry… waiting at the gates? Hoping for a scraps of food? Does the temperature dip overnight, and he freezes? Or do the dogs… the same dogs that were probably eating the scraps he was hoping for…do the dogs?
I shared with you a few weeks ago, the story of my friend in North Carolina who with the support of five community churches, had been feeding the homeless and hungry for 13 years when one morning, one hundred breakfast biscuits in hand and hot coffee, and the police under threat of arrest confronted them to turn away.
In the following weeks, tense city council meetings, the ugliest side of humanity found in comments on the discussion blogs…we enter into the story of the Rich-man and Lazarus. The rich man—the city, the police, the city attorney—justified reasons for not feeding…but it comes down to what so many do…including the rich man in our story…if it is invisible, if we build walls, if we move poverty somewhere else, if we draw school district lines to eliminate the poor…if we keep it outside the gates…if we don’t see it, it is not real.
But back in Sam’s office, we enter into asking what are we avoiding? Why are we building walls? And when we allow ourselves to hear what we don’t want to hear, and see what we don’t want to see…and ask why is this man sitting and eating with tax collectors and sinners…
It is then that we can focus on the tearing down the walls that we have built, and to see that the gates swing open. When we tear down the walls, we can see Lazarus. It is in seeing Lazarus, that we can join at the table. And it is at the table that we become equal. It is at the table we break bread and share together and hear that Lazarus has a name…a name that means God helps. It is at the table that walls fall down and we have the opportunity to get this right, to get to know one another. This is where we have the opportunity to do it right…to see others as beautiful, as children of God…
In tearing down walls, we get past our exteriors, our masks that hide the hurts…and we find that God knows all of us by name. Maintaining walls the prevent us from seeing is no excuse. As we work on tearing this down, may we together look for the gates to be servants of all. For this is God’s perspective…this is why God entered, poor. This is why God lived among us, poor…meeting all at table. And what proof do need if we cannot hear it in Moses and Prophets? As our text says today, then we will not hear it even if someone rises from the dead.
Our proof is resurrection…
We have one other story on a road to Emmaus where the disciples did not recognize the stranger in their midst. But as they doubted, they welcomed the stranger. And they met him, offered hospitality, and broke bread together. And it was in sharing at the table that their eyes were opened to Moses and the prophets… It is in sharing at the table that barriers come down. It is at the table that relationships change to kinship.
How are we at Spirit of Life going through the gate? How are we making the invisible visible, and seeing Lazarus?
I challenge you this week to a scavenger hunt. For this scavenger hunt, I will ask all of us on ways we can keep our eyes open to see what is presently ‘hidden’. As you discover needs around us, please share them. If we could gather these needs in the comments section on our website, we are helping make the invisible visible. It is in the seeing that we begin to tear down barriers. And in this seeing, may we begin by choosing one of these needs as a congregation and take action.