— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~16th Sunday after Pentecost~~~
“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.’”
This story is hard for us on so many levels. For one it is yet another story in Luke about money. Luke will not let us alone. Mary sings of the rich being sent away empty. John the Baptist preaches about giving away extra coats and collecting only the money owed. Jesus preaches good news to the poor, woes to the rich; Jesus teaches his followers not to store up treasures on earth and not to invite the well off to your dinner parties…on and on and on … Luke pounds it home that money and how it is used is an indicator of the spiritual health of followers of Jesus of Nazareth. This story is hard because it is part of a parade of teachings on money, and most of us would rather not think so much about it, thank you very much.
Two things that might allow us, the well-off in the world (for the most part), to hear this graphic story on money…
1) For many of us raised in the Protestant faith we have had it pounded into our heads and hearts that we are saved by grace not by good works. All of us will fall short of the glory of God and fall short of salvation if we count on the number of good deeds we perform. God does not have a weight scale with one side weighed down by our evil deeds and thoughts and then on the other side of the scale our good deeds and righteous thoughts. We Presbyterians are pretty clear that such a measuring will not end well for us. Jesus is the judge and that makes the difference. Jesus puts his fingers on the scales for us and the balance is tipped in the direction of being welcomed into the bosom of Abraham.
I do not think this story is about whether or not we go to heaven or to hell after we die. This story is not about working hard to accumulate good deeds so God will open the gate to us when we stand at the door to eternity. The story is not about whether we have been so bad that God will cast us into the burning abyss where we will be tormented. No, this story is about living now in the direction of compassion and brotherhood and sisterhood with all people, especially the poor, so that God’s abundance will be shared and life will be made rich on this side of the grave.
The Protestant conviction about radical grace – we are loved unconditionally and without regard to our failings or our righteousness – is good news but it is also a call in the direction of seeing others with grace-filled and loving eyes. You see, if we are loved unconditionally so, too, is our neighbor loved unconditionally. The radical grace of God is for everyone. Lazarus at the gate in all his poverty was a child of God. The rich man in all his wealth was a child of God. We are to see one another and especially those who live in this world in poverty as brothers and sisters within one family of God’s making.
A second way of hearing the message of this story to us is to recognize that wealth and having resources are not evil in and of themselves. Jesus was fairly consistent that having wealth can be blinding and can lead to un-fulfilling lives and the bulk of our wealth can keep us from passing through the eye of a needle into the kingdom of God, but… wealth can be put to good use.
Do you remember the story of the rich ruler who approaches Jesus and asked him “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus ultimately responds to the man that he must “sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” This story speaks to the dangers of wealth and the ways that we can be possessed by our possessions, but it also points to something that is often overlooked in the story. If the resources were all bad and the goal in life was to be poor and always struggling like Lazarus then Jesus would not have told the rich ruler to give the money to the poor; rather, he would have told him to destroy his wealth. The point is there are ways to handle our resources that is Godly, loving, righteous and when we can live in such a way with whatever blessings of wealth have come our way, then the kingdom of God is near to us.
Bob Tuttle, who worked for many years at Montreat, found a tape recording of Martin Luther King, Jr when he spoke at Anderson Auditorium in August of 1965. …. Martin Luther King, Jr., begins his speech at Montreat by apologizing. He was supposed to have spoken Thursday night, but was in Watts, Los Angeles, meeting with government officials, on the streets, trying to quell the riots there. In this speech, King challenges the church on issues of race, pushing them to be more than clear on their stands on segregation. And then he moves into the connection with issues of poverty.
He takes some time and points the assembly to our text…
“There is nothing in that parable,” King says, “that says Dives [the Latin name for the rich man] went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth.” King names the story of the rich young ruler, but says that in that story, when Jesus tells the man to go, sell all he has, and give his money to the poor, Jesus was “prescribing individual surgery, not setting forth a universal diagnosis.”
King moves on, pointing us toward the kind of symbolic long-distance call that takes place between Dives in hell and Abraham, with Lazarus, in heaven. King claims that, “Dives went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him…. Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible…because he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. In fact, he didn’t even realize that Lazarus was his brother” (The Rev. Dr. Chris Tuttle, from Day 1, September 29, 2013).
Dr. King brings out something clear in the story; there is family language. The rich man calls out to “Father Abraham” and Father Abraham calls the rich man “child.” Again and again the rich man calls Abraham “father”… and here’s the thing… the rich man and Lazarus were brothers but the rich man did not have eyes to see the kinship. He was consumed with his consuming and failed to look down at the man at his gate who was receiving from the world “evil things.”
Back in June during the crisis on the border with migrant children there was a bit of a public spat between two prominent, Evangelical conservatives. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, tweeted that “reports of the conditions for migrant children at the border should shock all of our consciences… We can do better than this.” Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, tweeted a response: “Who are you, Dr. Moore? Have you ever made a payroll? …What gives you authority to speak on any issue? … You’re nothing but an employee – a bureaucrat” (Washington Post, 6/ 28/ 19; as reported in Christian Century, 8/14/19).
Jerry Falwell Jr’s response to Russell Moore is sad and troubling. I guess Falwell’s mind is so consumed with capitalism that he has allowed himself to believe that captains of business, like running a very profitable university system, are the only people worthy to cast a moral vision for the country. I guess he thinks of people, the poor at the gate and anyone else, in terms of economic cost and benefits. It seems for Falwell that Jesus himself is unworthy to call us to our better angels because Jesus never met a payroll. Russell Moore was right – we can do better. Jesus calls us to it.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus is teaching us to open our eyes to the connections we have with one another and to invite us to begin to think that as my brother or sister goes in this world so I go. We are family under a Divine Parent and we should care for one another and in the caring we will find ourselves dwelling within the kin-dom of God.
[Many years ago now Anne Forrest, Bess, Will, Bob, Caroline and I went to Chattanooga for a short two-day vacation. We went to the Aquarium and to the Children’s Discovery Museum, and we sweated our way through meals out with two young children. It was a fine trip.
One of the most memorable moments of the trip, however, had nothing to do with our purpose as I understood it. As you do when you take young children to supper, we ate in shifts. On Sunday morning, the Lord’s Day, we did not go to church but we had church anyway. We ate at a place downtown, near where we were staying. Will had finished destroying a muffin and I had made it through a bagel and a cup of coffee; so I took Will for a walk.
A block or so from the restaurant on the sidewalk hunched on the ground was a black man leaning against the building with a bag of stuff next to him. He had a sign – HUNGRY – leaning against the bag. Well, I was holding Will’s hand and we walked by. My heart was a little fearful. I am never quite sure what to do in such circumstances. I run through all the issues in my head – Is this legitimate? Am I perpetuating unproductive behavior if I give him money? It makes more sense to give to the shelter or the food bank, doesn’t it? Is he going to buy alcohol? The debate rages in me as we walk by, but I manage to say – “How you doing?” He said: “I’m blessed.” That was it. I wasn’t going to give him anything and Will and I walked on.
Will, however, kept looking at the guy and slowing me down. The man was smiling and waving to Will and Will was smiling and waving back. I decided to give the man some money so Will would let us move along.
By the time we got back to him, Anne Forrest and Bess were there too. They had stopped and were talking to the man. Anne Forrest said: “You have the most beautiful eyes!” And he did! Why did I not notice those eyes? He had black smooth skin and I suspect he is older than he looks, but his eyes…they were golden! I had never before seen eyes like his. He said to Anne Forrest – “Thank you. My mother was Cherokee. That is where my eyes come from.”
I was feeling a bit guilty at this point, so I said “Thank you for smiling and waving to my children.” He said he had been taught to greet everyone with a smile and take what comes. We gave him some money – ten dollars or so. And then we headed to our car on the other side of the four lane street.
After Bess and Will were loaded up, we slowly pulled away from the parking spot. I looked over across the street and the man – we never got his name, was it Lazarus? – he was standing. He was tall and handsome looming over the cars parked on his side of the street. He was not hunched down anymore; rather, he was standing and waving to us as we pulled away. His eyes were golden and he was blessed! So were we?
Maybe the strangers at the gate are messengers of God?
Maybe the poor all have golden eyes
for those whose vision is shaped by the love of God?
Maybe there is a blessing for all of us when we reach out
beyond our fears, beyond our class,
beyond our sense of worthiness and failure?