Sunday, September 25, 2016

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 6:1-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 3:1-13
Luke 16:19-31

Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that those who want to pass from here to you are not able, and that no one may cross over from there to us.

In the story of “The Hunger Games,” the people in the Capitol have no idea what life is like in the districts. They eat, drink and act merry all the time, encouraged by the comforts of life in the safety of the city. Meanwhile, the rest of the people are dying from hunger and are oppressed by powers above. The people of the Capitol see the games as an exciting time meant to bring unity to the nation, even though the districts are losing a beloved child in a cruel and tragic way. They don’t experience the suffering; they have no compassion because they ignore the suffering of others; they are happy to be living well, sleeping on ivory couches, even though they are doing so on the misery of the poor. It is easy to close our eyes to suffering when our own life is going well.

Today’s Gospel lesson makes us uncomfortable because we have seen the needs of those around us but we all too often ignore them. See, the rich man knows Lazarus by name; it is likely he passed Lazarus many times as he entered and exited through the gates to his house. Just as I have passed, many times, the man begging on a downtown street corner.

I struggle with this because I know there are homeless people in my city, but I also know that there are many who take advantage of the generosity of strangers by pretending to be homeless. You might think that it would be a waste of time, but I’ve seen reports from many different cities about panhandlers that make a fortune. They drive expensive cars. Reporters have followed them to expensive suburban homes. The problem is that there are many truly homeless people who need help, so we have to make a judgment call: “Would I be a good steward of my resources if I give to this person?” Sadly, I usually ignore the guy on the street corner while I’m comfortable in my air conditioned car on my way to wherever. Then I wonder, “Was that my Lazarus?”

I was once in the parking lot of a grocery store when I was approached by a woman who seemed desperate. She told me her car had broken down a couple block away and she needed bus money to get somewhere while she waited for her brother to deal with the car. Her story seemed a bit contrived, but I gave her a few dollars anyway. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was probably scammed. At that point all I could do was pray and give it over to God.

Last week’s lesson taught us that we must be shrewd with our worldly wealth. There have been times when I’ve come across those who are certainly scamming people. As a matter of fact, my husband was meeting me for lunch when he got caught up in a conversation with a man who gave him a story, begging for help. My husband decided not to give him cash and then we learned that he had approached others, not only in that parking lot, but all over town. He had become so “famous” that his exploits made it to the news. Unfortunately, he did not just beg, but often became belligerent and threatening to those from whom he wanted donations.

We live in a world where people will take advantage of other people. It forces us to make judgments about how to be good stewards of our resources and makes us want to be like those who live in the Capitol in the story of the Hunger Games. We’d rather not see what is wrong with the world so we turn a blind eye. We’d rather hide behind our safe walls; we’d rather eat, drink and be merry. Yet, God reminds us not to ignore those whom He puts upon our doorsteps because in serving them, we are serving God.

Amos describes a wonderful life that is lived by those who live in the capital cities of Samaria and Jerusalem. The royal seats were filled with people who not only had wealth, but they also had power. They dwelled comfortably in the cities on the hard work of the people, poor and not so poor, taking advantage of the power and access to money that they have in the capitol city. Oh, they do it under the guise of serving the people, but too often they get so caught up in the benefits of their position that they lose sight of the reality in the world outside. It doesn't happen just in government, either. It happens in the church, in our schools, in our work and in our leisure activities. Today’s texts call us to ask ourselves, “Where are we blind to the needs of our neighbors?”

Amos is warning those who dwell in the cities that they should not be confident in their own power. They were oblivious to their sin and reveled in the very best of life’s pleasures. And yet, God was ready to send them into exile, to allow the Assyrians to destroy what they had because they did not care for the needs of others. The rich man would have heard this same warning through Moses and the prophets, but he ignored it, too. Amos warned the rich man that he would end up in exile. It wasn’t the Assyrians, but death that sent the rich man into exile far from the bosom of Abraham.

We might not be wealthy or powerful, but we are still to look at these scriptures through the lens of our own lives. How are we failing to see those outside our own palaces that need a few crumbs of what we have to offer? We may not have much, but there's always something, and it doesn't have to be material. Do we have a gift or talent, the time or the physical energy to do something for another? Our neighbor may not ask for help, but when we see the need, it is up to us to step forward and share what we have to meet that need. It doesn't matter if we are rich or poor. It doesn't matter if we have power or not. What we, as Christians, are reminded in these scriptures is that God has called us to be His hands in a world full of people who need something we have to give.

Our problem is not that we are too rich or even that we don’t share our wealth. I imagine every one of us can list the things we have done recently for someone: the money we have given to charities, the time we have given to the church and other ministries, the kindnesses we have done for our neighbors. Perhaps we are right when we claim that we can’t do it all. However, we are called to a life of compassion and mercy, a life in which we look for the one whom God has dropped on our doorstep with whom we can share our life and resources. Lazarus may just have been sent to the rich man in life to bridge the gap between them.

While God is concerned about our salvation and the destination of our souls after death, He is also concerned with the life we are living today. Christian faith is not just about whether or not we’ll end up in the bosom of our father Abraham. It is about reconciling the world, bridging those gaps that seem too hard to cross. In this life, however, the gaps are not impossible. The rich man and Lazarus shared the same space, but they were worlds apart. A simple meal and a clean robe would have bridged the gap not only in this world, but in the one to come.

Have we created gaps in our own eternity because we have failed to share a few crumbs from our tables? Those are the very gaps we can bridge today, by being a blessing to others, reconciling people, and sharing God's grace. This means turning away from the things that distract us; it means keeping our priorities right. It means keeping God in focus and remembering that He is the Lord of heaven and earth. It means listening to God and responding to the opportunities He drops on our doorsteps. It means being the best we can be. If only the rich man had shared some bread and some drink with the man named Lazarus who lay at the gate of his home, perhaps the chasm between them in eternal life would have also been bridged.

Timothy was a young man who came from a faithful and faith-filled family. He was the son of Jewish mother and Greek father. Timothy, his mother and grandmother may have become followers of Jesus during one of Paul’s visits. Timothy became like a son to Paul and was instrumental in Paul’s ministry, often going on important missions to encourage and strengthen the churches Paul established. Today’s epistle lesson comes from a letter Paul sent to Timothy in Ephesus where he was working to strengthen the church against false teaching. It is a letter that shows us that the Gospel leads to practical, visible changes in believer’s lives. False teachers were leading people astray, but Paul shows us what it means to follow Jesus. Faith begets holiness in the lives of believers.

In today’s passage, the focus is on those in leadership. The descriptions of both the pastors and deacons seem almost too hard; after all, we are constantly reminded that they are only human, too. These characteristics, however, are expected of those who are leading God’s church because if they don’t live up the expectations of God’s Word, how will those who live under their care know how to live?

Think about how different the world of Panem would have been in the Hunger Games if the people in the Capitol had lived lives of mercy and grace. Think about how different the world of Israel and Judah would have been if the leaders had followed God’s Word. The leaders of the church are expected to be people for whom the Gospel has had a tangible impact on their behavior.

This story of the rich man and Lazarus describes two very extreme conditions: the great wealth and blessedness of the rich man verses the physical, financial and emotional poverty of Lazarus. The only thing these two men have in common is that they both die. The reality of life is that we all die. I doubt that any of us live lives to either extreme; rich people have their own problems and poor people are in many ways blessed. Jesus used these two extremes to show us a great gap between their situations. They had nothing in common. Yet they both died. Our fate is the same whether we have a lot of money or no money at all. It is the same if we are sickly or healthy. It is the same if we live on the streets or in fancy houses. We are all going to die.

There is a reversal of fortune in the afterlife for these two men. The gap is still as great between them. They still have nothing in common, only now Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man is suffering the eternal torment of Hades. To add to his suffering, the rich man can see that Lazarus is living in comfort and peace while he is in agony. The rich man calls out to Abraham, “Have mercy on me.” Abraham calls him “child.” He still cares for the man, but the gap between heaven and hell is simply too great for any man to cross. As long as there are chasms between people, the kingdom is not whole. The time to bridge those gaps is in this life, before it is too late.

We are called by these texts to see our own failure, to see where we have allowed the gaps to widen between us and the others. Our prayers of confession not only bring us to a place where we are forgiven, but also to the heart of God where we can overcome our failure. It might seem like lying on the ivory couch is the choice life, but the reality is true contentment comes when we live in faith, trusting in God. As we live that life of prayerful praise, we will see the ones who are right in front of us that need something we can give. Contentment gives us the freedom to take our crumbs to the gate and share it with whoever might be waiting.

The psalmist calls us to live in the hope of God's promises. “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God: who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps truth forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. Yahweh frees the prisoners. Yahweh opens the eyes of the blind. Yahweh raises up those who are bowed down. Yahweh loves the righteous. Yahweh preserves the foreigners. He upholds the fatherless and widow, but the way of the wicked he turns upside down. Yahweh will reign forever; your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise Yah!”

When we praise God, we see the world through His point of view. We see what justice and mercy look like. We see what it means to be righteous. We see how He bridges the gaps between people and reconciles them to Himself. We see the Lazarus who is on our doorstep and realize that our selfishness is affecting others in a negative way. We hear His voice as He calls us to share what we have with those we see through God's eyes. We might have doubts about whether we are being good stewards of our resources, but we can trust that God will make all things right.

Our wealth will fade. It will not take us into heaven or follow us into hell. When we die, everything we have done on earth will be lost. Everything will be lost but faith. What is most interesting is that faith is the greatest treasure that we have, and yet we all too often take it for granted. And while these lessons are definitely about the proper use of our wealth in this world, we have a wealth beyond our imagination that we tend to hoard for ourselves.

The most important gap we have to bridge is the one between Jesus and those still lost in the darkness. We have been given bread that will satisfy our greatest hungers, but are we willing to share even a few crumbs with our neighbors? When was the last time you shared the Gospel of Christ with someone who crossed your path? The world is filled with people who are hungering Jesus, starving and they don’t even know it. So, let’s be holy people, righteous, seeing the world through God’s eyes. Let’s work with Him to bridge the gaps that divide us now and forever. Let’s see the Lazarus God has dropped on our doorstep, feed him with bread and the Bread of Life so that we’ll dwell forever together in the bosom of God our Father.

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