Sunday, September 26, 2010

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 26
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in Jehovah his God...

I think one of the most shocking political stories of the year is the reports of corruption in the tiny Los Angeles suburb of Bell City, where the officials were being paid exorbitant salaries and taking money designated for city programs. The city manager alone was earning an $800,000 salary, plus taking other funds for his personal use. City manager Robert Rizzo, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and six others were arrested for misappropriating $5.5 million dollars of public monies. This happened in a town where about seventeen percent of the population is living below the poverty level.

Dan Nelson, in his study notes for today's Old Testament lesson from Amos says, "In this woe-saying Amos sketches the well-being enjoyed by the upper classes in the capital cities, the splendid society that was built on the misery of the weak and poor." Both Samaria and Zion (Jerusalem) were royal cities whose history was directly linked with the monarchy in Israel and Judah. Neither had a tradition of identity with the people and their past." As I read this, I thought about Washington, D.C.

Now, I rarely talk about politics because I know that my list is ready by people from every part of the political and religious spectrum. But I think we'll all agree that it often seems like those who are making our laws and spending our money do not really know or understand the people they are meant to serve. Like those kings and rulers in Samaria and Jerusalem, the political class loses touch with the people once they get ensconced in that ivory covered world. It doesn't matter which party or ideology. They (perhaps not all, but purposely a very broad 'they') work to please themselves, to keep their jobs, to do what they think is good. I don't think that anyone in Washington is lying on beds of ivory, and I don't know if anyone has personally benefited from misappropriation of funds like the leaders of Bell City, but I'm sure that many are at ease in Washington, feeling secure.

They rest 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. Obviously this does not just happen in Washington; the story from Bell City shows us that even local officials can get lost in the promise of their power. But it doesn't happen just in government, either. It happens in the church, in our schools, in our work and in our leisure activities. It isn't just about that broad 'they' in Washington, but also about all those who lock themselves in their cushy world, ignoring the world outside. It might just be about us, too.

The passage from Luke makes this warning from Amos far more personal. The rich man is not necessarily someone in power, although his wealth almost guarantees that he was held in high regard among those in his community. The problem with the rich man is not that he had wealth, or even that he liked to party, but that he ignored the needs that were right under his nose. He was blinded by his ease and feelings of security. We do not see Lazarus asking for help in this story; we don't see him rejecting Lazarus in any way. But, there is no way that the rich man could have missed the poor, sick man by his gate. It is likely that the rich man passed Lazarus regularly, perhaps even having to step over his prone body. Lazarus would have settled for anything, even crumbs, but the rich man gave nothing from his table to this beggar. I wonder how long it took for Lazarus to become nothing but a blob by the gate, no longer a person, just an annoyance.

Amos warns the rich man that he will end up in exile. Now, there weren't threats from Assyria or Babylon in Jesus' day, but exile can happen in many other ways. The city leaders of Bell City will be exiled to prison. It is likely that a number of those Washington politicians will be exiled to their hometowns. The rich man in today's Gospel was exiled to Hades, far from the bosom of Abraham. If we miss others in the quest to satisfy our own needs and desires, where will be exiled to? Fired from our jobs? Divorced from our spouse? Out of our children's lives as they try to get as far away as they can?

Now, it is easy to look at the politicians in Bell City or Washington and see them as the recipients of the warnings in today's Old Testament and Gospel lessons, but it is not up to us to judge ourselves better or closer to God because we aren't "like them." We are to look at these scriptures through the lens of our own lives and ask ourselves what God is saying to us. Are we to point fingers or are we to see ourselves in the mirror? 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 can offer. We just have to see them, and then act.

I think our problem is that we just stop seeing. I gave a donation to an organization a year or so ago; it was a sponsorship for someone who was doing a walk or a run or a marathon of some type. I don't even remember. It was a one time donation, given as much to support the good works of my loved one as a desire to support that particular organization. I have certain groups I support regularly, but I was not looking at having a long term relationship with this one. Unfortunately, once they had my name, address and email, I became their best friend. I started receiving daily emails and snail mail on a regular basis. I recycled the mail and deleted the email for awhile, but it became overwhelming. I finally clicked the link to ask to be removed from all mail, but even after weeks I'm still receiving requests for money.

It is no wonder we start ignoring the mail that comes to us. Don;t we feel that way about the commercials we see on television about the sick children in third world countries? How about the guy that is on the freeway corner looking for a handout? We have become so cynical about so many things that we are sure that the organization using those kids on TV are keeping 90% of the funds for themselves and the guy on the corner is not really homeless.

It is true that some charities abuse the trust of the public and some homeless guys are really crooks. Yet, in our cynicism we have stopped seeing pain and suffering and we have forgotten God's call to compassion and mercy. The rich man was probably sick of seeing Lazarus lying at his gate. How did Lazarus get there? Where were his family and friends? Did they dump him on the doorstep of the rich man so that they would not have to be responsible? This doesn't justify the rich man's lack of compassion, and it doesn't justify our own failure to see the suffering in the world outside our own little corner of the world.

We don't see outside because we are so focused on what's happening inside. We tend to live in the hope of all the wrong things. We hope we will get a raise. We hope we will win the lottery. We hope our investments will do well. These aren't hopes, they are wishes and dreams. Hope is the expectation of God's faithfulness. The psalmist calls us to live in the hope of God's promises. "Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in Jehovah his God: Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that in them is; Who keepeth truth for ever; Who executeth justice for the oppressed; Who giveth food to the hungry. Jehovah looseth the prisoners; Jehovah openeth the eyes of the blind; Jehovah raiseth up them that are bowed down; Jehovah loveth the righteous; Jehovah preserveth the sojourners; He upholdeth the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked he turneth upside down. Jehovah will reign for ever, Thy God, O Zion, unto all generations. Praise ye Jehovah."

When we praise God, we see the world through His point of view. We notice the Lazarus who is on our doorstep. We realize that our selfishness is affecting others in a negative way. We hear His voice as He calls us to be His hands and we share what we have with those we see through God's eyes. We might not feel we have enough to share, or that we don't have anything our neighbor might need. But God gives us the opportunities to share ourselves with others and in faith we trust that God will provide all we need to take care of those needs. We fail when, for whatever reason, we do not see those whom God sends our way.

We may not be like those politicians in Bell City or Washington, D.C. who ignore the needs of those outside to pursue their own desires. We may not be like the rich in the days of Amos, lying on beds of ivory. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we chase after the wrong things, seeking material goods and physical satisfaction instead of trusting in God. We seek help from men and rely on earthly answers, happy to live in our own world without following God into His.

But Paul tells Timothy that we are better off following Christ rather than chasing after material things. When our focus is on gaining more or keeping what we have, we lose sight of the reality of wealth: it is perishable. Nothing we have will last forever. Ultimately the only thing on which we have to cling is faith in God. Paul's charges us to be content with what we have, to shun the pursuit of wealth and the lifestyle that blinds us to the reality of the world outside our gates. The scriptures call us to a life of contentment, and command us to see the opportunities God has given us to share what we have with the world. That might mean giving up something we have, not only material, but also our ideology, our desires and our wishes. But when we keep God in focus, praising Him for His grace and following His Word

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 sent our way to share our life and resources with. Lazarus may just have been sent to the rich man in life to bridge the gap between them in eternal life. 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.

Have we created gaps in eternity in our failure to share those crumbs from our tables? Those are the very gaps we can bridge today, by being a blessing to others, restoring relationships, 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. We need food, shelter and clothing, but our pursuit of these things should not blind us to the opportunities God presents to us.

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.

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