Sunday, September 30, 2007

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

Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed.

Our Gospel lesson today gives us portraits of two men. Jesus portrays them as extreme opposites. One man is very wealthy. He lives in a fabulous home and eats sumptuous feasts. Along with his power and prestige, he probably has many friends. He is healthy and it sounds like he is very happy. Who wouldn’t be happy having a life like his? On the other extreme we have a man that has nothing. His health is bad and he is poor. He doesn’t even seem to have any friends – he’s been dumped at the gate of the rich man as if those responsible for him have no compassion or concern. He is miserable and we would be miserable also. The poor man’s name is Lazarus.

We come down hard on the rich man who has ignored the needs that are right in front of his gates, but I also have to wonder about the family and friends of Lazarus. Where are they? The rich man should not have ignored Lazarus’s needs, but is he at fault for Lazarus’s suffering? That’s what we tend to do with texts like this one – blame the rich man for the poor man’s condition. Jesus does not say that the rich man rejected Lazarus. We only know that he did nothing to help and there are a million reasons why he might not have done anything. They aren’t necessarily good reasons, but there is no doubt that we have all used them at one time or another. Perhaps he didn’t know that Lazarus was there. He may have been concerned that contact would make him unclean. It is even possible that he had already cared for the needs of others and was burned out and tired of it all falling on his shoulders. We have all used the same excuses. But the story is not just about doing good works for the sake of others. There is something deeper and more important for us to learn from this story.

This story 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.

In many churches, part of the worship includes a time of confession and absolution. This is a place in the service where we, as a congregation, openly confess that we have been sinners and that we need God’s forgiveness. We say something like, “we confess our sins – the things that we have done and not done in thought, word and deed.” In other words, our sin is not just what we have done wrong, but all those things we have not bothered to do. The rich man may have been quite righteous according to the Laws of Moses, but he had forgotten the intent of God’s Law – that all God’s people would share in His kingdom on earth. He had forgotten that he was blessed to be a blessing, that he was given good things to share with those who did not have good things. He was happy with his life, but he missed out on the joy that came from living by faith, being content with enough and sharing his excess to others for the glory of God.

So often when a scripture like this one comes up, the conversation turns to our own wealth. The people reading this devotion are undoubtedly in the richest one percent of the world’s population. If you have a computer, electricity and time to read this, you have more than many. Yet, I know that among the readers there are people who are sick and perhaps even dying. Perhaps there are others who are in transition between jobs and money is scarce. For some the only human connections may be over the Internet, with this email like a letter to a friend. We do not always know the whole story about someone’s life. They may seem to have great wealth, but the suffering they are experiencing might be hidden.

When I was teaching preschool a few years ago, a mother called early one morning and told us that her daughter had come down with the chicken pox. She had not known the child was sick, so likely infected the whole school. The child had been vaccinated, but still came down with the disease. The problem with chicken pox is that they are invisible when the child is most contagious. It is not until the pox appears that we know they are sick, and then it is too late. It is not until a few weeks later that we see the full force of the disease when it affects the rest of the school. No one is to blame for the outbreak; it is simply the nature of the disease. Some diseases are obvious. Others are much less obvious or hidden until it is too late.

Lazarus was obviously sick in body, but the rich man had a less obvious dis-ease. He was sick in spirit, separated from God by his apathy and blindness to the needs around him. He may have been a good man, doing what is right according to the Law, but he was missing out on something even more important – reaching beyond himself into the world.

While Lazarus will live for eternity in the bosom of God, the rich man will suffer. This is a message we all need to hear – so that we will make a difference in the lives of those who are suffering. Jesus is not telling us that we have to be sick or poor to be admitted into heaven. He is not telling us that the rich will automatically be sent to Hades. He is reminding us to not be so distracted by the things of this world that we miss out on seeing those who need mercy and grace. We have been blessed to be a blessing and that it is in sharing the Kingdom of God with others that we will know the joy and peace of eternal life.

Paul writes to Timothy, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” He does not say that money is the root of all evil; he says that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil. We need money to pay for everything we have. We need enough money to pay the rent or mortgage. We need money to buy food. We need money to purchase the clothes for our backs. They bible does not tell us that we have to live without money to be happy, but that we are to find contentment in what we do have. In other words, we do not need to chase after more and more money so that we can have bigger and better things.

In our society, too many people live lifestyles that are far above their resources, hoping to find happiness in places and things. They aren’t content with what they have, so they chase after what the things they think they need. They think they have to keep up with the Jones’, to have the newest gadgets or eat at the nicest restaurants. This is why so many families are burdened by huge debts. Some people have taken financial risks that could mean loosing everything.

In the Epistle passage, Paul is writing to us about restraint, that we should be satisfied with enough. It is when we desire more than enough that we fall into error, easily deceived and led astray. In today’s world, it is necessary to pay the rent, have a car and purchase our food from the grocery store. Our troubles occur when we insist that we need those things that are bigger, faster and fancier. We find contentment in the simple life. We find joy, also, when we use the excess wealth which we have been given to do kindness and mercy to others.

The scene in today’s Old Testament passage shows us a gathering of leaders, comfortably feasting in Samaria. The feasting lasted for days. It was opulent and excessive. Amos warns that they are ignoring the reality of their future, that invasion is near and the time of exile is much closer than they expect. The luxury in which they are wallowing is obvious – they lay on beds made of ivory and overindulged in the finest meats, wine and oil. Not only were they gorging themselves on the finest resources of Israel, while danger waited around the corner, they were using the resources that were meant for God. The choice lambs and fatted calves were meant for sacrifice. The bowls were taken from temple in Samaria, and originally part of religious ceremony. In this passage they were being used by the leaders to get drunk. The oil was also used for ceremonial services. In other words, they were not only ignoring the turning of Israel from God, they were stealing from Him to celebrate their prosperity and security.

Amos warns them that it will end. Though they thought they were safe and comfortable, they would be the first to fall. The leaders that thought their prosperity was the very sign that God was with them would be the first to realize that He had left them to fend for themselves. In this they would learn that not only is the Lord God Almighty ruler over Israel, but He is ruler over all the earth. He commands even the armies of His enemies, granting them the power over His people for the sake of the life and their future.

This warning should have brought those leaders to their knees, turned them back to the God of their fathers. They did not hear, ignoring the promise of downfall because they thought that they had done enough to earn God’s grace. They worshipped as was required, but they had forgotten what was most important – that God calls His people to practice justice and mercy. The leaders who gorged on the finest meat and lounged on ivory covered couches had no concern for the welfare of the people over whom they had been appointed. The reward for their indifference would be that they would lead their people into the exile. They would no longer have ivory covered couches or fine meats at extravagant feasts. They would suffer at the hands of those whom they trusted because they stopped trusting the only One who could give them peace.

The rich man was not given such a warning. He had no idea that his world was about the crumble around him. The rich man was buried, most certainly with great pomp and mourning. Perhaps the family even hired people to fill his funeral with tears and cries of grief. He probably had the finest linens and ointments and was laid in an expensive tomb. Those whom he left behind shared in his blessedness even after he was gone. Lazarus had no such funeral. He was carried away on wings of angels to live for eternity with Abraham. He was so alone in this world that he did not even have anyone to dispose properly of his body. He was probably not even missed as those responsible for him were relieved to be set free from the burden

The rich man realized his failure and wanted Abraham to send Lazarus to tell his family. He wanted them to tell his family how to live so that they would not have to suffer the same torment. Abraham was unable to provide this service to the rich man also. He said, “They have Moses and the prophets.” The rich man argued that they need something drastic to help them see the truth of what they knew from Moses and the prophets. These are not bad people. Wealth, in itself, is not bad. They were probably even good Jews, doing all that was expected and living according to the Law as they knew it. However, they too were missing out on the intent of God’s Law. The rich man wanted them to know. He wanted to help them to see what they were missing. It was impossible.

We tend to live in the hope of all the wrong things. We hope we will get a raise. We hope that 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.”

We live in the hope that God will be faithful to His promises, but many might ask, then, where was God for Lazarus? Where is God for all those people who are suffering today? He is in us. He is in our hearts and in our hands. He is in our help to the oppressed, hungry, prisoner, blind and exploited. We are blessed to be a blessing. Unfortunately we don’t always see those who need our help. We miss the dis-ease that our neighbors are suffering because we are so caught up in our own problems. We do not see the poor who need food because we avoid driving in their neighborhoods. We don’t speak about the grace and love of God to people who are lost in the darkness because we are afraid we might offend them with our religion. We sin against God in thought, word and deed, not only by what we do, but also by what we leave undone. We live in hope not to keep it for ourselves, but to share it with others.

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. We might just be right – 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.

What do we fail to do in thought, word in deed in this life that might leave chasms in eternity? Those are the very gaps that God is calling us to bridge today. He is calling us to be a blessing to others, to restore relationships, to bring grace. This means putting aside 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 these things should never stand in the way of seeing what others might need. Our prayers of confessions not only bring us to a place where we are forgiven, but also to the heart of God where we can overcome our failure. By His grace we will see those who need us – our friend who is hiding a sickness, the neighbor who needs to hear the Gospel, the homeless man who needs a meal. We just have to look for people with whom to share our blessings – they are there right in front of our faces or laying at our gates. It is about bridging the gaps between people and when we do so, the kingdom of heaven is made whole.

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