The Jesus in Luke’s Gospel can’t only be spiritualized away. He was not interested in giving us suggestions. The cumulative effect seem more like commandments.
The nexus of the Gospel is how we treat those who are outcast, the poor, those easy to ignore. Of all of the parables Jesus tells, this is the only one with a name for the character. And it is not the rich man, it’s the poor beggar Lazarus. Dives is a Latin word that is an alliteration of the word “rich”.
Lazarus seems like brother Job. He’s filled with sores. He knows his place in the world. He’s resigned to get the scraps off of the master’s table. Maybe he dives into his dumpster for morsel of food. Only dogs offer him comfort with their soft tongues and medicinal saliva to salve his sores.
From the scripture, we don’t see that Lazarus is righteous. All we know is that he is poor. He’s an anee. That’s a Hebrew word for an outcast, a poor person, one who is ignored. This story isn’t about Lazarus. It’s about Dives, and the mirror he gives us to our own lives. For whatever reason Lazarus is comforted at Abraham’s bosom. Abraham’s bosom is like Eden. It’s paradise. In life he was comforted by dogs. In death he is comforted by the one at the root of the story of our faith.
By contrast, Dives is comforted by wealth in his earthly life and tormented in the afterlife. He sees Lazarus off in the distance. He even asks Abraham to send Lazarus to sooth him. Dives who didn’t sooth the one at his door, now treated him like a servant. He still didn’t get it. Actions have consequences. And so do inactions. Abraham tells him that he had all of the scriptures to point him in the right direction. When he wants to warn his family about the torment to come, so they might make some choices, Abraham tells them that they had already been warned by the prophets.
I think of Amos. “Take away from me the noise of your songs, the melody of your harps I will not listen to them. But let justice flow down like a mighty water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
I think of Micah, “You know oh mortal what is good and what does God require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
I think of Isaiah who said “put away the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil. If you offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like the midday.…you shall be repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.”
Dives, you have had all of these warnings. And so have we. We have the words of Jesus from the 6th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God, but woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation.”
We have the words of Martin Luther King. At his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech he said, “In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers' keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
Does this mean that those of us who are well off are doomed? I don’t think so. I think the scripture is telling us to be intentional and conscious of our treatment of those around us. Dives ignored Lazarus while he lived in luxury.
A professor gave an exam in college. It contained a bonus question worth 50 extra points. The question was, “What is the name of the person who cleans this building?” The students passed this person every day. And she always greeted them with a smile. But did they pause to know her, even get her name? The professor was telling them that this person and her identity is essential to their education.
What is the American Dream? Is it the accumulation of stuff? Is it a life based upon consumption? Our media would like us acting in such a way. They would be able to sell a lot of advertising. Or is it something else? Something better, something deeper? Throughout this year, we are looking at faith stories. We are looking at them so that we might be able to build, for ourselves and those around us, lives of substance. What would have happened if Dives had lived a life of substance instead of a life of consumption?
This is more than a simple morality tale. It’s about our priorities and even the mirror that scripture sometimes gives us.
So think about the poor and outcast around us. Think of the immigrant, the refugee, the foreclosed upon, the lost, the lonely, the mentally and spiritually tormented. We are connected with them. They are our sister and brothers. They are our shadow sides. Sometimes they are us. So as Christians, how do we deal with these sisters and brothers?
Jean Lubke and I just got back from the Annual Gathering of the American Baptist Churches of the Rochester/Genesee Region late last night. It’s always good to see friends and colleagues. I especially liked talking with my friends and colleagues from Lake Avenue Baptist Church. They are church more or less like us. They are mostly an educated congregation with a deep commitment to justice, peace and inclusion. About three years ago, some refugees from Burma came to their church. They came because they were Baptists and they wanted a connection with a Baptist congregation. Lake Avenue had made statements about welcoming all, and had a reputation for being on the cutting edge of progressive causes.
Three years later, 60% of their congregation is from Burma and the Thai refugee camps. None of them are much older than 40 and there are lots of children. They had prayed to have more young families in the church and it looked like God answered their prayers. They now hold classes and services in Chin and Karen. We heard the Karen choir sing for us at the annual gathering. Debbie Bennett-Reynolds, one of Lake Avenue’s Pastors, told us about how this community brought new life, vitality and challenge to the congregation. They also held up a mirror to the people of Lake Avenue and whether their words about welcome were just words or if they were going to be backed up by action. Those with property and economic advantages have the option of ignoring the Lazaruses of the world. So they opened their doors and took the risk of being different.
I had many conversations with Debbie and the other leaders of Lake Avenue because I see Lazarus coming to our doorstep here at UBC. Just this past month, we have been introduced to a new group of Burmese refugees. 27 Lisu Baptists need a home church and have expressed interest in joining UBC and worshipping with us. If you were here on September 12th you heard them sing a song in their language at our outdoor service. We’ll have an opportunity to talk about all of this in the coming weeks. I look forward to having us get to know each other in the near future. I’m going to preach at their worship service at noon today so we can get to know each other a bit better. In the meantime, I invite you to pray about what all of this means for us. How ought we respond to this situation in which we find ourselves?
You know, I didn’t pick this scripture reading in the past few weeks. I picked it in July. It’s the lectionary reading and I thought that it would be interesting to explore what might have been going on in Dives’ mind as one of our faith stories. But now, the scripture takes on new meaning for me. Maybe it’s not just a simple coincidence.
So, I find myself (knowing that I can be like Dives) trying to be open to the spirit. If I learn anything from this scripture, it is that I need to pay attention to Lazarus. Scripture won’t let us get away from our connection with the poor.
How will you pay attention to the Lazaruses in your life?
Paying attention to Lazarus is one way to build a life of substance. The Gospel message is for Dives to live a life of substance.
We are already doing good work alongside the poor and outcast.
We are a welcoming affirming church.
We are a partner congregation with the BPFNA.
We have people who knit caps for infants in the third world.
We have packaged and sent about 150 disaster relief kits to Church World Service.
When flooding happens or earthquakes, we give generously to those less fortunate than ourselves.
We support our sister church in Nicaragua. Our relationship with them is not based only on the financial support that we send them. It’s about a relationship, a partnership in ministry. It’s kind of like the southern satellite site of UBC.
We use our space here for meetings and ministries to and alongside people who are neglected from people who have been in trouble with the law to folks who are on strike.
Maybe Dives did all of that. Maybe he was a very good man. Maybe he was too tired and stretched too thin to do any more. But he still made the choice to ignore Lazarus. I’m thinking that the message from God is that Lazarus, the poor will be with you always. There will always be ministry to do. There will always be people neglected. And there is always the opportunity to bring the Good News.
The Good News of the Gospel is that no one is forgotten or neglected by God and God’s people.
The Good News is that we have a caring and committed community that can attend to the Lazaruses, or can at least brainstorm about how to deal with Daves’ blindside and Lazarus’s invisibility.
People living lives of substance receive the blessing of relationship with Lazarus, they also receive it with Abraham and Jesus and the prophets. And we imagine new ways that our lives might be woven and knitted together with God’s plan.
At the annual meeting of the Rochester Region, we heard a theatrical portrayal of Walter Rauschenbusch put on by Al Staggs. He closed with a poem about Lazarus and Dives. I really wanted to close this sermon with that poem. I couldn’t find it on Google in the predawn hours of this morning. Rauschenbusch said that God is not only concerned about individual salvation, but also systemic evil. And he said the church is too often in need of repentance because it seldom uses its social power and its moral capacity to create a better world for the likes of Lazarus and Dives. So as we contemplate our lives of substance, let us close with this prayer from Walter Rauschenbusch that I was able to find.
A prayer of Walter Rauschenbusch
"O God, we thank you for this universe, our home; and for its vastness and richness, the exuberance of life which fills it and of which we are part. We praise you for the vault of heaven and for the winds, pregnant with blessings, for the clouds which navigate and for the constellations, there so high. We praise you for the oceans and for the fresh streams, for the endless mountains, the trees, the grass under our feet. We praise you for our senses, to be able to see the moving splendour, to hear the songs of lovers, to smell the beautiful fragrance of the spring flowers.
Give us, we pray you, a heart that is open to all this joy and all this beauty, and free our souls of the blindness that comes from preoccupation with the things of life, and of the shadows of passions, to the point that we no longer see nor hear, not even when the bush at the roadside is afire with the glory of God. Give us a broader sense of communion with all living things, our sisters, to whom you gave this world as a home along with us.
We remember with shame that in the past we took advantage of our greater power and used it with unlimited cruelty, so much so that the voice of the earth, which should have arisen to you as a song was turned into a moan of suffering.
May we learn that living things do not live just for us, that they live for themselves and for you, and that they love the sweetness of life as much as we do, and serve you, in their place, better than we do in ours. When our end arrives and we can no longer make use of this world, and when we have to give way to others, may we leave nothing destroyed by our ambition or deformed by our ignorance, but may we pass along our common heritage more beautiful and more sweet, without having removed from it any of its fertility and joy, and so may our bodies return in peace to the womb of the great mother who nourished us and our spirits enjoy perfect life in you."
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)