Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
September 29, 2019
“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.’”
A fellow was talking to his next door neighbor about a speaker he had heard the night before. He told the neighbor, “That speaker said something that really stuck in my mind. He said that all of the world’s problems could be summed up in two words: ignorance and apathy. What do you think?” The neighbor replied, “I really don’t know and I really don’t care.”
A few months ago I had to take my father in for some x-rays of his back. We went to the local hospital in Greenville and made our way to the imaging laboratory where just as we expected and feared, there was a large group of people waiting their turn ahead of us. I knew that Dad wasn’t keen about doctors and x-rays and waiting rooms and he was beginning to show his frustration. There was another man in the waiting room who was talking at the top of his voice. While everyone else was quietly paging through a magazine, engaging in quiet conversation, or turning inward in contemplation of why they were there in the first place, this man was enjoying a personal social hour. He was trying to talk to anyone who would listen. Many others in the waiting room gave him dirty looks over the top of their magazines but the loud man was oblivious. As more patients were called and the room began to empty, except for this man, he began to be a source of great aggravation to me.
Finally the man turned to me and my father and attempted to engage us in his conversation. We were now the bullseye of his attention. My strategy was to grunt a couple of words and try to ignore him. If I didn’t give him my attention then perhaps he would just be quiet and leave us alone. I was hoping, even praying that my dad would do the same. But he didn’t. My father decided to be nice. He started talking to the loud man. He answered his questions. Even worse, he asked the man some questions. He discovered that for many years the man used to work at the very same factory where my father was a foreman. They had friends and colleagues in common. The man then realized that he knew my dad’s brother. That fact was good for another ten minutes of conversation. Finally, the nurse opened the door and called the loud man back for his x-ray. My dad shook his hand and said, “It was sure nice talking to you.” And you know what? I really think he meant it.
When I suddenly realized that my dad had found some grace in that annoying situation, I felt small and prideful and ashamed. God’s presence was right in front of me and I missed it because I thinking about what was important to me, indifferent to others in the room, closed off from the possibility that God was there.
Janet Hunt, a Lutheran minister in Illinois, writes about an experience she had while going to seminary in Minneapolis. She had the good fortune of living for free with a couple of roommates in a church-owned apartment. But the apartment was in North Minneapolis, a section of the city noted for its poverty and homelessness. Hunt and her roommates were given the apartment in exchange for unlocking the church doors each morning and then locking the building up again at night. In between the church was staffed by a local shelter, twice weekly as a soup kitchen and on some cold days as a warming facility. The seminary students with the keys usually avoided the hungry and the poor by leaving early in the morning and arriving home late at night. They did not directly participate in the outreach ministry. Hunt writes that she wasn’t all that unhappy to avoid interacting with those in need and missing the lines of families and children who came to the church to have their hunger satisfied. But one day, before she could leave for classes, she was confronted by a man in front of the church. He blocked her path and proceeded to scream at her using words that had seldom, if ever been directed her way. At that moment she felt surprise and fear as the outburst forced her to look the man in the eyes. And then she was forced to look into her own heart and to acknowledge the indifference that lived there. She hadn’t done anything wrong. Yes, she was afraid in the face of such an encounter. But the feeling which remained with her longest in remembering that day was the shame she carried for her indifference.
The Scripture lesson this morning takes place at a gate. On one side of the gate is the lavish life or a rich man. We don’t know his name. But we know he has a beautiful home, that he feasts on extravagant banquets, and that he wears fine purple clothes, the sign of the upper class. On the other side of the gate there is a desperately poor man. He has a name. It is Lazarus. The name is significant because it is the only parable of Jesus where a person is given a name. The name Lazarus comes from the Hebrew word meaning, “God helps.” He seems to be unnoticed in his life however. If the rich man notices him it is only because he is repulsed by the poor man digging through the garbage for scraps or letting the dogs lick the sores that cover his body. The rich man probably passes Lazarus at the gate several times a day, never speaking to him. They live in two different worlds.
As Jesus told the story, both men die. The poor man is taken immediately into heaven and is at Father Abraham’s side. The rich man is tormented in the fires of hell. The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to him to give him just one drop of cool water. But Abraham tells the rich man that the chasm between them is too large and that no one can pass across it. The rich man’s fate is sealed. For him, the gate is shut for eternity.
This is a tough parable to hear. The rich man isn’t particularly evil. He was probably considered a righteous man and certainly was respected and honored within his circles. Yet he ends up being tormented in his afterlife. He languishes in hell yet he never committed an awful sin.
In a sermon on this parable, delivered in 1965, immediately after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained the text well. “There is nothing in the parable,” he wrote, “that says the rich man went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth.” King went on to say, “the rich man went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him. The rich man went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible…because he failed to use his resources to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. In fact, he didn’t even realize that Lazarus was his brother.” Dr. King was right. The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that during his earthly life he did not see Lazarus, despite his daily presence at the entrance to his home.
Here at Meadowbrook, as with many churches these days, we wrestle with a multitude of issues and concerns. There are a number of decisions to be made make and so many priorities that have to be set within a limited amount of resources. We have to concentrate on a number of practical things like budget and building and staff and sometimes we can find it hard to see beyond those things.
Personally we are all busy dealing with the events and circumstances of our individual lives. We might feel as if we are heading in different directions each day and made wearier by the demands of our time and energy. There is so much going on that in order to cope, we just put blinders on to negate the rest of the world. We can’t see Lazarus in front of us because we are so busy taking care of our business. We can’t see the opportunities to reach out to our brother and sisters. We can’t see the presence of God sent in the midst of everyday life.
Sometimes we look around and we lump the problems and problem people of the world into categories. It is easier for us to deal with them that way. It is easier for us to believe that we can’t do anything about it. It is easier for us to look to someone else to take care of the problem. Perhaps that is why Jesus gave Lazarus a name. Jesus knew that if we treat people only by lumping them all together, we will simply look past their needs, we will find justification for our prejudices, and we will ignore them as we pursue what is important to us. And Jesus also knew that each person has a name, a family, and a story. Giving Lazarus a name brought forward his humanity, accented the presence of God within him, and spotlighted the opportunity of God that came with knowing him.
Paul Raushenbush of Auburn Theological Seminary writes that the sin of the rich man was a play on the word ignorance. The sin was ignore-ance. Ignore-ance is an active and intentional stance toward the world which censors what is inconvenient or uncomfortable for us. Ignore-ance judges what is or is not worth knowing and acts according. Ignore-ance separates us from the knowledge of the world and of the human experience that extends beyond our own. Ignore-ance assumes that we know everything there is to know about God and close ourselves off to that which doesn’t fit our formulas. If fact, ignore-ance separates us our brothers and sisters and ultimately separates us from God.
In the Mayflower Café presentation we heard last Tuesday, Dr. Brett Younger said that there is a word for the chasm between what we say we believe and what we actually do. That word is sin. Younger also quoted Barbara Brown Taylor who wrote, “There’s not a mission statement in the world that is worth one visit to a sick friend or one cup of water held out to someone who’s longing for it.”
Do we see Lazarus? Or is there something or someone in our line of vision that prevents us from seeing him at our gates? The Kingdom of God shows up when and where we least expect it. Could our place in that Kingdom be residing in the presence of Lazarus, the one at our gate?