September 26, 2010

Rev. Dianne O’Connell

First Congregational Church

Psalm 91:1-6,14-16

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

I Timothy 6-8 and 17-19

 Luke 16:19-31


LAZARUS: Who Is He for Us?

Some church calendars mark today as Social Justice Sunday.  During my short time with you – this will be my fourth sermon now – I’ve gotten the distinct impression that social justice is a major component of your understanding of First Congregational Church’s ministry.  Take today, for instance.  You are the starting point for the annual CROP walk, which raises money to alleviate hunger worldwide, and you’re hosting the After Party for the young people participating.  I imagine there will be cool drinks available for everybody. 

Last year, I understand, First Congregational fielded twenty-five walkers and raised $2,000 of the $20,000 raised by the effort.  This year, local funds will be split between Bean’s Café, the Children’s Lunchbox, the Salvation Army, and FISH.  Who all are planning to walk this year?  Those are the folks to meet up with after church to pledge your financial support.

 This past weekend during the Board Retreat, I learned a little something about CAWS, your Community and World Service committee, and your support for the Alaska Children’s Services, the Pan American Institute in Tijuana, Mexico, your Grandfamilies brunches, and the church’s food pantry. The Institute was founded in the 1960s by Congregational minister Rev. Welty for poor kids. Your Adult Dine and Discuss group tackles difficult questions, exploring in depth how individuals or the congregation as a whole might respond when faced with the social questions of our time. One important question asked a couple of Tuesdays ago was, “Just how much diversity do you think the congregation would accept in a new pastor?”  Think about it.

Yes, I’ve been impressed.  So maybe there is no need to preach a sermon on the Rich Man and the Poor Man Lazarus.  We could just skip over Luke 16, verses 19 through 31.  We’re getting tired of Rich Man/Hungry Man stories anyway.  Doesn’t Jesus talk about anything else?  Well yes, he does.  But here’s a bit of Bible trivia to consider:  Did you know that money or treasures is what Jesus talked about most? One writer says, "sixteen of Jesus’ thirty-eight parables were about how to handle money and possessions. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than that on faith, but over 2,000 verses on money and stuff money can buy – like food."

But sharing our wealth and our food with those less fortunate is NOT the main point of this parable, even though one of the two main characters is decidedly rich and well-fed.  This parable urges us to go a step further than just making a donation to the local food pantry. If we identify with the rich man, I’m betting we’re not uncomfortable with Lazarus lying at the city gate just because he is poorer or skinnier than we are. No, there is something more that’s bothering us. This particular Lazarus was hungry and covered in sores.  He needed something from us and was unpleasant to look at.  The Rich Man stepped around him and ignored him.  Perhaps, he would contribute to the fund for the poor later, but he certainly had no intention of actually engaging this beggar in conversation.

I am reminded of a group of wonderful women I once worked with.  They were strong, Christian women with a mission – a mission to assist recovering prostitutes who were about to leave prison. Some of you might even be involved with the Mary Magdalene project today.  In the early years, the program assistance would be in the form of arranging for counseling, helping to find housing, jobs, clothing, and so forth.  All went quite well for a while and the Christian women worked diligently and effectively in building a program.  One day, it was proposed that the Christian women hold a party for the women in the prison, bring baked goods and cold drinks, music and stuff like that.  Some of the women were excited and eager to participate.  But a few were thunderstruck. “Absolutely not!” they said.  “We signed on to help, but we never signed on to actually go inside the prison and meet these people.  Some of you are cut out for such things, but not us!  We won’t go.”   And they didn’t. But they did continue to work in their own way outside the prison.

I’m not passing judgment on these women.  They were right.  Some things are just too uncomfortable for some of us at given times in our lives.  Each of these women were doing what they could given where they were.  And I stand before you as a person who is no longer involved in prison ministry.  It just hurt too much.  Trying to find housing and employment for ex-convicts was nearly impossible.  But I am grateful for the opportunity and trust that these women showed me for the short time I was with them.  One thing I learned was that when I showed an honest interest in the details of each woman’s life story, it was like offering a gift of personhood.  Each woman was worthy of being known and remembered for who they really were. And it was interesting, we worried about the same things and even laughed at the same jokes.

But back to the Scripture.  Both the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus die.  The angels carry Lazarus to the Bosom of Abraham in heaven and the Rich Man descends to Hell.  But even from Hell, he has a clear view of Lazarus up in heaven.

It’s hot, and accustomed to being waited upon, the Rich Man orders Father Abraham to fetch Lazarus and have him bring the Rich Man a glass of water.  Abraham calmly explains that those days are over. The Rich Man has had his days of luxury at somebody else’s expense. He’s on his own now.

Still not getting the full picture, the Rich Man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn the Rich Man’s brothers of what awaits them if they don’t live life differently. 

The Rich Man’s attitude toward Lazarus even in the afterlife had not changed.  He is more than happy to engage Lazarus as a servant to do his bidding, but still does not see him as a person in his own right. Father Abraham just shakes his head. By doing nothing to help Lazarus on earth or in the afterlife for that matter, the Rich Man has disobeyed Moses and the prophets who, speaking for God, commanded the Israelites to show compassion and hospitality to the strangers, the widows, the fatherless. In hell, he stays.

Again, I should clarify that the rich man's sin was not that he was rich. It was his attitude toward Lazarus. Yes, he could have offered Lazarus a bowl of soup, but that alone would not have saved him. The deeper issue is the rich man's unwillingness to enter into relationship with Lazarus. It is one thing to hand out services and food to the poor, but it is a harder thing to actually establish a relationship with a child of God whom we deem too broken for our friendship or respect.  To offer food or other help to people in need  is part of the responsibility of the Christian life, but the real treasure lies in giving of ourselves in relationship, even friendship.

Who is Lazarus for us?

I am a former mental health chaplain.  I worked at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute as well as on the mental health unit at Providence Alaska Medical Center for several years.  There is no question that I learned more about life from the patients than the patients ever learned about heaven from me.  I met men and women, as well as teenagers, who were struggling with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, suicidal ideation, multiple personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and even dementia. Six residents had been convicted of murder but also found to be insane so they would spend the rest of their lives at API.  Some of the patients were pleasant and kind to me. Others were too beat up and disgusted with life to tolerate me at all. I held groups and religious services and brought communion to the various units.  But that wasn’t what most people wanted.  They wanted some personal time, to talk.  Just talk.  Each had their own life story, many had children, some wanted to talk about what they used to do, their favorite music. Often they needed some one to seriously talk to about their religious experiences, both edifying and horrifying.  The doctors could prescribe pills, the counselors and the chaplain could dispense compassion, a true interest in each person as a real person, respect, and yes, love – all within accepted professional boundaries, of course.

So consider the next couple of minutes a test. Would the recovering prostitutes from the Mary Magdalene program in the state prison system be welcome at First Congregational Church on a Sunday morning?  How about the families who live in a converted hotel for the homeless and send their children to Muldoon Elementary School?  How about my friends on pass from API?  How about families where at home they speak some language other than English? How about a well-educated, impeccably dressed, gay, lesbian or transgendered person from down the street?  I would offer a guess that for the most part, the answers would be yes, each would be welcome, to a point.  It all depends, I can feel us saying.

Some would be welcome, maybe not others. Just who would be Lazarus for us? That is the person whom we should seek to understand and to whom we should reach out in the love of God this Social Justice Sunday. 

In the words of Paul to his young associate Timothy: “We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that…. do good, be rich in good deeds, and be generous and willing to share.  In this way we will live a life that is really life, and lay up treasure as a firm foundation for the coming age.”

 And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with us all on our life journeys.  Amen.

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