September 25, 2016
William G. Carter
“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.’”
It’s the story of two neighbors, one who had it all and one who was needy. In death, as in life, there was a world of difference between them. That is the source of the story’s tragedy. The tragedy for the needy man is the rich man ignored him. The tragedy for the rich man is that he ignored the Bible. You see, ignoring our neighbors is one of the ways we ignore the Bible.
Sometimes it happens with the neighbors closest to us, as on page three of the book of Genesis. There were two brothers, Cain and Abel. Cain grows jealous of his brother and strikes him down. When confronted by God, Cain responds with a question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The obvious answer is “yes,” but the obvious answer is not always obvious to us.
Jesus has been talking about paying attention to our neighbors. According to the Gospel of Luke, that was a central message of his good news. We have heard the stories many times.
There was a man who fell among thieves, and two religious people passed him by. It was the Samaritan, the dreaded enemy, who took care of the wounded man, because that’s what neighbors do.
“When you throw a party,” he said, “don’t invite the people who will merely invite you in return to their next party. Go after the ones that everybody overlooks, the people who get left off the guest lists everywhere else.” That’s what a neighbor does, in a world shaped by the Gospel.
The shepherd who finds a lost sheep calls out to his neighbors, “Come and rejoice with me! I found what was lost.” The lady who finds the lost coin calls out to her neighbors, “We’re going to have a party. I found what was lost.” The father who gets his lost boy back throws a huge barbecue for the neighbors, and then he goes out to his other lost son and says, “Even though you’ve never left home, come home.”
It will not be a complete celebration unless all of us are able to enjoy God’s gift of life together.
That’s what makes the story of Lazarus and the rich man so tragic. They were neighbors. Poor Lazarus slept in a cardboard box on the rich man’s curb. The rich man knew him by name, but neither called him to his table nor took food to his side. There was a gulf between them in life, created entirely by the rich man. So there was also a gulf between them in death, created by the justice of God.
It’s a story, you understand – a story. And Jesus is the One who tells it, so it’s not only true in the deepest sense; it’s the truth that can transform our lives. All scripture calls us to live in fellowship with those around us, to pay attention to those in need, to address those needs, and to use our days here on earth to prepare for an eternity of getting along with God and all God’s children.
So that’s why we are doing this weekend of service: to bridge whatever invisible gulf separates us from our neighbors. Serving others will knock down the walls that keep us from enjoying the communion that God makes possible.
So my charge to you is simple: find some way to show the love of God to those you meet today. Take the cue from those who make quilts for the homeless here twice a month: they always pray for those who will receive the work of their hands. If you are cleaning up a playground, pray for the children who will play there. If you are sorting books and delivering them, pray for those who will read them. If you go to the Women’s Resource Center, pray for the end of emotional abuse and the healing of those scarred by violence.
We pray, but it’s not enough to pray. We also commit our energy, time, and money to improve the lives of those around us. Jesus has come into the world to make a difference. If we’re going to follow him, we must, too.
So let us stand for a time of prayer and commitment.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.