Saturday, September 29, 2007
On being Dives with Lazarus at the door
There is a website where you can go called Global rich list.com in which you can enter your yearly income (before taxes) and it will tell you where in the global scheme of things you stand in relation to the world’s wealth. I entered my total and found that I stand among the top 5% of the world’s income. Now mind you, I am clergy, that I am on a 70% income, and you will realize how ludicrous this is. We live in a nation where those who are below the poverty line are still in the world’s top ten percent of wealth.
Most of us here are basic working folk who are proud of how we make ends meet. I don’t imagine here at St. Luke’s we have multi-billionaires on our rolls. We think of ourselves as fairly simple people who have good values and judge our actions by the mandates of Scripture and in comparison with what we see around us. And my experience of the people of this part of upstate is that we are not extravagant with what we have and generous in sharing. But it is something like Globalrichlist.com that wakes us up to the reality of what our comfort means. And to be frank, it brings me up short to know what wealth I have and how poorly I am steward of it.
Sometimes it takes the living in a poor country and experiencing what it means to live in others’ situations to come down from that rarified atmosphere that the US culture produces and in which we live day in and day out.
There are two emotions that often surface when we do wake up to the imbalance of economic wealth in the world. One is shame. We often feel guilty for having so much more than others. We are uncomfortable with all that we have in comparison with the people of Sub-Saharan Africa. The other is anger. “We are entitled to our wealth”, we say. “We worked hard for it!” we say. And that is true and important. But the world still confronts us and all the guilt and anger does not make it go away.
If we travel to poorer nations we are aware of the poverty, the lack of basic services, the insecurity of political systems, and the paucity of the things that we think are so necessary for life here. And even we, here in upstate who often scoff at the extravagance of the cities are loath to give up a decent health system, good schools, security, or respectable commercial services in our country environment.
Whether we like it or not, we have become the Dives, the world’s Rich Man, with many Lazaruses at our gates not only personally but as a nation. And the real question is not whether we are rich or not, but how to learn from this parable of Jesus.
Jesus has told this parable in the presence of the Pharisees, the upper class of Jewish society. He has told this story because these Pharisees were stickler s for following the Mosaic Law but they often failed to observe one of the most important laws in the code of Moses—benevolence to the poor. For them, the sign of wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and consequently being poor or disenfranchised was a sign of God’s disrespect. Jesus reminds them the Law of Moses that said that the unfortunate were to be treated as equals and that sharing of wealth was absolutely essential to ones relationship with God.
Dives, the rich man, ignored the basic tenants of Judaism—to be helpful to those who did not have resources. And a great chasm had developed between Dives languishing in Sheol and Lazarus content in the bosom of Abraham that could not be crossed. Today, we call this the difference between Heaven and Hell. But in Jesus’ day it was not such a well defined divide. Those in Sheol could see the glories of the inhabitants of arms of the Patriarchs, the everlasting joy of God. Perhaps the real hell of Hell is being able to see the greatness of the saints in light while languishing in darkness oneself. It is an interesting thought….
Dives wants a messenger sent to his brothers to warn them of what is to come if they don’t pay attention to the poor around them, but Abraham says, “They won’t listen. The already have Moses’ Law and they won’t listen.”
Are we Dives to the world’s poor? Have we forgotten the poor at our gates? Have we, even us plain ole working stiffs in small town America, forgotten that we have the “poor ever with us?” Or have we become blind to the needs of others, unwilling to see the Lazaruses at our gates?
With these questions, I could go on with a really good stewardship sermon. Or I could make a good case for a campaign to help Zimbabwe churches. Or take up a second collection for the Christian Children’s Fund. But that is not the purpose of this sermon. The purpose of the sermon is so that we, those of us here in Sidney, can hear the cries of those around us. I want to challenge you to listen to those who have less than you have without falling into the debilitating guilt that immobilizes us, or the anger that prevents us from having compassion for others less fortunate. I want us to learn to hear the cry of those needy around us here in Sidney without laying a judgment upon them, without trying to evaluate whether they are “worthy of our concern.”
As Lutherans, we know that we are not worthy. We can never be worthy of God’s mercy and love. And since we stand in that place of grace, we too must be willing to offer that mercy and grace to those who are different from us, those who are poorer than we, those whose values may be different than ours.
We are called by God in this passage to look beyond the poverty to the possibility of grace. Our sin is not our wealth. Our sin is being unwilling to open our ears to the poor or to be outraged that there is poor out there at all! Our sin is ignoring the needs right in front of us because we don’t want to acknowledge that everyone out there isn’t just like us. There is a reason why the poor don’t come to church, brothers and sisters, and isn’t because they don’t have something nice to wear. The poor don’t attend church because all too often we Christians fail to even notice that they are there.
To develop a conscience, to develop a regard for the poor which I believe both the Mosaic Law and Christian baptismal vows demand of us, requires a willingness to stand without judgment with our hands open wide to give what it is needed. We must be willing to do that personally and we must be willing to do that corporately. We must call ourselves to hearing the needs of those around us. We must be willing to not only act individually to the needs of others, but as a group, we as St. Luke’s need to be able to respond a more to the needs of those in our community. But most of all, we as a nation must be willing to elect those to governmental systems who will listen to the needs of Lazarus nations standing at our gates. Even though they clamor, we must find ways to hear them that is satisfying to them so that we do not continue to be Dives, the ignorer.
The time may come when this nation may collapse because we have not listened to the needs of nations that are trying to have a place at the world’s trough. Economically, politically and spiritually this parable of Jesus is one which we cannot distain. We must be willing to humbly look at our responsibility in the community, the Church and in the world.
I invite you this week to hear the Lazaruses at your gates. You may find that they have much to tell you. And just for fun, go to globalrichlist.com and see where you stand in the world’s economy. Even those of you on fixed incomes—perhaps most especially those of you on fixed incomes--- find out how you are Dives when you have always thought you were Lazarus. It may wake you to a new understanding of Christ. AMEN