Sunday, September 25, 2016
As we’ve been reading through the gospel of Luke this month, Jesus is talking a lot about money – what it means to be rich and poor. Last week we heard him tell us, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Pastor Rich asked us to be generous in our living to avoid clinging to money as our “god and savior.” Today, we hear the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The focus for my sermon today is that Jesus sees us. Jesus sees us for who we really are, beyond categories of rich and poor. More importantly, Jesus sees those people that we often overlook. People like Lazarus. And Jesus calls us to draw our attention, to see with new eyes, people we may not have seen before, or to see people in a different light, through the eyes of faith.
I’d like for us to take a moment to think about where we have seen Lazarus in our lives. Where have we experienced or seen poverty close up? In your travels to a foreign country? Maybe in your own life in your own family growing up? On the side of the interstate on your morning or evening commute as a guy with a sign saying something like, “Will work for food?” And here’s the follow-up question that Jesus asks us today, when you see the poor, what is your response? Do you walk by looking the other way, pretending the person isn’t there, throw a dollar into the can? Do you give generously of your time and money to our local food pantries, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens? How else does Jesus call us to respond so that we don’t just look without thinking much about it, taking poverty for granted, but really see and try to understand the situation of those in need?
I was fortunate to grow up in a middle-class family where I honestly have never worried too much about money. Would it be nice to have a little more sometimes? Sure! But my grandma tells stories of eating field corn and hunting wild goose because there was not much else to eat – getting fruit like oranges as a special gift at Christmas and rarely having dessert because of sugar rations during the war. I know from my family stories and from my travels to countries much poorer than ours that I am rich, relatively. I am one of those five brothers the rich man wants to warn – I am not Lazarus. And so are most of us living here in the United States today. Our wealth will not save us. We are not somehow more special to God or more “blessed” because we have more. That’s just the honest truth that Jesus directly tells us today.
For most of us here today, we are the rich ones – we are not Lazarus. I was reminded of this earlier this week when I sat down for my monthly check-in with Sergio Amaya, who is the leader of Iglesia Luterana San Andres in South Omaha, one of our Lutheran Spanish-speaking congregations. Sergio was telling me where he came from in El Salvador, basically growing up in a one-room shack without running water. We have been working for over three years to bring his family to the United States. His oldest son has autism and is soon turning 21, which will make things much more complicated as he will be an adult an unable to immigrate with the rest of his family. Sergio prays daily for his family and communicates with them over Skype. He worries about his three sons and the influence that gangs have in the town where they live. He regularly has to send money so his wife can bribe the police to protect his family from the gangs. I am in awe honestly that he can concentrate on his ministry as a pastor so faithfully here in Omaha with all he has going on at home in El Salvador. And I know I have the privilege of going home and not worrying about it. Or I think about my aunt and uncle’s foreign exchange student Majok, who came from South Sudan to study at their high school in South Dakota and is now in college in Norfolk. He hasn’t heard from his parents in over a year because of the civil war there. Communication infrastructure that we take for granted like telephones and internet is unreliable and expensive. It is too dangerous for him to travel home. Those are some of the Lazaruses I have met in my life who put a personal story to what I sometimes dismiss as world news that doesn’t have anything to do with me.
For me, this gospel was a good wake-up call. As we went through a week of more shootings and bombings in our country, I felt pretty numb to the news. “Here we go again,” I thought. Sociologists call this phenomenon “compassion fatigue.” That is, sometimes we’re surrounded with so many overwhelming social problems coming at us all at once that we shut down and numb ourselves emotionally to the plight of other human beings. Escalating violence? At least it’s not in my neighborhood. That guy on the side of the road? Probably a drug addict. The pervasiveness of social sins like poverty, violence, and abuse can leave us feeling like there’s nothing we can do, so why bother to think about it at all? And in a way, our faith tells us that’s right. No human being can escape the reality of sin in our world, not even us. No human being can defeat the evil forces of death and division. As Pastor Kelly Freyer puts it, “we are absolutely, utterly, and hopelessly incapable of changing ANYTHING…” How’s that for a depressing thought?
The words from Jesus we hear this morning doesn’t leave us stuck in compassion fatigue and despair, however. Jesus doesn’t leave Lazarus at the rich man’s gate. Lazarus is instead welcomed into the arms of Abraham, comforted by the eternal presence of God in heaven. At the end of the story we hear about how God does send someone from the dead to warn we who are still on earth that our relationship to God and one another matters. God sends Jesus. Jesus rises from the dead. There is no sin that is too great for Jesus, even death itself. Jesus defeats all that. Jesus’ desire is for all of us to follow the way of Lazarus, not of the rich man. And so the completion of Pastor Freyer’s quote is, “We can change everything.” We can change everything only because of Jesus Christ. We know what the rich man didn’t learn until he died – that Jesus alone saves, not money. Jesus is the one who decides our ultimate fate, as we hear in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, but Jesus is also the one who calls us to rise up, free from our sins, free from the fear of death, free from the fear of OUR NEIGHBOR, to serve the Lazaruses we encounter in our lives, to serve the poor.
So this week I also had the opportunity to eat at Table Grace, a community café on 16th & Farnam that is a ministry of the ELCA. There are no set prices on the menu, so you can throw in a $20 or 50 cents, or you can bus tables or wash dishes for an hour for your meal. It’s an interesting mix of people who are obviously coming in just off the street and business people working downtown who stop in for a good lunch. The whole idea is that people who wouldn’t necessarily interact with one another have a chance to do so – to eat at a table with Lazarus, to share a good, healthy meal together regardless of what you paid for it, to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. You see, Jesus knows Lazarus’s name. He’s not just a poor guy on the side of the road, and his name actually means, “God is my help.” When I hear about the immigration crisis in Central America or about the civil war in South Sudan, it isn’t just about “those people” for me anymore – “those people” have names…Majok, John, David, Sergio, Carlos, Blanca. It’s not too late for us to be engaged – and nothing we do is too small, even if it’s not much – when we see and respond to those in need with the compassion of Christ. It’s God’s dream for us all to find ourselves at the last resting in the bosom of Abraham. May we see those around us with new eyes, the eyes of Christ. May we know people’s names just as God knows theirs, and ours. Lord have mercy on us as you did with Lazarus. Amen.