Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Immigration Reform, Jesus, kingdom of God, Lutheran Disaster Response, poverty, Puerto Rico, Sin
In the midst of busy lives, it’s not often that we step back and look at our lives critically. How often do you think, “why do I do what I do?” or “why do I think this way of acting in this situation is the right way?” or “why do I expect such and such a reaction from this person if I do such and such a thing?”. We go about our days, accepting that things are the way they are, and that everyone should know the right way to act in any given situation.
For many people, it takes leaving their normal routine and living arrangements to realize their expectations and assumptions about the way things are. Often traveling is this kind of eye-opening experience.
The very first time I travelled somewhere new was in the middle of my sophomore year of high school. I went to Puerto Rico. Sounds like a great destination in the middle of a Midwestern winter: warm sun, tropical breezes, palm trees, lush rainforest, and the sparkling blue ocean. It might have been very relaxing if I had spent my time at a beachfront resort, but it wouldn’t have been much of a memorable experience.
I went with a small groups of folks from Milwaukee, including my dad, to work with Lutheran Disaster Response because a hurricane had hit the island. Lutheran Disaster Response had been at work for quite a while already and they were wrapping up their work. However, there was still plenty for us to do. One of our projects was fixing up a home that had been damaged. It was in a whole village of squatters, living on the land, waiting until their homes were legally recognized and the village incorporated. Their homes were small, and often roofed with corrugated metal, which was punctured when tarps were nailed onto them to protect from the rain. We worked hard and made great progress with the one house, but there were so many other homes that really could have used some help.
Even though I don’t speak Spanish, I could hear stories of faith and welcome from the people with whom we served. I was astonished that people who have so little could be so welcoming, generous, and happy. Their faith was so important to them, and worship was too- the service we attended was 3 hours long! Their living conditions were a sharp contrast to my own. I attended a small private school surrounded by my classmates’ huge mansions overlooking Lake Michigan. I had a nice home, with a full pantry and refrigerator, a garage with working cars in it, and never had to wonder about the quality of my tap water or if my electricity would go off.
My greatest surprise came on the drive to our building site. Just before the turn into the village of squatters, who had no legal water access and no garbage disposal, was a huge complex of multi-million dollar mansions. If you lived in one of those mansions, your front window might look out over the ocean, but you’d have at least one window from which you could look down on the hundreds who lived in desperate conditions just across the street and beyond your gates. Where I grew up, there were poor people, and run down neighborhoods. The thing was, I didn’t see them every day. The lower-income neighborhoods and higher-income neighborhoods were separated, and one of my girlfriends even lived in a complex of townhouses behind a locked gate, so that no one uninvited would come near. I can’t imagine enjoying a comfortable home while seeing someone struggling to survive right outside my window.
It’s this proximity that reminds me of today’s gospel from Luke. The rich man sits in his large dining room, wiping the chicken grease off his hands with a scrap of bread that he throws to the dogs. Those same dogs gather around poor Lazarus and lick his oozing sores. These two men are so close to each other. Yet something stands in the way of their connecting. Surely the rich man must have known of Lazarus’ need, and yet he does nothing to help him.
When they both die, their positions are reversed. The rich man is in torment. Poor Lazarus is honored in the presence of Abraham. Good news for the poor and oppressed. Scary for the comfortable and rich.
The people who first heard this story from Jesus would have been surprised. For them, riches and good health are signs of God’s favor, whereas poverty and disease are signs of God’s disfavor and righteous punishment.
The kingdom of God conflicts with our expectations. We don’t expect God to value people differently than we do. We don’t expect to hear from Jesus stories that cause us to question our way of life. This parable is another of those jarring visions of the kingdom of God.
The Gospel of Luke’s explanation of the kingdom of God always has to do with reversals: the poor being uplifted, the hungry filled. In the kingdom of God, those who are typically pushed aside and kept out will be welcomed and honored. We hear at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke Mary’s song of reversals: “you fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty”, echoed here with “you received good things and Lazarus… evil things.”
More than simply reversals of comfort and wealth, this parable points to relationship and responsibility.
When the rich man recognizes Lazarus in comfort with Abraham, he calls up to Abraham. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus into the flames of Hades with a drop of water for his comfort. It doesn’t seem that his punishment has changed the way he treats Lazarus. To the rich man, Lazarus has always been poor and unimportant. If anything, Lazarus exists to serve him. Even when he sees Lazarus honored with Abraham, still he thinks he can have Lazarus ordered around.
During his life, the rich man kept his distance, never acknowledging a relationship with the beggar outside his window. He never accepted responsibility for Lazarus and his condition during his life. Feeling no connection, he never took action to comfort Lazarus in his need. When his death leads him to the flames in Hades, he expects Lazarus to comfort him and warn his brothers. As he did in life, in death he still feels entitled to being served. To the rich man, Lazarus is never a real person, deserving of respect and dignity, he is simply something to be used when useful and ignored when not.
Although this story speaks of the chasms separating Lazarus and the rich man: social custom and the rich man’s gate in life, and fires and comfort after life, in Jesus, chasms are closed together. The apostle Paul writes about the one body of all believers in Jesus Christ. He writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Gal 3:28) Jesus Christ destroys the divisions between people, so that there is no more rich and poor, divided by social class and wealth.
In the kingdom of God, relationship is based in Jesus Christ. As members of the body of Christ, we are bound to each other. We have responsibility for ensuring the well-being of every other member. If this were the case in the parable, the rich man would have seen Lazarus as a part of him, and cared for his needs. In Jesus, those who live on oceanside mansions are connected to those in shantytowns outside their windows. In Jesus, we are connected to those in poverty both next door and around the world. We are called to ensure the well-being of all the members in the body of Christ. There should be no divisions between rich and poor, not only in our hearts and Christian fellowship, but in the new way of being, the kingdom of God. Jesus is a kingdom in which there will be no division because there will be no disparity of wealth.
What does it take to call us into living the kingdom of God right now? The last line of the gospel, spoken by Jesus’ lips is haunting, “Abraham said to the rich man, ‘If your brothers do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The rich man thought it would have only taken the appearance of a poor man who had died. He hadn’t changed from the witness of Moses and the Prophets, but perhaps a miracle might inspire change from his family. As Jesus tells this parable, does he know what he will do to try to change people? Jesus will die and come back from the dead. Will the first community to hear this story know all too well how even a messenger back from the dead will not be enough to change the hearts of many? We not only have Moses and the Prophets, but we have Jesus, who died and was raised from the dead, all so that the kingdom of God would be made real in our midst. We will allow God to change us?
We all grow from opportunities to experience life in a new way that allows us to take a different perspective on our lives and expectations. My trip to Puerto Rico was once such opportunity for me. Jesus’ parables are opportunities for people to reflect on their own expectations and ways of living from a new perspective. Without going anywhere, we are invited to consider whether we create divisions between us and others, or whether we have ignored the voice of Moses, the prophets, and Jesus by ignoring the needs of the poor.
If your scrutiny uncovers truths that are difficult and condemning, remember that Jesus lived, died, and was raised from the dead for you. Jesus willingly took on the suffering of the poor and outcast to welcome you into the kingdom of God, whether you also experience that suffering, or if you live in blissful ignorance. As Jesus closes the chasms between all the children of God, Jesus also closes the chasms that would trap us in the torment of our sin. Jesus is at work to change us and bring about the kingdom of God in our midst. But Jesus has already accomplished our salvation.
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