September 25, 2016

My sermon this morning seeks to expand upon the well-known biblical story of Lazarus and the rich man who found him dying at his gate. The lesson of that story is well illustrated by a true account written by our good friend, Jim Davis, which I will now share with you.

As background for this little story, you must know two things: (1) there are many unpaved roads across the open prairies of Kansas, and in the summer heat you can tell where they are from the interstate by the cloud of Kansas road dust following behind an unseen vehicle on an unseen road. And (2) at that time, if you were flying out of the Atlanta airport, you had to be sure you returned with enough cash in your wallet to pay your parking fee, because they didn’t yet accept credit cards, and you’d have to find an ATM before you could go home if you ran yourself out of cash

The business week was nearly over in Olathe, Kansas, by Thursday forenoon, when I realized I needed some small hardware from a small shopping center nearby. As I turned my rental car off the busy four-lane street, I had to wait for someone pushing a bicycle along the sidewalk. This man and his bicycle were all of one color – Kansas road dust. From his hair, to his shirt and pants, to his boots, to the seat and wheels of the bicycle – all one color. And I never saw a more dejected visage. He was stooped over that bicycle, only looking down at the sidewalk, and apparently not giving a thought to whether he might be run over if he didn’t at least look up occasionally. He quite obviously couldn’t care less whether he had another day in this world or not.

I thought to myself, “That man really needs a kind word and a good meal.” Now I knew full well the story that ends, “As you treat the least of these, so ye do unto me.” And this man fit perfectly into that list of all the outcasts of society in the time of Jesus of Nazareth. But, I thought, “I only have about twenty dollars in my wallet, and this hardware is going to cost me something. It is going to be close. Besides if I don’t get this rental car off the street, I’ll be road kill, not him!”

So I found what I needed in the store, and that took about fifteen minutes. But as I was leaving the mall, guess who was pushing his bicycle back the other way along that same sidewalk? Who else? But this time I was there BEFORE him, so I could block the sidewalk with my car. He stopped just before he ran that dusty old bicycle into my rental car, and looked up. His eyes were weary and hopeless. His whole countenance was that of a thoroughly beaten man – and not an old one at that. Just beaten!

By the time he looked up I had the window rolled down and had a ten-dollar bill in my hand. “Have you had any breakfast yet this morning?” “Nope” “Well, go get yourself something to eat, and may God bless you somehow today.” “Thanks.” Those were the only two words he ever said to me… “Nope” and “Thanks”. But that was quite enough for me. I KNEW what I was supposed to do, and that was it!  

But then came the recrimination. “Nice going Dummy,” I thought. “Now, you’ll arrive in Atlanta sometime around midnight Friday night, and will have to look for a cash machine before you can even start for home, and that’s another 45-minute drive.”

When I got back to the Goodrich facility, the nice lady at the reception desk brightened up as I walked through the door. “Oh, good. You haven’t left for the airport. I have a check for you, and was going to have to put it in the mail.” Well, I thought, that would be a real break if it were CASH, but it’s not, and she might as well mail it for all it’s worth to me on this trip.” Then she said, “And if you take it down to the bank. They will cash it for you. We have a special arrangement with them to honor any employee’s check, whether they are from out of state or not.” Wow, I had been bailed out already!

Now, you can believe that it was strictly a coincidence that I spent just exactly the same amount of time in that hardware store as that dejected man did doing whatever he was doing in Olathe, Kansas that morning, but I don’t believe for a minute that is possible. It is just NOT POSSIBLE. I KNEW what I was supposed to do, and thoroughly screwed up the opportunity to DO IT. But the patient and understanding God who loves us even when we are stupid, and uncaring, gave me another shot at it. I completely failed the test the first time around, so he gave me a second try to see if I couldn’t do better the next time. And I have always appreciated the kindness and understanding He showed me that day.

That poor man probably slept in a Kansas barn that night, covered with Kansas road dust. And heaven only knows what he did for meals the next day, or for a caring word. I hope God took care of that in my absence somehow. But I can tell you this, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that God was having a little fun with ME that day, just checking to see if I understood WHAT I WAS SUPPOSED TO DO in such an obvious situation.

I have told this story many times since, both in Sunday school for 8-12 year old young people, and to adults as part of a sermon. To both audiences, I stress that it is not for us to ask WHY this man finds himself so down-trodden and dejected. And it doesn’t matter a lick whether he brought it on himself, or somehow it was just his lot in life. What matters is THERE HE IS, and THERE YOU AND I ARE, and we must do what we have to do. It is really that simple. God will figure out how to deal with everything else for us.

So ends Jim’s story of Christian charity and his second chance to get it right.

We’ve been reading from the book of Luke all summer long. Luke has shown us, what for his time, was a new vision of the meaning of wealth. The Jews at that time believed that wealth was a sign of being blessed by God for righteousness. In Luke, we are given many examples of why that is not true.  Mary tells us in Luke 1, “His mighty arm has done tremendous things. He has scattered the proud and the haughty ones.  He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.”

In Luke 4, Jesus says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

Then in Luke 6 Jesus reassures us again,” God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours, God blesses you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. God blesses you who weep now, for in due time, you will laugh.”

Today’s reading explains the eternal effect of the life of one man who has it all and one man who has less than nothing. The rich man, who is frequently called “Dives,” because it means rich, wears fine clothes, eats the best food every day and reclines in comfort in his home without a care in the world. Against his gate, lies a man in a state of abject poverty, covered with open wounds, pestered by dogs because he cannot fend them off. He’s waiting for Dives to wipe his hands on some bread and throw it out so he’ll have something to eat. You’d think that the presence of a man in Lazarus’ state of complete misery would attract the eye of the person who owned the gate he was leaning on. Yet, Dives was just so comfortable and happy, he didn’t feel compelled to notice. In the reading, there is no mention of Dives engaging in bad behavior. We don’t see him stealing from anyone, physically harming anyone or even swearing!  He just didn’t care about anyone but himself. So, he took notice of no one but himself. His sin was being blind to that poor man who lay dying at his gate.

 After they have both died, though, we see Dives in the eternal flames of Hell, in anguish. We see Lazarus reclining in the bosom of Abraham, paradise. Dives still feels that he should be able to order people around to bring him comfort. He learns that there is a chasm between the realms in which Dives and Lazarus now find themselves. There is no remedy for his eternal situation, nor is there any hope for him to send word to his brothers who will probably continue to live the way he did and come to reside with Dives in the future.

This parable paints a complete picture of the consequences of living a life selfishly ignoring the plight of those in need. If we sit back in our comfort as Dives did, turning a blind eye to the poor and down trodden at our proverbial gates, we will suffer for it in eternity.  Yet, if we seek to bring relief to others, as Jesus did, we will reap the rewards of an eternity in Heaven with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. As it says in Matthew 28:

“For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you invited me into your home. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you cared for me. I was in prison and you visited me.

Then these righteous ones will reply, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?

And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!

Then, the King will turn to those on His left and say,” Away with you cursed ones into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons…I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.

And they will go away to eternal punishment but the righteous will go away to eternal life.”

With food in our bellies, do we seek to help feed those who do not? When we are happy, do we try to bring comfort to those who grieve? When our needs are being met, do we attempt to meet some of the needs of those who have nothing?  Here’s another big one. When we see people who are spiritually starving, do we try to bring them to the Lord? Do we see the open sores brought on by a life of wounds inflicted by an existence without faith and remain silent?  Dives knew his brothers were living the kind of life that he had lived and wanted to save them from the eternal torment of Hell. But, what’s done is done. The uncross able chasm that exists between Heaven and Hades makes all things final. If we die in sin, we stay there. If we die with the Lord in our heart, we stay with the Lord. We have a responsibility to notice when people need food, clothing, care, help. We also have a responsibility to notice when someone needs to accept the Lord into their hearts and share the good news brought by Jesus. If Dives had known the Lord, he probably would have helped Lazarus. He might have helped many who were poor, sick or suffering. He could have been the example that led his brothers to live lives of service rather than lives of extravagance. Instead, he suffered eternal torment. It was likely that his brothers would join him in his fate.

We know what we’re supposed to do:           be alert   to the NEEDS of others, SERVE, as Jesus did.  As Mother Teresa said, “At the end of our lives, we will not be judged by the number of diplomas we received,    how much money we have made       or how many great things we have done.        We will be judged by ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat.       I was naked and you clothed me.       I was homeless and you took me in.” For when we do these things to the least of His brothers and sisters, we are doing it to Him.

Gwen Jamison