Sunday, September 26, 2004

What to Do About Throwaway People

Luke 16:19-31
(message shared with the people of Friendship Church, September 26, 2004)

Okay, everybody, here’s a little pop quiz. When you’ve identified the person I’m talking about, just blurt out the name.

He co-founded Microsoft. He and his wife dole out millions of dollars to schools every year. [Bill Gates]

At her recent wedding, she might have sung, Oops, I Did It Again. [Britney Spears]

From the time his great-grandfather began amassing a fortune with a business in Columbus, this man and his family have pursued two things: money and political prominence. His grandfather was a senator; his dad, a president; his brother, a governor. [President Bush]

You did well on the first three. Let’s try a few more.

The janitors at your local high school.

The guy who plays the saxophone outside the stadia after Reds and Bengals games.

The cook who prepared your meal the last-time you went to a nice sit-down restaurant.

Not as easy as the first part of the quiz, is it?

In our world, it seems, the rich and powerful are somebodies. We know their names. But, apart from a rather small group of family and friends, we don’t know or remember the identities of the so-called “ordinary” members of the human race.

In today’s Bible lesson, Jesus tells a story about a rich man and a poor man. In it, He does something He doesn’t do in any of the other stories (or, parables) He tells: He gives one of His fictional characters a name. Even more significantly though, Jesus violates our expectations by making the named character not the wealthy, powerful person in the story, but the poor, powerless one.

In the story, a rich man enjoys daily feasting. His clothes are clothing of linen and purple. Because purple dye was rare and expensive, only the wealthiest and most powerful people in the first-century world in which Jesus lived His earthly life could afford purple clothing. The rich man lived on easy street!

The poor man, Lazarus, had a different life. From the original Greek of the New Testament, we learn that Lazarus, incapable of helping himself, was literally thrown down by the gate of the rich man’s estate. As he lay there, begging for help, he dreamed of getting a crumb or two from the rich man’s table. Lazarus’ body was a mass or sores and he was so weak that he couldn’t fend off the neighborhood dogs as they licked his sores.

Jesus says that both men die. The rich man is buried. We can surmise that when Lazarus dies, His body is simply thrown away, an anonymous throwaway in death like he was in life.

The rich man goes to Hades, another name for hell. He agonizes in the flames of eternal punishment. But somehow, he’s able to see in the distance a person he ignored during his earthly life: Lazarus.

Lazarus is in heaven, carried there by angels and set at the heavenly banquet table next to Abraham. Abraham, you know, was a real person who lived about six-hundred years or so before Moses. God called Abraham to become one of the founding parents of God’s chosen people, Israel. God used the descendants of ancient Israel to be the bearers of His love and salvation to the world. From the Jews, the world’s Savior, Jesus, was born.

To be seated next to him was an incredible honor for Lazarus, an amazing thing for a man who’d spent his time on earth as a nobody!

From Hades, the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus with a droplet of water for his parched, burning lips. Abraham said, “No. There’s a big gulf between heaven and hell. You can’t come here and we won’t let Lazarus leave.” And so, Lazarus kept enjoying heaven and the rich man kept suffering in hell.

In the past, I’ve read this story and concluded that the rich man must have been a terrible sinner who’d acquired his wealth by dishonesty or something. Or, that he was a materialist who shafted other people. But Jesus doesn’t say any of these things about the rich man.

The rich man, in fact, had another problem. It’s one that I sometimes have. Maybe you do too.

There’s an email circulating through cyberspace. (Although I found it in a book.) It’s a list of “10 Signs Your Life is Getting Out of Control.” I’ll just read a few of them: Sign #4: You chat several times a day with a stranger from South Africa, but you haven’t spoken with your next-door neighbor yet this year. #3: Your daughter sells Girl Scout cookies via her web site. #6: Your reason for not staying in touch with family is that they don’t have email addresses. And, sign #10: [This is my favorite one.] You call your son’s beeper to let him know it’s time to eat. He e-mails back from his bedroom, “What’s for dinner?”

It is so easy and so tempting for us to keep a low profile in life, isn’t it? We think that if we limit our contact with the outside world or make it as impersonal as possible, our lives will be problem-free. The rich man in Jesus’ story wasn’t a bad man. He just didn’t want to soil his hands or wrinkle his brow with other people’s problems. Jesus says that attitude eventually leads to hell.

But when we let Jesus’ love infect our hearts, we dare to interact with the messy lives of the people around us. We dare to be good neighbors.

A Lutheran colleague told me about an elderly member of his congregation. Her old friends had either died or moved away from the neighborhood in which she’d lived for decades. In their place were people of different races and ethnic backgrounds. She wasn’t prejudiced, but she wasn’t sure that she had the energy she needed to form new friendships with these new neighbors. Finally though, she told this pastor that she’d made a decision: “I may not have room in my heart for these people, but I’m willing to let God make room.”

God makes room in heaven for those who make room for Jesus and for others in their lives and hearts, for those who seek to know the names of their neighbors and dare to get involved in their lives...when we let Jesus so live inside of us that like Him, we laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry.

Back in the 1920s, a young man had achieved great prominence in both Europe and America. He was one of those people it’s easy to resent because he was multiply-talented. He was a brilliant theologian, celebrated even in the secular media and a best-selling author. He was an equally brilliant concert musician whose concerts packed houses everywhere. He had been studying this very story from Jesus when he did a seemingly inconsequential thing one day. He got his mail. Among the items in his mailbox was a magazine to which he didn’t subscribe and which was actually addressed to someone else. But he opened the magazine and saw the picture of a medical missionary in the Congo. The missionary said that they had been successful in establishing hospitals in most of the Congo, but one area--known as Gabon--was still in need of help.

Albert Schweitzer later said that at the moment he read that article, he knew what he must do. Although he was a successful Lutheran pastor and college professor, he would enroll in medical school, become a doctor, and go to Gabon. His fiancé, who had expected a comfortable life in Europe, with forays to the most exciting cities on the planet, became a nurse. Together, they went to Gabon. Later, you know, Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize.

God doesn’t call all of us to go to medical school and spend our lives curing disease in Africa. But God does call us to make room in our lives for our neighbor, whether they live next door or in Sudan or Florida or Amelia.

The rich man in Jesus’ story lacked neighborliness, pure and simple. He forgot that each of us really is our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.

What kinds of neighbors are we?

Do we love others as we have been loved by God?

It turns out that there are no throwaway people. No one is anonymous to God and because He loves us as individuals, He calls us to care for and love the people around us who, even if they lack cash or fame or good looks or even good manners, have names and needs. God cares about janitors, billionaire entrepreneurs, the guy busking for contributions with his saxophone, pop singers, cooks, and presidents. Above all, our neighbors need for us to share Christ’s love with them, whether we do it in our words, deeds, attitudes, or prayers. And they all have a name: Child of God. We are their keepers.

This week, would you please pray for what spiritually-disconnected child of God you will invite to be with us on Friend Day on October 31?

And will you look for ways to touch the lives of those who may feel that life has thrown them away?

You could change someone’s life forever. And, as you open up your heart to be a neighbor who loves others as God has loved you, you could change your life forever, too!

["10 Signs Your Life is Getting Out of Control" comes from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion, copyright 2002 by Christianity Today International.]

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