This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on September 25, 2016. The scriptures for this sermon are Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19.
There’s a word in Albanian: Besa. It means something like ‘faithfulness’ or ‘honor’ or ‘keeping a promise’. But for centuries, it’s been lived our through hospitality.
It was lived out this way during World War II, when Albania – a little country on the Adriatic Sea and just northwest of Greece – was the only country in Europe to end the war with more Jewish people than it started with… despite being occupied first by fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany.
It was lived out during the Kosovo war in the mid-90s, when Albania – a little country with a population of about 2.7 million – accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from Kosovo.
It was lived out before that when the rule was that there was an extra bed made-up in every house in case a guest arrived. It was lived out when the rule was that homeowners had to accept any guest who showed up.
It was lived out when someone wanted to build a hotel and the town turned out to protest. “Why build a hotel,” the people asked, “when a person can knock on any door and have a place to stay? What kind of people do you think we are that strangers would need a hotel?”
“Before the house belongs to the owner,” the saying goes, “it first belongs to God and the guest.”
I’m not trying to romanticize this idea. Besa was never perfect. There are hotels in Albania. But I like the image. The United Church of Christ is supposed to be a place of extravagant welcome, and I think that besa might look something like that.
And that extravagant welcome is what’s missing in today’s gospel reading.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day,” says Jesus, “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”
I’m a professional fundraiser. And in my office at home I have a file box filled with mailings that I get from nonprofit organizations. A lot of fundraisers have these. They’re where we go when we need to write an appeal or a thank you note or a newsletter article and we need inspiration. Good writers borrow, as they say; great writers steal outright.
And if you’re like me and get a lot of mailings from a lot of nonprofits, then you’ve seen a thousand pictures of Lazarus. You’ve heard a thousand stories about Lazarus. You’ve read statements from Lazarus himself: I’m covered in sores, I long to satisfy my hunger with what falls from your table… for just the cost of a small coffee you can change my life.
He’s in the mail. He’s on the news. He’s on your Facebook feed.
All of us can look out at our gates and see Lazarus there.
And the point that Jesus is making with this parable shouldn’t surprise us: when we see Lazarus, we have to do something. As author, filmmaker, rapper, and professor MK Asante puts it: “When you make an observation, you have an obligation.”
And there are consequences for not doing something.
Because when Lazarus dies, he goes to be with Abraham. And when the rich man dies, he goes… somewhere else.
And that leads to a moment that’s a problem for me.
From that other place, the rich man looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus. He calls out to Abraham, begging for mercy, “Send Lazarus,” he says, “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony.”
And Abraham says, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
Now, I get what Abraham’s saying here. I get the revenge fantasy afterlife.
I get saying to this rich man, “You spent your whole life in purple and fine linen acting as though your front gate was an impenetrable barrier. You couldn’t be bothered to notice Lazarus. And now the shoe’s on the other foot and you’re getting exactly what you deserve.”
I get it. I just don’t believe it. I believe that the gate has been opened. I believe that the chasm has been filled. I believe that when we cry out for help, Jesus answers with compassion. But I get why Abraham says this.
Because the biggest chasm there is is the one between people who live in comfort – dressing in purple and fine linen and eating sumptuously every day – and the people who live in agony. And it’s a chasm that we dig every day.
“Those who want to be rich,” writes the author of Timothy, “fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
My desire for wealth… leads me into temptation. My desire for stuff… plunges me into ruin and destruction. My love for money… pierces me with many pains.
Because when I love money, I will do terrible things to get it. And when I want to protect my stuff, I will put up locked gates and dig great chasms. I will blame the poor for their poverty. I will say that charity is dangerous.
I will say that five-year old Omran Daqneesh, born into war, bloody and dust-covered, sitting quietly in an ambulance after being pulled out of the rubble that’s where his family’s home once stood shouldn’t be welcomed into my neighborhood because bad elements might tag along for the ride. After all, if I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you that just three would kill you, would you take a handful?
And that’s not who I want to be. That’s not the world I want to live in.
I don’t believe in the revenge fantasy afterlife. And I don’t think Jesus believes in the revenge fantasy afterlife. But I think this parable is true.
I think this parable is true because when we love money we create a world. We put up locked gates and we dig great chasms. And the thing about gates and chasms is that they work both ways. Locks that keep Lazarus out can keep me in. A chasm that he cannot cross, I cannot cross. I can’t build a world where lives are separated from one another without being separated from the giver of life.
I cannot serve both mammon and God.
And what Jesus tells us time and time again is that we can serve God; we can live in a world without gates and chasms, without purple and fine linen and sumptuous feasting on one side and Lazarus on the other. We can live – not quaint, biological, little-l live, but big, abundant, eternal, amazing, capital-L Live – in the Kingdom of God. And we can do that right now.
We can do that by giving up our hopes in the uncertainty of riches and putting our hope in the God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. We can do that by doing good. We can do that by being rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.
I know we can do this because Jesus says we can do it. And I know we can do it because, while someone did make the Skittles comment last week, someone also said this: “Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to my home? We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”
I know we can do it because the person who wrote that wasn’t a politician, or a world leader, or a preacher. The person who wrote that was a six-year-old boy.
He saw someone in need and responded the way that the rich man should have responded to Lazarus.
He saw someone in need and responded the way that Abraham should have responded to the rich man.
He saw someone in need and responded the way that I believe – with all of my heart and all of my soul and all of my strength and all of my mind – that Jesus responds to us.
He responded with besa. He responded with grace. He responded with the gospel.
“Go get him and bring him to my home. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”