Encounter Love

As followers of God, we can never settle for a world of the haves and the have nots. There is too great a chasm between the two, too great a separation to be left alone. That’s not a call for you to give all you have to someone else, but a challenge for you to live all you can with someone else – with someone who doesn’t look and act and think like you – someone who needs the gifts you have to offer; and someone whose gifts you didn’t even know you needed to receive.

If we do not work to overcome the divides; if we do not encounter the love of God that heals our wounds and overcomes our brokenness – then we might as well be the rich man eating sumptuously every day. And if we do not commit to being good stewards of the many blessings God has given us, we cannot hope to transform the world.

9/25/2016

Luke 16:19-31

19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘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. 26Besides 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.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke provides some of the most powerful and fascinating imagery in all of scripture. Never one to mince words, Luke directly and concretely challenges us to recognize the practical nature of discipleship. Following God is in no way relegated to some spiritual, ethereal, other realm for Luke. I’d argue that we dramatically over spiritualize most of scripture, but Luke leaves no room for that at all. Matthew records Jesus saying blessed are the poor in spirit – Luke records blessed are the poor. There are 11 parables told by Jesus that are unique to Luke – at least 9 of them are directly about our relationship to money in the here and now – and all 11 have very concrete implications for how we relate to God’s children – whether through service, or second chances, or compassion.

Today’s reading is one of those parables unique to Luke’s gospel. And it leaves an unforgettable impression about the urgency and importance of God’s call toward practical, concrete, and present focused discipleship. I have to take you back through the imagery of the passage here, because it is meant to push you and challenge you and deeply motivate you.

[Rereading the passage with a focus on the details]

Yikes. That is not a message to be taken lightly. The consequences and the dangers of failing to heed the warning of Jesus in this parable are as severe as they come. This is one of those few passages in Scripture in which the imagery of Hades as a place of torment and fire actually has legs. Almost all of that imagery that we find so popular today actually comes from later writings, like those of Dante. But here we are confronted by the possibility of severe torment if we do not change the way we live. Do good in life, care for those who need it, embrace the practical, concrete, specific call to live a life of discipleship in the here and now. Do not dare live like the rich man, the message goes, or your fate may be like his.

……………………

Welcome to our 2016 stewardship campaign. 🙂 I know what you’re thinking, bear with me a minute. Stewardship is that time of the year when we renew our commitment to God and one another. Church is the place wherein we work to fulfill our part of God’s mission and we cannot possibly do so without making a commitment each year to various types of ministry and service. Our mission here in this congregation is Encounter Love. Grow Together. Inspire Change. So each of the next three weeks, we’ll be focusing on one aspect of our mission before tying it all together and making our commitment on October 16th. Today’s focus is on the first part of the mission – Encounter Love.

I have to imagine that many of you are wondering what on Earth the fire-and-brimstone imagery of our Parable from Luke has to do with encountering God’s love. That’s a fair question to ask. It comes to mind so readily because of how easy it is for the overly emotional, powerful, dramatic, scary imagery to actually mask what the underlying call to action looks like in practice. If your focus remains on avoiding torment and if you think that simply shouting out warnings about the dangers of Hades will change the world, then you’ve missed the point.

Warnings and consequences are most of what Moses and the prophets had to offer. If the world hasn’t changed yet, it’s not going to do so just because you take it up a notch and add in the imagery of a rich man in flames. I love the way the parable ends. The rich man wants his brothers to change their ways – but Abraham says, if Moses and the prophets haven’t work, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. It’s like Jesus and Luke know something that the listeners and readers need to know – someone will rise from the dead. That someone will change everything by ushering in the new life God promised through Moses and the prophets. That someone will have quite literally raised a man named Lazarus from the dead not long after telling this very parable. But none of that will convince the stubborn.

We could stop here and just leave it a hopeless mess. I guess we better hope for bad things in life so that the after life will bring joy. Luke does say blessed are the poor and blessed are the hungry and those who weep. Let’s get that out of the way now. But at least two details should remind us that hopelessness about the present is not the point of the story; one detail from the story and one detail about the story teller. Jesus, the storyteller, was never one to shy away from people on any side of a spectrum. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, one of the more wealthy and more despised people of his day – Jesus called him out of the Sycamore tree and said I’m going to share a meal with you today. On the far other end of the spectrum, countless sick and poor and destitute people found a generous friend through the presence and the healing touch of Jesus.

To think that this life is supposed to be awful requires that we ignore Jesus’ desire to be in relationship with people on all sides of life and to empower them to live abundantly. It’s the same reality that was at play in our scripture about the table a few weeks ago – Jesus says the one who is seated at the lowest end of the table will be exalted to sit in the place of honor. And we sometimes take that as a call to brag about being the most humble person ever. Jesus is not giving a formula – for every bad thing now you get one good thing later and vice versa. No, Jesus desires that we find abundance when all God’s children are seated at the table together, no one more valuable and comforted, no one more disposable and broken – than the rest.

And one detail regarding the story itself – it is odd that in Jesus’ parable, the poor man is given a name and not the rich man. How many stories can you come up with, in the bible or in the news, in which it is the poor and powerless character that is named? The disciples are seated around a table – and an unknown woman comes and washes Jesus’ feet. Pontius Pilate holds the power to take Jesus’ life – and Pilate’s wife without a name is afraid of what might happen next. The headline reads “such and such multimillionaire CEO defrauds a bunch of unwitting and unnamed people.” In this scandal with an athlete or a politician, there’s also some nameless victim out there.

There are, of course, good reasons to hide the names of the poor and powerless in many situations. But in doing so we run the risk of dehumanizing and silencing the very people who may never have the opportunity to be heard. We like to think we know all there is to know about the big name – and we can then mourn the loss of potential or chalk it up to a mistake in judgement. All the while, the person most affected, the person whose life may be upside down forever, is treated like a number in the stats, or even worse, treated like the downfall of a hero. That’s why it strikes me as deeply significant that the poor and the powerless man, not the rich and the powerful man, is the one given a name by Jesus in the parable. The poor guy isn’t some throwaway figure just used to make a point – he is humanized and valued and made into the more unforgettable character in the story. That’s why the parable is referred to as Lazarus….and….some rich guy. The poor in this life is lifted up, even as the rich in this life is brought down a notch.

Jesus never shied away from people on either side of life and his parable powerfully lifts up the poor as the rich is brought low. The point of the parable is not to make you see the risk of being happy in this life and therefore try to delay any joy for the next one. The point is to recognize the giant chasms that exist between us in so many different aspects of life and to experience the urgent call to end them. The chasm between Lazarus and the rich man in the afterlife is no more real or wide than the chasm that existed on earth; no more real or wide than the chasms that exist between us now. Economic lines. Racial lines. North against South. Conservative against Liberal. The wrong side of town. The wrong ethnicity or nationality or family of origin. I could go on for hours naming all the divisions we see so present in our world – and not a single one of those chasms is desired by God. One body, one people, one kingdom – that is the vision God has for God’s creation.

As followers of God, we can never settle for a world of the haves and the have nots. There is too great a chasm between the two, too great a separation to be left alone. That’s not a call for you to give all you have to someone else, but a challenge for you to live all you can with someone else – with someone who doesn’t look and act and think like you – someone who needs the gifts you have to offer; and someone whose gifts you didn’t even know you needed to receive.

If we do not work to overcome the divides; if we do not encounter the love of God that heals our wounds and overcomes our brokenness – then we might as well be the rich man eating sumptuously every day. And if we do not commit to being good stewards of the many blessings God has given us, we cannot hope to transform the world.

If you are a part of this church family, that means God’s love has started the process of transformation in your life. If you are not a part of this church family yet, it is my hope and prayer that you would encounter God’s love in our midst. That’s why we are focusing this week on our commitment toward the first portion of our mission. I am asking you to make two, simple, practical commitments this year. Attend worship when you are in town and able, and also pray for the people of this church this city and all God’s creation. You’ll also have the chance to share any new commitment that you’d like to make, but that doesn’t fit neatly in a check box.

I’m asking you to make these commitments so that this would be a place in which all God’s Children are invited and embraced to encounter the love of God for themselves. You’ll notice in each area of commitment this year, but especially in this first week, there is a shift in the focus of our commitments. I’m not asking you to make these commitments for the sake of your own spiritual life and health – I’m asking you to make them for the sake of the person sitting beside you and especially for the sake of the person who may never step foot in this building, but so desperately needs to know the love of God. Encounter Love in our life together – be the place in which all God’s children encounter that life changing, bridge building, love that leads to abundant life. There is no chasm too wide. No division too deep. We are one in the love and grace of God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s