Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Face of Lazarus - Luke 16:19-31

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.[a] The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.[b] 24 He 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.’ 25 But 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. 26 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.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’31 He 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 16:19-31`

In our New Testament lesson today there is a rich man, who has no name, and there is Lazarus, who has a name, but apparently has no face as far as the rich man is concerned.  The rich man never pays Lazarus any attention at all, remaining completely blind to him until they both die.

I have seen the face of Lazarus many times.

After moving here to Orlando, one of the church members introduced me to Einstein’s Bagels on Kaley.  It became a place that I enjoyed from time to time, and for a while, I would see Lazarus sitting in the parking lot.  He was an old man with an untrimmed beard, looking thin and frail.  His hands rough.  His shirt torn, and his shoes well worn.

He’s not there anymore because the police started parking there and after a short time the homeless moved on to another place.

He had the face of Lazarus.

I saw the face of Lazarus a couple of weeks ago at our church party, Talk Like A Pirate Day.  We had invited a number of families from the Homeless Coalition to come and enjoy the free food and the recreation opportunities for their kids. 

I sat with a woman at a table in Conway Hall and I saw in her the face of Lazarus. 

She was grateful – so really, really grateful to this church for giving her son an opportunity to be a kid and to enjoy a bounce house and some cotton candy and a hot dog and the chance to laugh.  She told me how her husband had just gotten a job and that things were slowly getting better.  They were expecting to move into an apartment soon.  At one point she told me, “We’re homeless, but we are not bad people.”

She told me this three or four times, as if she had grown accustomed to people thinking that because she was homeless she was lazy, living off entitlements and stealing from hard working people.

I see the face of Lazarus on the television.  When I see the children of Allepo I see people half a planet away, living in a war zone, without homes, without food, without medicine.

I see the face of Lazarus every day.

And so do you.

The thing is, we see the face of Lazarus so often that we have trained ourselves to turn away.

We become blind to Lazarus.

Our New Testament lesson is a parable, a story that Jesus told.
It begins with a disturbing note:
 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

It is a graphic image of the contrast of wealth and poverty.

Here was this man living high on the hog, as we used to say back in South Carolina

And there at his gate, every day, was the face of Lazarus.  Homeless.  Poor.  And sick.  He had all the scars on him.  And these dogs would come and lick the man’s wounds.

The man longed to eat the crumbs from this man’s table.

Now as if the licking of the wounds by the dogs is not bad enough, let me explain this business of eating bread crumbs.  I used to envision this as actual bread crumbs that might fall from the table, onto a nice clean floor – it was, after all, the floor of a rich man’s house so it must have been pretty clean.

No.  Not really.

This story takes place before forks and spoons were invented.  It was not until a little over 900 years later that someone came up with the idea of a fork.  Until then, polite, wealthy people well trained in the art of etiquette would eat with the only utensils they had available –fingers.

They would wash their fingers in small bowls placed on the table. Then, if you were among the wealthy, you would dry your hands on loaves of bread.  That bread would then be thrown out.

This bread, which had been discarded, and which was probably soggy with a few bits of meat or sauce, was what Lazarus hoped to eat.

He longed to eat the trash – the used napkins.

He lived day after day, never knowing how much food he might secure, or even if he would get any at all.  What little he got, he earned by fighting over the scraps with the stray dogs.

The rich man had to have seen Lazarus at his gate, day after day, night after night.

But like us, he had been able to ignore the face of Lazarus.

To him Lazarus was just an anonymous, homeless man hanging around out front. He was a man with no name. Eventually, he was a man with no face.

Like the children of Allepo.

Like the homeless man in the parking lot of our coffee shop.

Like the lady from the Homeless Coalition.

That can happen to all of us sometimes.

We are like the editors of the news videos.  We can edit out and block out unpleasant sights from our mind.

Poor people living in the streets – ignore them.

Homeless folks under bridges or begging at intersections – they become invisible.

The people struggling in war torn cities – we see them on the news and forget them very quickly.

The faces of Lazarus. We pretend we don’t see them.

Poor people are often forgotten people. No one cares much about them. The rich man never really noticed Lazarus. Lazarus was just someone who was there – part of the scenery.

But here is the thing – Jesus, when he tells these stories, always turns things unexpectedly upside down. 

In this story we see a reversal of fortunes. 

As Jesus tells it, “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.” The rich man however was not so fortunate. He was headed to a warmer climate, you might say. The rich man, who had the best in this life, goes straight to hell.  Lazarus, the often invisible person who had nothing, goes to paradise to be at the side of Abraham.

Jesus always turns the tables.  Remember how Jesus said, “the first will be last, and the last get to be first.”

At another time he said, “Whoever wants to be great must be the slave of all.”

And again, “Those who humble themselves will be exalted, and those who exalt themselves will be humbled.”

We know this – but it still goes against our nature. That’s not the way our human instinct says it should be. We admire the rich, don’t we? We are fascinated by wealthy people aren’t we? Perhaps it is because we dream and hope that one day we’d all like to join their company among the rich and powerful.

God turns the tables in this parable. God reverses what we think is important. God does things differently. Both men die and the rich man now discovers what life was like for Lazarus.

Sometimes we understand someone a little better when we are able to view life from their angle.

This parable teaches us that what’s important in life is not how much we have, but the way we treat other people.
The rich man was not necessarily a bad person. He doesn’t do anything wrong, he is a law-abiding citizen. His only sin was that he failed to notice Lazarus lying in his doorway.
He never put a name or a face to the poor man right under his nose.
The way we treat other people says something about our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Do we treat the people we come in contact with in ways that Jesus would want us to? Or, like the rich man, do we pretend they are not there?
Abraham answered the rich man saying, “remember that during your life, you received good things, and Lazarus didn’t. But no, he is comforted, and you are in agony.”
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “You can’t take it with you.”
On Wednesdays at our 10am Bible Study we have been studying Ecclesiastes, and in chapter two the writer struggles with the realization that he might accumulate all these wonderful things, all this wealth, but he will someday die.  And it will be left for someone else to enjoy.
What can he take with him?  What can we take with us when we die?
One thing.
Just one.
Our relationships.
Our relationship with God, and Jesus, and each other.
That’s what survives.
That’s the only thing we can truly take with us.
Instead of trying to accumulate as many possessions as we can, our goal should be to strengthen those relationships – with family and friends, with the faceless poor at our own gate, and most of all, with Christ. Ultimately, of course, they are all part of the same package. Remember, Jesus said, “just as you do it for one of the least of these, you do it for me.” The rich man could have helped poor Lazarus, but he chose to ignore him. The rich man discovered the hard way, that what goes around, comes around.

In the Mel Brooks movie, Life Stinks, Brooks plays wealthy businessman Goddard Bolt. Goddard Bolt has the best of everything money could buy. He’s wealthy, but his sights are set on making even more. He plans to tear down some old downtown buildings and construct a modern complex with luxury condos and a shopping mall.

“What about all the people living down there?” asks one of his employees.

“What people?” asks Bolt. “There are only old deserted buildings down there.” He never even thinks about all the homeless people just scrapping by in those deserted buildings and back alleys.

So a wager is made that Goddard Bolt can’t live among the street people for 30 days. Bolt takes the bet.

And that becomes the plot of the movie, “Life Stinks.”

While he is living on the streets, he learns firsthand what it’s like to be homeless. He makes friends with the people living on the street and he discovers that they are not bad people – just people down on their luck.

One rainy night, one of his new friends, Sailor, dies on the street and the next morning is found on the sidewalk. No one cares. No one even stops to check to see if he is alive or dead.

At the end of the thirty days, Goddard Bolt is a changed man. No longer is making money his only goal in life. Now he wants to build homeless shelters where he once planned luxury condos.

Like the wealthy man in our parable, Goddard Bolt was always too busy or too preoccupied to notice the poor and homeless people living right outside his gate. The difference is Bolt realized his error and was able to change his ways and his attitude before it was too late.

“Life Stinks” is a comedy – after all, Mel Brooks is in it.  But it does tell a powerful story of the Rich Man who, before he died, saw the face of Lazarus.

We should all open our eyes and see the face of Lazarus.

By now everyone knows the face of Omar Daqneesh, the five year old boy who was photograph sitting quiet and alone in an ambulance, covered from head to toe in dust, blood splattered on his face, a refugee in Syria whose home had just been destroyed.

Since August, that picture has haunted us.

This week, the White House released the text of a letter written to the President by a 6 year old named Alex.  Obama read his letter at a United Nations meeting of world leaders dealing with the refugee crisis.

Alex had this to say to the President:

"Dear President Obama,
"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. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too.
"Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won't bring toys and doesn't have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine's lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn't let anyone touch it.
"Thank you very much! I can't wait for you to come!

Alex is 6 years old and has seen the face of Lazarus.

We should all be so fortunate. For there is a bit of the rich man in all of us. There is a lot we are tempted to overlook, ignore or block out. There are faceless, nameless people like Lazarus, suffering in some way all around us.

Some are at the Daily Bread program this Wednesday and this Friday.  They are waiting for us to come and feed them.
Some are in the parking lot of our favorite bagel shop.
Some are in Allepo.
And some may be sitting on the pew next to you.
God has given us so much. 
Let’s open our eyes, see the face of Lazarus, and reach out.