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26th sunday in ordinary time

Luke 16:19-31

Bridging the Gap

SAY WHAT?

While attending a synod meeting, I talked with another minister from Alaska about the expectations churches had in looking for a new minister. We both wondered if any of them actually found a real person who matches all of their advertised pastoral skills, qualifications, and personality traits. He shared that one church wrote in their ad, "Does your congregation say WOW! at the end of your sermon? Then we want to talk to you." While I am not, sure what most people say at the end of my sermons I am really nervous about what you may say after this one because my topic is that uncomfortable theme of money.

My anxiety level increased when I read during my sermon preparation that people who attend church are less likely to talk about money than the general population. In one survey, only 5% of the people who attend a church or synagogue said that they had ever discussed their personal finances with a friend. But in the general population, nearly 12% stated that they had discussed the matter with another person. The same tend holds true when both groups were asked if they had ever shared with a friend how much money they actually earn.

This tendency toward silence also applies to our major purchases. We would be startled if someone approached us in the church parking lot and said, "Wow, nice SUV. How much did that cost you?" In contrast, we almost enjoy complaining, in general, about the high costs of goods and services, we just do not want to say publicly the actual price that we paid for our house or car or new boat.

So, you can see why I am a bit nervous about this sermon. I suppose that I should simply follow the advice of the psychiatrist to the hospital chaplain. The minister was new and had never delivered a sermon on a psych ward. To compound his anxiety the lectionary reading that day was the story of the healing of a man with a demonic spirit. The chaplain did not want the patients to believe that he thought an evil spirit possessed them. They psychiatrist tried to calm the chaplain's nerves by telling him not to worry, "The patient's are just like everyone else," said the psychiatrist, "They will assume that you are talking about the other patients." So if the sermon becomes too convicting, just assume I am talking about the other patients, er, people.1 

 A PARABLE OF REVERSAL 2

Like so many of his stories, Jesus tells a parable of reversal. Someone low is going up; someone high is being brought low. Bob Dylan captured the thought in his song The Times They are a Changing. The ballad came out of the turbulent 60's; an era of dramatic social change. In poetic rhyme, Dylan warned that 

The line it is drawn 
The curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now will later be last
For the times, they are a changing3

Mary also warned us to expect such radical reversals in her song, that we now call the Magnificant.

My soul glorifies the Lord
        and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
        he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
        but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
        but has sent the rich away empty. 

This was the great hope of the Jewish nation. They had become the scorn of the world. They had been invaded and conquered by Nebacanezzar and the nation of Babylon. Several centuries later, Alexander the Great marched through their land. Then came the Romans. The Jewish nation hoped that one day God would bring a great reversal. Jesus stunned the crowd by telling them that the turn of events may come in unexpected ways.

 THE PAINFUL REALNESS OF THE GAP

Jesus begins the parable by sketching the gap between the rich man and Lazarus in very vivid and stark terms-the poor man sits outside the city gates with dogs licking the sores on his body while the rich man enjoys the comfort of elegant attire. The beggar goes hungry each night, while the affluent man enjoys sumptuous dinning. The rich man remains oblivious to the suffering and degrading condition of Lazarus. One commentator has even suggested that the dogs belonged to the rich man himself.4 The imagery is one of real, painful suffering by a poor man.

Although people will argue about its cause and cures, no one will argue about the painful reality of poverty in America. Even in a time of economic prosperity and welfare reform people face tremendous suffering. In 1998, the poverty threshold for a family of four was $16,400 in annual income and $12,802 for a family of three. 35.6 million people live below those levels5. The American Catholic bishops addressed the issue by warning that our economy "seems to be leading to three nations living side by side; one growing more prosperous and powerful, one squeezed by stagnant incomes and rising economic pressures and one left behind in increasing poverty." A former Secretary of Labor described these segments as the "overclass, the anxious class and the underclass." Economists tell us that we have greater economic disparities in the US than in any of the developing countries.

The gap between the rich and the poor has not always existed in America. In the 1830's, a Frenchman visited our country and wrote a book about his impressions of the American experience. Alexis de Tocqueville was a member of the French nobility. He noted that one striking characteristic of our young nation was the pervasive sense of equality. Few were very, rich and few were terribly poor. If our nation is to recapture its strength, its people must discover ways of bridging this gap.

By telling, the story of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus places the responsibility for this gap at the foot of every believer. The story brings even our finances under his lordship. He holds us accountable for every child who cries in hunger. We will be answerable for every person who dies alone. We will responsible for every person who walks the streets in despair and without hope because they cannot find affordable housing or a job that will pay enough to feed and cloth their children. 

 THE POOR ARE NOT TO BLAME

Another aspect of the parable that is worth noting is the absence of blame. Jesus does not indicate why Lazarus was poor. Was he born into poverty? Did he suffer a great financial loss due to unforeseen conditions? Was he poor due to the mismanagement of his money, gifts, or resources? Those questions are not on the table for discussion. Jesus appears to be saying, they do not matter. Whether the person is poor due to a moral flaw or lack of effort is not the issue. The issue is, what will be our response.

I was reminded just how easy it is to misjudge someone and blame them for their own problems while driving back from Seattle after a meeting. I exited the freeway to get something to drink. I noticed two people hitchhiking on the entrance ramp that I would be using to return to the highway. They were pretty disheveled looking. One was lying on the ground asleep. I knew that I would have to pick them up but I did not want to. By their appearance, they looked like two people who really had made a mess of their lives, but I was soundly convicted when I heard their story. 

They were long distance haulers from Detroit. Their truck had broken down in Seattle and they did not have enough cash to get it fixed. They hoped to get a ride to Spokane and contact some relatives so that they could regroup and get back on their feet. They never asked for money, or complained about their misfortune. They were making due with a bad situation. Before we can truly minister to the poor, we must see them with new eyes. Rather, then cast blame upon them, or look down upon them for not working hard enough, or for foolishly spending their money, we must see them as people in need, who need to experience the grace and compassion of Christ through our lives.

 WE HAVE BEEN WARNED

The rich man reveals the typical attitude of people who repeatedly ask for a sign so astonishing as to compel them to believe, to change, and to obey. Abraham tells the rich man that if a person is so full of unbelief and worldly-mindedness that they do not listen to the Word of God or the prophets they will not even believe if someone were to rise from the dead. Today God still raises up prophets to remind us to care for others. After Mother Theresa's death the New York Times offered this eulogy:

Mother Teresa, who had been a school administrator in a suburb of Calcutta, began working in the slums of that poverty-ridden and densely populated city in 1948. 

She had received what she described as a divine "call within a call" two years earlier while riding on a train. "The message was quite clear," she recalled. "I was to help the poor while living among them. It was an order." 

In 1950 she established the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, becoming its Superior General. She went on to organize diverse and far-flung programs for the impoverished, eventually reaching more than 90 countries. 

Her chief task, as she defined it, was to provide "free service to the poor and the unwanted, irrespective of caste, creed, nationality or race." 

In predominantly Hindu India, she made sure that the priests of her order gave last rites, the Roman Catholic sacrament for the dying, only on request, and that they dealt with the dead according to the practices of the individual's own religion. For the living, Mother Teresa set up orphanages, schools in slum areas and what were known as Pure Heart Homes for sick and dying homeless people.6

Her life was a true prophetic witness to awaken us out of our self centered slumber and hear the cries of the needy. Will we hear her voice? More importantly will we hear the cry of the poor?

 APPLYING THE TEXT

The message of today's Scripture lesson is easy to understand, but difficult to live. In the suburbs, we can easily avoid seeing poor people. We can sooth our conscious by saying that we buy gifts for FISH at Christmas. Or we donate each month to the United Way. But I wonder if of that is enough. I wonder, if there is a tutoring program in which you could become involved? I wonder if there is a Habitat for Humanity project in which you could participate? I wonder if there is jail ministry in which you could join? I wonder if you would be willing to join the Crop Walk or support someone who will be walking? I wonder if you could redo your family budget and give more generously to an organization ministering to the poor?

Organizationally, we have much to do. Our mission budget is quite low. I wonder how we can expect God's blessings when we as a church spend more each month to pay off the interest on our building loan than we do in helping others? Over the past year, the Mission committee has been one of the least active committees in the church. We need someone who would be willing to moderate the committee. We need members who are willing to spend time developing ministries that touch people who suffer. 

One idea that we should give serious consideration to is the use of our land. A woman with a real vision and heart for the poor used the vacant land owned by the church to plant Christmas trees. When the trees matured, they were cut and donated to the Salvation Army. That is only one idea. Someone may have a different idea. What we do is not as important as doing something.

 CONCLUSION

Whether this parable is good news or bad news depends to a great extent on which end of the escalator you find yourself. At the beginning of the parable, we see our world, the world where there is a great chasm fixed between the rich and the poor. By the end of the parable, Jesus encourages us to see God's world, the world as God intends it. My hope and prayer are that we who are now on the top learn to bridge the gap between the poor and ourselves so that we do not find ourselves sitting with the rich man, outside of the kingdom of God.
 


1 I have long since forgotten the source of this story.

2 William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 3, p. 51.

3 Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin, 1963, M. Witmark & Sons.

4 Joesph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), The Anchor Bible, (New York: DoubleDay, 1985), 1132.

5 Census Bureau, Poverty Rate Down, Household Income Up -- Both Return To 1989 Pre-Recession Levels, September 24, 1998.

6 Eric Pace, Mother Teresa, Comforter of the Poor and Afflicted, Dead at 87, New York Times, September 9, 1997.

 
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Walled Lake MI 48390


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