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Sermon for Sunday 29 September 2019

First Reading                                        Amos 6:1-7

1“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel comes! 2Pass over to Calneh, and see, and from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is their territory greater than your territory, 3O you who put far away the day of disaster and bring near the seat of violence? 4Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, 5who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, 6who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! 7Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile, and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”

Psalm                                                          Psalm 146

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 2Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. 3When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. 4Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God; 5Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; 6Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. 7The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; 8The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. 9The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.  Hallelujah!

Second Reading                            1 Timothy 3:1-13

1The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. 8Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Gospel                                                  Luke 16:19-31

19{Jesus said to the Pharisees,} “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house — 28for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”


In a modern way of retelling the parable found in our gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells the story about a billionaire named Thurston Howell III and a very poor man named Willy.  Thurston is driven everywhere in a big black Cadillac SUV, lives in an 8,000 square foot mansion, orderes his suits tailor-made from Europe and his shoes from Italy.  Poor Willy stays most nights in an abandon mill.  On cold days he tries to hide out in public buildings, however, he’s always at risk of being thrown out.  Even the police avoid the areas Willy hangs out because they’re tired of giving him a free ride to jail for a meal and a night’s lodging.  Some nights he has nowhere to sleep except a hard sidewalk.

There’s a gate in front of the long driveway leading up to Thurston’s mansion.  So, most days Willy, tired, hungry, dirty and covered with sores, will sit on the sidewalk and propped himself against the gate to Thurston’s mansion and try to sleep.  He hopes that the rich man’s cook will feel pity on him and slip him a scrap or two of the leftovers Thurston throws away.  This doesn’t happen very often however, because the cook, if caught, gets reprimanded by his employer for “encouraging the riffraff to beg instead of getting a real job.”

Thurston’s Dobermans seem to feel some degree of pity as well for Willy, because they will often wander out to check on the sleeping man.  They realize that he’s no threat and quietly come over and lick the sores on Willy’ face.  Each time Thurston is driven out the gate, the billionaire looks with disgust at the filthy piece of humanity leaning against the gatepost of his privacy fence, and wonders why somebody doesn’t do something to get people like him off the street.  At this point in the story, we have a tendency to agree with Thurston.  Even though his attitude does seem cold, we too have witnessed comparable scenes and have had similar thoughts.  But that, of course, isn’t the end of Jesus’ story.

Eventually, both Willy and Thurston die.  Unexpectedly, Willy goes to heaven, but poor, rich Thurston goes to Hades.  Obviously, the very affluent Thurston couldn’t believe what has happened to him.  He had made it a personal rule in his early life never to experience any discomfort.  It was his conviction that he deserved the comforts and resources he has and that it was simply a perk of his station in life to live in style—after all, in the words of the popular commercial a few years back, he is worth it!  But now, shockingly, he was experiencing an eternity of stark discomfort.  So, looking across the great divide he cries out, “Please father Abraham, have pity on me and send Willy to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”

It’s at this point in the story that I find something very interesting.  Thurston is now in torment in Hades.  Willy is now in comfort in heaven, but, and probably not surprisingly, Thurston still thinks of Willy as no better than an errand boy, as someone who should be serving him!  Thurston, even in the midst of this rude awakening, still maintains an entitlement attitude.  Sounds like so many people we see around us every day, doesn’t it?  To this Abraham replies, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Willy received bad things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.  And besides all this,” says Abraham, “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

            Realizing the direness of his situation, Thurston cries, “But please, father Abraham, I beg you, send Willy to my family, for I have five brothers.  Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.  Abraham replied, ‘They have the Bible and preachers and saints a plenty; let them listen to them.’”  Thurston is desperate now and says, “No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”  Abraham shaking his head replies, “If they will not believe the Bible, the preaches and the saints, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  This is, of course, the second thing I find interesting in Jesus’ parable.

One would think, that if a man is resurrected from the dead, people would listen to what he says, Jesus, knowing human nature say, no they won’t!  Think about this for a moment.  Who else has been resurrected from the dead and yet people still refuse to listen to Him?  I guess this begs the question, are we willing to listen?  It’s amazing how many people call themselves Christians, yet they’re unwilling to listen, even to Jesus.  Setting aside the fact that some people always seem to look down on others and the fact that people refuse to listen even to someone who has been raised from the dead, there are at least three more things that Jesus seems to be saying in this parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  The first point Jesus is making is that we are responsible for one another.  

When you stop and think about it, the message of the story of the rich man and Lazarus isn’t that different than the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We are responsible for the good of our neighbor.  What did Jesus say was the greatest commandment?  We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  And the second?  We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  And as asked by the religious leader trying to justify himself, “Who is my neighbor?  The answer is simple, everyone around us; this includes anyone in need.  That’s a truth that runs through both the Old and New Testaments.

In responding to the rich man’s request, Abraham appeals to Moses and the prophets.  Hopefully we recall our readings from Amos the past two weeks as well as Micah and some of the other prophets who challenged Israel to remember its responsibility to its poor.  Recall if you would, that as far back as Leviticus, God instructed the farmers of Israel not to take all the grain out of the field or all the grapes off of the vines, but to leave some there for the sojourner and the poor?  Gleaning” it was called.  Without that charitable law, many of the poor would undoubtedly have starved.

In Deuteronomy 15, the people were instructed to deal generously with the poor.  God went so far as to instruct that every seven years all debts were to be canceled and property was to be returned to its original owner.  For me, that’s one of the most radical laws in human history.  We aren’t certain that it was obeyed, but it does show us God’s concern for the poor.  According to the tenth verse of that chapter, the people are to give generously to the poor and do so without a grudging heart; then because the people have obeyed God’s command in caring for the poor, God promises them that He will bless them in all their work and in everything they put their hand to.  I do recognize, that while some poor people are in the situation they’re in is because they refuse to work, however, most are the victims of circumstances over which they have no control.  There are plenty around the world, as well as here in the US, that have little or no opportunity for improvement without our help.

If nothing else, consider the children who are forced to grow up in poverty.  Isn’t this the reason we focus on them with school supplies, backpack lunches and the schools try to provide at least some type of morning meal?  There are many who live in poverty and have absolutely no control over their circumstances.  Maybe this is a good part of the reason that we see throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New, that God and others show a great concern for the unfortunate. 

Jesus was deeply concerned about the poor, as this story and several of His other teachings reveal, as was the early church.  If we love God and obey His commands, we must care about people—rich and poor alike.  The truth is, God has entrusted you and I with so much.  I don’t always understand why I’m so fortunate while others have so little.  But this is the case and I need to be a good steward of what God has given me. 

Were you aware that the seven billionth baby was born on our planet in the Philippines back in October 2011?  Chances are very, very high that this child will live all their life poorly clothed, poorly housed and poorly fed.  That’s because most of the babies born today are born in the so-called third world, where poverty is the rule and not the exception. 

The truth is, most of us have never seen real poverty.  I have been in several countries around the world, South Korea, Mexico, several countries in Europe and in the Middle East and I’ve seen some pretty sparse situations.  But I’m not so sure I’ve seen the worse.  I know you’ve heard these comparison for years, but it’s important that we hear them again.  We drive past houses that are run down and see children who are neglected, and we say, “O that’s poverty.”  However, someone once noted that what impresses people in deprived countries about America is, not how the wealthy live, but how the poor live.  

One pastor shared with me a comment someone made about a group of Haitians that were forced from their country because of hurricane Hazel.  After Hazel, a large number of Haitians moved to the Bahamas with very little, hoping to rebuild their lives.  Sadly, hurricane Dorian wiped them out again.  In response to this, one man made the comment, it’s their fault, they didn’t belong there anyway!  My only question I could ask in shock was, where were they supposed to be, here?  And if they did come here, would we look at them and react to them in the same way the rich man looked at Lazarus?

The truth is, the poor in this country are wealthy compared to the poor in many developing countries.  But this is no reason to ignore the poor here in America.  The poor here do have access to government aid, they can get assistance from agencies like Dallas High Shoals Christian ministries, the Salvation Army and local churches.  Yes, they can go and receive medical care at a hospital, albeit very basic care, but most of the time they can’t afford the medication that is prescribed to them.  And yes, there are other government agencies where assistance is offered.  However, think about this.  It could be that it’s more painful to be poor in America than in any other country on earth, because everywhere they look, they see other people with so much.  

We need to recognize that while the poor in other countries suffer from hunger, a lack of adequate medical care, a lack of suitable clothing and substandard housing, the poor here in this country struggle with all that and, with drug addiction, mental health issues and having to look at the disparity between them and the rich every day.  In essence, they are constantly being reminded of how poor they are as soon as they step from their dwelling.  That’s the first thing this story tells us, we are responsible for our neighbor.  The second thing we need to recognize in this story is that judgment is a very real part of God’s message.

We all know that there are consequences to our actions.  The Bible is clear, “we reap what we sow” (2 Corinthians 9:6).  It’s difficult for pastors today to talk about judgment.  For one thing, recent surveys indicate that most Americans don’t believe in a literal hell anymore.  Overall the church has done a wonderful job of convincing people that God loves them, but we’ve done a very poor job of convincing people that their actions, both positive and negative, have consequences.  Additionally, it’s almost impossible to speak from the pulpit about judgment without sounding moralistic.  Even though we see judgment being worked out in people’s lives every day, it’s difficult to deal with such a grim theme in worship, except perhaps in humor. 

A young pastor was unsettled one morning when he heard a church member boasting about how he had used a radar detector to avoid getting ticketed for speeding.  The pastor couldn’t help but think that this sounded a bit unethical.  Moments later, however, he was pleased to hear another parishioner tell this ethically challenged church member in a somber tone, “It’s the man upstairs you need to be worried about.”  The pastor was about to chime in with a hearty “Amen” when the second man added, “yea, that guy in the helicopter will get you every time!”

Ah, yes, the man upstairs will get you every time.  Today, it’s okay to talk about heaven, everyone likes to do that.  But talk about a final judgement and hell and see what that gets you!  I heard about another man who had a very difficult mother, but he felt obligated to take care of her.  He had a basement apartment built in his home for her.  A friend of his was visiting one day and was chatting in the living room.  “I remember,” said his friend, “what a difficult time your mother gave you.  Where is the old girl now?”  Fearing that the conversation would be overheard by his mother, the poor man simply pointed downward . . . in the direction of the basement apartment.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” said his friend, “I didn’t even know she had died.” 

Scholars tell us that Jesus probably didn’t mean for us to take the story of rich man and Lazarus as a definitive statement of the nature of life after death, but as a firm Biblical principle that we will be judged on our treatment of the poor.  Do you think this is the only time that judgment comes up with regard to how we treat the poor?  Remember Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment when the sheep and the goats are to be divided? (Matt. 25).  What was to be the decisive factor between heaven and hell?  “I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat . . . I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink . . . I was naked and you did not clothe me . . .”  Please understand…I am absolutely NOT advocating a theology of works.  I am, however, saying that if we’re to be faithful to the Scripture as a whole, we must acknowledge that caring about the down-and-out is very important spiritual business.  Our Country learned this lesson from our own history.  

Germany lay devastated after World War I.  Poverty and unemployment provided fertile ground for the terrible weeds of Nazi dogma to grow and prosper.  It took a Second World War to show us that it was a mistake to leave our enemy desolate and forsaken.  So, after World War II we sought to rebuild our former adversaries . . . and it worked!  Today, West Germany and Japan are among our finest allies. 

I hope that our indifference of Third World countries today doesn’t produce a terrible judgment on us in the future as the Second World War judged our conduct after the First World War.  If we don’t seek justice and compassion in places located in the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America, if we don’t become peacemakers, do we not face the possibility that one day we ourselves may pay horribly?  We need to look at the bigger picture.  We live in an ever-shrinking world.  A global economy and modern transportation mean other nations are only a matter of hours away.  Terrorism has now become a part of our twenty-first century landscape.  The spread of nuclear and biological weapons means that a mad man could one day wield awesome destruction upon our land. 

I’m not trying to sound a Chicken Little alarm here, but we must take the warnings of Amos in our first reading today into account.  What I am trying to say is, that not only is it sound Christian doctrine for us to care for the needy at our door, it’s also in our best interest to care for the needy around the world.  The rich man couldn’t see that how he dealt with his neighbor outside his gate would determine his own destiny.  Many of us may be making the same mistake.  We are our brother’s keeper, that’s lesson one.  The problems of the down-and-out are our problems.  The second lesson is, there is judgment built into the very fabric of creation on those who ignore the needs of their neighbors. 

This brings us to the third lesson in this parable:  More than ever before, you and I need a missions-consciousness both at home and abroad.  Can you possibly think of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus without thinking about our responsibilities to those who are not as blessed as we are?  Here’s something to consider:  the happiest people in the world are those who have learned to share a bit of their time and personal resources with those in need.

From 1941 to 1953 Louis Evans was the pastor of a prestigious Presbyterian church in Hollywood.  One day he decided he needed to visit his church’s missionaries to find out their needs.  One stop found him in Korea where he was to meet a missionary surgeon.  The doctor had been a successful surgeon in the States before sensing God’s call to minister in Korea.  On the day Dr. Evans arrived, the missionary doctor was prepping for surgery on an eight-year-old child.  The pastor watched through a window in the tiny hut where the operation was going on.  The operation lasted for nearly three hours.  After cleaning up, the doctor went outside to walk with his pastor.  As they walked Evans asked, “How much would you have received for that operation back in the States?”  “Oh, $500 to $750 is the going rate, I guess.”  Remember, that was years ago.  As you can imagine, it would be much, much more expensive now.  

As they talked, Evans noticed that the surgeon’s lips were purple with the strain and his hands were trembling from three hours of tedious work.  Then he asked, “How much for this one?”  “Oh,” the doctor replied, “A few cents.”  Then he added, “A few cents and the smile of God.”  And then the doctor put his hand on Pastor Evan’s shoulder, shook it lightly, and added, “But man, this is living!”  A good many people have discovered that remembering the poor really is living.  

I personally believe that there is a literal hell.  I think Jesus makes that abundantly clear.  However, if you choose to remain skeptical, let me ask you this, what would you call a place that is completely devoid of God?  A place where there is no restraint on sin?  I know what I would call it.  I also know that there are consequences for our actions in this life and the next, both good and bad, and one of the consequences of neglecting the poor is there probably isn’t nearly the joy that could be realized.  You simply cannot have a truly abundant life without Christ . . . and you cannot love Christ without loving your neighbor.  We are responsible for one another.  Judgment is a very real part of the Gospel message—what we sow, we reap.  Perhaps more than ever, we need to show our concern for others both at home and abroad.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “The worst sin to our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.”  The rich man ignored Lazarus at his gate, and he paid a price.  The same is true for us anytime we ignore our neighbor.  We many never discover the joy that missionary doctor found when he placed his hand on his pastor’s shoulder and said, “Man, this is really living.”  That’s the abundant life which only Christ can give, and He gives that abundant life along with joy and peace to all who walk in His footsteps.


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