Saturday, September 25, 2010

Knowing how blessed we are

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Luke 16:19-31

Today, we have another of the stories about how we use what we have. The story is about the contrast between rich and poor. It’s about how the rich man used what he had. And it’s about where his focus in life was.
It’s interesting that the rich man is nameless, but the poor man has a name, Lazarus, which means “God helps.” Tradition tells us that the rich man’s name is Dives, but that’s simply Latin for “rich man.” The rich man knows Lazarus’ name – he calls him by name when he asks Father Abraham to send him for a drink of water.
Let’s start at the beginning. The rich man has a very nice home, with a wall around it and at least one gate. He wears the most expensive fabric, linen, and clothing in the most expensive color, purple. When he eats, he and his family and his guests eat well. They probably have meat every day, and plenty of vegetables, and lots of bread. Some of the bread they have is used simply to wipe their hands on – like napkins – which is then thrown on the floor. The dogs eat these hunks of bread – table scraps. Lazarus would be happy for just a few pieces of this bread.
They both die, and Lazarus finds himself with Abraham in a very comfortable place. The rich man is in Hades – the place of the dead – where he is tormented. They can see each other, and now it’s the rich man who wishes for some scraps from Lazarus’ table. But Abraham reminds him that he had lots of good things while he was alive, and Lazarus had nothing. Now, it’s reversed.
The rich man wants to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them, but Abraham reminds him that he had the scriptures and the prophets and that made no difference to him. Nor would he have paid any attention to a person who returned from the dead with a direct message. Neither will his brothers.
This is a parable, a story. How much of it can we say is what the afterlife is like? Since Jesus is the only one who has returned from the dead, and he’s not talking, we can’t be sure. We do know that the story reflects common beliefs about life after death in Jesus’ time. We also read in Luke the promise to the man on the cross next to Jesus, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” After we die, there is good stuff waiting for us.
Luther warns us, and promises us, that the good stuff can’t be earned, like points added for good deeds and taken away for bad deeds. The good stuff is given whether we deserve it or not. The good stuff comes with faith, which is also given to us – planted in our hearts – by God’s Holy Spirit.
The rich man and his brothers would have attended synagogue worship, and read scripture, like today’s passage from Amos. They heard rabbis and teachers saying that the poor are supposed to be taken care of. They knew it in their heads, but in their hearts they ignored this teaching.
When we read this text from Luke, with whom do you identify? … I’ll bet most of us identify with the poor man. But if we make at least $5,200 a year, we are richer than half of the people in the world. If we make more than $11,000 a year, we are richer than 80% of the people in the world. We have houses, and food, and clothes, and cars, and phones, and cable TV, and vacations, and time for recreation, and so much more. Sometimes, we know how blessed we are, and sometimes, we forget. With no name in the Luke text for the rich man, he could be any of us gathered here today.
You probably know people like Bob and Alice. They are wealthy, at least by my standards. Their wealth is important to them. Alice always has to have the most expensive clothing, the best house in the best neighborhood, the finest cars, the classiest friends. They belong to the largest, classiest church in town, and attend once in a while, and give an offering once in a while.
To keep her in her preferred lifestyle, Bob worked hard. He also invested a lot of money, and became even wealthier. They retired, built a house they were proud of, and in which they could entertain their family and friends. Their retirement income in 2006 was sufficient to pay the mortgage on this new house and the lifestyle they prefer to have.
In 2008, their life began to fall apart, and their wealth began to disappear, some of it suddenly, when the stock market crashed and the sub-prime mortgage fund proved to be worth less than the paper on which it was printed. Their house is now worth half of what it cost them to build it. The income they have now does not cover the mortgage payment. They have tried negotiating with the bank and been declined. The bank expects the value of their house to decrease even more.
They have made the difficult decision to walk away from their expensive house and allow the bank to foreclose on it. They will never be able to own a house again. They will have to live more like normal people, more like most of us in this congregation. They are facing today the consequences of their behavior and attitudes.
Alice prays to God constantly to help her, but she hears no answers. Through the bank, and the recession, God has said to her, there’s a different way. It could be that though her life seems tragic now, God is helping her to recognize that the most important things in life are not possessions and status, but people, and her relationship with God.
Will she continue to turn to God as she faces this new life, or will she turn away from God and blame God for not helping her? Will she recognize that Lazarus also deserves to have enough to eat, a place to live, clothing, transportation, and medical care, and that the money for what he needs must come from her own pocket through taxes and offerings to her church?
Will she recognize that everything she has had, has now, and will have in the future is a gift from God? When she dies, will she wish she had paid less attention to her own status and wealth, and more to giving away her wealth to help those who have less?
God knows all of our names, what we need, how much we have, and what we give. God knows we have the scriptures to warn, remind, and promise us. We have stories like today’s parable to help us see beyond our own needs and wants. We have Bible studies and sermons to help us explore what the stories mean for our lives. We have opportunities to worship God alone and as community. We have opportunities to serve individually and as community. We have opportunities and invitations to give.
Every day, the rich man in the parable walked past Lazarus, and ignored his needs. Who do we ignore each day, walking past them without seeing them? The rich man wanted Lazarus to go to his brothers, to help them understand that there are consequences to our actions. How can we be the messengers from God to help people like Bob and Alice hear what God has to say to them?
How does what we do every day, every week, recognize that we know how much God gives to us? How does what we do show our gratitude?
Your challenge this week is to look around your home and give thanks for all that you have. Look at your bank statement, and give thanks that you have enough money to have a bank account. Consider what you value the most. Do you put God at the top of the list, and serve God in proportion to what God has given you?
Please pray with me. Generous God, you give us so much, and we too often forget to be grateful. Help us remember that you are the source of all that we have. Encourage us to be generous as well. Amen