September 25, 2016
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
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.’”
One of the things I did on Sabbatical was to begin a doctoral program of study and one of the focuses so far has been becoming a reflective practitioner, in other words, understanding who you are as a pastor and how and why you do what you do. So we’ve spent a little time trying to understand our personalities, what makes us tick, what drives us, but also where are the places we stumble. So my personality type is the peacemaker – I want everyone to get along and love each other. According to what I have been reading for my class, the place where I will get stuck (called my root sin) is laziness. Now I’m not sure I want to own that one.
But I have thinking seriously about this and one place I’ve noticed this in my life is that when I turn and look, really look, at the terrible and tragic realities of poverty in our world, I can feel completely overwhelmed to the point of feeling paralyzed. I simply don’t know what to do. And maybe you know what I mean.
Just this week, as I was thinking about this sermon, a story popped up in my newsfeed about a poor young mother in one of the poorest provinces in China who could not manage to feed herself and her four young children on the $500 a year that her migrant worker husband sent home. And she could not bear up under such a burden. So she killed herself and her children, and then her husband committed suicide. In China there is a vast yawning chasm between the wealthiest and the poorest, one of the most pronounced in the world, where the 25% poorest families own just 1% of the country’s wealth.
Theologian Karl Barth is said to have said that we need to hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. So we hold the story of this poor woman and her children, next the story that Jesus tells. Here we find another parable, and remember parables are not meant to be fables or fairytales, parables are meant to disrupt us, upend us, disorient us. This story is not meant to paint a picture for us of what heaven and hell are like.
There is a yawning chasm between the poor man and the rich man in this story. It exists in life where the poor man is covered in sores and desperate for food, and the rich man does nothing.
And it is not that the rich man does not see the poor man – as the story goes on we find that the rich man knows exactly who Lazarus is and calls him by name – he knows him, but does nothing.
The chasm between them in life is carried over even more profoundly in death. The rich man pleads for his family to know what they should be doing, that they should act differently than he did, and in the story Abraham who is with the poor man Lazarus, tells the rich man, that everyone alive has already been told.
Jesus told his followers this story because they were to write a different story, a story without this great division and great tragedy. The parable is not about what happens when you die, but what it means to see the world around you with new eyes. They were to see the poor at their gates.
When I was in seminary my name was pulled out of a hat to travel to Egypt for three weeks, all expenses paid. We visited Coptic orthodox churches and NGOs who were doing important work in their communities, and we also did touristy things like visit the Sphinx and ride camels around the Pyramids.
One place they took us, as tourists, was a factory where rugs were weaved, and it was filled with children making rugs.
They told us that the children were used because their small fingers could tie the tiny knots needed for the beautiful and expensive rugs.
They told us that the children came from poor families who could not afford the school supplies and uniforms needed to go to school, and working allowed the children to earn the money they needed to go to school.
And then they ushered into the showroom of rugs to make our purchases.
At the time it all seemed fine – but the more I have thought about that experience, the more I have wondered about the whole thing. The more I have wondered if I should have seen it differently.
What would it mean for us to look around us and our world and see the world differently as God calls us to do?
The entirety of Luke’s gospel points us in the direction of justice for the poor and the oppressed. Jim Wallis, a Christian activist for peace and social justice in Washington D.C., points out that you can hardly turn a page in a red-letter Bible (a Bible which highlights the things that Jesus said) and not see a story about God’s concern for the poor, for the vulnerable, for economic justice. There are nearly 3,000 verses in the Bible all about this.
After Jesus is baptized and after he is tempted in the wilderness, Luke tells us that he comes back to his home town of Nazareth to his home synagogue and he stands up and reads his mission statement,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Every eye is on him as he sits down in the posture of a rabbi, a teacher, and tells them that now is the time when this will be fulfilled, this is the time of change.
The International Justice Mission tells us that there are 45 million slaves in the world, more than any other time in human history. One out of four of those slaves are children. In India, a child goes missing every 8 minutes and half of them are never found.
Human trafficking takes advantage of the poorest of the poor – promising them work far from their families and communities and then keeping them enslaved by violence – or offering them a loan which they will spend the rest of their lives working to pay back – or taking young women and men into commercial sexual exploitation from which they cannot escape.
We hear statistics like that and we are overwhelmed, and yet Jesus tells us to see this great human tragedy at our gates, to set the oppressed free.
And how do we do that?
We open our eyes, we learn more, we speak for those who have no voice, and we offer relief.
What I love about the work of organizations like the International Justice Mission is they go to the places that I’m not able to go, they live in the communities where the poor are oppressed and they work to change systems of justice so that the poor are protected.
I know nothing about how to do that work, but I am willing to support organizations that do.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free, and we are not free until all are free. Amen.