Eyes Open

A Parable of Jesus, from Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

“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.’ 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. 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.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 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.’”

Parables are most effective when we can see ourselves living in them in some way.

Having heard the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you may be having trouble seeing yourself in the story. That’s understandable. Big lottery jackpot weekends aside, most of us don’t seriously imagine a life of great wealth and constant feasting. I suspect our basic psychological makeup also makes it difficult for us to imagine having fallen so low in life that we could end up lying in the street with festering sores, stray dogs the only creatures who seem to notice us.

And yet, I find this parable to be almost universally applicable.

Certainly, the lesson is taught through extremes of wealth and poverty. But at the same time, it’s not really about the dangers of wealth, nor does it somehow invest poverty with a kind of holiness. Instead, Jesus gives us a lesson for the heart.

Notice something about both men in the first of the parable. They simply are described in their respective states. There’s no evidence they interact; at no point does poor Lazarus actually ask the rich man for anything, and at no point is the rich man portrayed as having denied Lazarus anything. They simply are in proximity to each other.

The parable points out the danger of a terrible sin, a sin we seldom talk about. It is the sin of self-absorption, of being unable to see a need that is before us. It is the sin of unsearching eyes; it is the sin of walking past someone and not caring.

We tend to think, “It is what I do that could send me to hell, to an eternity separated from God.” Jesus is telling us something very different—there is tremendous danger in what we fail to do.

The extremes of wealth and poverty are in the story for a basic reason. They make clear the rich man has no excuse for his failure to act. With such wealth, he could have easily cared for the poor man who had wandered into his circle of influence. The rich man would not have missed what Lazarus required for restored health and a decent standard of living.

The rich man is not being condemned for failing to care for all poor people, just for failing to help the one at his gate. I’m reminded of the story of the thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach, gasping and dying. A little girl walked the ocean’s edge, throwing starfish into the ocean.

A man came along and said, “Little girl, there’s no way you can save all those starfish!”

“You’re right,” she replied, throwing another one in the ocean. “But I saved that one.”

The rich man could have at least said of Lazarus, “Saved that one.”

Some may protest this interpretation by pointing out how we are saved by faith, not works, and on that point, I would agree. We can do nothing without the grace of God at work in us, and we receive God’s saving grace through a belief in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus intertwines faith and action in his teachings, however, presenting them as the rope that pulls us from the pit. This parable has much in common with Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, where he sorts the judged to his left and right—to damnation or eternal joy—based on how they treated the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.

The lesson is the same in both accounts: Our actions best reveal whether our hearts rest near the bosom of Christ.

This teaching is good news! We are actually being invited to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. All we have to do is pray that the Christ who saves us also makes us intentional about seeing the brokenness around us. It’s a simple prayer: Lord, let me see, and then make it clear what I should do.

I once worked in a nonprofit relief organization with a woman who required a family to allow her to make a home visit before they could receive any significant aid. I asked her one day why she did that—I could tell some of the families felt they were being scrutinized or even judged.

She laughed, telling me that yes, some of them probably felt that way, but the home visits let her see the needs the families weren’t revealing. Even the poorest people in rural Upper East Tennessee are generally a proud bunch, and the problem there was getting them to ask for all the help our little nonprofit could provide.

When I understood what she was doing, I admired her approach. She was actively searching for need so she could see it and address it.

The end of the parable emphasizes the overall point. The rich man’s last request is that Lazarus be sent to his presumably rich brothers as a warning about the danger of their hard-heartedness. Abraham makes it clear that these lessons about compassion have already been delivered by Moses and prophets, and that men who failed to hear those ancient words would continue in their deafness “even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there again is the great danger of unseeing self-absorption. When we fall into it, we miss God entirely. In God’s greatest work in this world, Christ rose from the dead, but self-absorption can leave us blind to even this great miracle.

Be alert. Ask God to show you the broken people in this world and trust God to help you play some small part in undoing their suffering. Your open-eyed awareness has eternal implications.

The featured image is a detail from Fedor Bronnikov’s “Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Home,” painted in 1886.


It’s the Economy, Stupid

Amos 8:1-12

When I was a journalism student at the University of Tennessee, I had this wonderful professor, Dr. Tony Spiva, for a class in macroeconomics, the study of how economics work on a national and international scale.

It sounds like a sleeper of a class when I describe it, but it was one of the highlights of my college education. Dr. Spiva had an illustration for every principle. Even today, when I think of monopolies I think of diamond mining in the 1970s and 1980s, and when I think of supply and demand I think of Sade records. (He pronounced her name SHAR-day, as in, “those SHAR-day records you all are buying.”)

In fact, Dr. Spiva made money and its impact on the world so exciting that I considered changing my major. I didn’t, but maybe now that I’m a pastor and, consequently, a theologian, I’m not that far from Dr. Spiva’s field of study.

After all, in our text today, the prophet Amos underlines that God seeks a holy economy. God looks to how we treat one another in the material world for evidence of what is in our hearts, and our creator then responds accordingly.

You may find economics a dry subject, even seemingly irrelevant, but it is one of the few worldly examples I can discuss that impacts every one of you every day. When Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992, he kept a key message in mind, a message his adviser James Carville first wrote down: “The economy, stupid.” It was supposed to be an internal planning message, but it became a political mantra: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In other words, remember the one issue affecting everyone.

On a large scale, economics heavily impact how well we live and how long we live. Of course God is interested in economics.

Amos speaks to the people of Israel at a time when there was great economic injustice. He begins with an image of a basket of summer fruit, something beautiful but very temporary, very perishable. Times can change quickly.

From there, he begins to predict disaster, all of it tied to how the people are treating one another as they go about the daily business of the world. In particular, he chastises the merchants.

Their hearts are so engrossed in profit they have come to not like the sabbaths and the religious feasts, the times set aside to draw closer to God rather than do business.

They cheat their customers with what amounts to tricky packaging and rigged scales, in the process exploiting the poor and needy. People have started seeing other people as commodities rather than human beings, and suffering has ensued.

The effects are to be quite terrible, Amos says. God will punish the land with famine, but not a famine of food or water. Instead, people will stop hearing from God, hungering for the word of God so much that they will go searching for God, but not find him.

It is an ancient situation, in this case one that happened thousands of years ago, but it also is a problem that crops up repeatedly throughout history. The people with primary control of a culture’s resources forget they are children of God, letting greed become their idol. And in the process, other people suffer, often from shortened lives.

The founder of Methodism, an Anglican priest named John Wesley, was a very vocal critic of the business practices in 18th century England. One example: He was deeply disturbed by the production of drinking liquor, but not for the reasons you might think. So much grain was being used for highly profitable liquor production that there was a shortage of grain to make bread and other basic food items. The price of these items went so high that poor people were starving to death in the alleyways.

A few years ago we as Americans actually made some similar economic decisions that had devastating effects globally. Many of those effects continue today. This is from the April 20, 2014 issue of Forbes:

In 2007, the global price of corn doubled as a result of an explosion in ethanol production in the U.S. Because corn is the most common animal feed and has many other uses in the food industry, the price of milk, cheese, eggs, meat, corn-based sweeteners and cereals increased as well.  World grain reserves dwindled to less than two months, the lowest level in over 30 years.

Several world hunger groups began to report that people in the developing world, like people in Wesley’s day, were starving as the price of basic foods went out of the reach of their meager incomes.

Yes, Amos’ message is aimed at all of us. Certainly, if you run a business, you need to hear his words. Always consider God’s demand that we consider each other and care for each other as you make choices in how you do business.

If you’re a voter, ask the right questions of candidates and assess the answers in a godly way. Which policies promise life and love? Which candidates create fertile ground for the kingdom, and which candidates potentially poison the fields?

As a church member, be sure you’re doing all you can financially to help the church fulfill its mission to bring people into a growing relationship with Christ.

The early Methodists lived by what we call our General Rules. They are a good general guide for living, and they are certainly a good guide for participating in the economic world. They are:

  1. Do no harm. My own business experience causes me to think of the Enron scandal and the terrible damage it caused to individuals and the economy as a whole.
  2. Do good. In his sermon “The Use of Money,” John Wesley said: “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” There is nothing wrong with providing for ourselves, our families and our ongoing enterprises, but we work and do business primarily to benefit God’s kingdom.
  3. Stay in love with God. (This is the modern way of saying Wesley’s third rule.) If we keep God before us, as our first and primary love, everything else will fall into place.

A prayer: God grant us holiness in all we do, and in particular in our economic lives, which have potential for either great good or great harm.

The featured image is William Powell Frith’s “Poverty and Wealth,” 1888.

Begging to Give

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Yes, this is a giving sermon. In many churches, that often means a moment where the preacher either begs or lectures. But today we celebrate giving, looking at what has been done and what I believe will be done through this church known as Luminary.

In our Bible text, Paul tells the church at Corinth how to understand giving, in the process enlightening us a little about the Christians in Macedonia, a group he holds out as a standard for other churches. The Corinthians would have found Paul’s words difficult to hear. Corinth and Macedonia were political rivals in Paul’s day, and the apostle is trying to inspire a touch of jealousy, shame or some similar emotion in the Corinthians, who need to be doing more for God’s kingdom.

Paul’s writings raise a question for any church: When it comes to giving hearts, are we more like Macedonians or Corinthians?

The church in Corinth was relatively affluent, it would seem. We don’t know a lot about the situation of the churches in Macedonia—Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea—but it is clear from Paul’s letter they had fallen on hard times, despite being in a relatively prosperous region. Some of the Greek words Paul uses to describe their affliction are associated with religious persecution, and it is also clear from his words the Macedonians had descended into poverty because of what they suffered.

And yet, they give to help others, Paul writes, giving “even beyond their means.” The Macedonian churches even beg for the privilege of participating, finding great joy in the midst of their suffering to join in Jesus Christ’s work on earth.

In their giving, the Macedonians were like Christ, reducing themselves so that others might be made rich by the gift of eternal life flowing from the cross.

Nothing about the Macedonians’ attitudes should surprise us. Among people who study Christian giving patterns, it is known to be a basic fact that the best givers are among our poorest people. I have heard needy people say, “If you want help, go to a poor community, not a rich one.”

I’m reminded of the story about a church that announced in 1946 it was going to take up a collection to help a poor family in the community. A widow and her three daughters went to great lengths to participate, finding great joy in the sacrifices they were making. They raised most of the money collected by the church, only to discover they were the intended recipients of the offering. They ultimately gave what the church had handed them to a missionary working in Africa.

There was a family that would have been comfortable in Macedonia.

In terms of resources available to us at Luminary, we are more like Corinth than Macedonia. Most of us are not what anyone would call poor. Certainly, as a church, we are not mired in poverty and persecution. That’s a blessing, of course, but such a blessing comes with great responsibility.

The great preacher and writer Charles Spurgeon told the story of being invited to preach at a rural church so a special offering could be taken to retire the church’s debt. The man making the invitation said Spurgeon had his choice of places to stay during the visit: the man’s country house, his town house, or his seaside home. Spurgeon declined the invitation, suggesting the man sell one of his homes and pay off the debt himself. Abundant resources are an invitation from God to take bold actions.

As a group, bold action is always possible for us. I have mentioned before, and I will mention again, that committed tithing is the great equalizer for all church members, allowing us to commit equally to our community, rich or poor.

And this is where I begin to celebrate. Clearly, some of you are developing a deeper understanding of what it means to give to the kingdom. I don’t know who tithes and who does not tithe, but I can look at the bigger picture and surmise a few things.

♰ A significant number of you are giving in committed ways. I can tell this because our church income remains steady even as our “regulars” travel during the summer. Thank you for treating your church like a community with ongoing ministries, and not like a movie theater.

♰ Some of you also have increased your commitments. We are succeeding financially in ways we have not succeeded in a long time. Halfway through the year, our income is exceeding our expenses by about $6,000.

♰ Our better financial performance has happened while you have been “tithing up” to support the larger church, much like the Macedonians desired to do. Late last year, your leaders decided to begin tithing from our general offerings to the conference after many years of not supporting the larger church in full, and we have stuck to that commitment. (Until 2011, this system was called “paying apportionments.”) In all of 2014, Luminary sent $7,583 in support of the larger church; to date in 2015, we have already sent $12,236, and there’s no reason to believe we cannot continue that commitment. And none of that accounts for the special gifts you have made—for example, the more than $1,900 you sent to the Holston Conference to aid area children in poverty, or the regular gifts we send to Holston Home for Children.

All of this translates into lives being changed, locally and beyond. And there is so much coming in the life and ministry of Luminary:

♰Starting in August, our worship will be made richer and more vibrant with the arrival of Seth O’Kegley, our new music director. I cannot say enough about what this young man brings us in terms of music skills and devotion to worship. Your giving makes his presence possible, and he will bring Christ into people’s lives in ways we are only beginning to imagine.

♰A new vision for how we function as a church is taking shape, thanks to your Church Leadership Council. You will hear more about that soon, and I’m already praying each of you individually will see your lives and the lives of people around you changed for the better. Some of these changes will require new tools; the retirement of current debt, the acquisition of church vans and the completion of the upstairs keep coming up as likely needs.

We may not yet be Macedonians in heart, but we certainly are moving toward Macedonia. Pray that our financial commitment to our church holds and grows; pray that we become a people so enamored with Christ that we beg for the chance to give.