Wednesday, September 1, 2010

August 29, 2010 - Living as Long as Life Lasts

Living as Long as Life Lasts
Luke 16.19-31 "The Rich Man and Lazarus"

I. I have always been fascinated with the fact that insurance companies can calculate how long we will live. They do it to figure out how much to charge us for life insurance. That has always struck me as a grim calculation to make about anyone, so for years I refused to take their tests. Then, I had a different thought: now I like to take their test on-line so I can figure out ways to beat their system.
Northwestern Mutual Life, AARP, and others offer these life expectancy calculators; so I recently took the test again.

Illus: The Longevity Game!
The banner across the top of the screen said: "Welcome to the Longevity Game! See how your lifestyle can affect you in the years to come by answering just 12 quick questions."
Age? - You can’t change that!
Gender? Women get points/men lose points. Again, you can’t change that.
Blood Pressure - I ran down to the drugstore to get a new reading.
Height and Weight - It suggested a bit less weight would be helpful.
Family History of heart disease? - No.
Exercise – well, do you?
Is your life stressful – yes; isn't everyone's life stressful these days?
Driving/Motor vehicle accidents - none in last few years.
Seatbelt - yes.
Smoking - No
Do you use illegal drugs? After paying for prescriptions, who can afford illegal drugs?

AF - Bottom line 88 or 96 depending on which test you take.
Just for fun I took it for an elderly old saint in the church: life expectancy: 111
I also took it for my niece who is in preschool: life expectancy: 96

The life insurance company can figure out when “on average” you and I are going to die. They use their estimate of your life expectancy to figure out how much to charge for life insurance. They have to be good at this; otherwise they won’t stay in business.
But, I’m a preacher, and I’m not so interested in when you and I are going to die as I am in how to live for as long as life lasts. What is your focus? How long until you die? Or how to live for as long as life lasts? It is a very important question.

I. TEXT 19 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

There was a rich man. There was a poor man. The story begins by offering us a list of characters. No detail is offered about their church membership; nothing about their character, or their faithfulness to their wives. It does not tell us whether their children loved them or whether they doted on their grandchildren. There was one rich man and one poor man.
The poor man was so sick that he was covered with sores, and he was so hungry that he longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table. The final insult to his dignity was that even the dogs would come and lick his sores. Perhaps he was just too weak to push the dogs away.
The only relationship between these two men comes from the poor man's desire to eat the crusts of bread which fell from the rich man's table. Whether they have ever met or knew each other's names is not shared with us. Whether the rich man even knows about the poor man, Lazarus, is not shared with us in this setting of the story. It appears there was no real connection between them.
APPLIC: This is true of our lives, as well, isn't it? We see ourselves as rich or poor or middle. It is a label we put on ourselves and on others. It describes our state, just as we use similar words to describe the state of the others we see around us. As we pass along and we make the quick judgment. We don't have to know their names; it's better not to, after all. We just keep a bit of distance between us. Why would we want to keep our distance?

First, we keep our distance so we can we avoid the trap of measuring ourselves against others. We cannot stand to agonize that some are better off and we are less – any more than we can stand to worry that some are less well off than we are. If we start comparing ourselves with others, we can wear ourselves out. So, we just note our observation.

Secondly, we keep our distance so we can make sense of what we see. Human nature is to provide some reason for what is happening around us.
+One family never did know how to work.
+Another family has always had money.
+Over here, these got caught in the Great Recession of 2008.
+She lost her job and then lost her house.
Even on hearing the beginning of this story, we are already imagining possible reasons the rich man was rich and the poor man, Lazarus, was poor.

And thirdly, if our assumptions are holding, then maybe this is the way things are supposed to be. Maybe things have been hard for everyone, and they just couldn't recover. Maybe the poor deserve to be poor. Somebody has to be that way. Maybe even God ordained it this way – like gravity, like the reason the sky is blue.// The best part of believing that there is a reason for someone else's poverty or misfortune is that we are off the hook. If the reason has nothing to do with us, then there is no reason for us to get involved. There is no reason for our consciences to get stirred up at the sight.

Jesus began the story by telling us that there was a rich man and there was a poor man. So far there is no reason for us to do anything about it except to take in the facts as he offers them. Maybe the story will take us someplace else, but so far, all he has offered us are the facts of the case.

II. TEXT 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

Well, the unexpected happens. The poor man, who appeared to be punished by God everyday of his terrible life, is transported to heaven where he rests in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man, who appeared to be blessed by God everyday of his life, finds himself in Hades, where he suffers torment.

This is a logical problem for faith. If what God judges about us after we die is the truth about us, then why is this life not consistent with God's judgement, too? It's funny:
+Those who have blessings in this life, want to believe that God's judgment about us shows clearly in this life.
+Those who suffer in this life want to believe that God's judgment about us will only show clearly in the next life.
Who is correct? The caution offered by Jesus is that our blessings and sufferings in this life can be a very poor indicator of what lies ahead of us in eternity.

The rich man called out:
24 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.' 25 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.

We keep trying to make sense of it all. We keep trying to see the pattern or figure out the secret. Blessings in this life are supposed to suggest that we are blessed. Sufferings in this life are supposed to mean that we are condemned, right? We are almost desperate to make it work. How else can we rest assured that our lives are working? How else can we be sure that we have reasons to give thanks?
So, what is the task of faith? We assume that we understand but maybe we don't. Faith is both robust in its power to reshape our lives and fragile in its refusal to provide measurable guarantees.

John Wesley spoke of his "Aldersgate experience" of May 24, 1738, at a meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, in which he heard a reading of Martin Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and wrote the famous lines "I felt my heart strangely warmed." Just that; but nothing you can measure.

As the Letter to the Hebrews says in the 11th chapter:
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible (Hebrews 11:1-3 NRSV).

Rather than guarantees that God's will and judgment are clearly marked with payoffs, this parable cautions us that God's will and judgment are often hidden from the human eye. Christ goes to great pains to teach us:
+to look with compassion and tenderness toward the poor; their suffering is not an indication of God’s displeasure – but an indication of God's call upon us;
+to look at the lives of others without judgment; we cannot measure the heart as God can;
+to be more watchful of our own motives and actions than we are of the motives and actions of others. God does not grade on the curve; God grades on the standard of His righteousness.

The Christian life is not measured in riches received for faithfulness given. The Christian life is measured in faithfulness to God through Christ – faithfulness that watches patiently and works for the Kingdom of God to come in all its fullness. WE DO NOT BELIEVE IN ORDER TO GET WHAT WE WANT; WE BELIEVE SO THAT WE CAN HEAR THE CALL OF GOD UPON US MORE CLEARLY.

APPLIC: This is the reason church asks us to give of ourselves and our treasure. The church becomes the focus point of our faith:
+the place where we work together with others for the kingdom that God already sees;
+the place where we practice what it means to be faithful to God;
+the place where we imagine together the world that God already sees.
We believe so that we can hear the call of God upon us more clearly. Imagine a church where everyone hears and responds to the call of God with joyful service.

IV. TEXT: Now comes the saddest part of Jesus’ story:
27 He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- 28 for I have five brothers--that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' 29 Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' 30 He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 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.'"

Now seeing, the rich man does think about his brothers. He wants to warn them; he does not want them to suffer as he is doing. But, Abraham replies, “No.” They have Moses and the prophets.

A. As Moses wrote in the Book of Deuteronomy 15.7:
7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.

B. As Isaiah the Prophet wrote in Isaiah 58.6-7:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7 NRSV)

Abraham told the rich man, "Those brothers of yours have Moses and the prophets." And now, so do we. We have the scriptures to teach us how to live, how to treat one another, how to walk in faith.

George Buttrick cautioned that important as it is to share food, the parable is about an even deeper and more pervasive attitude of neighborliness toward others. “The story offers no support to the glib assumption that the rich man would have fulfilled all duty had he dressed Lazarus’ sores and fed his hunger. True charity is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not spasmodic or superficial. Food and medicine are necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighborliness. Fundamental neighborliness is the barometer of the soul, an indication of the attitude of one's heart that is prized in the sight of God (1).

Faith comes through hearing the Good News of God proclaimed. They have heard; will the five brothers believe that God has another way for us to live and change? Now, more to the point, if we hear the Good News of Jesus, will we respond with Christ-like living? Will we put away the ways of the world and chose the way of Christ? This is the challenge of this parable.

The message of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is that the response to hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ has two inseparable parts:
(1) faith in God and
(2) charity toward your neighbor.
Both are included; both are important to God. This parable is addressed to those of us already in the church, those of us who are already washed, baptized, confirmed, and regular on Sunday morning. We say we believe in God and trust in Christ for our salvation. Now, allow faith in God to open our eyes to our neighbors. Allow our faith in God to give us the hearts God would give us.

1. Buttrick, George A. The Parables of Jesus, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928, p. 143.
2. Bakker, Jim. "The Re-education of Jim Bakker," Christianity Today, Dec 7, 1998.

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