Sermon Text: Luke 16:19-31
I started working on this sermon last week, when I knew that Dennis Scheel was planning to have part of this time to talk about his mission to Haiti. Of course, with the storm last Sunday we didn’t have worship, and this morning, he’s talking about Haiti in another church, so I have to go it alone. Because of that, however, I was reminded of a mission story or two that I experienced, although the mission may have been more to me than to anyone else.
It’s been thirty years since Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy made the movie Trading Places, about a Wall Street executive and a street hustler who wind up the subjects (or victim, in Akroyd’s case) of a bet to see who would best survive or even thrive in the other’s role. The movie is a comedy, but I wonder whether such a reversal of fortunes would be so funny in real life.
Recently some members of this community went on a mission to Haiti. What, do you suppose, would have happened if they had been forced to stay there and live the lives the life of poor Haitian villagers and four Haitians were sent home in their place? How might that work out? It’s hard to say.
Mary prophesied and Jesus affirmed the reversal of fortunes that will take place under God’s rule for those use wealth and power for their own good alone. The powerful will be brought down, and the powerless will be lifted up; the hungry will be fed, and the rich will go away empty. And once that happens, there is no turning back—at least not for the rich man and Lazarus in the gospel reading this morning.
One advantage of hearing stories like this is that it causes those who hear them to think about how the “other half” lives, and, perhaps, in thinking about them—just thinking about them—to love them just a little more.
You see, the opposite of love is not hate, as some would say, but indifference. To say, “I don’t care what happens to you” is actually a less loving thing to say than, “I can’t stand you.” Before you can hate someone, you see, you at least have to acknowledge that he/she exists. There are feelings involved, as well, even if they are negative ones. To be totally indifferent to another, however, is to have no feeling whatsoever for the person.
It appears that the rich man in Jesus’ story had no feeling at all for Lazarus. He didn’t care that he was out there. It doesn’t even appear that he noticed him.
Had the rich man taken note of what was going on just outside his gate, with the dog licking at the poor man’s sores, there would have been hardly any way for him not to feel at least some emotion, even if it were revulsion. And had he given any thought at all to what might happen if their fortunes were reversed, there’s no telling how the story might have ended.
Twenty years ago, as an intern in inner-city Jersey City, I saw plenty of people begging on the streets. To some I gave money, but most of them I just tried to ignore—to pretend they weren’t even there. That’s indifference, and I’m not proud of it. That doesn’t mean that I’d be handing out twenty-dollar bills if I went back there today, but I might just be a little more intentional about asking God how I might love them in a way that would be helpful to them.
I remember one young man who attended a church down the street. His name was Mario. Mario had dealt drugs, he’d been married and divorced, and he was struggling to retain at least partial custody of his children. I went with Mario to court. I can’t say that my presence made any difference in his case, but I’d like to think I made a difference in his sense of hope. In return, Mario took my sister and I on a whirlwind tour of Manhattan on foot and by subway. I don’t think we could have had a better tour guide. I could have remained indifferent to this man, but Jesus would not let me, and because of that, I came to understand a little better the ways of the poor and the under-employed in the big city.
There was another man—I’ll call him Bill. We, too, walked the streets of New York City, a place in which he was very much at ease—sometimes too much at ease for my taste. But Bill was a photographer, and so was I. He had a makeshift darkroom in his apartment, and developed black-and-white photographs there. He read, too, and he would lend me books to read. I don’t remember how Bill and I met, and I don’t know where he is now. It probably would have been easy for me to just have ignored him at the time, but Jesus would not let me. And because of that, I was changed.
I wonder, sometimes, what causes people like Dennis to go back to Haiti and places like it again and again. There is a good feeling, of course, that comes from serving as they do. Surely they learn, too, from their interactions with the Haitians. Friendships are gained and lives are changed. That’s all great stuff.
But I wonder whether part of the attraction might be that going there, being among the people of Haiti, and thinking about them after they return, moves these travelers to consider what it might be like to trade places with the people they serve. It surely makes it impossible for them to disregard those they have served. In that impossibility lies the possibility of love.
It is in loving those whom Jesus called the “least of these” that we discover what it truly means to love God, whose Son loved us deeply enough to trade places with us, taking the burden and the consequence of our sin upon himself on the cross. Now that’s a trade with lasting results! Amen.