Take Notice!

Take Notice!

Grace United Methodist Church

August 15, 2010

Luke 16: 19-31 (NRSV)

‘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.” ’

“We have all seen him. He lies on a pile of newspapers outside a shop doorway, covered with a rough blanket. Perhaps he has a dog with him for safety. People walk past him, or even step over him. He occasionally rattles a few coins in a tin or cup, asking for more. He wasn’t there when [we were children], but he’s there now, in all our cities, east west, north, and south.

As I see him, I hear voices. It’s his own fault, they say. He’s chosen it. There are agencies to help him. He should go and get a job. If we give him money he’ll only spend it on drink. Stay away – he might be violent. Sometimes, in other places, the police will move him on, exporting the problem somewhere else. But he’ll be back. And even if he isn’t, there are whole societies like that. They camp in tin shacks on the edges of large, rich cities. From the door of their tiny makeshift shelters you can see the high-rise hotels and office blocks where, if they’re very lucky, one member of the family might work as a cleaner. They have been born into debt, and in debt they will stay, through the fault of someone rich and powerful who signed away their rights, their lives in effect, a generation or two ago, in return for arms, a new presidential palace, a fat Swiss bank account. And even if rich and poor don’t always live side by side so blatantly, the television brings us together.

So we all know Lazarus. He is our neighbor. Some of us may be rich, well dressed and well fed, and walk past him without even noticing; others of us may not be so rich, or so finely clothed and fed, but compared with Lazarus we’re well off. He would be glad to change places with us, and we would be horrified to share his life, even for a day.”[1]

Do we see Lazarus, our neighbor? We can get all uncomfortable about the thought of having to sit at the rich man’s gate and beg like Lazarus, but we can’t do that until we have simply noticed Lazarus. You see, in this parable, the rich man is not condemned because of his extravagant lifestyle, he is condemned because he did not notice the great need of the man at his doorstep; he did not address the need of his neighbor. The truth is, the rich man probably didn’t think twice about allowing Lazarus to eat the scraps from his table. But why would he? It was just bread. “In that time, there were no knives, forks, or napkins. Food was eaten with the hands and, in very wealthy houses, the hands were cleansed by wiping them on chunks of bread, which were then thrown away. That was what Lazarus was waiting for.”[2] Of course the rich man had no trouble sharing that bread with Lazarus! And we could even safely assume that the rich man also gave generously to charity. But he did not see Lazarus. The rich man’s sin was not that he was rich, but that he did not take notice of his neighbor in need. He was too absorbed in himself to see, even to see the man sitting as near as his doorstep.

And how often have we done the same thing? I have become thoroughly convinced in recent months that sometimes all people want is to be noticed. Sometimes all we need is to know that in the midst of difficult times, somebody cares. When we are feeling lonely, there is nothing like a phone call from a friend, just to say “hello.” Or when we are feeling a little down, a simple question from a neighbor, “Are you okay?” And of course we’re not okay, but the simple fact that someone took notice of us and asked can lift our spirits. Yet, so very often we find ourselves weathering the storms of life all on our own. We’ve all been there, and we all know how wonderful it is simply to be noticed when it seems like our world is caving in all around us.

But when have we taken notice of someone else whose world is caving in? When have we called a lonely friend or checked up on a depressed neighbor? Do we offer a bottle of water to the drunkard slouched against the wall, or do we step to the other side of the street so as to avoid him? Do we see Lazarus sitting right at our gate, or do we just walk by him day in and day out, no more noticing him than the bush adorning the other side of the drive?

We even set up systems that make it easier for us to ignore our neighbor in need, even when they are right in front of us! Have you all noticed the brightly colored and beautifully painted parking meters in downtown Chattanooga? I’m sure many of you have seen them, but just in case you don’t know what they are, let me tell you. These meters were set up by the City of Chattanooga, to give people a way to make donations that will help the homeless without actually have to give money directly to the homeless. The city takes the money out of those meters and gives it to agencies that serve the homeless population. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think this is a great idea! And I would encourage you to drop your loose change in the meters whenever you are downtown. But by doing that, don’t forget that behind that need are real people who often long for simple human interaction more than any warm meal or soft bed. And if we drop the money in the meter, but ignore the people leaning against it, we are really doing them a disservice. We are no better than the rich man who brushed by Lazarus each day, on his way to more important things. To that, Jesus says, there is nothing more important than that you would notice your neighbor in need and love him.

There are plenty of times in the Gospels when Jesus preaches a tough message about turning away from riches and making ourselves poor in order to follow him. And certainly we could rehash that message in our study of this text, but that’s not really the point that Jesus is trying to press home in this parable about the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus is here saying in effect, “You’ve heard it from Moses. You’ve heard it from the prophets. You’ve heard it from me…a bunch! If you are going to follow me, you have to help the people in need. You have to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. You have to help the widow and the orphan. You have to offer shelter to the homeless and comfort to the grieving. You have to visit with the imprisoned and offer forgiveness to those who have wronged you. And to do any of that means you start by noticing the need of the people around you!” Jesus isn’t really telling us in this parable that we have to offer the finest meat to our neighbor day in and day out. He’s not really saying that it is our responsibility to provide rich clothes for the naked. What Jesus is trying to press home here is that when we see a neighbor in need, it is our calling as Christians to help him in whatever way we possibly can.

For the three years that I was in seminary, I lived in Washington, D.C. As you can easily imagine, as graduate students, my friends and I didn’t exactly have a lot of money. We were in school full time, and though a lot of us worked part time jobs, the money we earned went towards our schooling. Often, late in the evening, several of my friends and I would gather together and go on a “slurpee run.” We would walk about a half mile to the nearest 7-Eleven, and we would all get slurpees, which we would drink as we walked back to campus. Invariably, there would be someone in the 7-Eleven parking lot soliciting money from the patrons, or we would pass someone on the streets along the way. Sometimes we would invite the person into the 7-Eleven with us and we would all chip in for a hot dog or a package of crackers. And of course, we began to see familiar faces in the neighborhood.

There was one lady in particular who we noticed each time we walked to the convenient store. She slept in a huddled mass in the bus stop on the corner opposite the store. As the weather go colder, it became apparent that she had no blanket or heavy coat to keep her warm. There was no way we could offer her a place to sleep, we were all living in dorms. And we couldn’t really afford to keep her fed. But at the suggestion of one of my friends, we all got together and made a blanket for the woman one weekend. It was a neat blanket; the inside layer was t-shirt material, and the outside layer was a waterproof fabric. We filled the inside of the blanket with extra thick batting so it was good and warm. And on our next slurpee run, we stopped at the bus stop and gave the woman the blanket. It wasn’t much, not a roof, or security, but it was what we could do, and I can tell you that it made a difference to that woman because we noticed her and showed compassion. We did the same the next winter and the next for different people in that D.C. neighborhood around our school. They were right there at our doorstep, and what they needed more than anything was to be noticed and to be loved.

There are many ways we can be hospitable Christians. And though Christ requires much of us, we are never asked to take on more than we are capable of handling. Certainly, it is important for us to be warm and welcoming to one another here and Grace. Surely, it is important for us to “keep tabs” on our friends and colleagues, and to offer support them in times of need. But Christ calls us to much more than this too. It might make us uncomfortable to acknowledge the existence of our neighbor in need, but as Christians, if we are going to be really hospitable, we cannot just step over the person sitting at our gate as if she does not even exist! There are people in this world who need help; some are rich, some are poor, but they are all around us. People who feel like “losers” and just need someone to tell them that they are great. People who are lonely and just need someone to invite them to lunch. People who are hungry and just need someone to help them get to the community kitchen. All around us are people who are grieving and simply need a hug. To us, Christ says, “Take notice!” Take notice!

[1] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 199-200.

[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 214.

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