We’re going to be looking at the Biblical characters of Lydia and Lazarus, but as we prepare our hearts and feet to be in action for National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, that Gator Wesley will be hosting, I thought I would begin with this video that shows the ever-widening divide between rich and poor.
These are some pretty eye-opening statistics. But I invite you to not let the research/fact part of your brain take over urging you to gloss over the information downloaded. As an African proverb says, “Statistics are numbers without tears.” In other words, we can tune out or trick our brain into thinking that these are not real people. Real struggle. Real challenge. Real hunger.
The actual title of this chapter is “Who Are Your VIPs? You Need a Lydia and Lazarus, Rich and Poor.” So the author of the book, Len Sweet, is setting up a dichotomy between Lydia, who represents the rich and Lazarus, who represents the poor. I will read the passage where we meet Lydia for the first time. It’s in the book of Acts, when the early church is first forming.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Conversion of Lydia
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
Lydia is found in the Bible only in two places both of which are in Acts. When it says that she was a dealer in purple cloth that was a signal to readers that she was wealthy because purple cloth was expensive so it was a sign of nobility or royalty. Her husband is not mentioned anywhere in the passage, but it says she and her household were baptized, which most likely would have included her children and servants. She offered hospitality in her home to Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke.
Let’s flip to Lazarus. First off, it’s not THAT Lazarus. It’s the only parable that Jesus ever told where he gives the main character a name. Lazarus is Hebrew for “God helps.” He gives all of the characters names except for the rich man.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Rich Man and Lazarus
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. 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. 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. 26 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.’ 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.’”
These texts have been playing in my head all week as I’ve prepared for this sermon and this is my main take away. We often receive from people we would think or assume have nothing to offer us. We often receive from people we would think or assume have nothing to offer us. Is it easier for you to be the giver (like Lydia and her patronage providing for the ministry of the early church) or the receiver (like Lazarus who depended on the alms of passersby and who only had dogs to lick his wounds)? We’ve all heard the saying that it is more blessed to give than to receive. But, and I’m speaking for myself here, it is much more difficult for ME to receive. I love giving gifts and being generous with my friends and family. My default position is to be a giver and I rarely can wait for Christmas or a birthday to give gifts to those that I love. Mike and the kids get Christmas or birthday presents all year long. My love language is gift giving. But something about receiving gifts makes me uncomfortable. I know it sounds silly, but I care so much getting right the appropriate reaction to show my appreciation to the giver, that I often wait and open the gift or the card in private. And that’s not fair to the giver. I’m robbing them of the joy of giving by hiding out so they can’t see my actual receiving. Have you ever noticed that when you take the love languages quiz that it only asks how you SHOW your love language? But it doesn’t take into account how you want to BE loved? Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, Physical Touch. What’s your love language? Is it easier for you to give than receive?
Jesus was a good receiver. Have you noticed that he was never in the role of host and he was comfortable in that? He was always the guest. That convicts me. Because it so hard to be placed on the side of invitee rather than the one doing the inviting. It gives up a certain amount of control and makes you vulnerable. In Atlanta this past week, we had the opportunity to hear Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the most respected preachers of her generation, on the virtues that shape her preaching life. She told us that research has shown the believability factor is central to you being considered a “good” preacher. That was broken down to the visual factor, the vocal factor and the content. The statistics may surprise you. It did me. The visual factor made up 55% of the votes, the vocal factor 38%, and the content of what you’re actually saying only made up 7%. She posited that it had less to do with what the preacher says but how a preacher lives. How the things match up, the authenticity, the integrity. She gave us her three virtues: reverence, courage, and self-forgetfulness. She then challenged us to come up with our own virtues. Mine was vulnerability. And that surprised me. That was the first thing that came to mind in this season of life. I’m challenged to be vulnerable each Sunday and Wednesday as I preach, lead the communion liturgy, pray out loud, and give the benediction, because I don’t know if the words are going to come out or not and that has shaped who I am. For those that don’t know I had brain surgery in May and I lost my ability to speak but it’s slowly coming back. I’ve appreciated SO much the grace in which y’all’ve walked this journey with me. I know if you asked me a year ago what my virtue would have been I would NOT have answered vulnerability. Sometimes we need to be brought down low, to fully trust in and rely on God and the community around us. Sometimes the “rich” need to get the fuller picture of what God has to offer them instead of relying on their own strength, their own wealth, or their own power.
We must remember the words of Mother Teresa in A Simple Path, “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.” In many ways, the rich are spiritually more vulnerable than the poor because they’ve not HAD to rely on God.
Have you ever been on a mission trip where you thought you were going to serve “the poor people,” and you realized at the end of the trip that God had given you abundantly more through the people you were supposedly “serving” than you gave in return? I’ve had countless experiences like that. Through Salkehatchie, a work camp that we have back in South Caroling, on mission trips, in the summers I spent working at the Cooperative Ministry, a one-stop service center for the homeless that provided clothes, food, counseling, and cars to the needy. I’m sure many of you can think of a similar time in your own faith journey. If not, I would encourage you to go on our domestic spring break option or our international option. It has the potential to be life changing.
But, the disparity in our world should not just be a thing that we do on a mission trip. It’s building relationships that cross socio-economic barriers ALL THE TIME. Sweet writes, “It’s one thing to have a heart for the poor. It is another to use their bathroom.” Let me repeat that. “It’s one thing to have a heart for the poor. It is another to use their bathroom.” I couldn’t be blunter than that. We should be in ministry WITH the poor.
We all come at the Communion table as one. “In the early church, the agape feast followed by Communion (the Eucharist) was a “family reunion” where the rich and the poor shared food and fellowship together without regard to class distinctions and social status.” And on this All Saints Sunday we remember those that have gone before, the communion of the saints, and gather with them at the table as well. Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day – all are examples of saints who have gone on before but those whose lives we should emulate. May we live out our faith in word and deed, may we be in ministry with not in ministry to, may we humble ourselves and in our vulnerability may God teach us and mold us and shape us to fully rely on God.