Lydia and Lazarus – Are you a better giver or receiver???

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.

 

Acts 16:11-15

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.

Luke 16:19-31

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.

 

Baby Chicks

You know the blogs and forwards and Advent Conspiracy and It’s Not Your Birthday and even the OccupyAdvent on twitter have a clear message that Advent is not a time for commercialism or just giving ourselves a bunch of stuff that we really don’t need when we’re blessed with so much? I have enjoyed reading them and trying to stay present and mindful during Advent. I also appreciate the counter-cultural. Isn’t that what we as the Church are supposed to be?

The hilarity that has ensued has nothing to do with whether I believe in these practices or not and nothing to do with whether I think we could really solve basic problems in the world just by sharing and giving what we can to those in need. Because I do believe that. I honestly believe that if we saw past our own needs and our own selves, than we wouldn’t just want to give, but we would be compelled to give – it would be a moral, spiritual and imperative obligation.

So here I am trying to teach that to my children – who just turned 3 and 4 by the way – and lo and behold, it’s not as easy as it may seem. At least not in our house. I recently posted a blog to my facebook that I loved….. I love that it wasn’t something parents imposed but was the kid’s idea. I also love that it was a family affair and something everyone enjoyed and got into. I had been keeping the Heifer International catalogue on the counter in my “put everything in it because you don’t want to lose things even though it’s a jumbled up mess” basket and I thought this may be the time. Evy had gone to sleep early so it was just me and Enoch, the 4 year old.
So we started talking about Jesus and Santa which good golly it’s easy for me to distinguish between the two (duh!) but explaining to a child the differences is hilarious. And then we started talking about gifts. The first hiccup was that Enoch didn’t understand why everyone didn’t get gifts. If we say that Santa gives gifts to good little boys and girls than why didn’t some good little girls and boys get gifts? If we see that Jesus loves everyone and came here to be with all of us, why doesn’t everyone get gifts? Why are there poor people? Why do they not have money? What do their Mommy’s and Daddy’s do?

We then started talking about toys. I frequently tell Enoch that I think he has more toys than Toys R Us and that he needs to share them. We’ve talked about this in making Operation Christmas Child boxes and using his happy meal toys for this and other small toys. So I tell him that he’s still going to get toys from Santa but that we as a family can give animals to other families and communities.

Oh boy. Let’s just say that when we opened the catalogue and he had the option to pick out goats or bunnies or baby chicks or cows, he wanted them all. Not for the other families, but for him. Especially the baby chicks.
Mike got a good chuckle from this entire interchange, nut needless to say, I talked about people that don’t have enough foods and how animals can help give us food or we can sell things from the animals so that we can take care of each other, etc., etc., etc. The amazing folks that we stay with on our trips to Nicaragua have asked us to bring the kids with us on our trips, and I’ve never more than that night wanted to take them on one. Because I can explain and explain and explain and we can make our Operation Christmas Child boxes and we can pick out our baby chicks, but there’s nothing like seeing and interacting and playing with children that live in such very different conditions than your own.

So that was my first thought. I want Enoch and Evy not to give just because it’s right or just for the joy of giving – even though those are good, but I want them to understand and see and know and feel that passion about providing for the least of these – not just as a hand out or looking down on people or we as the great Western world, come to save them – but knowing that this is what we’re called to do.

Josh preached a sermon series on stewardship a couple weeks ago and I think about his Spiderman illustration of the saying that many of us know – “With great power comes great responsibility” or the words from Luke 12:48 – “To whom much is given, much is required.” We have been given so much. When I started preaching in a local church I had no idea what to say when handing out the offering plates and so I started to say, “May we give back to God what God has graciously given to each of us.” It’s God’s. And we have been blessed. But it’s hard to see and know and feel our blessings sometimes if we don’t see what would have happened without them. I don’t think that’s always the case, but Enoch doesn’t know how much to appreciate that Optimus Prime transformer when he has a toy box full of toys versus if that was his only toy.

The other thing that jumped out to me is the nature of us and commercials and books and songs and how we talk about Santa Claus. When we’re talking to children about Santa, we talk about Santa giving gifts to little boys and girls all over the world. We talk about the good children getting lots of present and the bad children getting coals and switches. So if you get a lot of toys, you’re a good kid? If you don’t, you’re not? I remember the Christmas that my dad gave us walnuts and oranges in our stockings because that’s what they had done when he was a kid. Not hating on the walnuts and oranges, but we wanted chocolate and candy canes and little toys – not just some walnuts and oranges. I’m not the parent that talks a great deal about Santa or the ins and outs of how he gets everywhere and how many gifts he gives, etc. but there’s no way I can honestly say that I haven’t used Santa during the holidays. He’s the best leverage in the world in December when kids are wild on Christmas party, candy, and just the excitement and fun of Christmas in the air! We haven’t bought an Elf on the Shelf, but even I can throw out there – Santa doesn’t like whiners or people that don’t share with their sisters and brothers or those that say potty words (Enoch and Evy’s potty words of choice right now are “diaper” and “baby” so watch out if you’re called a “diaper baby.”).

I can throw that out there with Jesus all year long – Jesus likes you to share, Jesus wants us to love even the bullies, Jesus….wants us to give a family some baby chicks instead of you getting even more toys.
I don’t have any answers with this blog, but I do think it’s an interesting commentary on how we talk about Christmas and how we see it. It’s been fascinating trying to talk to Enoch and Evy about this. They understand the manger and the Christmas story and they understand Santa and giving gifts but how those two relate…we’re still working on that one. To be honest, in thinking about it, I’m still working on explaining that one. These are the things that I love about this age. They’re honest and they don’t know all the “right” answers yet….they just know that they’d like some baby chicks.

How are we preparing during Advent? How are we not just posting the articles or getting the tweets, but we’re actually engaging in what it means to wrestle with these counter-cultural ideas? Explaining to a 4 year old, how are we showing the amazing Christmas story and the essentials without getting all bogged down in Santa?

A great and challenging article on this: http://www.aholyexperience.com/2011/12/when-christmas-gets-radical-whose-birthday-is-it-really/

***Note that I’m not saying not to do alternative gift giving – quite the contrary. I think we really should! I just think it’s important to communicate the whys and the whats and the Whos and not just do it for the kudos or the gold stars! There are a gazillion great orgs to give to!!!