Helping Strangers- an Act of Faith

16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21

September 29, 2019

The Rev. Meg Lovejoy

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and Of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

When our youngest daughter was growing up, Gary and I tried to teach stranger awareness to her. Katie was very outgoing and never hesitated to approach strangers and strike up a conversation or ask a question. She had, and still does have, an inquisitive mind and fear and caution just aren’t in her vocabulary. One day, when she was about 5 or 6 years old, we were running errands and saw an elderly man whose truck had broken down right in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in Sulphur. The man was in very dirty clothes and the truck looked like it was held together with bubble gum and baling wire.

Katie and I were in our truck and I had a tow rope, so I pulled in front of his stalled truck, hopped out and while I hooked up the tow rope to my truck, the man hooked the other end up to his. We jumped back into our vehicles and I pulled him into a nearby parking lot. Now, I’m no mechanic and I don’t know the first thing about repairing engines so I unhooked the rope, checked to make sure the man could call someone to help fix his truck, and off Katie and I went.

Once we were on our way, Katie asked me if I knew the man and I replied that I didn’t. Of course, her next question was, “If he was a stranger, why did you stop and help him”? It caught me by surprise because I never thought she had heard those tales of caution Gary and I had been telling her about strangers. I thought for a second and replied that it was the right thing to do. Even though I didn’t know him, I understood that we would be okay because it was in daylight and people were all around who might help if something bad were to happen. As an adult, I figured I would be a little more safe than a child who was alone. I explained that there was an act of faith it taking the chance to help the stranger, but we should try to provide help where and when needed. Boy, you never know when those kids are listening and paying attention, but the Holy Spirit sure jumped in there to help me in my reply to Katie’s question.

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard this story of the rich man and Lazarus enough times to know it by heart. The rich man ignores the cries and needs of Lazarus as he passes by every day. When the rich man dies, he goes to Hades where he is tortured by flames while Lazarus is carried by angels to sit with Abraham in Heaven. Then the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to serve him in Hades. When that request is refused, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. That request is denied as well. The rich man just doesn’t and get it. Lazarus is not his servant. He’s not inferior to the rich man in any way. And while his request to send a message to his brothers seems good on the surface, it was just to his family, who already had the prophets and the lessons to teach them the way.

Jesus never gives the rich man the dignity of a name in this gospel. This person is just a “human being” until such time as translations inserted a male gender to the adjectives. On the other hand, the poor man has the name Lazarus, a variant of Eleazer, which means God heals or helps. In the first century Roman world, purple clothing was a sign of extravagance. The rich man was very proud of his wealth and wearing purple and fine linen was a way of self-indulgence and a way of publicly showing just how wealthy he was. Jesus, again, turns the world upside down in this story by changing the order of how things are on earth and how they are in the Kingdom of Heaven.

I think we are all the rich person and Lazarus, at least at some point in our lives. Sometimes we are that poor person desperate for the goodwill or help from another. Sometimes we are the rich person, happily turning a blind eye to the needs and plights of others. Sometimes we are Lazarus, welcomed warmly into the presence of God. And sometime we are the person unexpectedly placed in torment.

Paul writes of the great gain in godliness combined with contentment stating “we brought nothing into this world, so we can take nothing out of it.” We should be content with food and clothing. (1 Tim 6: 6-8) He warns of the ruin and destruction those who desire wealth fall into when temptation pulls them away from faith. We are to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim 6:12) and look toward our eternal life rather than focusing on the riches of this world. We are reminded that this fight “is not a fight to overcome the best of the competition but rather the fight to overcome the worst of ourselves.” Frederick Buechner

If we believe the gifts we have received and our possessions have come about as a result of our own doings or our own worthiness, we run the danger of becoming the rich man and losing the part of Lazarus we have within us. We have what we have only through God’s grace. We face a tension within today’s society as we live out God’s call to an ethical life and we face the constant temptation of placing our own ideas of what is good before God’s ways. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a reminder for us to be prepared for our own death by following Christ’s example and living in faith, love, and charity. It is a constant struggle but, as Anne Lamott says, “Never give up, no matter how things look or how long they take. Don’t quit before the miracle.”