When I was a parish priest in the 1980s, I did a second theological degree at the General Seminary in New York. It took four summers and a lot of reading and paper writing in between. In those days, General Seminary, which is located just north of Greenwich Village in an area called Chelsea, was in a pretty tough neighborhood.
It’s now all become quite “gentrified” and the apartments are all co-ops or condos that sell for an incredible amount of money. But in those days one regularly came across homeless people and folks asking for money on the street. One of our Church History professors used to carry a pocket full of one-dollar bills so that, when he ventured out in his clerical collar and black suit, he would have something to give when he would be asked for assistance…as clergy invariably are.
I used to wonder what kind of response my friend would have gotten with his one dollar bills when the needs before him were so obviously much greater than that!
But clearly he wanted to avoid turning people down and appearing to be like the rich man in today’s Gospel “who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” but who apparently had walked right by the “poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” (Luke 16:19)
Those very tables get turned in the afterlife when the poor man was rewarded and the rich man punished for his neglect of the poor. I was reminded of Judith’s quote in last Sunday’s sermon that it may be the responsibility of the rich to take care of the poor in this life, so that the poor may take care of the rich in the next! Although in this story a great “chasm has been fixed” forever dividing the poor man from the rich one! It’s too late in this case. The rich man had “missed his wake up call!”
Certainly it’s clear from the pages of the New Testament that Christians have a responsibility to minister to the poor. In Matthew 25 Jesus makes the point that we will be judged, at least in part, on the principle of “ inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.” And there are least two ways that we can respond to that calling.
One is by direct services to the poor (a “ramped up” version of my old seminary professor passing out one-dollar bills to people on the street). In some ways that’s what our PUNCH churches and Churches United try to do through CareLink, food pantries, and other such programs here in the Quad Cities. Another method is to “get upstream” of the problem…to try to figure out why there are so many poor and hungry people around the world (and even in this rich and prosperous nation) and to try and do something about the causes!
Our church tries to name both of those approaches in something called The Five Marks of Mission” set out in the Anglican Communion’s MISSIO Report of 1999, affirmed by the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, and our own General Convention. It identifies five challenges in our mission as Christians:
“to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God” ;
“to teach, baptize and nurture new believers”,
“to respond to human need by loving service”,
“to seek to transform unjust structures of society”;
“to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the earth”
So, both approaches are found here: “to respond to human need by loving service” and “to seek to transform the unjust structure of society.” Anglicans in Africa and other parts of the “Two-Thirds World” expend a lot of prayer, time and energy on those two aspects of poverty reduction and they challenge us regularly to do the same thing!
Two years ago at the Lambeth Conference I joined 670 Archbishops and Bishops from across the worldwide Anglican Communion in marching through the streets of London passing out copies of something called the “Poverty and Justice Bible.” This is an edition of the Holy Bible which has more than 2,000 passages that speak of God’s attitude to poverty and justice highlighted in bright colors. You literally “cannot miss” the many references!
That was a pretty dramatic gesture and the color-coded Bibles may have been helpful to those who may rarely – or never – open the pages of our Sacred Book.
But we really shouldn’t need such reminders, dear friends. We have Matthew 25. We have today’s story of the rich man and Lazarus. And we have our Epistle today from I Timothy:
“There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these…But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the LOVE of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains…
As for those who in the present age ARE rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainly of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really IS life.” (I Timothy 32 passim)
That’s a “wake up call” for all of us! And I don’t think we even need a “color coded Bible” to know what God is asking of us today!