Change for Good: Change Your Attitude - Rev. Michael F. Bailey

Change for Good: Change Your Attitude
Luke 16:19-31
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
September 25, 2016

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.” 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. 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.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 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.” ’

As residents of the “old north state” we gather this morning with our hearts broken by the events in Charlotte this past week.

We’ve lived through a half week of seeing streets that many of us have walked upon take the appearance of of conflict zone with clouds of tear gas, destruction and even military vehicles.

We’ve heard what St. James might term the “forest fire” set by the smallest member of the body, the tongue through competing narratives on social media. The pundits throughout the world have weighed in, and we’ve heard the expected spins of politicians. We’ve seen and hear various, almost forgone, conclusions rushed into and hoisted as the “flags of truth.”

Our new Bishop, Paul Leeland, has issued a call to prayer and caring conversation to the nearly 1/3 of a million United Methodists in our annual conference. Many of us have pondered the “could, if or when” of something like this happening in Greensboro. We’ve all wondered what we might be about to head off such an awful possibility, along with the bishop’s call to prayer and conversation.

One thing that could help would be for us all to, in popular parlance engage in an “attitude check.” And that is the aim of this final sermon in our “Change for Good” series. Namely, being liberated from all and any worldly, un-Christ like attitudes we might hold.

And our passage today shows us the dire earthly and eternal consequences of harboring attitudes which are out of alignment with the heart of God.

Jesus starts our story describing the Bible’s most conspicuous consumer; an unbelievable rich man historically called Dives (not a name really, but remnants of ancient language meaning “rich man,” but a moniker I shall use in this sermon).

Dives lives a life of showy wealth. His clothing is purple; the most expensive dye which only royalty and royally rich could afford. Jesus takes pains to describe the cloth as fine linen, which even the Bible recognizes as an expensive Egyptian import. He dined daily in such a way that Jesus describes it using the same word for the once-in-a-lifetime party the father threw in the story of the prodigal son, when his son returned home safely; Dives did this everyday mind you. In Judaism in Jesus day, like some prosperity preachers in our day, wealth like this was seen as a blessing and favor of God. Likewise, ill health and poverty were seen as divine punishment. And into this picture the “world-upside-down” turning Jesus introduces Lazarus whose very name, given his situation is stunning; it means “God has helped.” Really? This shadow of a human is named, “God has helped”?

Lazarus lay outside the gates of the rich man’s palace. His purple clothing is the bruised, ulcerated skin of one starving to death. His seeming cursed, ritually unclean situation is lowered even more, if that is possible, by dogs, either city strays or Dives guard dogs, licked his sores. 

And you need to know that the dogs gathered here for the same reason Lazarus did. As the ultimate sign of wealth, the diners with Dives used bread, the staff of life, the necessity for remaining alive as napkins! Like we would consider a single paper napkin from a 100 count pack from Dollar Tree practically worthless, so they considered bread, which would have kept Lazarus alive, as trash. They’d eat their gourmet meal, wipe their hands and mouths on bread and toss it on the floor. That is what Lazarus hoped to eat, as did the dogs; the trash of the rich people. (And before we get to smug about this consider that in our nation we waste 70 billion pounds of food, 25-40 percent of our food production, every year.)

The story continues; both men die. Lazarus is too poor to have anyone even bury him, so he’s carried off by the angels. Dives is buried, Jesus notes. This means he had all of the rituals and expenditures of Jewish funeral practices of the day. They both wind up in what’s translates “hades” from the Hebrew concept of “sheoul” – the shadowy place of souls awaiting the judgment. And then comes Jesus’ reversal of the thought of his day, and maybe, truthfully ours. Rich, seemingly blessed by God, Dives is in fiery torment, clothed now in flames instead of royal purple. More, could it be that he is even further tortured by seeing the “good side” of the afterlife with the one he thought unclean, Lazarus, resting on the bosom of Father Abraham?

And it’s here that Dives shows his attitudes. (And might that be something Jesus wants us to hear; that our hidden attitudes will be revealed in eternity?) He begins addressing Father Abraham about Lazarus. Now, carefully note: Dives knew Lazarus’ name! This was no anonymous homeless person holding a cardboard placard on Friendly Avenue! Dives had some knowledge of Lazarus and his situation and yet demonstrated his attitude by doing nothing for him; not even giving him his trash!

You see, Dives attitude was one of acceptance of the status quo. I’m to live luxuriously, and you are to starve like a hospice patient thrown on the streets. That’s just the way it is!

So, where is Jesus leading us? Could it be that Jesus is telling us something about the eternal consequences of being apathetic or even having antipathy toward the poor, the starving, the homeless and disparity in society? Could it be that Jesus is teaching us that such apathy and antipathy have dire eternal as well as earthly consequences? Is the One who came back from the dead offering us the same warning Dives wanted for his brothers? Will we heed such a warning, individually and collectively and act?

But more with Lazarus lying in Abraham’s arms, like a son, and Dives using all this “father” and family language, can’t we surmise that Dives is failing to recognize, in eternity, as he did in life, that Lazarus is his brother? His attitude seems to be that “I’m a child of God and Lazarus isn’t!”

And even more that his attitude of “us” and “them,” Dives still see Lazarus as one to be ordered around, subservient to his class! Send Lazarus to bring water, send him to warn my brothers! It’s little wonder that this story captured the hearts of the African American spiritual tradition as our choir has shown. 

Again, what is Jesus trying to teach us here? Could Jesus want us to do a holy “attitude check” about being the family of humanity under the parenthood of God? Could he be challenging us to truly understand that when we pray “Our Father” that we are also claiming all people as our brothers and sisters?

Then, Jesus closes his teaching by remind us that any wall we build, any gates we erect in this life between ourselves and our brothers and sisters have eternal consequences.

Father Abraham tells Dives that the barrier between Lazarus, Abraham and Dives in now too large and its too late to be crossed over.

But when was the barrier set? I think it was set by the gated community Dives lived in and Lazarus lived outside of. But note this, far before walls and gates are erected physically, they are erected in the hearts and minds of the gate lockers and the wall builders. Before gates and walls take altitude they are birthed in attitude.

So, is Jesus giving us fair warning here in this life, where we are “appointed once to live and die” to not be gate keepers and wall builders but rather to be bridge builders? Do you know who the great pontifex is? It is a title of the pope. Pontifex as a word has its roots in bridge building. Pontifex means a priest; a bridge builder. St. Peter says that all of us are a “royal priesthood.” This means we are to be bridge builders for King Jesus! And how our world, as we’ve seen this week, needs us to be such! We are the hope of the world if we fulfill our job description.

So, how about use? You? Me? Are we willing to let the Holy Spirit change our attitudes? Will we no longer accept the status quo of hunger, poverty and disparity? Will we move toward acting upon a “holy discontent” with the way things are? Will we live out being the family of humanity? Will we be bridge builders instead of wall builders? I pray so. 

Discussion Guide for September 25: Change Your Attitude

Share an experience that changed your attitude towards someone that is different from you.

Share about a relationship that has shaped the way you see others.

Share where you would like to change your attitude towards those who are different from you.

Share what you think it will take for you to change your attitude.