On Wednesday September 14, a plane carrying 48 immigrants arrived in Martha’s Vineyard. They were mostly from Venezuela, which has had widespread hunger and malnutrition for a number of years. When the people got off the plane there was no plan for what they would do from there. Someone made a call to a local church, which happened to be St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, and asked if they could temporarily house some of the immigrants. The church said actually, they could house all of the immigrants. So the community scrambled to set up cots and supplies in the parish hall, and the people stayed there for just two days until they were moved to a military base in Cape Cod which is now caring for them.
This is the response that Jesus calls his followers to make with regard to people who happen to be poor, which could be any of us at any time. And in a one-time crisis, even one like the Venezuelan people arriving on the doorstep of the community in Martha’s Vineyard, it’s relatively easy to do so. But for situations of chronic poverty and need, it’s much harder. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a stark story about a rich man who dined extravagantly every day and wore the finest clothes, and how at the gate of his home a poor man named Lazarus laid there every day, with dogs licking his sores. In the time of Jesus, there were sometimes benches placed outside the doors of rich persons’ homes, in the hopes that the rich would take pity and perhaps provide some small relief or help to poor people who would sit there. They would put the benches at the door or gate of the property so that the rich person would have no choice but to see the poor person every time they left their home. The story says that Lazarus longed just to eat the crumbs from the rich man’s table—the word for longing in Greek meaning a deep desire for something you are not going to get. It appears that no help was forthcoming. And then both men died, and their fortunes were reversed in the afterlife: Lazarus was comforted by Father Abraham, and the rich man was in Hades.
I do not believe this story is primarily a teaching by Jesus about going to heaven or hell. At the time of Jesus there were at least two other versions of this same story already circulating in both Jewish and Egyptian culture. All three stories talk about a reversal of fortune for a rich man and a poor man in the afterlife. What is interesting is the differences between this story and the others. In Jesus’ version, there is no explicit mention of good deeds or bad deeds done by the two men, where in both other stories there is. It seems clear by implication that for Jesus, intentionally and chronically ignoring a person in distress when you could easily help and do not do so is sinful. And in Jesus’ version of this story, the dead do not return to warn the living about the afterlife, whereas in the other two stories they do.
Jesus very strikingly says that if the rich man’s brothers will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they listen even to one who has risen from the dead. The word “listen” is repeated multiple times in this passage—the desire to send Lazarus as a warning so the rich man’s brothers will listen; the instruction to listen to Moses and the prophets; and, I would say also, the implication to listen to the poor man on your doorstep. My own practice as I am preparing a sermon is to stop and to listen, and this time, as I got quiet, it seemed to me that we don’t need miraculous teachings or messages from the great beyond to know what is the right thing to do when you encounter someone who is hungry. Perhaps listening to the very people who are right in front of us, who we may perhaps have gotten used to and no longer see, is more important than receiving spiritual warnings. It is all right here. And it is all in here, in our hearts, when we allow compassion to flow from them.
But there is no end to need in this world. Are we to give everything we have? Perhaps that is the wrong question. What if we could trust that in God’s extravagant love and generosity, there will be enough? In today’s Epistle reading from I Timothy, the Apostle Paul speaks about learning to be content with what we have—that if we have food and clothes, it is enough.
I know you are generous people. You are already doing much to share. And I believe the very heart of God, who cares passionately about all human beings, is deeply concerned about children in Venezuela and North Minneapolis and Little Earth and Ukraine who don’t have enough to eat right now. I believe all Jesus is asking us to do is to listen from the heart—and then, to allow compassion to well up in us and to share freely, extravagantly, and often, with joy and trust that joining God’s passionate heart to love and care for the poor is its own reward.
This might sound really dumb, but I want to share with you one tiny way this scripture impacted me this week. Yes, we need to care for people experiencing poverty, but we can start small and with what’s right in front of us. I have two cats, one of whom is named Treasure, who is assertive and alpha and can take on the world. The other is named Stormy. She is shy and is more of a “run for your life” type person. She is also a bit overweight, and so she sometimes gets tangles in her fur. I’m ashamed to say I have kind of ignored them for a little while.
This may sound absolutely insignificant, but as I was reading about the rich man walking right past suffering Lazarus with no concern, I started wondering who I walk right past, in what areas my compassion has shut down. And I realized I hadn’t taken care of poor Stormy’s tangles. They were uncomfortable and matted. So I stopped writing my sermon and ran to help her, and she was most pleased.
I hope you will forgive me telling this absolutely minor story, but the point is that I believe the living Christ calls us to have open hearts that are practiced at listening, noticing, and responding. We know when we are called be interrupted and simply to share without worrying about who deserves what. I’m called to listen and respond to more than my cat with tangled fur, but that’s a good place to begin and to practice. This is what the people of St. Andrew’s in Martha’s Vineyard did when a plane full of Venezuelan immigrants showed up on the island. This is what we do with our gifts to the people of San Nicolas in Richfield, and our friends in Haiti, and sometimes what we receive from each other when we hit bottom. This is what we can do for each other—simply to listen, notice, and share. For Jesus, the motivation for sharing is not a dire warning from the afterlife about the torment of Hades, which in any case is a Greek concept foreign to the Hebrew mind. The motivation to share comes simply from listening to those who are at our gate, to the God who is within us, and to the stories of our scripture who all point in the same direction. The motivation to share comes from learning to walk this earth with soft hearts and strong backs, so that we once again notice and hear the Lazaruses of this world. This is where Christ always is. And in the sharing our joy can overflow, knowing that all we have is already from God. Through the cycle of giving and receiving God is restoring the world. Amen.
 See “Why the Kids of Venezuela aren’t getting enough to eat,” January 11, 2022, in Goats and Soda (NPR’s global health and development blog), accessed September 24, 2022 at https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2022/01/11/1071485460/why-the-kids-of-venezuela-arent-getting-enough-to-eat.
 Chris Loewen, “Hypocrisy, Not Hell: The Polemic Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man,” May 16, 2017, https://rethinkinghell.com/2017/05/16/hypocrisy-not-hell-the-polemic-parable-of-lazarus-and-the-rich-man/