Luke 6:30-31; 16:19-31

Last Sunday Mike McDowell really pulled one over on us.  Mike was giving the Children’s Story last week, and to teach a lesson to the children, he assumed the role of a homeless person.  In the process he taught us all a lesson.  Mike arrived at the church early last Sunday morning, dressed like somebody who lives on the street.  He had a big cardboard box that he set in the grass next to the driveway out by the church sign, along with a shopping cart loaded with junk.  Mike laid down inside the box and spent the Sunday School hour before the worship service out on the church lawn.  He played the part very well; in fact he startled quite a few people.  Many who saw him thought we really did have a homeless man camping out on our church property.  All morning long before the worship service began people kept coming up to me and saying, “Did you know there’s a homeless guy out by the church sign?”  

Mike had not warned me in advance that he was going to do that bit of role-playing, but I had seen him set up, and I guessed that it was in preparation for the Children’s Story.  Still, I wasn’t absolutely certain what was going on.  So finally I went out to talk with him to make sure that’s what it was all about.  Sure enough, Mike came in for the Children’s Story pushing his shopping cart down the aisle and dressed like a street person.  Mike used his “get-up” to teach the children a lesson about not judging people by the way they look.  But more than that, he taught all of us a lesson about the homeless in our midst.

Later that afternoon Linda remarked to me that she found it interesting that no one had gone to check it out when they had seen that guy lying in a cardboard box by the side of the road.  Several people told me he was out there, but no one went to investigate.  I don’t blame anyone for that.  It’s only prudent to be careful nowadays.  I never would pick up a hitchhiker, and I generally give homeless people a wide berth.  But when an apparently homeless person sets up camp on our front lawn, it raises the issue of what we in the church should do?

Jesus told a story about a rich man and a homeless beggar named Lazarus.  The rich man dressed in purple and fine linen.  In today’s terms, he shopped at Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus.  He feasted sumptuously every day.  Today’s equivalent would be steak and lobster and $40 bottles of wine.  We are not told how he got around, but he probably would have driven a Lexus or a Mercedes SUV.  We are not told where he lived, but he probably would have had a five-bedroom home in a gated community with a three-car garage and a swimming pool.  In other words, the rich man was like a lot of people who live around here, maybe even some of us.  Probably none of us would consider ourselves rich, but our lifestyles are not too far below that which I have described.  We don’t dress in fine linen all the time, but most of us have our share of nice clothes.  We don’t eat surf and turf every day, but we are apt to eat out at a nice restaurant on special occasions.  We don’t all drive expensive cars, but many of us do.  We don’t all live in gated communities, but the price of housing in this area is pretty upscale compared with many regions of the country.  None of us would identify ourselves with the rich man in the parable, but compared with most people in the world, we are fabulously wealthy, (at least most of us are).  Someone has said, if your basic needs are met—if you have a place to live and enough to eat and clean water and access to medical care—you are rich compared with most of the people in the world.
Lazarus was a poor beggar who lay at the rich man’s gate.  He was perpetually hungry.  He longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.  He was sick, probably as a result of chronic malnutrition and lack of medical care.  His body was covered with sores that the dogs of the street would lick.  Lazarus was a pathetic sight.  He reminds me of some of the homeless people that I see on the streets of Washington, or even out here in the suburbs.  Some of them will stand on busy street corners, near the shopping complexes at Bowie Town Center or Annapolis Mall or Marley Station.  They usually approach cars with a cardboard sign hanging from their necks declaring their homeless condition, and holding out a cup for handouts.  Lazarus is with us still.  If one of those homeless persons camped out in front of where we live, we’d probably call the police and have him arrested for trespassing.  

In the parable that Jesus told, both Lazarus and the rich man died.  Death is the great equalizer.  Except in this case, the two men ended up in different places.  Lazarus was carried by the angels to be with Abraham; the rich man was tormented in Hades.  What was the rich man’s sin that led to such a fate?  Apathy—he didn’t care about anybody but himself.  He knew that he was supposed to care for the poor—that is one of the major themes of the Old Testament.  But he was so preoccupied with maintaining his lifestyle that he ignored the poor beggar at his gate.

Jesus told another parable about the Last Judgment in Matthew 25.  He said that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he would separate people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  Those at his right hand would be blessed and would receive the kingdom prepared for them.  They would be blessed not on the basis of what they believed, but on the basis of what they had done “for the least of these.”  “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me.”  According to Jesus, the basis on which we will be judged is not what we believe, but what we have done for the poor, the hurting, the suffering, the disadvantaged; yes, even the homeless.

This morning Yvette Rawley told us about the Warm Nights program of the Community Ministry of Prince George’s County.  During the winter months, churches across the county open their doors to those who have no place to sleep.  Community Ministry, in cooperation with the county government, provides transportation and cots and professional supervisory personnel, but the churches provide their buildings and meals and volunteers to spend the night.  A participating church makes available space for up to 25 homeless persons for one week.  Then the program moves to another church, and another church, throughout the winter.  For several years our church has been supporting the Warm Nights program at Kettering Baptist Church.  We’ve provided breakfast one morning and lunch one day for the week that Kettering hosts Warm Nights.  But we’ve been talking for several years about getting involved in a more significant way as a host church.  That means we would open our church every night for an entire week to give people a place to sleep and meals and other support.  It’s a big undertaking, and it would require the volunteer efforts of many people in our church family if we were to do it.  At least two people would volunteer to spend the night each of the seven nights.  We would need to arrange for food for seven dinners and seven breakfasts and seven bag lunches for up to 25 people.  Those homeless persons who would spend the night at the church would not be here during the day.  They would be transported to work or to school or to other places.  They would only return here for dinner and to spend the night and for breakfast the next morning.  Already a number of people in our church have said they would be willing to spend one night here at the church should Village decide to become a host for Warm Nights.  But if we do become a host church, many more people will need to volunteer to provide food or stay the night or help in other ways.

Warm Nights is but one of many opportunities we have to help the poor.  Every other month on Communion Sundays, we make sandwiches for Martha’s Table and we bring in non-perishables for the Community Food Pantry.  In fall we have a world hunger emphasis, culminating with our World Hunger Offering the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  We are hoping to have another Habitat for Humanity workday where people can volunteer to help build a house for an underprivileged family.  A couple of times a year people from our church provide lunch for the Community Place Café at a church in Hyattsville for low income residents of the county.  Our Vacation Bible School designated Children of Mine as our mission project this year, and we want to deepen our involvement with Children of Mine, a ministry to disadvantaged children in the Anacostia area of Washington, D.C.  Right now, of course, we are in the midst of a drive to provide Shoes for Orphan Souls.  

The reason for all of these ministries is that Jesus calls us to do something about the beggars at our gate.  That doesn’t mean we should give money to anyone who approaches us on the street.  In many cases, handing out money would do more harm than good.  People with substance abuse problems are likely to use handouts to buy alcohol or drugs rather than food.  But supporting programs that serve the poor is a better investment of our resources.  And getting involved personally through programs like Warm Nights can open our eyes to the needs around us.  The rich man’s sin was not so much what he did but what he failed to do.  He failed to notice the beggar at his gate, and he failed to do anything to help that person in need.  That’s the sin that threatens us—failing to notice, and failing to do anything to help.

Dr. Paul Polak had a successful psychiatric practice in Denver.  He invested in real estate and oil and made a good living.  But twenty years ago, at the age of 50, Dr. Polak made a dramatic career change.  He founded a non-profit called International Development Enterprises (IDE) that sells inexpensive irrigation devices to subsistence farmers.  His goal is to help alleviate poverty among the nearly 1 billion people who struggle just to survive.  One of the devices that he has developed is a $100 pedal-powered pump that can move water the length of a football field.  Another is small drip irrigation device that costs $1.  Polak doesn’t give these devices away.  He makes the farmers pay for the technology so that they have a stake in their own success.  Dr. Polak himself spends several month each year in Third World countries, talking to the local people in order to understand their needs and figure out what he can do to help.  In 2003 Paul Polak was named by Scientific American magazine as one of its top 50 leaders of the year for his antipoverty work.  But Paul Polak doesn’t do it for the recognition.  He does it because he sees a need.  Unlike the rich man, Paul Polak notices Lazarus at the gate, and he does what he can to help.

Last Sunday Mike McDowell challenged us to notice the needs that are all around us.  Who knows when a truly needy person will show up at our door on a Sunday morning?  Indeed, such persons are already all around us, if we have eyes to see them.  Poor man Lazarus, sick and disabled, is at our gate right now.  What will we do?  

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
August 22, 2004 

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