Five years ago the clergy at St. James’s decided that it would be prudent to give away $25 Ukrop gift cards to the needy people who came to the parish house asking for food, money, bus tickets, or any kind of financial assistance. We thought our plan was the perfect antidote to handing out cash that could be used to buy alcohol or drugs. No one wants to see the church’s money plunked down at a liquor store; no one wants to be an enabler. We were convinced that we were being good stewards of our resources. We kept a log of the names and we checked identifications so as not to duplicate, and we always tried our best to discern who was worthy.
Everything seemed fine until word got back to us that our cards were being scalped on the street for drugs. Meaning: You give me $10, 15, 20 dollars worth of marijuana or whiskey and I’ll give you the $25 gift card. Oh, how we were deflated. It was then that we realized we had to approach this issue systematically—with dedicated staff time. This is when I first got involved with Nancy Warman and her new program, called ACTS. Let me tell you, we’ve come a long way—and I truly believe the poor and the homeless of Richmond are better for it.
The reason I share this with you is that when I read about Lazarus in our gospel—starving and lusting after a rich man’s garbage—it occurred to me that he was one beggar who really could have used a Ukrops gift card. Or, better yet, a consultation with a professional social worker.
Now, Luke’s parable lacks the sort of information that people like to have when deciding whether and how to help. It does not say whether Lazarus was a con artist, or drug-addicted, or mentally ill, or just a well-intentioned guy down on his luck. All we know is that he was at the rich man’s gate, sick and hungry. And that, Luke seems to say, is all we need to know to predict the reversal ahead.
Not too many details emerge about the rich man, either. While he is unnamed in the gospel, he is commonly called “Dives” which is Latin for “rich man.” Did Dives invite friends over to laugh and point, have his minions lean on Lazarus to find another stoop; did they gag at the sight of the dogs licking his sores? We don’t know whether Dives was a cold man with habitually averted eyes who never saw the beggar at all, or whether he did notice, maybe even said a prayer for this sorry case, but stuck to his policy of never giving handouts to street people. We know only that he was rich, dressed well, and ate sumptuously. And that, Luke seems to say, is all we need to know to predict the reversal ahead.
Anyone who reads the Gospels is not shocked by that reversal: Jesus repeatedly, even abrasively, warns of the mortal risks to the wealthy. And Luke’s theological tenets about wealth never waver: too much money corrupts. There’s something else in the Lazarus story that seems odd, however: Dives, up to his neck in flames, hasn’t figured out that the reversal is for real and for good.
Surely he is sorry that he failed to do right by Lazarus. But even the terrible retribution has not undone his sense of entitlement. Privilege clings to Dives, even in hell. He thinks he can summon Abraham: “Send Lazarus to help me,” he pleads. This is not an idle request. It betrays habits of control. Dives still believes, remarkably, that even in hell he can command and expect a response. He continues to locate himself and others in the old geography of their stations on earth. Though Dives realizes that Lazarus is a man he should have helped, he still regards Lazarus as a servant who should descend to hell to quench his thirst and then scurry off to warn his heedless brothers about the fate they’re courting.
But Abraham smashes this illusion. His reply is terrible and true: Some outcomes cannot be influenced. Some chasms cannot be crossed. Some things harden. There is a point of no return. Harsh! Right?
Just as he did in last week’s gospel, Jesus is laying down the hammer, castigating the Pharisees for their love of money. This message cannot be lost on us. A few chapters on, in Luke 18, the issue comes up again. The exasperated disciples complain, “But [if what you say is true], how can the rich be saved?” Luke has nothing new to say on the subject except that the right way to use wealth it is to share it with the poor.
So how are we to answer to Abraham? Can we properly repent only by giving away all our material things to the Lazaruses of the world? I don’t believe so, though I have encountered a few people in my life who have done this very thing, and been amazed by them. But I would offer to you this morning a different way of thinking about how we, the privileged of St. James’s, ought to share our wealth.
I’m sure most of you have heard by now that you possess a carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint is a representation of the effect that you have on our planet in terms of the total amount of greenhouse gases you produce. As more and more people become aware of the ways their actions and inactions are effecting the environment, they are attempting to become more “green” in an effort to heal and preserve the earth. Probably the biggest contributors to our carbon footprints are our travel needs and our electricity demands at home. Even the food we eat and the clothes we wear indirectly impact environment. There is a movement to buy seasonal and locally grown food to offset the transportation emissions of shipping food around the country and the world. Cars, buses and airplanes burn gasoline, and our homes use a significant portion of electricity that generally comes from fossil-fuel burning power plants. All these actions contribute to accelerating global warming and climate change.
Many Americans have begun asking how they, the world’s privileged, can shrink their carbon footprints. The solution or absolution, if you like, comes by conserving energy or by purchasing carbon offsets. For example, to offset your annual carbon dioxide emissions, you would donate $1 for each ton of CO2 that your household produces. For each ton of CO2 that you produce, an organization called Rainforest2Reef will plant one tree, at the cost of only $1 per tree. This tree will absorb roughly 1 ton of carbon over its 40-year life cycle. There are many similar conservation carbon offset projects around the world (wind, solar, renewable energy).
So, to address that pesky question: How can we, the privileged and wealthy, be saved? Offsets. And not just in the context of carbon emissions. I would encourage you to think in terms of charitable offsets. As one who loves to shop and spend money on nice clothing, home furnishings, vacations, etc…it occurred to me that I had better be willing to gift (with money or time) as much as I spend on the non-essentials. Those items such as, say, candles, pillows, that cause my husband to remark, “Did you really need that?” I was chastened this summer when we went to the Sudan and I saw how the children there really did not have any clothing except for maybe one shirt and one pair of shorts that were already in tatters. I thought to myself how irresponsible it was of me to spend the amount of money I spent on my two sons’ new summer wardrobe. What I spent would have fed a family of four for probably six months or more. When I got home and opened Quincy and Casper’s overstuffed drawers, I felt sick to my stomach.
I can’t even begin to describe the shame of my own closet brings. Like many of you, I bought a new pair of shoes for the fall—the most expensive pair I have ever purchased. I began asking myself if my shoes were a morally irresponsible purchase. How much is too much to spend on a pair of shoes, a new handbag? And then it occurred to me that if I am willing to plunk down a couple of hundred dollars on a pair of shoes I’d also better be willing to give the same amount to the church for its ministries to the poor, to our own building campaign and to the building campaign of the Peter Paul Development Center, to UNICEF which educates and clothes the children of Southern Sudan, to Mustard Seed International which operates the clinic where we worked in the village of Akot and so on. You get my point, right?
Many of you engage in sacrificial giving right here at home as if it were second nature. You recognize that your gifts to the church and its ministry to the world are the best reflection of who you are and who you will become. Thank you. But many others of us are not there yet. This is why I think we should start by thinking of charitable giving as an offset to our materialistic footprints.
Paul had something quite profound to say on the subject in his 1st Epistle to Timothy—he called it claiming a life for ourselves that really is life rather than a life that we think we can buy. I will end with his words from the epistle: “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty 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” (1 Timothy 6: 17-19).