Reach Out and Touch
(This sermon is
most effective when it is preceded by the solo, REACH OUT AND
She said it often
in her raspy gutteral voice, “You wanna do something for God? Eh?
You wanna do something for God? Eh?”
One of the most
inspiring persons in the twentieth century has been a woman by the
name of Mother Teresa. She is one of the greatest people who lived
during the twentieth century. She towers above all, being the Mount
Everest of the mountain peaks. She is the most Christlike person to
live in the twentieth century. O yes, there are other great and
grand people of the past century like Dr. Albert Einstein, the
father of nuclear fission and the father of the atom bomb. How would
you like that to be your legacy, that you were the father of the
most destructive weapon know to mankind in the twentieth century.
Mother Teresa? She towers above all as the most Christlike person of
the previous one hundred years. She is to her century what St.
Francis of Assisi was to his century. She is the one who history
will remember as the greatest person of her era.
don’t have many regret in my life but I do regret not using the
initiative within me to go and personally visit Mother Teresa while
she was alive. I sometimes
wish I would have made a pilgrimage to visit her and sit at her
feet, to touch her hand and hear her voice. She is the one person I wish that I could have sat at her feet and touched the hem
of her garment, and perhaps the power of Christ in her would have
flowed into me.
There have been
many fine books written about Mother Teresa through the years, and I
have learned the following about her.
Mother Teresa was
born in Yugoslavia. She
was a plain and ordinary Yugoslavian young girl, except for the fact
that she devoted her life to Jesus Christ and she made a decision to
become a nun in the Roman Catholic Church. She was trained to be a
schoolteacher, like so many of you have been trained to be a
schoolteacher. And off she was sent to Calcutta to work and to teach
Now, I am not sure
how much you know about Calcutta, India. A century ago, Calcutta,
India was considered one of the most beautiful cities of the world,
and it was lovely place to live, having such lovely, dignified
architecture and buildings. But poverty and massive starvation
gripped that city in a terrible vice, and Calcutta
became a very nasty place to live, an ugly place of poverty.
According to many, it was called one of the “hell holes” of
To that city,
Calcutta, Teresa went to live and teach in a convent. It was a
beautiful convent and scholars say that her convent was like a
glistening white oasis in a desert of starvation. It was this
beautiful convent with large, flowing manicured, green lawns. There were lovely, lovely palm trees, and the buildings were
made out of white stucco. And there was a tall, high whitewashed,
stucco wall around the compound. It was like an oasis in the midst
of starvation. And there, in that place, Teresa started to teach.
At night, according
to these scholars, she would go up to the second floor, her bedroom,
and she would look out over the city and over the whitewashed walls
and see the poor and starving people of Calcutta. What she saw was
transforming for her. She was very upset by what she saw, and God
started to work in her young life. It wasn’t enough to drop coins
over the wall for the poor as a means of solving one’s guilty
conscience. It wasn’t enough to drop crumbs of bread from the high
safety of the walls to the needy below.
Something had to give. She had to do something.
She felt a compulsion in her to reach out and personally
touch the hungry and starving people on the streets below. So she
finally asked her Mother Superior if she could be excused from being
a schoolteacher and begins her face-to-face ministry to the poor.
Her wish was granted.
And so one day,
with merely the clothes on her back and five rupees, this young
girl, all alone, crossed the street and touched the skin of a
dying man. She did not watch poverty from a safe distance, but she
crossed the street and touched poor people.
She touched for the first time in her life, and it was
like her hands became on fire. Her heart became on fire. The
feelings in her fingers became on fire. And the revolution erupted
in her life. Something happened. The Spirit happened. And shortly
thereafter, after telling of her experience to her friends, two or
three other young women crossed that street from that oasis of a
convent, and they too reached out and touched the faces of dying
people, convinced that that dying person was a child of God. These
young women lovingly bound up their wounds and helped these people
organizational genius and drive started to take over. She started a
small orphanage, and then she, Teresa, trained herself as a nurse.
She received a degree in nursing. Then she started a medical clinic,
and there she developed a mission in the heart of the city.
But this gutsy young Yugoslavian girl was very bold. She was
daring; she was courageous; so much so that she dared to write the
pope, and asked to begin a new order called the Sisters of Charity.
She was granted her request and began a new order called the
Sisters of Charity. These women took a vow of absolute and strict
poverty and they would dedicate their lives to taking care of the
poorest of the poor in the world. Soon, from that time forward, one
young woman after another, came from all parts of the world, drawn
to Calcutta, by the inspiring, towering figure of this un-famous
person called Mother Teresa.
There are many
books that I have enjoyed about Mother Teresa, but the one I have
enjoyed the most is by Malcolm Muggeridge, entitled SOMETHING
BEAUTIFUL FOR GOD. In his book about her, he says when she was
interviewed by journalists who came to sit at her feet; when anybody
came to talk with her, at the end of the conversation, she always
asked in her rough, coarse, peasant voice, in English, with a
twinkle in her eye, “You want to do something beautiful for God?
Eh? You wanna to do something beautiful for God, Eh?” I have heard
her voice and heard that question by her on television. And so
Muggeridge entitled his book, SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL FOR GOD. Eh? And
do you want to do something beautiful for God, eh?
When I was a boy
growing up in Jackson, Minnesota, I never heard of Mother Teresa. I
never knew of such a person. When I was a boy growing up in Jackson,
Minnesota, as a little kid, the person who inspired my life was Dr.
Albert Schweitzer. You children who are here today most likely have
never heard of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, but many of you older people
have. Dr. Albert Schweitzer had gone to Central Africa to be a
medical missionary. He was as unusually gifted young man. He was a
talent musician, one of the most talented organists of Great Briton.
He was also a talented medical doctor and a brilliant theologian. He
wrote a theological classic, entitled THE QUEST FOR THE HISTORICAL
JESUS. One day in 1905, Dr. Schweitzer was in church and he heard
the parable of Jesus read. It was the parable that was read today.
It was the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. And God began to
work in his heart and Schweitzer slowly came to the conclusion that
the rich man was Europe and the poor man was Africa. He felt he
personally needed to go to Africa and help these God’s people.
So the young man left his illustrious careers in Great Briton
and went and was swallowed up by the jungles of Africa. He left the
safety of his cloistered house and went across the ocean to touch
those bodies of sick and dying people. He did not remain in the
safety of Great Briton but went to reach out and personally touch
the needy. It was not enough to throw charity and prayers across the
ocean while remaining safely behind the moat on the island of Great
Briton. As I was a boy growing up in Jackson, Minnesota, I admired
Dr. Schweitzer. I was inspired by him. Not because I wanted to
become a missionary. Not because I wanted to go to Africa. But I
sensed that here was a person who loved in the way that God wanted
us to love. Not to throw prayers and charity and offerings from a
position of safety but to go there and reach out and touch. Here was
a person who was willing to love and touch the poorest of the poor.
I sensed that this was the way that God wanted us Christians to be.
To love. To reach out and touch the poorest of people among us.
Yes, the question
was asked then and is asked now: Do you want to do something
beautiful for God? Eh?
Time went by and I
became a young adult. And then I became a pastor. And then, for the
first time in 1973, I had the privilege to preach on this story
about the Rich Man and Lazarus. In the summer of 1973, I was
preaching my first series of sermons here at Grace Lutheran and I
was preaching on the parables of Jesus, including the parable of the
Rich Man and Lazarus. That moment in 1973 was something else. I was
able to get into the guts of this text, and chew it so fine in my
mouth and roll it around in my head, and this story changed me. Yes,
this story changed me as it had changed Dr. Schweitzer years before.
And that story changed this congregation. First it was our
commitment to world hunger and then sponsoring twenty five refugee
families who lived in our homes with us. Then the youth and the
orphanage in Mexico and the missions to Haiti and Jamaica and then
the homeless shelter in our church and the Kid Reach program to
tutor neighboring kids one to one with their learning problems. And
it all began with the story, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus
and that story changed the direction of this congregation. There is
power in that story, to change me, to change you, to change a
congregation, to change a people.
ago, Darlene Malmo sang a song in her beautiful solo voice. It was a
song entitled, “Reach Out and Touch.” The words go like this:
“Reach out and touch a spirit that is hungry; reach out and
touch a soul in despair; reach out and touch a life torn and dirty,
a man who is lonely…if you dare.” It was so beautiful when she
sang that song twenty-four years ago, and my notes say that there
were people there who cried all the way through her song. And the
song that was sung by Darlene Malmo twenty-four years ago and again
sung by her today as a prelude to this sermon and that song itself
touched souls. That song captures the Spirit of the parable and the
invitation from Jesus to reach out and touch the Lazarus at our
door, at Lazarus who is so close to all of us. To reach out and
touch if you care. To reach out and touch if you dare.
introduction, we approach the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It
is one of the great stories of literature, one of the most powerful
parables that Jesus ever told. This story needs to be retold because
Jesus was an oral communicator. Jesus talks, not writes, and so this
story needs to be retold in the Spirit of the way Jesus originally
Jesus said: One
time there was a rich man who ate sumptuously every day. Steaks.
Baked potato. Sour cream. Bacon bits. Caesar salad, Wine. Baked
Alaska for desert. It was great. And he also dressed impeccably,
with color co-ordination like you wouldn’t believe. He had this
look of sophisticated wealth about him. His clothes spoke the
message clearly: he was rich. Outside his house was a poor man by
the name of Lazarus. He was in rags, smelled, had sores on his body,
and the dogs would come by and lick his sores. So the rich man would
come out of his house and he would not see Lazarus. He would step
over Lazarus and pretend that he wasn’t there, not wanting to be
contaminated by Lazarus’ secret diseases associated with poverty.
… Well, one day the poor man died and the rich man also died. No
surprise to that. We all die. The poor man died and the rich man
died and the poor man went to heaven and the rich man went to hell.
It was very hot down there in hell. And so the rich man down in hell
called up to heaven, shouting, “Faaaather Aaaaabrhammmmm. Father
Abraham, send Lazarus down here to dip his finger in the water and
cool my tongue for it is so hot.” Father Abraham called down from
heaven in a loud, long voice, “Ricccch man. Ricccch man. I can’t
send Lazarus down. There is a huuuuuge ravine between us, between
heaven and hell. You cannot travel between the two.” Silence. The
rich man tries again down from hell. He calls out again,
“Faaaaather Abraaaaaham, Faaaaather Abraaaaam. Then … send
Lazarus back to earth, back to
my five brothers and warn them. Convince my brothers what they need
to do so they won’t end up here with me, down in this hot hell.”
Father Abraham shouted back across the corridors of space,
“Riiiiich maaaannnnn. Your brothers have the Law; they have
the Prophets. They have the Bible. They know what to do.” Silence.
The rich man shouts again way up to heaven, “Faaaaather
Aaaabrahamm. Faaaather Abraaaaham. If someone rises from the dead,
my brothers may believe and care for the poor.” Father Abraham
shouts in words that echo across the canyons of space. “He was
raised from the dead and it didn’t do any good. They didn’t even
listen to him.” And thus ends the story.
I like the
quotation by Mark Twain. It is not the things about the Bible that I
don’t understand that bother me most; it is the things from the
Bible that I do understand that bother me the most.” This truth of
this story is simple. Even children can understand it. It
is one of the crystal clear stories; the meaning is too
She always asked
the question. I mean, she always asked the question in her gutteral,
visceral voice, “Do you want to do something beautiful for God?
What does this
parable have to say to you and me?
There are a few
things that I know this parable does not have to say.
The purpose of this
parable is not to tell us about the furniture of heaven and the
temperature of hell, that heaven has cool temperatures and that hell
has hot temperatures. The purpose of this parable is not to tell us
that there is a great big chasm between heaven and hell and that you
can’t go from one place to another. The chasm between heaven and
hell is fixed. That is not the purpose of the parable. Nor is the
purpose of the parable to say simply that rich people go to hell and
poor people go to heaven. On the contrary, there are all kinds of
rich people in both the Old and New Testament who were lovers of God
and go to heaven. So it is not simply, the poor go to heaven and the
rich go to hell. Nor this is parable primary about the super rich
and consequently have nothing to do with us. You know, the story is
about the duPorts, the Rockerfellers, the Kennedys. The Bill Gates,
the Paul Allens, the Ted Turners. The Nordstoms, the Fredicks, the
Nelsons. This parable is about the superrich and I am not one of
them. No, this parable is primarily about the five brothers (and
sisters) on earth. The key line in the parable is: “Send Lazarus
back to my five brothers and warn them and convince them about what
Jesus and the Bible says.”
The most famous New
Testament scholar about the New Testament parable is a man by the
name of Jacob Jeremias. In his authoritative writing about this
passage of Scripture, he says that this parable, the Rich Man and
Lazarus, should be called, “The Story of the Five Brothers.” The
parable is not about the superrich but about the five brothers and
sisters, about you and me, about us living on this earth today. This
parable is intended to warn us, the five brothers and sisters; it is
to convince us what the Bible says about Lazarus is true.
(from the song)
Reach out and touch a man who is lonely. Reach and touch a soul in
despair. Reach out and touch a man that is dirty. Reach out and
touch if you care. If you dare.
paragraph can be omitted because it is not easily memorized. To read
this paragraph breaks the flow of oral communication, but I still
included this quotation as a reference.)Dr. Roy Harrisville, my New
Testament professor, wrote a book and about this passage he wrote:
“Now, that is a strange God whose heart beats for the imperfect,
the twisted and the malformed. Every other god gets into a hot sweat
for beauty and perfection, for isosceles triangles and thirty-two
inch waists. Not our God. Not the God of Luke’s gospel. He has an
affinity for Lazarus. Luke is plumb full of stories about folks with
invitations to dinner; a guest list of the poor, the blind and the
maimed. They get the best seats; they get the ringside seats. God
turns everything topsy- turvy, everything upside down.” We know
that. We know the Old Testament. We know the stories of the New
Testament. We know…that God has a special affection for the poor.
She asked the
question again and again in her guttural voice.
“You want to do something beautiful for God? Eh?”
So how does this
story apply to us and our world today?
I have discovered
that everyone who is a Christian is unique and uniquely finds the
way for you personally to reach out and touch the Lazarus at your
door step. To not simply throw dollars and prayers at needy people
from the walls of your sanctuary or home. I have found through the
years, what I didn’t understand as a younger man, that each
Christian is unique and uniquely finds his or her own way to reach
out and touch and help Lazarus. We Christians are not to ignore the
Lazarus’ in our lives. Not to absent-mindedly step over the
Lazarus’ at our gate. Not to be so distracted by living life that
we are blind to the Lazarus’ that are as close as our feet and
eyes. Not by throwing money over the church wall or the convent wall
in order to help those in need, thereby not physically touching
There are so many
different ways to reach out and touch. The touch is so
How about all those
people who go over to the area nursing homes, which are part of a
ministry group, Friend to Friend. They go and visit people who have
no one to visit them. They go and visit a new, elderly friend, who
may have Alzheimer’s and so nobody knows and nobody says thank you
and they receive no credit from some admiring person. They just go
and visit and reach out and touch the face, touch the skin, touch
the hair, touch a shoulder, hold a hand. The old Alzheimer’s lady
dies and the Christian visitor gets a new old Alzheimer’s man to
visit. Again, the hair is touched, the face is touched, the hands
are touched. Why? Why do these Christians keep going to nursing
homes and touching those in need?
How about on Sunday
morning? A certain little old lady or old man comes in his or her
walker, going click, click, click, with Harriet at the side, with
Harriet bringing that person many Sundays. Is she doing something
beautiful for God, eh?
How about the
quilting ladies on Thursday mornings? And those quilts get sent all
over the world. Mother Teresa writes a letter back to Lutheran World
Relief, thanking people for their gifts of love.
Is that what it means to do something beautiful for God, eh?
How about those
people who drive for the homeless and chat with them, shake their
hands when they get into the van? How about those people who make
the evening snack and say hello to the homeless men? Who stay over
night? Who prepare the breakfast in the morning and chat with the
guys? Or wash the blankets? Or drive them in the morning and chat
about the weather? Who reach out and touch a hand, a shoulder, a
How about those
youth who play with the orphans at the orphanage in Mexico? It would
be so easy throw prayers and charity from the distance, from the
safety of our sanctuary. But it is totally transforming to hold an
orphan in your arms or play with a child at the orphanage.
How about those
people who are tutors for the neighborhood kids, who sit right next
to a child and read with them or do math or play games, touching
their hands, their backs, their hair. I think of Karen in our
church, a former school teacher, handicapped by a stroke and sitting
there in a sofa with her student, reading to her. I am not sure
where the action really is: in the reading of the book or two people
touching each other, sitting side by side, and the love flows
How about those who
visit Haiti or Jamaica and are touched, physically touched and
spiritually touched by those they visit in those third world
How about those
people who are convinced that political action makes a difference,
that nations and financial institutions have cancelled billions of
dollars of debt due to the political activity of people who belong
to Christian organizations such as Bread for the World? Kathryn
Wolford, President of Lutheran World Relief, worked for years face
to face with poor people in Haiti and from that face to face work,
she continues to work for many things, including debt relief for the
poorest nations of the earth.
The question is
still asked today because the spirit of Mother Teresa lives on: You
wanna do something beautiful for God, eh? You wanna do something
beautiful for God, eh?
I am so glad
Darlene sang her song again, that song from twenty four years ago.
The song is an invitation from God: Reach out and touch a soul that
is hungry. Reach out and touch a man in despair. Reach out and touch
a man that is dirty. Reach out and touch if you care. Reach out and
touch if you dare.
SERMON: Have a loaf of round bread on the Communion Table plus a jar
of peanut butter and honey. Break the bread. Repeatedly throw the
crumbs to the children, while making a peanut butter and honey
sandwich for yourself. The kids will become playfully frantic for
the crumbs while I am eating the loaf of bread. Keep throwing the
crumbs, and maybe the kids will try to get the loaf of bread from
me. Imagine that these children are starving and are now frantically
trying to get a piece of bread in order to stay alive. Meanwhile, I
continue to eat the bread, peanut butter and honey, sharing only the
crumbs with the children of the earth. God says that I will go to
hell for this. Amen.