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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
Reach Out and Touch

Pentecost 17     Luke 16:19-31

(This sermon is most effective when it is preceded by the solo, REACH OUT AND TOUCH.)

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.

I personally 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 school.

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 earth.

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 to die.

Sister Teresa’s 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.

Twenty-four years 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.

With this 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 told it.

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 clear. 

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? Eh?”

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.

(The following 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 anyone.

There are so many different ways to reach out and touch. The touch is so powerful.

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 back?

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 between them.

How about those who visit Haiti or Jamaica and are touched, physically touched and spiritually touched by those they visit in those third world nations?

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.

CHILDREN’S 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.

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