Years ago, when I worked seasonally in HR for Samaritan's Purse hiring people to work Operation Christmas Child, it never failed to amaze me how the energy in the office changed whenever the phrase, "The Grahams are in the building" was heard, especially if it were Franklin himself. I simply went about doing my job as I would any other day. Others seemed baffled that I never got caught up in the frenzy of excitement that I might meet him or any of the Graham family. Nor did it change my day or work habits whenever a politician or well-known Christian was there. It has always puzzled me that there exists "Christian celebrities" considering we are told that "God is no respecter of persons." While working for Samaritan's Purse, I didn't think of myself working for the Grahams so much as for God.
I have been a part of many faith traditions within Christianity (Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Word of Faith, Baptist, Southern Baptist) and see that it happens within all of them. There are leaders within denominations for whom everyone speaks of as if they were the Apostle Paul. For the record, I also don't think that we are supposed to put the apostles or biblical figures on spiritual pedestals, either. I worked at Heritage USA during the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal. I have met many well-known television preachers (too many of whom are more celebrity than Christ-like).
Why are we drawn to celebrities, athletes, politicians, performers, and the wealthy and attribute to them more than mere person-hood? I have been in restaurants or on planes or in some public place and someone famous shows up. The atmosphere suddenly changes. People become more interested and curious. Everyone from actors and actresses to athletes to singers to authors. Not long after his bestselling autobiography Angela's Ashes came out, I met Frank McCourt in an airport. We spoke briefly, but what stuck with me was how he talked of being the same person he was when he was a teacher yet, now that he was becoming well-known as an author, society now placed more value on him and what he had to say; when, before, few listened to him at even a dinner party.
Our culture and society has placed an enormous amount of worth in somebody's financial circumstances, their power within business or the shaping of culture, in notoriety and fame, in athletic prowess, and in beauty. The famous are admired and even worshiped. How many long to be well-known for any reason. Look at how we have this instant celebs from social media - YouTube sensations who get millions of dollars in endorsements for some of the most superficial and trivial of videos. This country is full of people who crave attention and making a name for themselves. There is the false assumption that if one achieves fame or wealth or power, then they will be loved and accepted. Yet, this is a false idol. The late Carrie Fisher understood this better than many because she saw what fame and then the sudden loss of it did to her parents Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. She saw what this did to their marriage and their family. She never wanted to be a celebrity. To her, celebrity was obscurity waiting to happen. Carrie saw first-hand the damage it does on a person who goes from being told they are the greatest, the best, the most-talented and from being sought after to being unnoticed and unwanted in a business that spits out people because they seem them not as people but as products. Fame is not love. Celebrity is not acceptance.
This culture of celebrity, this desire for power and wealth is wrapped tightly within the American dream and, unfortunately, the American Church. Yet this stands in stark contrast to the kingdom of God, the inverted kingdom. The kingdom of God is an inversion of our own in that He finds significance in the insignificant. Those whom we do not see, who are invisible to us, are those most prominent to our Creator. "The first shall be last and the last shall be first," is so overly quoted and overly familiar that it's truth is too often lost on us. Yet how many of us will be shocked by who we see in heaven? We, who are too enamored of the rich young ruler and the wealthy man, but neglect the poor man Lazarus.
How many of us brush past this passage of scripture in the gospel of Luke?
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day," this story begins and probably everyone hearing it, either knew someone like this or longed to be this man. Jesus continued, "At his gate laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat from what fell from the rich man's table." In this culture, Lazarus was impure and unclean and as low as a human being could get. This was the bottom rung and stood in stark contrast to the rich man. No one listening envied or longed to be Lazarus whose only contact was the dogs licking his sores.
But Christ is not like us and when he tells a story or parable, it, most certainly, will turn on us, our expectations, our desires, our dreams and our vision of what a kingdom was meant to be. "The time came when the beggar died," Jesus said, "and the angels carried him to Abraham's side." How many hearing this were shocked to hear that this lowest of the low, this impure and unclean beggar was taken to the side of the very father of their faith? This was not what they expected and I would imagine that a great many were already offended and dismissive to the point that I wonder how many heard all of this tale?
"The rich man also died and was buried," Jesus continued further and, I wonder if he paused before saying, "In Hades, where he was in torment . . ." Now the crowd must have been murmuring amongst themselves. "How could this rabbi possibly be saying that an unclean beggar was with father Abraham while this rich man was in Hades?" Their concept of the afterlife was being turned upside down by this and, yet, Christ persists in his story by having the rich man, still viewing Lazarus as beneath him in status, because he calls out, "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire." He still sees Lazarus as inferior and treats him as if he were still no more than a mere servant. He still holds to the earthly hierarchy of his former life. It's as if he is calling a waiter over to refill his glass. Even in Hades, the rich man does not grasp that his concept of kingdom is not the reality of God's. The rich man still remains in his pecking-order.
"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things" (I cannot help but wonder how many in the crowd Jesus was speaking to and continues to speak to in our own day and age?), "while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place . . ." (By whom? Our Creator or by the choice the rich man has chosen. Even in death, he cannot see the reality of God's truth that there is neither rich nor poor, that status and social standing do not matter). " . . . so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us." The rich man is now stuck in both the literal Hades and the man-made class divisions that creates a hell on earth for the have-nots.
Now the rich man has concerns, not about the mistreatment and callousness he has had towards Lazarus, towards the poor and powerless, but only for his own kind, his own family. "Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus," the rich man says, still viewing Lazarus as inferior, "to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment."
And how does Abraham respond? Does he reconsider this man and his standing in the former world? Hardly, Abraham answers, "They have Moses and the Prophets" (both of whom tried to show people that the God of heaven was against the very kingdoms we build up. Moses took the Israelites out of bondage from Egypt and the Pharaoh, but they longed for it and even began to build a nation of their own based on the very structures of the land of their bondage). "Let them listen to them."
"No, father Abraham," the rich man pleaded, "but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent."
Abraham answers, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." And Jesus will prove this by raising a real Lazarus. Or in his own resurrection.
Christ showed that the kingdom of God is inherited by those who have been disinherited by the world: the poor, marginalized, the persecuted and vulnerable. He embraces the last: the beggars, the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the Samaritans. Christ lives out that God is no respecter of persons.
Yet how many churches would be far more happy to have the rich man enter their doors than poor Lazarus?
How many desire to have their pews full of refugees?
Would we become more excited to see Tom Brady or Bill Gates came in to our congregation than a Muslim woman? Or an African-American teen wearing a "Black Lives Matter" t-shirt? Or an unmarried, pregnant teen mother? Or a drug addict? A homeless person?
How many of the invisible enter our churches and remain so?
Woe to us if this remains so. We cannot be Christ's Church, his Bride if we stand in opposition to his will in regards to how we treat the least of these. How can we read that whatever we do for the least of these, we do to him and, yet, not practice it?
Why are we indifferent to the plight of the refugee? The condition of our poor? How unloved the foster child is? That there are people enslaved around the world in many forms of human trafficking? That so much of what we buy is made or harvested by them?
"When a poor person dies," Mother Teresa once said, "of hunger it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed."
We can no longer only offer lip service and claim to follow a Christ who identifies himself with those we too often willingly choose to ignore in their suffering and poverty. If the American Church does not change, how many will hear, "Depart from me"?
"For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you dis nor clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me" (Matthew 25:44).
Oh, how this words sit within me. They leave me uncomfortable and without excuses - which is exactly what Christ wants them to. But will I listen and act or, like the rich young ruler, turn away? Christ leaves us the choice. He leaves his words like a question asking, "What will you choose to do this day?" May we both follow him and be more like him to those he identified himself with.
Change me. Change my heart.
*Art used at the beginning of this blog is Christ of the Bread Lines by Lauren B. Davis