Can You Hear Me Now?

Can You Hear Me Now? mp3 file

Luke 16:19-31

Verizon Asks Can You Hear Me Now?

In 2004, Verizon launched a new ad campaign aimed at a recurring problem in the cell phone industry — the inability to actually hear the person you’re talking to. The ad had a simple premise — have a nerdy, tech guy dressed in a Verizon jumpsuit walk around with a cell phone to his ear, asking, “Can you hear me now?” Interestingly, the ad resonated with cell phone users, most of whom had shouted into their own phones at one time or another, “Can you hear me now?”

This problem of being able to hear is not just a US problem either. Everyone in China has a cellphone, and in many parts of China the government has skipped putting in telephone poles and wires and landline phones, and gone directly to cell phone towers. In Shanghai, it can take up to six months to get a hardwired phone installed in your home or office. So, everybody uses cell phones. One day while my Shanghai manager, who is Chinese, and I were in a car being driven by a factory driver from a company in Nantong, my Chinese manager got a call on his cell phone. He answered the phone with “Wei?” — the Mandarin equivalent for “Hello.” After a moment, Lin began saying, “Wei…wei…wei?” Obviously indicating that he could not hear the other party. I assumed it was poor cell phone reception, but when Lin hung up, he looked at me and said in English, which the driver did not understand, “That was a competing factory, and I didn’t want the driver to hear what I was saying to them.” So, the problem of “Can you hear me now?” is familiar even to the Chinese.

The Story of A Rich Man and A Poor Man

In Luke’s gospel we have the story of a man whom Jesus might ask, “Can you hear me now?” It’s the story of a rich man and Jesus tells it to make a point about hearing God now. The story goes like this —

There was a rich man and a poor man. The poor man came to the rich man’s house every day, lying at his gate, waiting for some act of kindness or help from the rich man. Jesus said that the poor man, Lazarus (but not the Lazarus who was brother to Mary and Martha), longed “to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.” Crumbs, scraps, leftovers, nothing that Dives — tradition says that’s the name of the rich man; ‘dives’ is Latin for “rich man” — couldn’t afford to give away. But apparently Dives did not even do that. Jesus says the dogs licked the sores on Lazarus, which even for the first century is not a pretty picture.

The beggar died, and Jesus says the angels carried him to Abraham’s side — bosom as the KJV has it. The point is that Lazarus was given special treatment, a seat so close to Father Abraham that there were none closer. Of course, Abraham’s side or bosom was also the description of the highest heavenly realm — either way this was not a bad place for Lazarus to be.

As fate would have it, the rich man also died and was buried. No description of angels carrying him to heaven. Dead and buried. But the next scene begins, “In hades, where he was in torment, he looked and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.” So, the rich man was about as far from Abraham — and Lazarus — as anybody could be.

Aware of his fate, the rich man pleads with Father Abraham to have Lazarus dip the tip of his finger in water and cool Dives’ tongue. So, any relief, as small as a drop of water hanging on the tip of a finger, would be welcome. Kind of like the story Jerry Clower used to tell —

In one of his best-known yarns, Clower told of a famous coon hunt that culminates in the miraculous ascent of one John Eubanks, “a professional tree climber,” up one of the biggest trees in the Amite River Swamp. The object of John’s climb is what is presumed to be a coon nestled among the giant sweet gum’s topmost branches. As he nears his prey, Eubanks is repeatedly admonished to “Knock ’em out, John!” Upon his arrival in the upper branches of the tree, however, the unfortunate John encounters not a coon, but a lynx. The cat proceeds to attack him, resulting in a cacophony of screams from John, screeches from the lynx, and continued encouragement from the ground in the form of “Knock ’em out, John!” John’s plight is finally understood by his colleagues, and he begs them to “Shoot this thing.” They reply that they are afraid to, lest they should hit John. In response, a desperate John can only plead, “Just shoot up here amongst us, one of us has got to have some relief!” Well, Dives needed some relief, and it wasn’t funny.

Abraham tells him that no one can cross the boundary between hades and heaven, and reminds him that in his lifetime, Dives had received good things and now it was Lazarus who was receiving good things.

Resigned to his fate, Dives then asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to his five brothers, to warn them so that they do not end up in “this place of torment.” Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” In other words, Dives’ brothers have the Law and the Prophets — the word of God to the people of God.

As if answering the question, “Are your brothers listening to the Law and the Prophets?” — Dives answers, “No, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” Sounds logical — someone from the dead that they recognized would certainly get their attention. Charles Dickens used that very device in his famous “Christmas Carol” as the ghosts of his dead partners and the ghost of Christmas past haunt Ebenezer Scrooge’s nightmare.

But the words that Jesus places in the mouth of Father Abraham are prophetic beyond the crowd’s ability to understand. Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Note — Abraham doesn’t say “returns from the dead” — he says “rises from the dead.” Which is exactly what Jesus will do not many days from the telling of this story. But, at the moment that subtle reference to the resurrection is lost on both the crowd and Jesus’ disciples.

What’s The Point?

So, what point was Jesus making with this story? Well, there is the obvious reference to life beyond the grave and to the reward or punishment that awaits in the life to come. But the real point of this story is this —


Are you listening to what God is saying now?


Dives had it all — a life of luxury, great food, designer clothes — and Dives was one of God’s chosen people — he was a Jew. Abraham makes an appearance here in this story for an obvious reason — God chose Abraham to be the father of a great nation. And, God promised to bless Abraham and his descendants. The covenant that God made with Abraham, recorded in the first book of Moses in Genesis 12, was —

2 “I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Dives had failed spectacularly to be a blessing, even to his own countryman, Lazarus. Dives sin was the sin of not listening to the call of God to be the people of God, and to be a blessing to all people, including a beggar like Lazarus. Now the tables were turned and Dives was getting a taste of the life of torment.The Kingdom Call To RepentAs if knowing what he had done wrong, Dives pleads that someone go back and warn his brothers. He is convinced that if Lazarus, known to his brothers as the “dead beggar,” would return to warn them, they would repent. Repentance means “to turn around” and “to go in a different direction.” When Jesus comes announcing the kingdom of God in Mark 1:15, he says —“The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”So, “turning around” in our thinking and acting is what Jesus says is necessary to enter the kingdom of God. Repent of our failure to be a blessing to the world. Quit consuming all of God’s blessings ourselves and share them with others. There is plenty in the Kingdom if God’s people will live in light of the promise to Abraham — then God will bless us and, in turn, all peoples on earth will be blessed through us. And, the point of the story is our conduct has eternal consequences.Scot McKnight, in A Community Called Atonement, says this about eternity —“Imagine being guided into a boat, out onto a lake like Lake Michigan, and being given a long rod to poke the bottom. Now describe what is at the bottom of the water. We are in the same position in seeking to describe eternity. We know some things, assuming an orthodox stance, but we can at best only try to describe the indescribable.”

McKnight continues —

“..eternity is the society created by God around Jesus Christ wherein God’s people enjoy union with God and communion with one another, in a place where everything works as it did in Eden.”

“Atonement, if we read the Bible with its own emphases, is about creating communities of faith wherein God’s will is done and lived out.”

What Does This Story Mean for Us?

Ron Sider, in his classic Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, asks the question, How generous are we? Sider quotes the Statistical Abstract of the U.S, which notes that the average American gives 2.1% to all charitable causes. Then, he says that church members do better. We give a whopping 2.52% to all charitable causes on average. We are the modern Dives to the world’s Lazaruses. We are the rich who do not help the poor in proportion to our wealth.

St. Francis of Assisi prayed this prayer that might be the model for how we can be a blessing, both materially and spiritually, to this world —

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

The Rest of the Greg Mortenson Story

I told a very small part of the Greg Mortenson story last week. Some of you have said you’d like to hear more. Greg Mortenson is an example of how we can be a blessing to others.

Greg Mortenson grew up the son of Lutheran missionaries to Tanzania in Africa. His father, Dempsey, founded the first teaching hospital in all of Africa. His mother founded a school for the international community in central Africa. Mortenson came from a family that listened to God’s call to be a blessing.

Sadly, Greg Mortenson’s father died of cancer at age 48, leaving the family virtually penniless. The meager earnings of a missionary salary, combined with their generosity, left them with nothing. So, Mortenson had joined the Army, served in Germany, was awarded the Army Commendation medal. With his GI bill benefits, he graduated from nursing school as an emergency room nurse. But, Greg was also an outdoorsman, a mountain climber. Growing up in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, Greg was challenged by the majesty and impenetrability of the world’s tallest mountains. Single and young, Greg worked just long enough as an emergency room nurse to save enough money to go on his next mountain climbing adventure.

His greatest challenge was to climb K2, the tallest peak in the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan, and the second tallest peak in the world. I told you the story of that failed attempt last week. Mortenson really didn’t fail, but cut short his attempt in order to save the life of a fellow climber. Lost on his way down the mountain, Mortenson spent several days with the tribe that inhabited the remote village of Korphe — so remote that it was not included on maps of the area. There Mortenson lived with the head of the village, Haji Ali, and his family. Discovering that there was no school building, Mortenson promised to return and build one.

Three years later, Greg Mortenson made good on that promise. Three years of saving, three years of talking to others about the plight of the children of Korphe, three years of fundraising. One very wealthy silicon valley millionaire had written a check for $12,000 to cover the cost of the first school. When Mortenson made a trip back to build the school, the elders of the village said they had discussed the school, and wanted it built, but had decided they needed a bridge first. The only means of crossing the river valley was in a rickety wooden cable sling, requiring the occupant of the handmade wooden bucket to pull himself hand-over-hand while hanging precariously over the rocky valley below.

Mortenson returned to the US, raised $10,000 to build the bridge and then returned to the village of Korphe again. This time the bridge was built, but winter was approaching and it was too late to start the construction of the school. Another year passed, and Mortenson discovered that the building materials for the school had been taken by a rival village leader to complete a hotel for climbers that he had run out of funds to complete. Mortenson rallied supporters, went to the site where some of the materials were stored and retrieved them. At least a third of the supplies were missing, so again, Mortenson asked for more donations from America to replace the pilfered materials. At last construction on the school began.

But, in the meantime, the rival village Muslim cleric declared a fatwa — a Muslim religious decree — against Mortenson. That would be the first of two fatwas declared. Each time Mortenson allowed the local religious leaders to appeal to the highest Muslim Shiite leader in northern Pakistan, Syed Abbas, who eventually became a key supporter of the effort to build the schools.

Mortenson was captured by the Taliban on a trip to Peshawar, Pakistan. Held for eight days, Mortenson was finally released. Had he been captured after 9/11, he probably would have been beheaded like so many other westerners.

Greg Mortenson has bought sewing machines for village women, giving them the ability to make goods for sale. He has built community centers, new schools, renovated old schools, enlarged overcrowded school buildings, and worked with the cooperation of the Pakistan government to enhance educational opportunities in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At the dedication of the a new school in Kuardu, only 3-days after 9/11, Syed Abbas, the leading Shiite cleric in northern Pakistan spoke to the crowd gathered that day. Listen to this excerpt from Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea

“It is by fate that Allah the Almighty has brought us together in this hour,” Syed Abbas said. The stage he stood on, invisible in the crush of bodies, made him seem to float above the crowd in his black cloak and turban. “Today is a day that you children will remember forever and tell your children and your grandchildren. Today, from the darkness of illiteracy, the light of education shines bright.”

“We share in the sorrow as people weep and suffer in America today,” he said, pushing his thick glasses firmly in place, “as we inaugurate this school. Those who have committed this evil act against the innocent, the women and children, to create thousands of widows and orphans do not do so in the name of Islam. By the grace of Allah the Almighty, may justice be served on them.

“For this tragedy, I humbly ask Mr. George and Dr. Greg Sahib for their forgiveness. All of you, my brethren: Protect and embrace these two American brothers in our midst. Let no harm come to them. Share all you have to make their mission successful.”

“These two Christian men have come halfway around the world to show our Muslim children the light of education. Why have we not been able to bring education to our children on our own?

“I request America to look into our hearts,” Abbas continued, his voice straining with emotion, “and see that the great majority of us are not terrorists, but good simple people. Our land is stricken with poverty because we are without education. But today, another candle of knowledge has been lit. In the name of Allah the Almighty, may it light our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in.”

This is what it means to be a blessing to all the nations. At the end of Jesus’ stories, he often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Which was a first century way of asking, “Can you hear me now?”

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