The Struggle Within

Alberto was a handsome young man who met a beautiful girl in college, married her, and got a job after college working for a financial group. There was great promise for Alberto. He excelled, was rewarded handsomely, and was promoted up through the ranks of the company. After two promotions, his wife said, "We should have a home and start a family." So they bought a beautiful home in just the right neighborhood and began to have a family. Alberto decided to work a little harder and a little longer so he'd get that next promotion and have the other things they needed and maybe take a little heat from the mortgage that they were paying in their gated community. He worked hard, and he got that promotion.

During that time, they had two children, and a third was on the way. His wife said, "Alberto, life is good. Let's spend more time together as a family. You're working so much that your children hardly know you." Alberto said, "With just one more promotion, I'll be able to retire at forty-five." That was a goal for Alberto. He wanted to be one of those people who could go back to high school reunions and just smile. He wanted to retire so early in life that he could then enjoy his life fully. So Alberto worked harder and harder at his job, and he was away from the house more and more. Now, at home they had everything, all the best that money could buy. And Alberto would get angry when his wife would say, "We need you to spend more time at home." He'd say, "But look at all these wonderful things we have for you and the children." And she said, "We really need you, Alberto." Well, Alberto decided to hire a nanny to help with raising the children. His wife, of course, was appreciative that there was a nanny to help with some of her burden. But somehow over the next five years, their relationship became more and more strained despite the help. Alberto finally got that last promotion and was now at the top of his career. He was now about forty-two. When he got the promotion, he went home to celebrate with his family...and returned to a note on the table from his wife saying, "I've had it. I can't do this any longer. I've taken the kids and gone." No forwarding address, no phone number. Alberto didn't know what had hit him and he struggled to figure out how he could fix this problem. He was so successful that in just three short years he'd have made that goal of retirement, but now everything he'd worked for was lost. Alberto wasn't sure what to do. He'd been a man of faith earlier in his life. In his childhood, he went to church. He came from a family of meager means so it was important for him to have this success. He decided to go back to his small rural church and talk to the pastor.

The pastor had no idea who he was, but Alberto said, "I was a member of this church...I think I still am." The two of them walked to the church library and pulled out old confirmation pictures, and there was Alberto, class of 1977, proof that Alberto had been a church member. By then most of his family had moved away and the pastor didn't know any of them, but he said, "Let's sit down and talk; you seemed troubled." And Alberto talked about the struggle of his family leaving him. After hearing the story of his life, the pastor said, "Alberto, you seem like you are in torment," and turned to the passage on Lazarus that we read today. Now, he said, "This passage is a little different from your situation because you haven't been stepping over a poor person in front of your door, but there's a similar lesson to be learned. You have focused your life not on the things of God, but on wealth. And now you find yourself in torment just like the rich man...lost, without your family, but many riches. He said, "Alberto, I'm not sure what I can do for you, but why don't we work on a plan. And Alberto eagerly said, "Yes, Pastor, I'll do anything. I want to get my family back."

So Alberto met with him for the next few months and they discussed a plan for his future and a way for him to make amends with his family. Alberto faithfully began going to church and found himself sponsoring many of the ministries of the church, and he felt very satisfied in doing that. He learned something through that experience, that he enjoyed giving and seeing the impact it made. And Alberto, in the midst of working with the pastor through spiritual direction and working with committees in the church and seeing how his wealth could help that congregation really move forward, learned that he was a better person in those moments than who he'd been for the last fifteen years, and he was moved. He had a change of heart.

The pastor and Alberto continued to meet for over a year. After some time, the pastor was able to get the wife to come for couples counseling, and over time she too started to notice the change in Alberto. She explained to him that those things they had were very nice, but she felt their life was empty and frustrating and just too difficult to continue, so to save herself and the children she left. But now she had seen a change and she gave Alberto an ultimatum, "I will come back to you if you give away most of what you have and we go back to a more normal lifestyle," and he agreed. Reluctantly, but he agreed. He let her pick out the neighborhood, the house, and the cars they would drive, and then he slowly dispersed his fortune, and he told the pastor how grateful he was to have his family back. But Alberto, even though he'd had a change of heart, was still missing the deeper spiritual connection in his life...and that is giving because it is God who gives to us. Well, after working with Alberto for an additional year, Alberto saw a blossoming faith inside of himself. So not only did he have the change of heart the year prior, but he had a change in his faith and his outlook as to who he was and who God was calling him to be.

At the end of his life, Alberto was recognized as one of the saints in his church. He died of cancer about seven years after he'd made amends with his family, but he saw his children grow and graduate from college before his untimely death. But when he died, he died a peaceful man, one who was in a right place with God. He had no fear that the rich man from the story of Lazarus was trying to warn his family because he had changed. And the church recognized him as one of the saints, not because of all the money he'd given to support its programming for so many years, but because he was an inspiration that one can change and that God can help us to change and to see God's vision in our lives. Was Alberto really a saint? On All Saints Day, you usually hear me proclaim that we're all saints thanks to our Savior and thanks to the grace and mercy of God. We are all saints in the kingdom of God, and yet we also have work to do.

There is also a warning in I Timothy...not as great as the warning we hear in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, but some real food for thought. The writer says, 'Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.' When I meet with folks facing the same struggles as Alberto, I see how pursuing wealth can plunge us into ruin and destruction, often without even noticing. The writer continues, 'For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. And in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains,' like Alberto's experience of wandering from the church to a life of riches, finding himself pierced with many pains. Then the writer says, 'But as for you, (people) of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.' Words of wisdom from the writer of I Timothy. Then he addresses those who are already wealthy and says, 'As for those who in this present age are rich, commend 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 they may take hold of the life that really is life. Using the gifts of God to give abundantly, being rich in doing good works, thus storing up for ourselves possibly a treasure in heaven, but certainly a peace like Alberto felt when his time came.

What pains do we cause in our own lives by the pursuit of wealth? Debt, lack of time with our family, lack of time to serve or worship God as we should. These are real pains that each of us feel in some way. But we can make choices that will make a difference. And God is waiting for us to feel the sense of peace again, to remember that we are God's children, and to care for those like Lazarus. We can be the ones who help them through the ministry we do here, by being those who are rich in good works and in generous giving.

Let us consider these things. Today's texts bring us there, to a place where I find the Spirit calling us, and let us root ourselves in the grace and mercy that God extends to us so that each of us may know God loves us, and loves us still, tempted or not by the things of this world. Amen.

Read other Sermons by Pastor Steve