Scripture for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 32.1–3a, 6–15; Psalm 91.11–16; 1 Timothy 6.6–19; Luke 16.19–31
Someone asked me a while ago why I don’t preach about inspiring Christian figures. So … let’s think about Thomas Cook. The man, not the company that bears his name, which has been in the news.
What about the man who founded the company, and who started to organise group travel 178 years ago? He has been described as an “English businessman.” However, he was raised as a Baptist, and served as a sort of local missionary, travelling from village to village, spreading the Word and distributing pamphlets; his faith was central to the way in which he lived his life. So he would have been more likely to describe himself as a Baptist preacher who started a business.
He was born into a world in which working class people worked long, 6 day weeks, and seldom travelled more than 20 miles from their homes. As a Baptist preacher, he was used to walking long distances and earning little. So when, on one of his journeys, he thought of organising tours for groups, it was the beginning of a vision that had its roots in faith and caring.
He was a visionary who clearly believed that life should be lived according to Christian principles. He wanted to make the world more accessible and to make life more pleasant for as many as possible. And his vision stretched further – travel was informative, educational and expanding:
The prejudices which ignorance has engendered are broken by the roar of a train and the whistle of the engine awakens thousands from the slumber of ages.Thomas Cook, Handbook to Scotland, 1846
In reading Jesus’ parable about a nameless rich man and Lazarus, a beggar, two things are striking. One may not be obvious to us, but the idea that Lazarus, a poor beggar, might be elevated to high stature would have been rather surprising since the assumption was that suffering had its origins in sin – just desserts for personal or family sin.
The other is that the rich man – and his brothers who are mentioned – evidently simply did not notice the poor man. He was not worth noticing to them. Not only did they not pay attention to their responsibilities under the Law – because the Law of Moses, supported by the Prophets, clearly delineated the responsibility to take care of the poor and disadvantaged – but they failed even to register that there was a need at their doorstep.
A couple of centuries of prosperity, that have inoculated many of in the wealthy west against the fate of the less well off – or worse, instilled in us a belief that they are responsible for their own difficulties (back to first century Judaism?) – place us fairly and squarely in the place of the nameless rich man. It’s all too easy not to notice the Lazarus at our doorstep.
Thomas Cook was a man who did notice that many around him shared the plight of Lazarus, or came near to it. As a result, he tried to do something to improve their lifestyles. He saw travel as a way to improve the lot of the less well off, and to dispel prejudice. All this sprang from a strongly convicted Christian faith, put into action.
To travel is to feed the mind, humanise the soul and rub off the rust of circumstance – to travel is to read the last new book, enjoy to the full the blessings of invention – to travel is to have Nature’s plan and her high works simplified, and her broad features of hill and dale, mountain and flood, spread like a map at one’s feet – to travel is to dispel the mists of fable and clear the mind of prejudice taught from babyhood, and facilitate perfectedness of seeing eye to eye. Who would not travel at a penny a mile?Thomas Cook, July 1854
Thomas Cook’s life, lived according to Christian principles, is a reminder that our own lives of faith are not compartmentalised into Sundays and other days, but are – every day – opportunities to notices the Lazarus at our gate, and do whatever we can to improve their plight.
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