What Separates Us From Each Other and From God? Proper 21(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

From the earliest of times people have told stories about the wicked getting their come-uppance. It’s rooted in the now-popular belief in karma, although the idea of revenge, implicit in the way many now use the term isn’t quite what it means in Eastern religions.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not about ultimate revenge. I hope that’s not too disappointing. It’s more a case of “you just don’t get it do you?”

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a novel about a rich cotton mill owner in Victorian England, or more precisely the north of England. The name given to the ‘fictional’ city where the mill operates is a disguise for Manchester, perhaps the center of industrial growth and the exploitation of cheap labor before laws were introduced to protect working class people and banning child labor. The book was adapted for television by the BBC and shown in America on PBS.

At the heart of the story is the inability of the young mill owner and his hard mother to see beyond profit. The workers are a commodity. Their suffering is irrelevant. They are only visible when they make a nuisance of themselves: when they strike.

Jesus is talking to the Pharisees, although some authorities think his audience had changed and that he was talking to a group that didn’t believe in eternal life, except in the form of Sheol, a shadowlands for the dead. They were called Sadducees and numbered in their ranks the ruling classes and the wealthy merchants. He re-tells a popular story of a rich man and a beggar. The picture Jesus paints vividly is one his audience immediately recognized. They lived in a culture where rich and poor lived in close proximity to each other, where beggars were part of the scenery as were stray dogs. Both beggars and dogs were held in contempt. Beggars were thought to be those abandoned by their families, or who were suffering for the sins of their parents or even great-grandparents. Dogs were regarded as slightly domesticated vermin.

The rich man was clothed in purple clothes. No cloth was more expensive than that dyed purple. Purple dye was only affordable by the very rich or by Roman officials and patricians. You may remember Lydia, the seller of purple, who befriended St. Paul? The rich man dined sumptuously, just as centuries later mill owners dressed fashionably and had tables, copied from those of the aristocracy, groaning with food, while their workers could scarcely prevent their children starving.

Lazarus lay at the entrance to the rich man’s house. He was covered in sores; sores that even the dogs wouldn’t lick. Did he have leprosy, the most feared disease of the ancient world? Dogs love to lick scratches and wounds, but not these. Like the Lebanese woman in another incident, he wanted to “gather up the crumbs under the table.” The rich man swept past this grotesque “scum of the earth” until one day Lazarus was gone; he was dead.

The story now takes as unexpected turn. The rich man in Sheol is tormented by flames. At first his thoughts are still of himself. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to give him a sip of water. Lazarus is still an object, perhaps no longer a beggar but still a servant. Abraham replies that a great gap now prevents the rich man from communicating with his people, the Chosen People, and those numbered among the chosen can’t reach towards those in Sheol. A new barrier has been erected. No longer is it between the rich and the destitute, but now between those chosen by God and those who have rejected that calling by rejecting someone, who despite his abject poverty, was a fellow Jew.

The story twists again: “`Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Now an added layer is added to the story. It’s still about the blindness of the rich to those whose lives depend on the work they provide or the charity they exhibit. The Rich Man suddenly becomes rebellious Israel, a people who have disobeyed God’s laws, refused the vocation to which they have been called, and wouldn’t change their ways even if a prophet rose from the dead. Here Jesus may have meant that they wouldn’t believe even if Abraham or Moses, or Amos or Hosea rose from the dead. In retrospect we identify the resurrection of Jesus with these words.

What are we to learn from Jesus’s story? Beware of gulfs. Beware of being so impressed with your own views, your own possessions, you own intelligence, that you can’t be reached by love and in particular, God’s love. Be careful about that sort of self-justification that thoroughly separates us from God and each other, so that another or others become invisible and in your eyes, die. Note, we may think we have good reason for separating ourselves.

The Rich Man may have told himself that Lazarus was undeserving. The mill owner thought that profit was essential for the economy, for his business and for the workers. We may think we have good reason for creating space between ourselves and those who would take advantage of us, or whose views are abhorrent to us, as well as the more obvious candidates, those people who don’t look like me, sound like me, vote like me, and perhaps worship like me.

However, are we incapable of resisting creating “great gulfs” or walls because we resist believing the one who rose from the dead?

Perhaps our unbelief is nuanced. Perhaps we deploy that ancient sentence, “Well, that’s all right in theory but it doesn’t work in practice: it’s all wonderfully lovely. I only wish it worked.”

The road to Sheol is paved with nuanced intentions.

Written by The Rev. Anthony Clavier. Clavier is Vicar of St. Thomas’ Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s, Granite City, IL.

Download the sermon for Proper 21(C).

What do you think heaven is?, Pentecost 18, Proper 21 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 and Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 (Track 2: Amos 6:1a, 4-7 and Psalm 146); 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

What do you think heaven is?

A man told this story of his experience just before his father died. The man and his sister were taking care of their father who was in the last stages of cancer, the man staying with their bed-ridden father during the day and his sister staying with their father through the night.

It had been a hard day. The man and his father had not always gotten along well, and on this particular day his father was especially irritable and giving him a hard time. The man was impatient, waiting for his sister to come for the night shift. He had his coat and shoes on so he could leave as quickly as possible when she arrived. But he heard his father call to him from the other room. He went in, and his father asked, “What do you think happens to us after this life?”

A big question. A serious question. The man didn’t have many words, but he thought he could show his father his answer. He got into the bed and lay down beside his father. He asked him, “Dad, do you love me?”

“You know I love you,” his father said.

The man touched his own chest and then touched his father’s, right above his heart. The man asked, “How much of our ability to love do you think we use during our lives? Ten percent?”

“Fifteen,” said his father.

“Okay,” said the man. “In heaven,” he said, touching his own chest and then his father’s, “100 percent.”

The next day the man got a call from his sister, telling him his father had died, quite peacefully. But before he died, he made a gesture she didn’t understand. Just before he died, he looked at her, and he touched his chest – his heart – and then reached up and touched hers.

In heaven, 100 percent: true connectedness, true love, right relationship, no chasms between us.

We were made for relationship. We were made to be in right relationship with God and one another, 100 percent. But we don’t live that way. We always have a relationship with something else, something that takes up part of that heart space so we don’t use all 100 percent for loving God and loving our neighbor. Sometimes that something is money or seeking our own comfort over the needs of others.

In our reading today from 1 Timothy, Paul exhorts the faithful not to get too close to the uncertainty of riches, but instead draw close to “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” If you live in right relationship with God, it will show in this way, says Paul: doing good, being rich in good works, being generous and ready to share. And living this way will allow us to “take hold of the life that really is life.” Not the appearance of life – what this world trumpets as the good life – material comforts – but the life that really is life, the abundance that comes from living heart to heart, 100 percent now.

The story Jesus tells in the gospel could be an elaboration on this reading. It is easy to talk about righteousness in general, as a concept, in the abstract. It is quite another matter to deal with it in the particular.

“Poverty” doesn’t lie outside the rich man’s gate; a poor, starving human being does. He is covered with sores, willing to eat scraps; a man, with a name: Lazarus.

The rich man, although his sumptuous lifestyle would have him deny it, has a need too. The rich man needs to serve Lazarus as a brother. Together they could help each other experience “the life that really is life.” But during this life, the rich man does not notice Lazarus, much less care for him. It’s as if Lazarus doesn’t exist for him. A great chasm separates the two men, a chasm of the rich man’s making.

The scene shifts to heaven. All is reversed. Lazarus is content. The rich man is in torment. The rich man longs for even a drop of water to cool the tongue that had tasted so many pleasing foods during his life.

And yet, the rich man still does not care about Lazarus. In his torment, he wants to use Lazarus as a servant. “Send him to put a drop of water to cool my tongue,” he asks.

“No,” says Abraham. The chasm between you that you dug during your life has become impassable. The gulf by which you were comforted in life has become un-crossable.

The truth of this parable is that the rich man needs Lazarus as much as Lazarus needs the rich man. The independence that riches seem to bring is only an illusion. The rich man thinks he can afford not to see Lazarus lying outside his gate. The rich man lives under the illusion that we are islands, contrary to John Donne’s wisdom, entire of ourselves. We are separated by gulfs, and we can only build so many bridges. The rich man lives with the illusion that we are intrinsically separate beings, our own possessions, and that to be responsible only for ourselves is enough.

Like Cain in Genesis, the rich man shrugs, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” assuming it is a rhetorical question, not dreaming that the answer may be “yes.” Yes, you are responsible, and your choices – to see, to notice, to serve, to love, or not – matter.

Perhaps for the rich man the gulf between himself and the beggar with his sores brings him a sense of safety. Perhaps he feels there is little he can do, little difference he can make. Perhaps he sees the gulf as a necessary evil. Perhaps the rich man is afraid of really being seen – of being revealed as inept or powerless or empty despite his material success.

Jesus’ parable points to something better for us, something better and more real – the reality that we were created not to be alone, but to be loved; not to be users of one another, but to be partners in the world. We were created not to dig chasms and let gulfs separate us, but to build bridges.

Who are we in this parable? We are not Lazarus, although we may be longing for something. We are not the rich man, although we may have more than we need of material possessions. We are the five brothers, the brothers and sisters of the rich man, still living, whom the rich man wishes to warn, to save from the torment of being on one side of a chasm; the torment of being separated from God; the torment of being able to envision only using people, not loving them, and ignoring the poor, not serving them. We are the five brothers, in danger of waiting for some spectacular sign from God before we will take the message seriously.

No, says Abraham, you have all the sign you need.

And we do. We have the Word, we have the prophets, we even have a man risen from the dead.

All of us have someone sitting by our gates – someone who gives us the opportunity to fulfill the promises of our baptismal covenant, promises to seek and serve Christ in all people, to respect the dignity of every person. We have a choice: to build bridges or dig chasms. And we can choose to use 100 percent of our capacity to love now and not wait for heaven.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter
The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland, along with her husband, associate, and fellow Sermons That Work contributing writer, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano.

Many ways to share, 19 Pentecost, Proper 21 (C) – 2013

 September 29, 2013

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 and Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 (or Amos 6:1a, 4-7 and Psalm 146); 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

[NOTE TO READER: The Latin word dives, in the seventh paragraph, is pronounced “DYE-veez.”]

“I always thank the person for asking, even when I don’t have anything to give at the time.”  These are the words of Archbishop James Salisbury of the African Orthodox Church in America, about being asked for money by people on the street.

If you look up Archbishop James up on their church’s website, you’ll see that he has the look of a beneficent and cheerful grandfather. You can imagine his kind, dark eyes looking deep into the soul of a poor person and thanking that person for having the courage to ask for something.

Now, you may be saying to yourselves, how could an archbishop not have money in his pocket to share? To be honest, don’t we all have times when we don’t have a cent on us, usually because we’ve forgotten to go to the ATM or in this difficult economy there are days when we, who may be far from homeless, stayed away from the ATM until we were sure there was something there that month?

It might be nice to do what James does when we are asked for some spare change on the street instead of assuming the person is too lazy to work.

Another thing that would be thoughtful when we interact with people in need, is to ask their name and have a conversation with them. If you read “Down and Out in Providence” by Bishop Geralyn Wolf of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, you would read her journal written during the time that she lived among the homeless for her sabbatical. She talks about how important it is to be acknowledged by name – how desperately alone and invisible the homeless feel when no one speaks their names. Read her book. It’s life changing.

Each of our passages today reminds us that those in need are our responsibility. God expects us to care for the poor. It’s all through the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Every prophet, from the Old Testament to the Liberationists and beyond reminds the people that the poor are our neighbors and that none of them should ever have to beg for the crumbs that fall from our tables.

Isn’t that image from the gospel heart rending? We can’t imagine that a rich man would be so callous as to ignore poor Lazarus who lay by the gate of his house. He was so poor and so sick that we’re told dogs would come and lick his sores. If you Google “Lazarus and the Rich Man” or “Lazarus and Dives” – dives is Latin for “rich man” – you will find many images in art portraying this scene. In most, the dogs look like friendly sorts, just lolling around calmly with their tongues hanging out. It probably wasn’t like that at all. Dogs will fight over the taste of blood. Lazarus had a horrid and probably frightening existence, and still, the rich man ignored him.

Jesus tells this story to point out that some of the Pharisees were ignoring the needs of their own people just like the rich man – and we may be surprised at the reluctance of those religious leaders to understand Jesus’ concern.

But why might we be surprised? Again, we need to see what this is teaching us.

In Jesus’ day, the assumption was that a man like Lazarus was that way because of his or his parents’ sin. In our day, isn’t the assumption often that a person in Lazarus’ condition, the homeless, the poor, the down and out, are that way because of their “sin” of laziness or poor judgment or that they’re scamming us?

We often hear people say that they don’t give a street person any money because he or she will spend it on alcohol – end of story.

Yes, sometimes they do, but many times they don’t.

When we assume why a person is in need, are we any better than the rich man or the Pharisees? This is when it’s helpful to engage a person in conversation. Like most human beings, the person in need often yearns for someone to listen, to show even a few short moments of care. If you’ve ever worked in a shelter or soup kitchen, you know that’s the truth.

However, in considering the image of rich versus poor, there’s another issue to think about today. Our own economy places many of us in very difficult circumstances. Sometimes those who may look quite comfortable are hiding the fear of losing everything if the next paycheck doesn’t come. God doesn’t expect us to put ourselves or our families in danger because we give others our last bit of money.

There are many ways to share – we all know this. Acknowledging the humanity of another is one way; listening, volunteering – these are all ways of being human.

First Timothy gives us another. The author reminds us about the danger of excesses. Our culture also encourages us to amass much more than we need, doesn’t it? If we’re honest, we might have more to share if we were more content with having enough.

“But 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.”

Now, those are scary words. Strong verbs, “trapped” and “plunged,” warn us that greed can lead to our destruction.

Isn’t it annoying, though, when we see some extremely rich and assumedly happy people splashed over magazine covers and news articles?

Ah, but there’s a catch. We assume, we don’t really know. We don’t know what’s really going on inside them; we can’t. So it’s better if we turn our faces toward those who need what we can share – our thoughtfulness, our care, and sometimes our material goods.

All people should be content as Timothy says – content with having enough.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

God cares about everyone, Pentecost 18, Proper 21 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 or Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 or 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

How could anyone stand to have a poor man lying in the doorway, covered with sores, those sores being licked by stray dogs – a poor man who longs for nothing but the crumbs that fall off the table? Aren’t we outraged that a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, who feasted sumptuously every day, ignored this poor man? We’re not surprised when he ends up in Hades and can’t even get a tiny drink of water. We’d never do that to anyone, would we? What was that rich man thinking of?

It’s easy to feel pretty self-righteous about the rich man. It’s also easy to think that this isn’t a hard parable to understand. The poor man who suffered on earth is rewarded in heaven because those with the means to help him while he was alive didn’t. The rich man who had more than enough – lots more than enough – is sent to Hades because he didn’t share. Serves him right.

But wait a minute. That’s a bit too easy. If we understand this parable right away, it must be that it strikes a chord with us. It’s a lesson we hear all the time. Those with many gifts must see that those with nothing get the assistance they need to live a decent life. If you’re rich, give to the poor. This is obviously a moral lesson for rich people, churches, and nations, and there you have it. So we’re through, and we can all go home, right?

But then what do we do with the verses of Luke that come before and after this passage? This story of the rich man and Lazarus is the last in a whole series of parables Jesus tells in Luke. Jesus seems to be on a teaching frenzy. He’s told stories about a good Samaritan, a rich fool, being watchful and faithful, about a great banquet, and a dishonest manager. Jesus ends with this story that teaches a lesson that pertains to every one of us. The Book of Common Prayer says it well: “Do not let the hope of the poor be taken away.”

A few verses later the apostles say, “Increase our faith!” What does that mean? What do they want? In any case, what they get is Jesus telling them they have to change. Jesus preaches the kingdom of God, which means he preaches and teaches a different way of seeing and a different way of living. To be part of God’s kingdom, to live that way, is to see people differently. Then we feed the hungry not because we think it’s the right thing to do, but because we see their hunger, see as if we were hungry, and then act accordingly. To see another the way God sees that person is to live in the kingdom of God.

Maybe these disciples are a little bit nervous. After all this teaching, all these lessons on what it means to live a godly life, they may be beginning to see where they’ve fallen short and they don’t want to end like the rich man. Maybe they’re thinking it might be better to suffer now and wind up standing at the side of Abraham in eternal life. Maybe suffering here and now is the guarantee of blessing there and then? You know, “Suffer now, take up your cross; God will only give you as much hardship as God knows you can handle. If life here is tough, don’t worry: heaven is paved with streets of gold.”

We get a lot of this one-sided theology from TV, websites with pretty pictures, or self-help books. Yes, of course, there’s a great deal of suffering in life. There are people like Lazarus all around us. Maybe we don’t see them lying at the gates of grand houses surrounded by dogs licking their wounds, but we see them lying on the streets of our cities. Some of them we don’t see at all. Poverty today is often a hidden problem. And Jesus is not teaching his disciples that we need to be poor too. He’s teaching us that we are poor too, for every last one of God’s children is dependent on God for everything, even for life itself.

So, is eternal life the only place where we’ll really be happy? Is that what Jesus is saying? Can we just hope that when we die, we’ve been good enough to merit standing with Abraham? That’s a depressing idea. We sometimes think we need to figure out all the rules and regulations that will merit the kingdom for us. But the kingdom doesn’t work like that; it’s a gift. We can’t earn it, no matter what we do. We are all dependent on God, in need of God’s grace.

And yet we are all rich, all of us. Not just most people in this country or most people in our congregation. There are too many who have too little, even in our own congregations (unless we’ve so alienated the poor that only the rich are left). But every last person on earth is rich in one respect: God’s unmerited, unbounded love.

God cares about everyone. Therefore those who live by God’s kingdom are bound to do the same. We give out of our richness, whatever that is. And we all have something to receive as well. What could the rich man have received from Lazarus if he had been willing to open himself to the possibility? Maybe he could have learned from Lazarus to be thankful for a healthy body as well as a fine house and table. Maybe he could have learned the joy of receiving a gift he didn’t merit, if he had given such a gift to Lazarus.

But merit is a tricky notion, isn’t it? In a way, Lazarus did merit a gift of care from the rich man, not because of what he did but because of who he was. And who was Lazarus? Not just a poor beggar, but a fellow human being, another child of God, someone else in God’s image. God’s care for all of us means that everyone in need merits help from those in a position to give it. It also means that givers all are potential recipients, not only of the gratitude of the needy but also of the lessons their lives have to share with us.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz
The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.