Moving Toward Need: Luke 16:19-31
19th Week of Pentecost: Sept. 25,2016
Luke 16:19-31 Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘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.’”
Sometimes, the Holy Spirit seems to give a preacher a week that truly helps her see the Sunday’s scripture as the Living Word – a Word that breathes with all the messy reality of the life she is living.
I had that experience this week, and I needed it. I needed it because without the gritty reality of life, this gospel lesson could have so easily devolved into a trite sermon about works righteousness, which would have made my anti-poverty soul glow with the shallow illumination of self-righteousness, but probably would not have done right by all of you.
AND I also needed this gospel to speak into my life, because without it the pains and challenges I was faced with this week could have felt too bleakly overwhelming,
and I might have lost sight of the very center of my calling – which is to be a witness to the hope of the resurrection of - our souls and of our broken lives.
I imagine that some, at least, of you were with me in stooping low under the pain of this week. It started Monday morning – when Facebook showed me yet another video, of yet another unarmed Black man dying – for no reason…or rather for reasons that had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the deep brokenness of our country and our images of what a “threat” looks like.
And I wanted to cry,
And I wanted to scream at the way the story immediately pivoted from this unique individual to tired justifications and ideological debates that turn a man into a symbol and a stereotype.
And I didn’t want to learn another name, but we need to name him. We need to say that Terence Crutcher, just like Philando Castille, and Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner, and Treyvon Martin, and now Keith Lamott Scott, and far too many others are each a precious child of God who should not have died.
But they did. Their families have all been left to mourn, and I feel completely helpless – because the problem seems so big and the solutions seem so out of reach for me.
And then another challenge presented itself, and this time it was painfully close. Two unique, precious children of God walked through the church doors Tuesday morning asking for help. They were temporarily homeless, and the shelter system was full and everyone was saying “we can’t help you,” and they need $339 for a week in a hotel so that the man’s wife could plug in her oxygen machine.
And I listened to their story, and I looked them in the eyes, and Christine packed them two bags of food. But we are a tiny church and we don’t have a discretionary fund, and so I had to say.
“I’m so sorry. I hear your frustration and I wish I had a solution, but we can’t help you either.”
In both cases, I felt so helpless.
I don’t know how to bring an end to systemic racism and a culture of fear and violence.
I don’t know how alleviate New Jersey’s affordable housing crisis, or even ensure a shelter system than never runs out of beds.
I have worked with amazing organizations, and given my sweat and tears to that work, and I have sometimes seen some small gains. But the problems are just so big, and I feel so very small.
And in the middle of that helplessness I kept reading today’s gospel. I read the familiar story of a rich man and a poor man divided first by a gate, and then by a chasm, and for the first time in many, many readings, I felt sympathy for the rich man.
Maybe it was because this week made me so aware of my riches,
Aware of the white skin that kept me safe last winter when a police officer pulled up behind me after I ran out of gas;
Aware of the financial security that has ensured I never had to sleep in my car;
Aware of the health that means a night without shelter wouldn’t mean a night I couldn’t breathe.
I read the story, and I still did not like the rich man, but I understood how easy it is to be him. Not just because, in America, even a modest middle class life makes us so much richer than the vast majority of the world; But because richness was not actually the rich man’s sin. His sin was indifference.
We see this indifference woven throughout the story. We see it in the gate itself – a gate which presupposes a wall, and a wall that indicates the desire to keep people out, but also indicates the man’s status in society, which carries with it an expectation of patronage.
We see it in the posture of Lazarus laying at that gate, too weak even to shoo away the dogs that came to lick his open, oozing sores, and the rich man couldn’t be bothered to share his leftovers.
And then, after each man has died, we see it in the rich man’s appeal – not to Lazarus, but to Abraham - That he would SEND Lararus, as one would send a slave, to bring the rich man a little bit of comfort, even if that were to mean new torment for Lazarus.
He is indifferent. Even in death, this nameless rich man does not see Lazarus as a unique child of God, innately full of worth.
Bernard Scott offers this poignant observation:
“In the first part of the story the rich man fails to come through the gate; in the second he asks Lazarus to come through. He never makes the motion himself, even in desire.”
Ultimately, this parable is about moving toward the other. It’s about refusing to stay behind the walls that insulate us from the needs of others. It’s about seeing each person as created in the image of God, and refusing to station ourselves in any viewpoint that makes other people into disposable objects.
And so this parable clearly speaks to my week. It encourages me to that I cannot give up on learning names, or looking into eyes, even when the problems feel to big to fix. I need to at least move toward the suffering.
But that still leaves me that the problem of works righteousness. The call to move toward the other might be the point of Luke’s use of this parable, but it’s not quite the gospel… it’s still the law – it is “Moses and the Prophets “ that in the parable Abraham points out has not brought the brothers to repentance … and maybe it can’t because, in the comfort and false security of privilege we cannot trust ourselves to always move across the divide, even if we know we should.
I faced one further challenge this week that opened up the last key for me in our texts today – it was the loss of a beloved member of this community, Les Accordino.
While I only met him in the last 24 hours of his life, I felt the weight of his loss in the gathered grief and love of the family who surrounded his bed, and cried their amens to my prayer for his peace; and I felt it is the pain in the eyes of many of you who sat around the Council table on Tuesday night and reeled at the news of his impending death, and of all who gathered for his funeral yesterday.
For this challenge, this gospel was, indeed, the gospel for me this week. Not because of the rather surreal description of the afterlife which is clearly a literary device, and not a real depiction of Les’s resting place. But because of Lazarus’ name.
The name Lazarus means “he whom God helps.”
When we are faced with the stark fragility of life, When we hear the labored, stuttering breathing of a failing body that does not know how to keep living, or quite how to die,
In those moments all of the other security we cling to is stripped away and we know our only source of eternal hope is that we serve a God who helps.
From all accounts, Les was a good man. I am quite sure he pleased God.But, that is not why I now know he is resting is God’s loving arms. He is there because God helps – God saves. It is not our works, it is God’s.
I think our second reading today, from 1 Timothy, ties together these two parts of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable.
“As for those who in the present age are rich, command 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 that they may take hold of the life that really is life."
That last phrase is the phrase I proclaim to you at this altar before we share together in the central meal of our worship – the meal that proclaims Christ’s death AND resurrection as a promise to raise us all.
We are all dead in our sin.
And Christ calls us, clearly – to strive “not to be haughty” and turn away from others, but “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share….” But NOT to set out hopes on anything other than God. The God who promises us resurrection, and who, in the light of that promise, calls us to take hold of the life that really is life – a life where all are made equal and worthy, because it is God who saves.
 Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, Bernard Brandon Scott, p. 155