Sermon for Sunday, September 26, 2016 (19 Pentecost, Proper 21)
St. David’s Episcopal Church, Gales Ferry, CT
My Retirement Ceremony from the Navy was in 2007, the week after this lesson about the Rich Man and Lazarus was the Sunday Gospel. The day was a wonderful celebration and we capped it off with a huge party at our home in Waterford. Our families, Navy friends and colleagues, Roxanne’s art friends, friends from St. James, and our neighbors, all joined the celebration and we had a sumptuous outdoor feast together. By any measure on that day, I was a rich man. I had education, power, privilege, and wealth. And having returned to the church after a long absence and engaging texts like today’s for the first time as an adult, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this gospel lesson and others like it that seem to suggest that rich people, like me, were going to have a very hard time in the Kingdom of God. How should I read them? What was I called to do? Those were great questions, but none of them were on my mind that night.
The next morning I was up early for some reason and as I made a cup of coffee, I looked up and saw something strange at the end of the driveway where we had stacked the trash for morning pickup. There was a man there… picking through the trash… opening each bag and pulling things out. As I watched him for a little while, one word came to mind; “Lazarus". This was Lazarus, a poor man, picking through the crumbs that fell from my table. I watched him for a long time, thinking about this parable… comparing my own life to his and wondering what it all meant.
This is a parable that illustrates the reversal of fortune theme that is common in the Gospels; the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Let’s read again the first part of the story: "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." So that’s it… this part just states the facts of each man, rich and poor, and that they died. Think expansively about this parable. It may not be written to us just as individuals, but as members of rich communities as well; churches like St David’s, towns like Stonington, and nations like the United States. It would not be a stretch to tell this story in modern terms with the people of the United States feasting sumptuously on one side of that gate and 20 million refugees covered with sores on the other.
There is plenty to say about the second half of the story, but I want to focus on two things. First, after their death, the narrative says that the Rich Man “looked up and saw". What he saw was Abraham and Lazarus. I get the sense that this might be the first time that the Rich Man ever noticed Lazarus…that during his life, Lazarus did not even rate a glance from the Rich Man. I think that is significant. What I managed to do on that morning was to look up and see… I saw Lazarus in this life. It was not long afterward that I began to look for Lazarus everywhere. I began to notice people who I would have ignored before: shop clerks… baggers at the grocery store… custodians… homeless people… quiet people… could I be intentional about seeing the people who I was unable or unwilling to see before? I could and I did… it became a habit of the heart.
The second point about the second half of the parable is what Abraham says: “…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." I wonder if there was not also something like a great chasm fixed between the Rich Man and Lazarus during their lifetimes. I think there was… the Rich Man’s gate. Certainly, Lazarus could not cross that gate to see the Rich Man. In fact, that’s probably why the gate was built in the first place… to keep the Lazarus’s of the world on the other side. Where there are differences in wealth and power in this life, the freedom of action belongs to the one with the power. Certainly the Rich Man could have crossed that gate in his lifetime (or not built it in the first place), but why should he? From his perspective, there was nothing of value on the other side of that gate…. certainly not Lazarus. So the gate in the story is like the chasm… no one crosses that boundary. I wondered about that gate over my morning coffee as I watched Lazarus pick through my table scraps. What would happen if I opened the gate and went out there to meet him? What would I discover? I might discover that Lazarus was more like me than I imagined. I might discover that he had gifts that he was willing to share. We might be able to do God’s work together.
Many have written that God seems to have a “preferential option for the poor", meaning that God deeply loves all of creation and all of his people, AND he holds the poor in his heart with special regard… as a preferred option. And not because the poor are any better than the rich, but because they ARE poor and God is generous… the poor suffer and God responds with special love and calls us to do the same. There is much compelling scripture in support of this idea, and this parable is part of the case.
Generally, at St David’s, we are rich by any measure. What might WE do to have a “preferential option for the poor" as individuals, as a Parish, in our towns… what could we do as a nation? First, I think we could just “look up and see" with intentionality. Make it a habit. I know that many of you do. Keep looking for those people who others ignore or look past. Second, we can open our gates…cross that chasm… and get to know Lazarus. All summer we have been reading great stories from many in this Parish who have been doing exactly that in the homeless shelters, in senior living centers, among refugees who are resettling in our community, and it other places. In my opinion, this is essential discipleship. My experience tells me that it is important to read the Bible, to study theology, to give donations to chartable causes, and to pray. More than that, I know that transformative love is experienced when we get to know people who actually suffer from the problems that we might be called to heal and to discover our neighbors in the process… and more than that… we discover that Christ dwells in them and we help them to see the Christ who dwells in us. It is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that incredible gift from Christ, that helps each of us… rich and poor alike… to have a direct experience of God in the face of the other. THAT is resurrection. THAT might be what it looks like to raise someone from the dead… to raise someone from a place of sickness outside a locked gate or to raise a nation of refugees out of hopelessness… to see them with fresh eyes… with God’s eyes… as fully human… as neighbors in our community. Look up and see… open that gate… cross that chasm into the neighborhood. Do it in this life. Let’s do it together. Amen.