Seeing is Believing

Sermon for 16 Pentecost (year C), September 25, 2022
St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Madison, CT
I had a good friend who retired from the Navy not so long ago. He and his wife were pretty well-off and living comfortably not too far from here. We were invited to his Friday afternoon retirement ceremony on the submarine base, and later that night to a celebration at their house. It was wonderful to see many friends from our Navy life there, and we left that evening so happy for our friend and for the blessedness of his life.
Later, he told me a story about holding a cup of coffee in his hand on the Monday morning afterwards, and looking out toward the street from his kitchen window. There was Lazarus; picking through the garbage left on the curb from my friend’s retirement party! In fact, today’s very gospel reading was the lesson he had heard at church the day before, and now THIS… Lazarus sifting through his garbage. It stung… "Could I be the rich man in that parable?", he asked me.
The difference between my friend and the rich man in today’s parable, is that my friend SAW the person in poverty and allowed that poverty to break his heart. The rich man never saw Lazurus lying at his gate. It was only later, after their fortunes were reversed, that the "he looked up and saw…." Until then, the rich man was too blinded by his wealth to see Lazarus. More, the rich man seemed to be saying to Lazarus during their Earthly life "I have no need of you… not even the need to SEE you". The rich man cut Lazarus off completely, and left him to die alone in poverty and misery among the dogs.
For Jesus in Luke’s gospel, seeing poverty in this life seems to be a first step toward the Kingdom of God. And it’s here that I need to make an important point about this parable. The rich man pleads with to Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers from the dead, to save them: He said "…if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." Then Abraham responds with a surprise: "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

Jesus seems to be saying here that even his own resurrection will be useless to help people who do not heed scripture and the prophets. The way to the Kingdom is NOT start with a belief in scripture or the miracle of resurrection; the way starts by seeing the poverty that is around us… seeing people experiencing poverty as Jesus on the cross. Only THEN will we get it… only THEN will resurrection seem like good news to us.

For my friend, this seeing became a new spiritual discipline. He made it a point to look for poverty wherever he was… he wanted to SEE it. Driving in town that week, he began to notice other apparently empoverished people he had never noticed before. Where did they suddenly come from?

Well… they were there all along; he was just too blind to see them. He began to look in other places too… at the Big Y, at Starbucks, at church, in his own neighborhood. And he began to see that there are many more forms of poverty than just economic ones. People with a poverty of physical health and mental health, a poverty of peace, a poverty of relationships, a poverty of community. All kinds of poverty.

Ironically, my friend discovered, the economically rich were some of the most impoverished people of all in one way or another… so blind they could not see their own poverty. And, my friend was able to do THAT as well… to see his own poverty. It was difficult for my friend to get to the point of seeing all this, but he did.

This is why the Gospel of Jesus is such good news for the poor. People experiencing economic poverty do not have difficulty seeing what they themselves are experiencing and are then able to see the resurrection that Jesus experienced. The gospel is not such good news for the wealthy. The resurrection that Jesus tells us about is invisible to them BECAUSE they cannot see the poverty all around them or their own poverty.
For my friend, seeing all of this poverty and resurrection eventually became a call to action… a call that he had be getting all along, but was now finally able to SEE. After a while, he became part of a community that is helping to bring resurrection to people experiencing economic poverty.
And THEN, he discovered something else… that he needed other people; he needed people living in poverty. He found that they healed him… that they had gifts, just as he had gifts, that they were eager to share. He learned to say "I need you… I cannot live by myself, alone with just my own gifts and talents; my life is richer because you are in it." And THAT was the moment of his transformation in Jesus; that was the moment he entered the Kingdom of God. Only then was the scripture, and the prophets, and the gospel of Jesus opened in his heart. Only then could he read and hear and understand the message.
So LOOK for poverty… see it wherever you are… and you will ALSO get a glimpse of the good news of Jesus: of new life… of new healing… of new thriving… of new community… of new sharing. See the POVERTY and you will SEE the Resurrection of Jesus. And with seeing, don’t be surprised if you get a nudge toward action. And with action, you just might discover that those experiencing poverty have gifts you cannot live without. And THAT is where you might encounter the Kingdom of God. It turns out that SEEING is BELIEVING. Amen.