“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” That’s the penultimate question in the Baptismal Covenant, and the one that I think tends to get short shrift. We like the Acts 2 feel of the first question. We’re grateful to have an ongoing chance for repentance in the second. For the third, we’ll happily proclaim by example, if maybe not by word, the Good News of God in Christ. And don’t get me started on how many platitude-filled sermons I’ve heard (and occasionally preached) on respecting the dignity of every human being. Tucked in there, next to last, is this question that really gets to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus in everyday life. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” It is, most obviously, the second of Christ’s Great Commandments, but more than that, it requires us to actively seek out Christ in the other. In order to seek Christ in my neighbor, I first have to see my neighbor, and if we’re honest with ourselves, there are probably lots of neighbors we wish we didn’t have to see. Worse yet, there are lots of neighbors that we might actively choose to forget, but in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells the Pharisees the perfect story to illustrate that fully living into the Dream of God means choosing to see what we would prefer to ignore.
It all starts with a rich man. A super rich man. A one percent of the one percent rich man. Jesus says that this rich man was dressed in purple linen every day. That might not mean much to us today, since we can buy purple linen at Fabrics by the Pound, but in Jesus’ day, dressing in purple linen was an extravagant ordeal. Prior to industrialization, linen was extremely difficult to produce. To dye it purple, the right snail had to be found and harvested for its goop. Purple dye cost about as much as pure silver to procure. Just by his clothes, we know that this dude was rich beyond our wildest imaginations, but Jesus didn’t stop there. Not only did he dress in the finest fabrics dyed the most expensive color, but Jesus tells us that he “feasted sumptuously” every day as well. The Greek here suggests that he “made merry brilliantly.” Every time that word is used in the New Testament, it is in reference to a massive celebration. This guy made KISS’s “rock and roll all night and party every day” his actual lifestyle.
As he went back and forth from his palatial mansion, the rich man passed through a large gateway that protected his lavishness from the general unpleasantness of the outside world. Plopped down at the mouth of that large gate was a man who was as exceedingly poor and the rich man was ridiculously rich. While we don’t know the name of the rich man, Jesus tells us that this poor man’s name was Lazarus. Lazarus is the only person to get a name in any of Jesus’ parables. It means, ironically, “God has helped,” but it’s obvious that God hadn’t helped Lazarus much at all. While the rich man wore purple linen, Lazarus was covered only in sores. While the rich man feasted sumptuously, Lazarus coveted the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. While the rich man’s life was full of relationships with friends, business partners, servants, and dinner party guests, Lazarus’ only companions were the dogs who licked his sores. It wasn’t that the rich man didn’t know Lazarus was there, but that he actively chose to ignore him. Back and forth the rich man would go. At the very least, he would have noticed the stench of Lazarus. Occasionally, he’d have to shoo the dogs away. On particularly frustrating days, the rich man might even have to lift up his topcoat to make sure it didn’t brush against Lazarus’ unclean wounds as he stepped right over the poor man.
The rich man spent his whole life building as large a chasm as possible between himself and the wretched Lazarus, until one day they both died, and the chasm was suddenly fixed. The rich man was stuck in Hades while Lazarus was carried to heaven to rest at the bosom of Abraham. Immediately, with flames licking his heels, the rich man calls out to Abraham and asks him to send Lazarus with a drop of cool water to soothe his suffering. I wonder how Lazarus heard that request. Could it have been the first time that the rich man ever uttered his name? The first time that Lazarus ever felt seen. The first time that the rich man had ever treated Lazarus as anything other than smelly, disgusting, nuisance? Note that the only reason the man utters Lazarus’ name now is because Lazarus could do something for him. Even in death, the rich man didn’t see Lazarus as neighbor worthy of love, but rather as a less than, at most, a servant who should do the bidding of upstanding men like himself and Abraham.
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Jesus challenges the Pharisees, his disciples, and us to really see the world around us. He invites us to see our neighbors, to know their names, to understand their needs, not in order that we might fix them, or to exploit them to help us feel better about ourselves, but to enter into relationship with them so that together we all might take part in the renewing of the world. That’s what the law of Moses and the call of the Prophets has all been about, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. It’s a theme we just can’t escape from these days. Whether it is our Neighborhood Prayer Walks or Reimagine Charity or Racial Reconciliation or our Cloister Community, God seems to be calling Christ Episcopal Church to see the world around us in fresh ways; embracing what it means to be a downtown church in order to seek and serve Christ in all people, and love our neighbors – all of them – as ourselves.
Over the next six weeks, we will celebrate three baptisms. Bennett Moore, Henry Gilbert, and Mila Velentanlic are three young children to whom we will promise to do all in our power to support in their lives in Christ. In making that promise, we commit to living our lives following the example of Jesus who saw people, who knew them deeply, and who cared about their needs. He didn’t do it to make himself feel good, he didn’t take their agency away, he didn’t swoop in and try to fix problems. Jesus was a savior without a savior complex. Rather, Jesus invited others into relationship and through that relationship both he and they were made whole. As we live our lives as examples for these three young people, for one another, and for the wider community, we too are called to see our neighbors, to hear their stories, to love them, and to work alongside them toward the restoration of the whole world. It isn’t easy work. It won’t bring swift results. It’ll be probably be painful, refilling chasms built over generations always is, but that’s the gift and the power and the risk of building relationships. It means admitting faults, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, and fostering cooperation toward a hope-filled future. And, as I am often swift to remind us during sermons like these, it isn’t all up to us. As with every one of the baptismal promises we make, this one, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” gets answered with five, very important and powerful words, “I will, with God’s help.” With God’s help, alongside our neighbors, and serving as an example for Bennett, Henry, and Mila, we have the chance to build the Kingdom of God here in Bowling Green, Kentucky by seeing, loving, and seeking Christ in our neighbors, especially the ones we would rather ignore. Amen.