Open our eyes, Lord

The audio can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website.  Or you can read here.


I don’t remember much about the first few months of life for either of our girls. As many of you are aware, life gets complicated with a newborn in the house. Between washing bottles, never ending loads of laundry, being generally in awe of the miracle of life, and a total lack of sleep, it is hard for the human mind to create long term memories in those moments. They say that is why women decide to go through childbirth more than once, they honestly can’t remember how bad it really was. All joking aside, one of the random things I do remember from those early days is the pediatrician telling us that babies have to learn to see much like they have to learn to walk. It takes time for them to learn how to use their eyes: how they move side to side and up and down; how to make them focus on something close; how to be translate what they are seeing into near and far. It takes almost two full years for a baby to learn to really see the world around them. As I read the Gospel lesson for this week, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the process of learning how to see the world doesn’t end at age two. In fact, I am more and more convinced that learning to really see is a key piece of spiritual development. I think that is what Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees in this parable about Lazarus and a rich man.

There was a rich man. Usually here I would try to remind us that compared to the rest of the world, we too are rich, but that isn’t what’s happening here. This guy wasn’t middle class American rich. He was Richie Rich rich, Warren Buffet rich, Saudi Royal family rich. Jesus tells us he wore purple clothes. These days, purple shirts are sold everywhere. You can get a purple polo from the Rescue Mission for less than $2. There was a time, a long time in fact, when purple clothing was exorbitantly expensive. The dyes used to make a purple shirt were hard to come by and the color was even harder to set. This man, who wore purple, was exceedingly rich, and more than likely a member of some royal family. Not only did he wear richly colored fabrics, but Jesus says this rich man had access to linen as well. Like purple dyes, linen was (and still is) very expensive to obtain. To say he was well dressed would be an understatement. Every day this man was dressed in a sixty-thousand dollar Italian suit while he feasted sumptuously. The Greek here literally means that he “made merry brilliantly”, or to use a more modern phrase, this guy partied hearty every day. Every day was Super Bowl Sunday and every meal was a Thanksgiving feast for this rich man in well-made clothing.

As he would go back and forth from his mansion, the rich man would pass through a large gate. Plopped down near the gate was a man who was exceedingly poor. Lazarus was his name, the only person to have a name in one of Jesus’ parables, it means “God has helped,” but it doesn’t seem like God had helped Lazarus very much. While the rich man wore purple and 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 business partners, servants, and family, Lazarus’ only companions were the dogs who licked his sores. Back and forth the rich man would go. At the very least he had to have noticed the stench of Lazarus. Occasionally, he would have had to shoo the dogs away. He’d likely stepped right over him a time or two. The rich man knew Lazarus was at his gate, but he made the choice not to see him.

The rich man spent his life building a chasm between himself and Lazarus. One day, they both died, and suddenly, that chasm that had been growing for years became fixed. The rich man was stuck in Hades while Lazarus was carried to heaven. We come to realize the active nature of the rich man’s ignorance of the plight of Lazarus when immediately he calls out to Abraham and asks for Lazarus, by name. It wasn’t that he had never noticed Lazarus at his gate, but he chose not to see him. The rich man had seen Lazarus, he even knew his name, but instead of seeing Lazarus as a human being, the rich man saw a smelly, beggar who was covered in sores. Lazarus didn’t fit into the rich man’s well-manicured life, and so he ignored him. His sin wasn’t things left undone. His sin was a thing he did; he actively and purposefully chose not to see the poor man at his gate.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus defines his ministry during a sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. After his baptism and forty days of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus went throughout Galilee, empowered and encouraged by the Holy Spirit. He preached in Synagogue after Synagogue until he finally arrived back where he grew up. There, in the Synagogue at Nazareth, he preached from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In Luke’s Gospel, more than the other three, the ministry of Jesus is about seeing, about having compassion, and about caring for the poor. The rich man had failed at all three, and as the flames licked his heels, he realized, too late, the error of his ways.

“I beg you, Father Abraham, to send Lazarus to my father’s house – for I have five siblings – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Here, I think, is where we find our place in this story. We are the rich man’s siblings, still on earth, still making choices about who we see and who we don’t see every day. Because they don’t fit comfortably in our lives, it is easy to ignore the homeless children who make up as much as 10% of Foley schools. It is easy to bypass the poverty-fueled drug problem in the historically black neighborhoods around here. It is easy to disregard the modern day slavery that keeps our Latino brothers and sisters packed into trailers tucked deep in the woods. Alternatively, it might be those we do see that cause us the most consternation. When we see those people who challenge our comfortable lives, how do we choose to see them? When we see a black man with his hands raised on a road in Tulsa do we see a man who needed help, or, as the police helicopter pilot called Terence Crutcher, do we only see “a bad dude”? When we see protests over more unarmed black men dying at the hands of police officers, do we see a people crying for justice or thugs hell bent on violence? Jesus is very interested in who we see and how we see them.

Abraham denied the rich man’s request to send Lazarus to his brothers and sisters saying, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them, and if they don’t, they won’t even be convinced by a man who has risen from the dead.” We have Moses, we have the prophets, we even have one who has risen from the dead who calls us to have our sight restored – to see those who the rest of the world ignores as beloved children. Spiritual maturity comes as our eyes come into focus and we learn to see those who are inconvenient, those who are disturbing, and even those who might be frightening. We learn to see Christ in them. We learn to see them as beloved of God. And when we learn to see, we learn compassion, we learn to care, and we learn to love. Open our eyes Lord, and teach us to really see the world around us. Amen.

Advertisements

1+1 isn’t always 2

This week’s Gospel lesson might be the most dangerous one in the three year lectionary cycle.  It is the early days of Stewardship season, so there will be a strong temptation to make the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man about giving money to the Church.  The problem with that analogical approach is that not a few congregations and likely all national and multi-national denominations are more like Dives (the pseudonym for the Rich Man) than they are Lazarus.  If you are going to make it about giving, then it ought to be about caring for the poor, rather than keeping the lights on, the doors open, and the clergy person’s pension funded (Says the clergy person with a really nice pension plan).

The risk in making it about caring for the poor is, of course, preaching a sermon on work’s righteousness.  This parable feels like the lesson is that rich people go to hell and poor people get into heaven, but rich people can make up for their richness and find rest in the bosom of Abraham by giving to the needy.  This is, of course, patently untrue and verging on the heresy of Donatism.  When it comes to parables 1+1 rarely equals 2.

Even as we wish to make Lazarus the hero in our story, Jesus is clear that he too is not without sin.  While Dives fails to love his neighbor through choosing to serve mammon instead of God, Lazarus is said to have “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  Literally, he coveted the rich man’s crumbs, which, while a sad commentary on the stark division between rich and poor, is a clear violation of the 10 Commandments.  Lazarus was a sinner, but by the grace of God and his usefulness for a parable illustration, he goes to heaven where he serves as a foil for Father Abraham to teach about the Kingdom of God.

2010-04-05-the-paradox-of-dives-and-lazarus

The Kingdom of God is a place where those who have suffered on account of their own failings, the failings of others, and sometimes, just downright bad luck, feel the warmth of God’s loving embrace.  And, despite what this parable might seem to indicate, the Kingdom of God is also a place those who have made others to suffer based on their own arrogance and greed have the opportunity to feel the warmth of God’s loving embrace. On the other side of the River Stix, the chasm may be fixed and unable to be crossed, but the love of God is bigger than anything I know.  Just like in the parables, the Kingdom of God is a place where 1+1 isn’t always 2.

How Much Should I Make The Check Out For?

As I noted on Tuesday, this Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a bit sticky for Episcopalians, especially those who hold Episcopal Office and like the color purple, but as I’ve reflected on this text this week, I’ve come to realize a group for which this lesson is even more difficult to hear and preach.

The ELCA has Bishops too!

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, Lutheran Bishop are the group most likely to find difficulty with the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  Not only to they like that purple-ish color their Episcopal brethren and sisteren are so fond of, but the guy who got the whole thing started, Martin Luther, was the guy who coined the phrase of “sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia,” Only Scripture, Only Faith, and Only Grace.  With a clear nod to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (2.8) which reads, “we are saved by grace, through faith.”

If you read the lesson carefully, it sort of sounds like Father Abraham is espousing some sort of works righteousness.  As in, Lazarus suffered and that suffering earned him passage to the bosom of Abraham, but Dives ignored the poor, which earned him a ticket straight to Hades.  The observant listener will quickly pull out their checkbook and ask, “how much do I need to give to get to heaven?”

The challenge grows when coupled with the tail end of the lesson from First Timothy, which reads, “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.”

The savvy preacher will figure out how to allow their parishioners the time to write their checks before reminding them that Luther was, in fact, right; that we are saved by the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ; that nothing we can do (i.e. no matter how big the check), we cannot earn our way into heaven.  Still, it is a tricky lectionary this week, full of chances to slip down the slope of good old fashioned Medieval Popery.  Good luck preachers.  I’ll be praying for you.