Wednesday, September 29, 2010

18 Pentecost, Year C, September 26, 2010

Jeremiah 32:1-3a; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
There’s Always More , preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

A great writer, or painter, or composer always creates more than he or she knows at the time. That’s why certain literature and paintings and music are great—there’s always more to learn, each time you hear that music or see that painting or read that story. There’s always more there to discover, the next time and the next.

In our gospel this morning, Jesus has been teaching and preaching and getting a lot of attention, and some of it decidedly negative. The Pharisees and the scribes are eavesdropping on him, as he tells his close friends the story about the Shrewd Steward (our Gospel lesson from last week) and how they also should be a bit street-smart about dealing with “The Stuff”—the possessions, the wealth, the skills they have been given, for the good of God’s kingdom.

A verse we did not read this morning, tells us that the Pharisees and scribes were “lovers of money.” This is a useful accusation if you’re intending to do a little character assassination—in Jesus’ time and in our own. The author of Luke is setting up a distinction, between those who hear Jesus’ message and follow him—which includes being generous with the Stuff—and those who do not follow, but cling tightly to their Stuff.

Jesus tells the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man lived in luxury. Not just “well off”, this guy is LOADED. Purple cloth and linen signify the highest ranks of a hierarchical society; “feasted sumptuously every day” is the language of a celebration or a banquet—not just on Thanksgiving or a birthday or special occasion, but every day.

Lazarus was there at his gate, every day. In the Mediterranean world, to this day, houses are built with walls facing the street, enclosing the courtyard and then the living quarters beyond. The only way in, and the only way out, is through the gated doorway leading to and from the street. Lazarus was there, every day, as the rich man came in and out, going about his business.

Jesus’ hearers would have accepted as common sense the idea that material wealth and physical health were signs of God’s blessing and favor upon those who deserved it; likewise that poverty, disaster and disease were indicators of God’s disfavor or condemnation. Someone—either Lazarus himself or his parents—probably committed some grievous sin that brought down God’s punishment, in the form of this sickness, these sores and oozing wounds. We’re not so far from Lazarus and the rich man sometimes, in thinking such thoughts ourselves.

Both the rich man and Lazarus die and are buried, and here the story takes a turn. Instead of being rewarded with continued blessing and approval, the rich man finds himself in Sheol. (This is not “Hell” by the way, most of our ideas of which come not from Scripture at all, but from a remarkable work of medieval science-fiction by the poet Dante Alegheri, the Divine Comedy.) Nevertheless, the rich man expected to be received into the place of refreshment and welcome (and why not—he always had been treated so before?) and is surprised to discover Lazarus in that place instead, and himself somewhere else entirely.

He calls across to Father Abraham. “Send Lazarus over here to bring me a drink of water.” Not even Please, mind you. “Come heah, boy…” It’s very Thurston Howell the Third of him, you know? This is the first time he’s actually noticed Lazarus, after stepping over him in the threshold for years. He was never mean to Lazarus; he never threatened to call the authorities or tried to run him off…he just ignored him. He ignored the fact that there was a human being in need at his own front door.

“Child,” says Father Abraham, “Remember that in your lifetime you received all the good things.” If we are listening carefully, we hear in that response an echo from Jesus’ teaching at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Plain.

“Woe to you who are rich now, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24)
You’ve got the Stuff—that may be all you’re going to get. Now or later.

But then Jesus continues, later in the same passage:
“Love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36) Another translation has it as “Be Generous, as your Father is generous.”

“Father Abraham!” the rich man cries. And he has the right to call, he too is of the lineage of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, a descendant of the family of Israel. But that’s not enough, Jesus says to his hearers. Family heritage is all very well, but what are you doing with that heritage? How are you living up to those ideals? You call yourself a child of Abraham, one of the chosen people of God—are you doing what God’s children do?

We call ourselves Christians, followers of Jesus Christ. Are we doing what Jesus’ followers do?

Yes, at least sometimes we do. Sometimes we manage (even perhaps in spite of ourselves) to see what is right under our noses, at our own front doors.

This past week, “Joe” called the church office from Doctor’s Hospital. He was asking for a visit, and the prayers and anointing for healing. He is not a member of our congregation; he was on his way home to New York, after having gone to Florida for cancer treatment, when he took sick and had to go to the emergency room. Joe was one of the first responders on 9-11 in lower Manhattan, and his lungs are now full of asbestos.

Before I could go over to Doctor’s Hospital and visit him, Joe was released. He walked all the way to St. Augustine’s, with surgical stitches in his stomach, and was waiting in the office when I got out of a meeting. We went into my office and talked; we went into church and prayed; I gave him communion and the anointing he had asked for.

He had arranged transportation to New York the next day, but had no place to spend the night. So we made arrangements for a hotel room, and I took him to Target for a few necessaries—clean underwear and toothpaste.

I don’t know if everything he told me was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And guess what? It doesn’t matter anyway. “Be generous, as God himself is generous…” And your generosity, as the people of St. Augustine’s, made it possible for us to help this man.

I saw the church in action that day. Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and helping the dying to die with dignity. The corporal acts of mercy in our stained glass windows came down and took on flesh and bone and blood that day. We saw a need, we used our Stuff to help meet that need.

I tell you, my friends: It is as much wickedness to ignore or neglect someone—especially someone that vulnerable—as to slap them in the face or beat them with a stick.

But this parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a great story, because there is more to it than just “Take care of people,” important as that is. The last line gives us the clue: “…neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” As Christians we can’t hear those words and not have our ears perk up. Who is this Jesus is talking about? Yes, well…

Around the year 1515, an artist known to us as Matthias Grunewald created a series of paintings for a hospital chapel in modern-day France. The monks of this monastery hospital were famous for treating skin diseases, and when Grunewald painted the scene of Jesus on the cross, he inflicted the symptoms of those diseases onto Jesus. The muscles are knotted in spasm, the skin is blotched and broken and sticky with dried blood and oozing wounds—it is NOT a pretty picture. But it is a picture of reality, in that place. The patients of the hospital, looking at that painting in their chapel, saw Jesus looking like themselves. They saw themselves looking like him.

Jesus comes to us as Lazarus himself—in the little ones, in the lost ones, in the sick and the dying and the dead ones. For only in this can resurrection come; only in this can one discover “The Lord is risen indeed” and enter that repentance, that change of mind and heart, that even the Rich Man in his foolishness and vanity, asks for this morning.

May it be so with us; may it be so among us.

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