Monday, October 01, 2007

Lazarus, the rich man, and The Kingdom: a sermon for Proper 21 C

Text of a sermon preached at St. Mark's Church, Newnham, Cambridge
by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
on 30 September 2007

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Recently I had a very interesting experience. I was invited by a child – a prominent five year old in my family – to let her be the leader on our trip back home from school. Intrigued, I agreed. I then noticed that for the rest of our journey, her primary concern was making sure that I stayed behind her. I suppose this is natural from a child’s perspective. After all, if you’re going to lead, so the logic might go, then you need someone behind you to follow. Naturally, as adults, we know that leadership is a much more complicated proposition, and that there might well be times when what is needed is not to be out in front, but to linger behind and allow others freedom to explore and discover and even move ahead.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that this child picked up this notion from her father and his distorted notions of leadership. Who knows? In fact, this put me in mind of some of the things I thought as a child which didn’t quite pan out. For example, growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I used to think it would be great fun to work downtown in the city, because I would get to ride a train everyday, and I quite liked trains. As I grew older, I realised there was a lot more to working as an executive than riding trains.

I’m sure we’ve all had these same sorts of childlike ideas when we were younger, trying to sort out the world and the way it works. We might remember them fondly, or with a bit of embarrassment, recalling the moment they were dispelled. There’s nothing wrong these ideas, of course, it’s just a part of growing up. The point at which we become concerned is when one fails to move on. There’s a point at which we learn more and our childlike ideas become a fuller, more mature understanding. If we were to cling to what went before, it would not be childlike, but childish.

I bring this up to give us a bit of a framework for thinking about today’s lessons, because it seems to me that they suggest to us that some of our attitudes towards life are childish.
Continue reading Lazarus, the rich man, and The Kingdom

Let’s turn first to the gospel lesson. Luke continues his tradition of giving us vibrant, memorable, well-known parables of Jesus. We heard from him a story about a rich man and a poor man and the dramatic reversals they had after death. There’s a great deal here and we won’t be able to touch on it all this morning, but for our purposes I’d like to call our attention to two particular elements of the parable.

The first thing worth noticing in the parable is the names. There are two principal characters: one is a poor man, named Lazarus; the other is a rich man…who doesn’t have a name. In fact, over the years, this has troubled people; so much in fact that tradition has given him a name, Dives. And so we have numerous representations in art of Dives and Lazarus. But even Dives isn’t a proper name, as it only means ‘rich man’ in Latin. So here’s a man so focused on his riches, so consumed that the story seems content to describe him simply as a rich man. That is, of course, he’s called a ‘rich man’ until he dies. After that, of course, he is no longer rich; he isn’t even called a man, and he doesn’t seem to have a name. It’s as if in being consumed by his selfishness he becomes virtually nothing at all.

Contrast this with Lazarus, the poor man who suffers who doesn’t even have a speaking partg and yet has the dignity of a name. He is named several times. While he is alive and suffering misery and neglect he is Lazarus. And when he is taken by the angels to the bosom of Abraham, he is still dignified as Lazarus. Here is someone the likes of whom we might encounter every day in Cambridge without even registering their presence – maybe sitting in a doorway, perhaps selling The Big Issue, possibly wasting in a bed in a nursing home or hospital – someone who, in conventional terms, is vulnerable and on the margin. And yet we see in this parable that the very person we might disregard or even, in a weak moment, look down on is precious to God and worthy of dignity. It is in this that we catch a glimpse of the radical nature of the Kingdom of God, which some have called an ‘upside down kingdom’, a Kingdom in which, in this parable’s terms, the rich dwell in obscurity while the poor have names which are remembered to this very day.

That’s the first thing to notice, the way names are used. The second thing I’d like us to notice is the poignant tableau which unfolds in Hades. It’s worth mentioning that this is a parable, and not a travelogue which is meant somehow to give us a detailed picture of the afterlife, that’s not Jesus’ intention. That said, the man finds himself in Hades and cries out for himself, to have his suffering lessened. Then, when Abraham says he can do nothing, the man then tries to act to save his brothers. It is rather touching, and it seems almost as if the man has finally grasped the enormity of it all and wants at least to save his brothers. Is it possible that the man has actually been moved to repentance, even after death?

It’s fairly easy, I think, to read this parable in a straightforward moralistic fashion. It might seem to say simply: if you do bad to other people in life, you will come to a bad end: you don’t want to come to a bad end, so do good. It would be easy to read it this way, but I don’t think that’s the right way to read it. And I’m not so sure that the man in Hades has really changed or repented much anyway. It’s true he doesn’t ignore Lazarus any more, but instead treats him like a servant, to be sent to relieve his suffering or warn his brothers. And, true, he’s no longer moved only by selfish concern for himself; but he replaces that with selfish concern for his brothers. He’s worried that they not join him in Hades; he’s not worried about them becoming piously observant of Moses and the prophets and therefore sacrificially generous to those around them. The man in Hades still doesn’t get it – he’s stuck in a moralistic world, rather than a world founded on grace

You see, the moralist’s question ends up being how much do I have to give to avoid Hades? The focus is on me, on me being good enough, on securing my place and status. And if the focus is on me, then other people aren’t on my radar screen, except when they stand in my way, or give me an opportunity to advance my own cause. ‘How can I use Lazarus to help me?’ ends up being the question in Hades. This really fails to grasp the nature of the situation: at bottom, it’s childish.

If the moralist’s question is ‘how much do I have to give to avoid Hades’, the better question, the one founded on the grace of Christ, is ‘how much can I give in order to love others well?’ To be gripped by God’s grace in this way doesn’t mean we don’t fall short: in fact, when we are no longer preoccupied with being good enough, when we’re no longer obsessed with ourselves, we can actually be more honest about our sin and our shortcomings. We’re able to come clean about ourselves because we realise that we aren’t here because we’re so great, but because God loves us. If the whole of our lives, and the whole of our life with God in Christ are a gift through God’s grace, then how can be so preoccupied with keeping accounts? How can we be so focused on ourselves and not open to the possibilities around us to love others well, and to let them love us? We have nothing to lose, for we have nothing that we have not been given as a gift and entrusted by God to use well.

This is reflected in the apostolic teaching from our epistle reading today, which reads ‘we brought nothing into the world so that we can take nothing out of it,’ therefore we are to use our resources, indeed our lives, so that we are wealthy not in money and status but in goodness and love towards others. This is an image of life in God in which all that we are given we are given for the sake of someone else. Friends, that’s not childish at all; that’s real life.

Naturally, realising this in our lives is a process of spiritual growth. We don’t arrive there immediately. We don’t grow out of deeply ingrained childish ways overnight. But as the Spirit works in our lives, by God’s grace we are able to repent, and we do see growth.

I’d like to share just one brief example. I served a parish in Michigan in the US for four years before coming here to Cambridge. While I was there, I learned about the fair trade movement, and the way that it worked with people in other lands to secure a fair price for their work and products, so that they were no longer locked in poverty. In this way, it short-circuited the powerful pressure for ever-lower prices – and lower wages - that larger distributors could bring to bear on their suppliers. I became convinced that this was a good way to use our resources to benefit others, and so I brought a proposal to a p.c.c. meeting that we change the coffee we used from conventionally traded coffee to fairly traded coffee. We had some good discussion around the issue, but we decided that it would end up being too expensive. So I let it drop. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time. Then, about three weeks later, someone who had been a part of that discussion approached me. She said that she had been thinking about it, and realised that when she had said no to paying more for coffee, she had said yes to paying less than a living wage for workers. And that troubled her. These aren’t just nameless, faceless nobodies, but people who want to feed their families and send their children to school. So she brought it up at the next p.c.c. meeting, and we revisited the issue. This is just one example – no doubt you’ve got stories like this from your life, or from our life here at St. Mark’s – but in it we can see the Spirit bringing growth to move away from childishness. The question was no longer ‘how much can we get for as little as possible?’; now it was ‘how can I use the resources we’ve been entrusted with to love and serve others well?’

And this work of the Spirit is evidence of the coming Kingdom of God, seen in Moses and the Prophets, begun in Jesus Christ, growing today in the Spirit, but not yet fully arrived. It can feel a little topsy turvy, even upside down as it questions our usual way of doing things. It’s a kingdom where everyone has a face and a name, because everyone matters; it’s a kingdom where by grace we’re freed from being preoccupied with ourselves, and freed to love God and our neighbour; it’s a kingdom where we are freed to use what we have been given for the good of others. Sisters and brothers, we’re not there yet. But the Holy Spirit keeps working with us, challenging and empowering us to leave behind childish notions and embrace the life that is really life, of loving service for others in the name of Christ. And as we glimpse this work of God, how can we respond, but in childlike wonder, once again? Amen.

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Blogger maggi said...

thanks Jason, that did my heart good.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007 8:11:00 PM  

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