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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Midweek Lent, 2017: Justice, Kindness, Humbly Walking

Week 2: “Our Heart”

Vicar Kelly Sandin
   Texts: Luke 16:19-31 

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The truth is, most of us take eating for granted. We wake up, grab our coffee or tea, have toast, oatmeal, eggs or green smoothies of spinach and mangoes, and begin our day. Lunch is assumed. It’s simply a matter of what. Do we pack it for work, eat at home, find snacks in our office, or do we run to a local restaurant for a quick bite to eat? In fact, after this liturgy there will be a lovingly prepared lunch of soup, bread, and other treats to satisfy our hunger. That’s our tradition. It’s expected. We’ll then go on in our day and afterwards we’ll plan something for dinner. Whether that’s a home-cooked meal, going out, or coming back for soup and bread before evening vespers, there will be food and, likely, snacks before we ever lay our heads in warm beds.

Lazarus had none of this. No food or warm bed. He lay sick and hungry at the gate of a very rich man. The contrast between these two characters in the parable is extreme. The nameless rich man feasted sumptuously every single day, meaning his meals were of great expense. They were lavish and taken for granted. With such exquisite meals it’s curious to know what his reaction would be if his servants didn’t prepare his food to his liking, every day, and whether or not they got to eat this food, too.

Certainly, the rich man had food waste. There would have been plenty to feed many hungry mouths. The problem this parable sets up for us is that the rich man either didn’t have eyes to see Lazarus because of his own self-absorption, or he saw him and didn’t care. Either way, Jesus brings this to our attention as a human condition that is utterly contrary to the way of God. Compare rich man with the dogs in the parable. They had more mercy for Lazarus than any human. They kept him company in his misery and soothed his sores. Perhaps they knew what it was like to be rejected and only saw and sensed a kindred spirit needing love.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t give details about how Lazarus got to this state. That’s not the point. All we know is he’s poor, covered in sores, and longing to fill the void of hunger with whatever falls from the rich man’s table. Obviously, he’s helpless to feed himself. Jesus isn’t judging Lazarus. He simply points out his needs that the rich man could have attended to, but didn’t. Simple food and help for his sores would have been nothing for the rich man to give, yet Lazarus was ignored and eventually died. Starvation and disease took his life.

In death, Lazarus gets to be at the bosom of Abraham. That would be the better translation. He’s carried away by angels to be held in the warmth of Abraham’s bosom. He’s comforted and soothed. He’s cradled and loved. He’s given what he never got in his earthly life. In his death he gets eternal care and affection. He gets more than what he had hoped for at the gate of the rich man.

As opposed to Lazarus, the rich man had his fill in life and in death is tormented. Yet, while dead, and in the agony of flames, the rich man acts with a certain superiority. He sees Lazarus and speaks his name, but only so Lazarus can be of service to him by cooling his burning tongue. Even in torment, the rich man looks at Lazarus as being beneath him. He can’t see him in any other way but less than.

Of course, Father Abraham will not let Lazarus do this. There is a reversal of roles in the parable that recalls the sermon on the plain, earlier in this gospel, where Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”

Jesus has preferential treatment for the hungry and poor and this parable is a wake-up call. The difference between Lazarus and the rich man in their death, with the huge chasm between them and the inability to ever get across that bridgeless divide, is vivid and startling. It reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Christmas Carol and the ghosts who showed him what would become of him if he continued in his loveless ways.

Our parable today is told as a warning about our indifference, our inaction, our judgement toward the poor and hungry. It’s an opportunity to be introspective and acknowledge, with honesty, our disposition toward those who live in poverty.

As a society we’ve been taught that hard work pays off. That we are to rely upon our own resources and pull our own selves up. Therefore, those who are poor, hungry, or on the streets are often viewed as lazy or just looking for handouts. That they ought to get a job and take care of themselves and that we owe them nothing. We are skeptical of many, thinking they’re conning us and taking advantage. We’ve all been there as to whether or not to do something. And when we don’t our inaction gnaws at us when we walk by and ignore them. That’s God working within us. We do have hearts and it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we don’t know what to do or don’t want to be fooled, so more often than not we do nothing and then try to justify it.

When I was in Portland, Oregon the homeless were in abundance. They were allowed to lie in front of stores and were not shooed away. There were times I felt I had to step over them. I was overwhelmed with how in my face it was and it was, quite frankly, disturbing. I was asked for money at every turn, so I kept dollar bills ready for when I was. I’ll admit, my motives were less than pure. I was on vacation. It was easier to give than to be harassed or to deal with the integrity issue of saying I didn’t have cash when, in fact, I did. I kept this up for a week. But, if I actually lived there, how could I afford to do that every day? This is what many of us contemplate in the areas we live and in the neighborhood of Mount Olive. We feel helpless to fix or change the chronic circumstances of others and, if we’re truthful, we really don’t want to see it. We want to go on with our lives free from dealing with the impact of poverty in our society. Yet, this parable speaks. God calls us to do something. Our inaction or indifference is noted.

We may not feed every person on the street, but we have voices to fight for and support affordable housing, decent wages, insurance coverage for all, free community gardens, and grocery stores in urban food deserts. This parable is asking for more than quick hand-outs to those who come to our church doors or a dollar bill given to someone begging, as helpful as that might be. It’s deeper than this. It’s about our attitude toward others. It’s about our heart. It’s about whether or not we love our neighbor. Whether or not we can truly look another in the eye and feel the hurting person inside. This is what God is looking for in us. That we love as God loves. That we care as God cares. Jesus’ parable gives space for reflection on our Lenten journey, but also reminds us there’s room for all to be rocked in the bosom of God’s love.

Thanks be to God.

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