Pentecost 19, Proper 21 C - September 25, 2016

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 21, Year C

September 25, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31)

 

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Elie Wiesel once said:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”[1]

What causes us to be indifferent?

Each of us, I believe, has things we tell ourselves to justify our indifference, to protect us from the pain of those around us.  (And there is plenty.)   “If only he hadn’t dropped out of school,” we tell ourselves.  “If only she hadn’t had so many babies.”  “If he would just learn English.” “If she would only stop drinking.” 

“It is human nature to find some reason why people are the way they are, so that we can get on with the business of being the way we are without too much drag on our consciences.” Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that.”  She adds:

“Most of us learned a long time ago that the chief person we are responsible for is ourselves.  We have been put on earth to love our neighbors, yes, but changing their lot in life is up to them, not us”…(you’ve got to set healthy boundaries!).  And this is especially true… “in a culture that places so much stock in individual initiative.  The great American myth is that anyone willing to work hard can win first prize.  That might be true if everyone were standing at the same starting line when the gun goes off, but that is never the case.  Some start so far back, that there is no way they will ever get in the game.”[2]

This really struck me when I attended a lecture on income inequality at my college reunion last spring.  The Economics professor who gave it was explaining that income disparity is nothing new to us, it was nearly as large in the 19th century – a time that generated the great social movements that produced labor unions, voting rights, and laws to protect workers.  The difference is that now, the people in the top 1% are no longer predominately a leisured aristocracy, but a working aristocracy –they work long hours for their millions, 70, 80, 90 per week, and feel very entitled to them![3]

I hear that.  Those same people also spent years on their education and training…so I get it.  But the thing is, and the professor emphasized this point more than anything else.  The education and training that the top 1% receives is harder and harder to come by - you have to be “set up” from the start to attend the right kind of school and receive all the benefits of private lessons and grooming in the arts, languages, sciences and sports…along with a caregiver who can drive you to all those edifying activities – which all ends up costing more than a million dollars per child!  All so they’ll be able to work the same kind of job (along with its long hours) to earn the kind of money to enable them to invest just as many millions in their own children’s education.  What’s wrong with that picture?

But here’s the other problem I want to address, one that relates to the uncomfortable story we are given in today’s reading from Luke about the chasm between a Rich man and Poor Lazarus.  And that is, the way people tend to assume that God may have something to do with all of this.  That maybe those who do have more have it because God wants them to…

This certainly was the popular view in Jesus’ day, especially among the rich, who had no trouble finding passages of scripture to back them up.  Deuteronomy 28 promises prosperity and victory to those who obey the Lord.  Psalm 1 makes it clear that the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.  Verses like these were used by some first century religious people to link wealth with God’s favor - a sure sign of God’s pleasure.

Which meant that those who obeyed God were blessed with material rewards and those who did not were condemned to poverty. Conversely, if you were poor, this mean you’d done something to deserve it (or your parents had).  This thinking not only allowed the rich to enjoy their riches, it also allowed them to walk past the beggars who slept at their doorstep without even looking down. Who were they, after all, to interfere with the punishment God had arranged for those poor souls?  The best thing was to leave well enough alone.  In other words, the gap between the rich and poor was God’s doing.

This is called prosperity theology, and you don’t need me to tell you it is still around today

The problem is, Jesus couldn’t stand it - it was what he really confronted in Scripture.  We’re going talk more about that today in our faith formation hour.  Because there was plenty in what Moses and the prophets said that could go the other way, but were not the passages that the rich people memorized.  Passages like “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (also in Deuteronomy!) (Deut.  15:11) or “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him” (Proverbs 14:31).  Passages like these made it clear that – far from judging the poor – God identified with them. To walk past a beggar was to walk past God, and woe to the rich person who did.

And so, as I see it, the problem with the rich man in today’s story was not so much his wealth, but his indifference to the poor – his justified indifference.  In turning the other way his whole life long.  In not feeling responsible or responding to the pain of those like Lazarus, who he had to literally step over as he went about his business. His sin was in allowing himself to be so utterly closed off from this world God made and the varied people who inhabited it alongside him….not to mention his daily opportunity to make a difference in it. 

Even on the other side of the grave, the Rich man saw Lazarus as a nobody - beneath him, someone to be ordered around to serve his own needs, “Father Abraham” he demands, “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue!” Even after their fates had been sealed, Lazarus in Heaven and the Rich man in hell, he didn’t see Lazarus as the child of God that he was.

And yet, I’ve got to tell you, that in some ways, I understand this rich man in Jesus' parable.  I know how easy it is for me, for instance, to be too busy to take care of the need that is sitting on my doorstep.  I know what it’s like to believe that I don't have what it takes, or that someone else will take care of it, or that such problems are so massive that one person or even a few hundred people can't make much of a difference.  And as much as I hate to admit this, deep down inside there is still a part of me that thinks there must be something this person has done to put them where they are, could do to take themselves from where they are, and that my involvement would simply mean enabling them to stay there.

And while it might seem easier to hear Jesus' words today as not meant for me, I already know that to ignore them would be just one more step towards sealing myself off into a kind of hades of my own making.  One where the needs of others are seen as threats and not as opportunities to live as the whole people of God we were all made to be. 

We begin our "Sack Hunger" hunger program this week, the brainchild of one of the parents in our congregation who could no longer justify to her children that it is okay to simply drive by the people we see begging on street corners.  These non-perishable lunch sacks are something we can hand them, knowing full well that it will not solve the problem of their poverty, or the other circumstances that have led them where they are, but that we do not have to be indifferent to them as fellow human beings.  The power of this program, for most of us, isn’t that we’re eliminating poverty, but that we are willing to have a real and respectful encounter with another child of God, refusing to be indifferent.

The good news of today’s Gospel story is that it isn’t over yet.  For the rich man, maybe.  But not for us, because if you think about it, we are those five brothers.  Even though Father Abraham would not let Lazarus come back from the grave to tell us this story, Jesus has sneaked it out for us!  Now we have that as well as Moses and the prophets and someone who has risen from the dead to convince us it is true.  All that remains to be seen is what we’ll do with it.

Amen

 

 

[1]http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/indifference

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “A Fixed Chasm” in Bread of Angels (Cambridge: Cowly Publications, 1997), 109-113.  I have incorporated additional elements of this essay into several of the paragraphs below.

[3] From a lecture given by Professor Daniel Markovitz, Guido Calabresi Professor of Law, Yale University and Faculty Fellow of the Yale Institution for Social and Public Policy on Saturday, May 28, 2016 at the Yale University Alumni reunion. For an interesting article on Markovitz’ research, see http://rockefeller.dartmouth.edu/news-events/yale-professor-daniel-marko...

 

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