September 25, 2016: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
Reverend Melissa Hall, St. James’ Episcopal Church
There Are No Do Overs
This past Friday some middle schoolers were playing a game on our lawn, when conflict struck and I heard these words, “No fair… Do Over!”
It must have worked because there was no ensuing argument or name calling. The Do Over was invoked and apparently accepted.
Remember Do Overs? Wouldn’t that make life so simple?
YOU hurt my Feelings – Do Over
I ran a red light; got a ticket - Do Over
I drank too much last night and made an idiot of myself - Big Do Over
I yelled at my teenager and said awful things - Do Over
I flirted with someone I shouldn’t have and now things are getting out of hand - Do Over.
Yes, Do Overs would be extremely handy and could certainly fix a lot of messes we manage to get into!
I wish I could yell, “Do Over” and have it come true, especially in light of what has happened in Oklahoma and North Carolina. Once again there have been police shootings of African American citizens, and the peaceful and lawful protests that resulted have somehow devolved into violence and riots.
Unfortunately, the chasm between white and black Americans is growing wider and it seems greater than the distance between heaven and earth.
The reality is that Do Overs are words for children at play, and there is no undoing what has happened and what is playing out in our country.
In our Gospel this morning the rich man is coming to that same awful reality. There are no Do Overs!
The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to his living brothers to warn them that their failure to care for others will only lead to eternal damnation. But Abraham isn’t having it! He argues that all the prophets and sages are available to his brothers, and it is up to them to take heed of what is right before their eyes. We are never told their fate, but it is safe to assume that unless something miraculous happens, they too are doomed to hell.
This is a complex scripture with many messages, and the rich man’s dilemma makes me wonder, what does it take to get our attention? What is the thing that focuses us TO attention?
One of the hallmarks of the human brain is that when we look at people, we see people, not things. We notice the differences in folks immediately, or at least we are capable of noticing the difference!
This human capacity is critical in the heavy-handed parable that Jesus offers us in the Gospel today. ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’, like most of Jesus’ parables, is about money and love, and it also offers a surprise reversal: the poor man goes to heaven and the rich man goes to hell.
Actually, if you know your bible this may not seem to be a surprise anymore, but there’s a detail we might overlook: the rich man has no name but the poor man’s name is remembered: Lazarus, which means “God has helped.” That detail, that naming for me, is the key to the story.
In the world Jesus paints, the rich man is a generic rich man without a face and without a name, but the beggar is a person. It’s a reversal of the old song, “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” In Jesus’ world, it is the outsiders who have names and faces.
The parable is a cautionary tale, of course: a reminder to change our ways before it is too late. But what changes are we to make? Would it have saved the rich man from hell if he had given the beggar at his gate a “to-go plate” from his banquet table?
Bishop Jane Dixon often told this story about the death of her father, a crusty and profane physician who used to tease her devout mother about her churchgoing and do-gooding.
On his deathbed the old man was seized with terror and called for his checkbook. He wrote in their local church as the payee and then faltered over the amount. “How much,” he asked his wife, “do you think it will take to put things right?”
He asked the wrong question. His wife knew that.
You see, Jesus didn’t tell this story as a strategy to end world hunger. There’s no ‘fair share’ any of us is required to give. No amount of generosity will ever make up for what we’ve done and left undone. The story is less about wealth and poverty than it is about humanity.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says of this story, “The opposite of poverty is not property. Rather, the opposite of both is community.” Even in the fires of Hell, the rich man doesn’t see Lazarus as a person, but as a lackey he can order down to hell to bring him a drink of water.
The problem here is not the rich man’s wealth, but his inhumanity, his blindness in looking at a person and seeing a thing. The point here is that you can give to the poor and still be blind.
I’ve forgotten the name of the movie, but there is a scene in it when a businessman tosses a coin in the direction of a beggar as he rushes to catch a train. Observing this act, one-character remarks, “He didn’t even look at the guy!” To which his companion remarks, “He pays so that he doesn’t have to look.”
Yes, the Parable of the rich man is an example for the disciples of what a life of greed and self pre-occupation will ultimately come to when it is time to make final accounts before God. But it also offers something more subtle, it tells about how we choose to perceive each other in and out of community.
I have a dear friend, who is African American. We have been talking a lot about North Carolina and all the other North Carolinas of late. She told me that she has been in pitched battle with her teenaged son for these past weeks because he loves to wear his hoody to school. She has forbidden him to leave the house with it on. They fight every morning. He sees it as fashion; she knows it as danger! She has even contemplated cutting the hoods off all his sweatshirts while he is at school.
She told me, “he thinks I am an awful mother, but he has a job after school on Bloomfield Avenue and I am afraid that if someone sees him coming home, a black teenager with his hood up walking in the dark, they may think he’s doing something wrong and call the cops. He could get stopped, and what if he has his earphones on and can’t hear the cop telling him to stop, what if he just gets scared and starts to run? I’ve watched the news reports: he could be shot”.
I was horrified for my friend, because I was forced to see with this mother’s eyes what she sees and deals with every day, when she sends her dark skinned son out into the world.
She told me, “With all my education and all my wealth and success, I can’t keep my black son safe. Why can’t they just see him the way I see him, my loving, good hearted boy and not a thug in a hoody?”
I had no answer for her but my own shame.
But we mustn’t lose heart. There is good news here because it seems to me that most of us are teachable. Unlike the folks in Jesus’ story, we’re not dead yet, so we’ve got time to learn about community.
First of all, we have the remarkable example of Jesus who by dying as a criminal and an outcast has shown us that indeed God may be found, as Mother Teresa used to put it “in the distressing disguise of the poor.” And then we have this remarkable institution Jesus created to carry on his work: the church.
I’m not sure about all the issues that have clung to the church over the years, but the heart of the matter is the same, the essential fact is that we are a community.
In the communal meal we celebrate each week, everyone—rich, poor, young, old, male, female, straight, gay, black, white, and brown—everyone eats from one table. We can learn from this simple meal together.
It takes a while to stop focusing our attention on our differences and to learn to focus on each other as human beings. We can start with Jesus’ reassurance that his job was not to reach out to perfect people, but to people like us—that ought to help us remember that we belong here and that we are loved.
Then we can learn to live in this church family as a community—make the effort to learn each other’s names, find out about each other’s joys and sorrows. And finally, we can learn to enlarge the family to include more and more people who once were invisible to us—and to come to know them as family too. To see them, really see them, and to make their stories our own.
Yes, things do seem to be getting worse in this country and I have nothing to offer as a solution but this, we must never stop trying.
It is a small thing to keep coming to communion. It is a small thing to learn another’s name. It is even a small thing to respond to the needs of others, as one human being to another. Small things, but you know what? I believe God will take that from us and be glad of it.
There’s an old Jewish story about rabbis debating when a new day officially dawns. One rabbi says it is dawn when the sun touches the treetops. Another states when you can see your feet. But the wisest says that when you can see another person well enough to recognize them as a member of your family, that’s when you know a new day, has dawned.
This morning we will be baptizing two beautiful children into our community. Jesse and Sienna, I promise you this, on this new day, we see you just as God created you. We name you, and we claim you into this community in Christ’s Holy name.
May new days keep dawning for all of us, and may we always get that chance at a Do OVER that will make us a better, more loving and compassionate people of God.
Let’s start our new day right now.
I ask that you please turn to someone that you do not know, look him or her in the eye, offer them your hand, tell them your name, and say “Welcome Home!”