Sunday, September 25, 2016


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 25, 2016

Year C, Proper 20: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

            If you were here last Sunday you may remember that we heard what’s often called the Parable of the Shrewd Manager.
            Jesus starts off that parable by telling us there was a rich man who had a manager – and this manager was squandering the rich man’s property. And, when the rich man got wind of this squandering, the rich man confronts the manager demanding an accounting of what he’s done.
            The rich man holds his manager accountable.
            Well, the parable we heard today follows just a little later in the Gospel of Luke (both of these are unique to Luke, by the way). Today’s parable follows just a little later, and is clearly related to last week’s parable.
            Both parables begin with, “There was a rich man.”
            Both parables are about the use – or misuse - of wealth.
            And, both parables are about accountability.
            So, we’re told, there was a rich man who lived a really good life, dressing in the most beautiful and expensive clothes and feasting on rich foods every day. He’s not just part of the “one percent” – he’s richer even than that.
            And then, there’s a stark contrast that will be familiar to us, since we live in a city where the rich and poor live side by side and pass each other on the street every day.
              We’re told right at the gate there’s Lazarus – a very poor man, covered in sores, hungering for a few crumbs from the rich man’s table.
            One of the things I love about the parable is that Jesus doesn’t make any judgments about the character of the rich man and Lazarus – we’re not told if either man is kind and loving or mean and hateful – we’re not told how the rich man amassed so much wealth and we’re not told how and why poor Lazarus ended up in such a pathetic state.
            But, when they both die, some things become a little clearer.
            Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man is in Hell – a fiery hell made even more hellish because he can see heaven – he can see poor Lazarus now in paradise with Abraham.
            And, it’s now that the rich man reveals his character to us.
            He calls on Abraham to send Lazarus down to quench his thirst. While burning in Hell, the rich man wants Lazarus to be his servant. The rich man in hell hasn’t quite realized or accepted that he’s no longer rich.
            Those days are over.
            Still, so far, this is really just a story of reversal – a story of the mighty falling and the lowly rising – the kind of story we all love, right?
            But, then we learn a little bit more about the rich man. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus (as a ghost, I guess) to the rich man’s brothers and warn them to change their ways before it’s too late.
            So, he knows. The rich man has realized that he’s in Hell because he really messed up; he did wrong by Lazarus and, probably, he did wrong by lots of others in need.
            The rich man is in Hell because he failed to follow God’s great commands that he knew very well, and that his brothers knew very well, and that we know very well: the great commands to love and show mercy, to do good and be generous.
            The rich man failed to love poor Lazarus, right there at his gate, starving and covered in sores.
            And now the rich man is held accountable.
            Lazarus reminded me of Mike.
            Some of you will remember Mike, the young, bedraggled homeless guy with the scraggly beard and piercingly blue eyes, who used to come to St. Paul’s all the time.
            Many of you probably saw him around the neighborhood, begging for money, often near Communipaw and the Boulevard, or down by the McDonald’s on Communipaw, or farther away, by NJCU, or at the Hub. Mike got around.
            I don’t remember when exactly he first showed up here, but for quite a while Mike was an almost daily presence. Sometimes he came by in the morning, asking if there was anything he could do to help out, wanting to mow the grass or sweep the sidewalk, in return for some money.
            A few times he came to church on Sunday or to one of the weekday services, but he told me that he felt funny coming to church because of how he was dressed, how he looked, because of who and what he was, so more often he’d show up near the end of coffee hour, or at Stone Soup, looking for something to eat and, yes, asking for a couple of bucks.
            He could sense that he made a lot of people uncomfortable and fearful. After all, whatever Mike’s true character, addicts are usually dishonest and untrustworthy.
            He would regularly show up here at night and ring the rectory doorbell (often startling me just as I was dozing off on the couch) telling me he wanted me to know that he was still alive, and asking for money for food, for laundry, for new socks, for…
            Over time, he confided more of his story to me – it was a story with a lot of sadness and loss, pain that anyone would want to numb and forget.
            St. Paul’s became Mike’s home base. His mail came here. His important documents were kept here. Sleeping behind abandoned houses or in the park, this was all the home he had.
            He always declined offers of help for his addiction – I think because of addiction’s power and, honestly, the embarrassment of even admitting he had a problem.
             As some of you will remember, it seemed like each day he looked worse and worse, as life on the streets of Jersey City took its toll. His clothes became more like rags barely hanging on his skinny frame. His face was red and his eyes were glassy and unfocused.
            And then, he vanished.
            It took me a few days to realize that we hadn’t seen him. I asked around if anyone had seen him in his usual hangouts. Nothing.
            Expecting the worst, I googled him. Nothing. Looked at the Jersey Journal for news. Nothing. I scanned the obituaries. Nothing.
            And then I remembered that he had a Facebook page. I had found it months earlier but it hadn’t been updated in a couple of years. It had been heartbreaking to see, because there were pictures of a happy and much healthier Mike, a nice-looking guy, smiling with family and friends, just a few years earlier.
            So, with some trepidation, I went on Mike’s Facebook page.
            And, there I found out what happened to him.
            A friend of his, also named Mike, knew that our Mike was in really bad shape, so he drove down from his home in Pennsylvania to Jersey City, found Mike on the street, got him into his car, drove back to Pennsylvania and got Mike into a facility where he could detox.
            Once Mike was clean, Mike the friend took him into his home to live with him, his wife and kids.
            Amazing, right?
            Now, although recovery is a lifelong journey, our Mike has been clean for more than fifty days and is working in a factory manufacturing cabinets.
            I talked with him on Thursday and he gave me permission to tell his story here today. He texted me a photo so I could see how good he looks now – and, sure enough, he looks more like that happy and healthier Mike from a couple of years ago.
            Mike the friend held himself accountable for our Mike and made and continues to make big sacrifices to fulfill God’s great commands to love and show mercy, to do good and be generous.
            It may not feel like it much of the time, but we are rich. We may struggle to pay the rent and to cover all of our bills, but we’re rich because we’re part of a loving community, a church where we feast every week, a church where we look out for each other, a place where we love one another.
            And, we don’t have to look far to find Lazarus and Mike. They are at our gate, at our door, hungry, sick, and alone.
            They may be kind and loving people or they may be mean and hateful or, more likely, like most of us, they’re somewhere in between.
            The point is, whether we like it or not, together, we are accountable, we will be held accountable, for how we welcome Lazarus, for how we take care of Mike.
            Like the rich man and his brothers we all know God’s great commands to love and show mercy, to do good and be generous.