Sunday, September 29, 2013

At Our Gate

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 29, 2013

Year C, Proper 21: The 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91: 1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

At Our Gate
            Two Sundays in a row, now, we’ve heard parables from the Gospel of Luke that are meant to get us thinking about how we use our wealth – how we use all the good gifts that God has given us – how we use our time, how we use our talent, and, yes, how we use our treasure.
            If you were here last week you may remember that we heard the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. Jesus tells the story of the manager who was accused by his boss of wrongdoing and now faces the real possibility of losing everything.
            The shrewd manager quickly decides to get in touch with the people who were indebted to his boss. He cuts their debts (really cutting out his own commission) and, he hopes, makes friends with the debtors. He hopes that the debtors will take him in when he loses everything.
            Instead, the boss praised the shrewd manager for his… shrewdness.
            Jesus suggests that we need to be equally shrewd with our time, talent, and treasure – to use them for good – to use them so we may be with God forever.
            And now, today, we heard a second parable that is also meant to get us thinking about how we use our wealth – how we use our time, talent, and treasure.
            And in today’s parable we meet someone who didn’t do such a good job of it and is now, we’re told, enduring eternal torment in hell.
            For the past few weeks on Wednesdays after the healing service we’ve been having pretty lively Bible study discussions looking at the gospel lessons for the following Sunday.
            One of the things we’ve noted is that Luke is such a good writer. In just a few words, with just a few careful brushstrokes, he captures Jesus’ parable and paints a vivid picture that I bet we can all imagine.
            In today’s parable he very quickly sets up a dramatic contrast between the unnamed rich man and poor Lazarus.
            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.”
            Jesus, through Luke, paints a very vivid picture indeed.
            Notice we’re not told anything more about Lazarus except that he’s poor, he’s lying at the rich man’s gate, he’s hungry, and he’s covered with sores licked by dogs.
            We’re not told whether he’s a good, kind, faithful or religious person. All we know is that’s he’s a poor man living a horrible life.
            But, since God has a special love for the poor and suffering, when Lazarus dies we’re told that he “was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”
            God has a special love for the poor so Lazarus goes to heaven.
            And… the rich man goes to the other place to be tormented.
            Talk about a reversal of fortune!
            So far, though, we don’t really know anything about what’s in the rich man’s heart. All we know is that he lived a luxurious life.
            But, it’s in hell that the rich man shows his true colors.
            He looks up to heaven and asks Abraham to send Lazarus down to give him a drink. He’s in hell and he expects poor Lazarus who suffered so much in life to be his servant. And the rich man goes further, asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers about the terrible fate that awaits them unless they change their ways.
            Even in the next life – even in hell – the rich man thinks that Lazarus (who’s in heaven!) is still somehow beneath him and should be serving him!
            It’s a powerful and unsettling parable – maybe especially unsettling for us who live in the richest country on earth.
            As I’ve thought about the parable – and especially about the rich man – I’ve come to the conclusion that rich man’s biggest mistake, his greatest sin, was not seeing Lazarus – Lazarus who was right at his gate! – not seeing Lazarus as a human being beloved by God.
            Although the rich man knows his name, the rich man doesn’t see Lazarus as a fellow human being – a human being with his own hopes and fears, with his own burdens and disappointments, with his own loves and dreams.
            Instead the rich man sees Lazarus as a thing.
            The rich man sees Lazarus as “poverty,” as “ugly sores being licked by dogs” and maybe as an annoyance or an inconvenience that he has to step over on his way in and out of his home.           
            This is very much a parable for our own times.
            Our culture encourages us to see people as things – as things for our own use and pleasure.
            We often see people – people right at our gates - not as fellow human beings beloved by God, but as things.
            On line at the supermarket we see the cashier not as a human being with her own hopes and dreams but as simply a thing that exists to ring up our order quickly and accurately.
            On the bus or on the PATH train, we’re surrounded by human beings burdened with their own disappointments and fears, yet often we just look at them as things – things that get in our way - things that we judge based on what they’re wearing, on their hairstyle, on the color of their skin.
            And, right at our gates – just outside our church, just outside our home, just outside our place of work – there are the modern-day Lazaruses. Right outside our gates are the poor and the hungry – the physically poor and spiritually hungry longing to satisfy their hunger with what falls from our table. Lazarus is right at our gates, beloved by God simply because he or she is poor and suffering.
            So, the question is, do we see our Lazaruses as things, as “poverty” as “sores licked by dogs” as “inconvenience” or “annoyance”? Or do we see the Lazaruses of today as fellow human beings, beloved by God?
            Are we willing to help them?
            Are we able to love them?
            How we answer those questions will make all the difference in our lives, both now and in the future.
            How do we at St. Paul’s answer those questions?
            Today is a big day in our parish life.
            After the service we will have our annual parish meeting. We will elect new vestry members. We will look at our church finances. We will celebrate what, with God’s help, has been accomplished. And we’ll dream a little bit about the future.
            Above and beyond all of that, my hope is that today marks the beginning of a new era.
            For so long we have been focused on the survival of St. Paul’s. Will people keep coming to our church? Will we attract new people? Will people pledge? Will they pay their pledge? Will we preserve our endowment? And on and on…
            I get those concerns. I’ve shared those concerns. And, those concerns have led some wonderful people to take great care of this place and preserve what God has given us.
            But, let me tell you something. I am absolutely convinced that God is not even close to being done with St. Paul’s.
            Just the opposite.
            God and we are just getting started.
            God has a beyond our wildest dreams future in store for us.
            And I believe that future has begun with us turning our focus away from concerns for our survival and seeing – really seeing – and serving the Lazaruses out there.
            God doesn’t want us to be like the rich man in the parable.
            God wants us – calls us – expects us to really see Lazarus and to feed him – to feed him with the food that we collect each month – to feed him with the bottomless love of God – to feed him the special love that God has for the poor and suffering – to feed him with the love that we experience here at St. Paul’s – to feed him with the love of Jesus Christ.
            Today marks the beginning of a new era.
            Now, let’s see – let’s really see – who’s at our gate.