Pentecost 19C 2016
Our Thinking, Feeling and Behaving, as Sacred Tasks.
Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15 Luke 16:19-31
Over the last three weeks, in fact for much longer than that but especially in the last weeks we have been exploring what we mean by ordinary life and we have taken as our basis for this the fact that Jesus was a human being just like us and that he taught by using contextualized parables. We have suggested that where we might have gone astray with our interpretation in the past was when we made Jesus into a God and so pushed him away in our thinking ensuring his parables became allegories and they then became doctrine. This tied everything up neatly in a rule and life and hope became dependent upon the supernatural, and upon a miracle form of outcome In so doing we shifted the integrity of our faith and the likelihood of a certain hope towards an early acceptance of the impossible as the indicator of our faith engagement. Believe in the supernatural and you can have hope. In practice this meant that we parked our minds at the door of the church and left them there until we came out again. The ordinary was forever distanced from God.
Our concentration on ordinary life, is an attempt to close this gap by revaluing the ordinary human experience and it has become imperative if we are as Borg suggested see Jesus again for the first time.
We noted as Hal Taussig has said, Jesus was a sage. He did not emphasis either holy scripture or established religious systems as privileged sources of wisdom. He did not care about religious codes of behaviour or belief, and he did not promote an other-worldly emphasis. Instead “The real energy of Jesus’ teachings is found in their expansiveness of vision and in their critique of religion and not in its defence… And his favourite place to teach was probably at dinner” In other words in the ordinary. The week before last and this week our title has been about the nature of the ordinary and the claim is that the ordinary is sacred and the sacred is found in the ordinary.
The lectionary readings for today together present both challenge and hope. They plant our hope in our relationship with God or a divine something. They contain a claim that those who commit themselves to this divine cause can imagine futures and act on their imagination, even if the arc of imagination goes beyond their lifetimes. This is not to claim that non-believers cannot imagine a future and act on it but rather that one who wrestles with the divine relationship will know a different way of living. In their view of what it means to be human they will know of a hope that is certain and an imagination that creates and transforms reality.
Here we have the difference between a person who believes in a God and someone who doesn’t. The difference is revealed in their living life as a human being. In the ordinary. In recent traditional language they can face illness, external threat, and death knowing that their God’s providence encompasses them. In progressive language they can know of a life unlimited by the fear of an ending but rather a life grounded firmly in the limitations of humanity yet with a relational experience of a hope that is certain rather than wishful thinking.
Jeremiah bought the farm! Locked in jail for his prophetic preaching, Jeremiah decides to buy a plot of land, and makes a plan for the future. His actions are an audacious image of hope! The nation is at a precipice, defeat and destruction are on the horizon, and the prophet takes a leap of faith buying a property he will never occupy.
Someone has claimed that Martin Luther said that “If he knew tomorrow that the world would go to pieces, he would still plant a tree.” Jeremiah’s audacity reminds us that we are always planting seeds for tomorrows we may never see. Our small daily actions, resolutions about new life, and social involvement transform the world in ways we can’t imagine and may tip the balance between flourishing and destruction.
And when we get to our reading from Luke we find ourselves again drawn toward the idea that it is in the ordinary, everyday event that we find the divine. It is strange but true that we would rather the words of Jesus are not really meant for you and me. We would prefer to be able to say that you and I, at first glance, are neither the rich man in the story before us now nor are we Lazarus. We would have to agree that on the economic scale we are usually measured by, we probably do fall somewhere in-between. So at first it would be easy to dismiss Jesus’ words as not meant for us. And yet, we can’t quite do that.
A 25year old student was living in a small flat attached to an old church somewhere in the USA. She lived in this flat free of charge, in exchange for opening the church building in the morning, checking to be sure the doors were locked at night, and this meant taking a late evening walk through that massive building and glancing into every nook and cranny to be sure no one had made their way in during the day who hadn’t also made their way out by nightfall. Mostly all she encountered were the occasional bats who had been stirred out of their hiding places by the large fans in the church tower in late summer — but it was also so that now and then a homeless person would find his or her way into a pew where he or she hoped to spend the night safe and warm.
You can tell by know I think, that the neighbourhood is not the kind most people would probably want their 25 year old daughter living in, even if it wasn’t known as an area marked by poverty and crime and the kind of fear that can live in every heart when both are present.
The fact was that she wasn’t there most of the time. She would get up early and unlock the doors and head across town to school where she would spend the day learning and socializing with others who were preparing to be leaders in the church. And most days she’d be getting home long after the neighbourhood had settled down. It was not so different for those who called that church home. Most of them didn’t live within walking distance of that building like their ancestors did. For the most part, except for the small staff, they were only there on Sunday mornings. And no, they didn’t have a whole lot of connection or commitment to their neighbours. But they did allow their kitchen to be used on weeknights for a soup kitchen: in an important way ensuring that the hungry were fed. Even that single important ministry was one our student seldom witnessed or so she told everyone. She claimed that most days she would park her car outside long after that stream of hungry people had made their way past her front door.
The truth was that most of the time she would make sure she didn’t arrive home until late. And it was because she was actually a little afraid of the people who lined up to be fed every night. Her world seldom intersected with theirs and she wasn’t all that unhappy on most days to miss that line of children and old people, individuals and entire families who came to have their hunger satisfied. So when on that rare occasion she did happen to come home a little early, usually she would take a side door in and make her way to her apartment — avoiding too much contact with those who lived so differently than she.
However one day one of the men in line stepped away from the others. He blocked her way to the side door and proceeded to scream at her using words she had seldom, if ever, heard directed at her. And in that moment she felt a mix of surprise and fear as his outburst forced her to lift up her head and look into his eyes. And then into her own heart to acknowledge the indifference that lived there.
This story has been told many times and each time the student received a huge amount of sympathy. People have said that, it would be only normal to be afraid in the face of such an encounter. And no, of course, she didn’t necessarily do anything wrong which would have deserved such a chastising from a stranger. But here’s the point. Neither had the rich man in Jesus’ parable done something particularly wrong. At least we don’t hear that he did. Rather his sin was simply one of indifference. Of turning the other way his whole life long. Of not feeling and responding to the pain of one over whom he apparently literally had to step on his way about his business every morning, noon, and night. His sin was that of allowing himself to be so utterly closed off from all 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. And to be sure, the rich man’s sin was reflected in his still seeing Lazarus as beneath him — as one whom he could order around — even after their fates had been sealed His sin was not in seeing Lazarus as the child of God that he was. Here we have the challenge. The rich man’s sin is much like ours.
Here we have the common theme or challenge of these last weeks of readings. The clear message is that you and I do understand the rich man in Jesus’ parable. We might even say that we have some measure of sympathy for him because we know how easy it is to be too busy to take care of the need that is sitting on our doorstep. We can say we have heard the message that we don’t have what it takes, and we have heard ourselves respond 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 yes we can easily respond that Jesus’ words as not meant for us, and yes we know that to turn away or reject them would be just one more step towards sealing ourselves off into a kind of hell of our own making. The hell of fear. One where the needs of others are seen as threats and not as opportunities to live as people of the Jesus Way or in traditional language ‘the whole people of God we were made to be’. The rich man’s sin was his indifference.
It took a screaming, hungry, homeless person to shake our student out of her indifference. And like her we find ourselves every single day intentionally needing to stand still to try to listen and really see the needs of the world with the eyes of Jesus and not our own. The Jesus Way is a way of living seeking out opportunities to banish fear to the side-lines, replacing it with a confidence born out of a certain hope and living as one who sees and gives and loves in this life right now.
And so we are left to ponder this story of the rich man and Lazarus and to ask who is at our at our doorstep now— who, in fact, passes by our place every single day. It will be a steady stream of folks who work hard for less than enough pay. And it is not a call to just say hello, or to offer some comment on the weather. It is not to ask a perfunctory ‘how are you?’ The truth is that we do not know their stories. Sometimes we don’t even know their names. Why should it take someone screaming at us to awaken us to their plight?
All of this is to remember that the sacred is found in the ordinary and the everyday, in our feelings, thoughts and in our action. It is not the presence of God or the Sacred or the Divine that we need to see but rather the stranger in our midst, the person next to us, the one in need in front of us. The sin is our indifference in the face of the ordinary.
I want to finish with a few verses from a song by Enya. They are based on a song that is endless not unlike a certain hope and they seemed to me to encourage us to sing with courage in the face of the ordinariness of life and it takes the view that this response is irresistible.
“How Can I Keep from Singing?”
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?
The Text This Week Bruce Epperley The Adventurous Lectionary: Imaging Hope in Times of Uncertainty
R A E Hunt