Thinking, Feeling, Behaving, Sacred Tasks

Posted: September 27, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 16:19-31

Thinking, Feeling, Behaving, Sacred Tasks

In the last few weeks and days, millions of young people around the world have been pouring into the streets of their respective cities, demanding action on climate change.  From San Francisco to Christchurch, New Delhi to London, Berlin to Nairobi, and Karachi to Warsaw, kids have been out in force, insisting that their elders see what they see.  Namely, that the planet is in crisis, that time is running out, that the most vulnerable are already suffering, and that our long-established practice of valuing profit over people, and selfishness over stewardship, must end now.

No matter how one looks at it. Be it through fear driven eyes that have lost sight of any hope or through hope filled eyes that see beyond the doom and gloom we have to admit that we live in rather tenuous times. Many people rightly or wrongly feel violated and outraged that the peace we once reckoned we enjoyed, is gone. And, most of us, if we believe opinion polls, want a target as a focal point of our collective frustration – even bile.

Litigation seems to be the only way out. Revenge is the expectation of closure, and peace is seen as that which comes after winning. I guess I have a personal stake in this issue and as Gordon pointed reminded me last week ‘there are no winners in this sort of world. So, where does tolerance and compassion and ‘new possibilities’ fit into our living?

We might start with our children and young people as our resolve and hope, and we might admit that our generation (and the generations preceding ours) have so epically failed our young people.  The reality is that we have left them a world entrenched in fear and we have left them to face and try to dismantle old, powerful, and deeply entrenched systems of greed, apathy, denial, and laziness.  And on top of that we have made them tired. Why?  Because it’s tiring to acknowledge how bad things really are.  It’s exhausting to stay engaged in a world full of risk, loss, brokenness, and suffering. Look what has happened to our small community with the advent of the earthquake, building closures and strategic planning that threatens to remove us from the list of Congregations.  It hurts to see what God wants us to see it seems.

Which is why, perhaps, the unnamed “rich man” in our lectionary reading this week chooses not to see what’s right in front of him.  In the parable Luke’s Jesus tells, a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, “feasts sumptuously every day,” while Lazarus, starved and covered in sores, languishes at the rich man’s gate.  Though Lazarus is perfectly visible — he longs to gather even a crumb or two from the rich man’s ornate dining table — the rich man neither acknowledges Lazarus’s presence, nor alleviates his suffering.  In fact, the neighbourhood dogs show the poor man more compassion than his wealthy human counterpart; they at least come and lick his sores.

Eventually, both men die.  Lazarus is “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham,” while the rich man ends up in Hades, where the hot flames leave him parched and desperate.  In a perfect reversal of his earthly circumstances, the rich man looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus “far away,” enjoying every comfort.

So, he asks “Father Abraham” to send Lazarus over with some cool water to soothe his burning tongue, or, barring that, to send Lazarus as a messenger to his wealthy brothers, who are still alive on earth.  “Let Lazarus warn them,” he pleads, so that they’ll change their ways before it’s too late.

But Abraham refuses both requests.  The ‘earthly gap’ separating Lazarus from the rich man is removed — no one can cross over.  And the brothers?  The brothers have Moses and the prophets; they have everything they need in order to repent.  If they won’t listen to the wisdom already embedded within their spiritual tradition, Abraham says, “even someone rising from the dead will not convince them.”

Needless to say, this is a grim story.  A dire story.  But what we can appreciate most is that it’s an urgent story.  It doesn’t mince words about what’s at stake.  It doesn’t pretend that our years are limitless and our options infinite.  This is a story about time running out.  About alternatives closing down.  This is a story for us.

On its face, the parable is about wealth.  Jesus has a great deal to say about wealth in the Gospels, and none of it is pretty.  But the message here is not about that. That issue is removed in the beyond whereas the key danger Jesus identifies in the worldly pursuit of material comforts and riches — is the danger of blindness.  Of moral apathy and indifference.  Of a fundamental inability to see human need, human suffering, human dignity, and human worth — as real.

The unnamed rich man in Luke’s story was a man of considerable style. He was a member of the ruling urban elite; he wore a contented smile and dined each day on a feast. However, as far as we know he was not violent or uncharitable. He didn’t kick the poor man, named Lazarus, every time he went in or out of the gate. But his challenge was that of apathy and neglect which widened the chasm between rich and poor. He was blind to the person and blind to the need. His pursuit of great wealth, so the storyteller implies, had taken over his life.

In life, it’s very likely that the rich man notices Lazarus.  At the very least, he manages not to trip over the guy each time he leaves his house.  Maybe, and let’s give him some credit; he probably tossed Lazarus the occasional coin, or agonizes (as most of us do) over whether it’s good social policy or bad social policy to give cash to beggars.  Maybe he theorizes about “what kind of poor” Lazarus is.  “Lazy” poor or “deserving” poor?  Down on his luck, or “just” a drunk?  Truly sick, or pretending?  Maybe the rich man says a prayer for Lazarus on the Sabbath.  Maybe, when he’s with his wealthy friends, he brings up “the poor,” and they have an appropriately abstract conversation about “the problem” over dinner.

The problem is, none of this is the seeing Jesus calls us to.  To see is to risk the vulnerability of relationship.  Of kinship.  Of solidarity.  To see is to put aside forever all questions of worthiness, and recognize in the bleeding other one’s own face, one’s own fractured dignity, one’s own pain, one’s own mortality.  To see as Jesus sees is to implicate oneself fully in the stories of other people’s hunger, illness, terror, and shame.

To see Lazarus, the rich man needs to recognize his own complicity in the poor man’s suffering.  He needs to admit that his own inability to say, “I have enough.  I have more than enough.  I have more than enough to share,” is directly responsible for Lazarus’s poverty.  Or perhaps we can be even stronger than that?  Maybe the rich man needs to understand that his incapacity to grieve and rage for Lazarus is a fatal sign of his own impoverishment.  An impoverishment so total, no amount of linen, purple cloth, or fancy food can remedy it.

This is radical seeing.  It is the kind of bold, courageous, and sacrificial seeing that scares us to death — precisely because it asks so much of us.  It asks everything of us, and God forbid! Who among us signed up for that?

What’s amazing about this parable is how much it takes for granted.  The story presumes that Lazarus is righteous and the rich man is not.  The story dignifies the poor man and not the wealthy one with a name. The rich man is only ever ‘the rich man whereas Lazarus has a name. The story leaves no doubt in our minds that the rich man’s lifestyle is directly to blame for Lazarus’s hunger.  In every single way, Jesus reverses the hierarchies we live by.

But here’s the scariest part of the story for us to think about: even after death, the rich man fails to see Lazarus.  Privilege just plain sticks to him — even in Hades!  Though he piously calls on “Father” Abraham, he refuses to see Lazarus as anything other than an errand boy: “Bring me water.”  “Go warn my brothers.”  No wonder Abraham tells him that the “gap” separating the two realms is too great to cross.  Let’s be clear: God is not the one who builds the gap.  We do that all by ourselves.

Perhaps like some of you, I grew up with a version of prosperity theology.  I was never taught consciously that that material comfort is a sign of God’s blessing but it was always implied, God rewards the good. Be good and God will look after you. and while this means doing my part” for those lying outside the gate because that’s what one should, I have no ultimate moral or spiritual responsibility to tear down the gate, to remove the cause.

I spoke about the meaning of ‘To Bless’ as being ‘To kneel’ to make oneself vulnerable on one’s knees, a few weeks back and it takes a bit of thinking to recognize how insidious this notion of “blessing” as reward really is.  How contrary it is to Jesus’s teachings.  When I was growing up, no one ever told me that by locking human suffering out, I was locking myself in.  Locking myself into a life of superficiality, thin piety, and meaninglessness.  As our reading from the epistles puts it this week, the refusal to confront one’s own privilege, the refusal to bear the burdens of those who have less than us, is a refusal “to take hold of the life that really is life.”

What we can learn from the children of the world this month is that the truth hurts.  It hurts to see that we have feasted while others have starved.  It hurts to see that we have lived in ways that imperil the planet.  It hurts to see that we have averted our gaze while the suffering of others — of fleeing immigrants, of refugees, of ethnic bigotry and of religious difference as well as the homeless we pass daily in the streets of our towns. It is a challenge to find regardless of any suspicion about their indoctrination the least powerful among us, our children are the ones leading the effort to avert the global crisis facing us all.  Maybe the vulnerable simply can’t afford to be indifferent.

Perhaps this is why Jesus — our vulnerable mentor — crosses over the ‘gap’ again and again, offering us a way forward.  A way of selflessness.  A way of sacrifice.  A way of losing our lives in order to gain them.

Like the rich man in the parable, we have everything we need in order to, find grace, and offer healing love to the world.  What does this mean?  It means we are without excuse as we stand inside the gate.  What will we do next?  Where will our gaze linger?  What will we dare to see?

Another example we might wrestle with in search of this call to see is to remember that this month is the anniversary of what is now called ‘911’ we know what it is, an horrific act of terrorism that has been spoken of often in the last few years  as a huge world changing event and for then Western world it was. One American Professor of political science said that, ‘…there is no justification whatsoever for this carnage.  But it behooves us to ask what the terrorists’ anger was about, because it is no doubt shared by millions.  She said; It’s a good guess that it has to do with two things: US foreign policy and the global distribution of wealth… Few want to talk about it, but the grandeur of the World Trade Centre and the concentration of wealth in the United States are symbols of a world divided between the ultra-rich and the miserably poor…’ While it is true that the equity issue is a horrible indictment on our apathy and our indifference it is horrible that and inhumane to introduce draconian measure such sanctions that murder through starvation, and social restrictions than impose mental and physical punishment and life restrictions. Seen as an alternative to bombardment sanctions kill minds, hope, art and imagination. There is no excuse for violent attacks on people with weapons of destruction but nor is there moral justification for collective punishment upon an entire civilian population. Play them at rugby rather than push them off the cliff into oblivion.

And if this sounds complex and too hard to get one’s head around the what if, and the not likely, we are reminded that all living requires energy. As Henry Weiman says “Living might be defined as transformation of energy into activities of thinking, feeling, and behaviour” (Wieman 1930:69).

As my title suggest, I want to claim that religion, progressive religion, is an essential part
of the energy for living – essential to our thinking, feeling, and behaviour.
For progressive religion seeks to transform the individual and the world
so all of us are not blind to the needs of others. And why? Because, Thinking, Feeling, and Behaving, are sacred tasks. Sacred because they are about creating a culture of justice peace and humility where human beings can explore ‘new possibilities. Where that urge and passion to explore and respond and stand in solidarity, can rub off on others. Amen.

Mackay, H. 2007.  “Waking up scratchy from the Dreamy Period” in Sydney Morning Herald, Weekend edition, 15-16 September, Pg: 42.
Wieman, H. N. 1030.  The issues of life. NY: New York. Abingdon Press.


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