Sermon: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 29, 2013

Remember that song from Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong”? That’s kind of how I felt when I first looked at today’s lessons. Amos is still railing against the rich who trample on the poor, as he was in last week’s OT lesson. The Gospel lesson from Luke is again about the use and misuse of one’s wealth. And in the middle is a reading about love from 1 Corinthians that I bet a lot of you had at your weddings—or at least you’ve heard it read at a few weddings.

I’m always quick to tell a couple who choose this “love” reading that it was not written for a joyous, flowery occasion like a wedding. It was written to the congregation in Corinth who were tearing each other apart. In the early church, communion was a full-fledged meal. The Corinthians had gotten all twisted up about it, had lost track of how it was to connect them to one another. When Paul writes this passage about love to them, it is because the rich members of the group were gathering inside for dinners overflowing with food and wine, while the poorer members stood outside the door waiting to be served whatever was left over.

Paul writes to them that God, who is Love, would not find this kind of behavior holy. Nor does it represent the kind of Love Jesus showed or shared with them. That’s why he writes a message like, “Love is not self-seeking; love is not arrogant or rude.” He wants the wealthy congregation members to take notice of their sisters and brothers with empty bellies. And he encourages the poorer members to demonstrate love by reminding them that “love keeps no record of wrongs; love forgives all things, endures all things,” because he knows it won’t be easy for them to reunite with those who have belittled them. The overall message is to re-acquaint themselves with one another over the common story of God’s love for them. For ALL of them.

So maybe this lesson is not so unlike the others. Because I think that mutual relationships are also the subject of the parable that Jesus tells in our reading from Luke today. Even if I did not live in the wealthiest nation on earth and have multiple degrees, even if I didn’t own a car and a computer—already putting me in the top 10% of the wealthiest people in the world—I would identify with the rich man in today’s parable. The story begins by saying he loves great food and expensive clothing. Even if you don’t know me very well, you could probably guess that those are two of my favorite things on earth. And that’s why it makes me uncomfortable that the rich man doesn’t fare well in today’s story. In fact, when he dies he winds up in hell.

The story gives no indications about what kind of man he was other than that he was rich and that he ignored the beggar at his door. So he wasn’t great to Lazarus, but was he a devoted husband and good father? Did he volunteer at the local synagogue, or serve on the school board? Was he kind and fair to his employees? We have no idea. We know only that, however good or bad a man he was, he ends up in hell. Which might make you wonder whether it’s worth trying to live well. What’s the point of being good if God doesn’t pay attention?

And what kind of a man was Lazarus besides poor and sick? Was he unwell because of his own unhygenic and perhaps immoral or illegal behavior? Did he use dirty needles? Practice unsafe sex? Was he poor because he didn’t try very hard to get (or keep) a job, or because he gambled or drank away any money he did earn? Did he squander opportunities? Was the reason the rich man knew him because he once had to fire him or have him arrested? What do we know of this beggar except that he ends up in Abraham’s lap? Is the only ticket into heaven to be destitute? Who wants that?

The truth is, we don’t know much about these two men. We know only that they had vastly differing financial situations. Maybe the rich man was born to rich parents and the poor man was born poor, just as I happened to have been born to two white, healthy, well-educated, middle class, Christian parents, while on the same day, a child was born in Uganda to a mother and father both dying of AIDS without employment or education, without help or home or hope. Just the breaks. And thank God it broke the way it did for me, huh?

What is the moral of the story? Is it that we deserve to end up in hell for ignoring the millions who are dying of malnutrition and curable diseases like malaria while we buy bigger and better cars, more household gadgets, and ridiculously overpriced handbags? Are we supposed to believe that all who suffer from disease and want and abuse and neglect in this world will end up at the heavenly banquet, as a reward for going without in this life, and rich people go to hell in the afterlife because they’ve already enjoyed the good life? Would seem only fair, after all.

But that can’t be the moral of the story. Because the chasm between Lazarus and the rich man is not simply one of their financial conditions. Nor was it the whole problem among the Corinthians. Nor is it in this country.

Isn’t the heart of the problem really more about who is visible and who is invisible? When we don’t see one another, it doesn’t occur to us that the other person has a story—has fears and hopes and funny moments to share. One of the problems Paul discusses with the Corinthians (in a different part of the letter) is that they are not rightly discerning the body of Christ when they commune. That passage was often used in my Missouri Synod church to justify not serving communion to people who weren’t baptized members of the congregation. They didn’t understand the body and blood of Christ the way we did. But I’ve come to believe that if we, the Church, are the Body of Christ, then failing to discern the Body is the refusal or at least inability to discern one another as members of that one Body. When we start to split into us and them, insiders and outsiders, then both literally and figuratively, we are not rightly discerning the Body of Christ. We need, quite desperately, to be RE-MEMBERED—re-attached to Christ our head, and to one another as fellow members of the Body.

Now we have no reason to believe that either Lazarus or the rich man in the story were members of a church, but since Jesus is telling the story, I find interesting that in the portraits of heaven and hell he creates, he makes no mention of God in either locale. Nor does he mention Satan. Abraham is the representative in heaven in this story. And hell seems to be an absence of all that makes life bearable–including the precious commodity of water.

Where was God while Lazarus was lying at the rich man’s gate? Where was God when the rich man suffered in hell? When the rich man gazes up into heaven, the name he calls out is not God’s. Nor does he speak to Lazarus, not even to apologize, though he clearly recognizes him, and even remembers his name. He addresses Father Abraham, possibly because he thinks of him as an equal or better—certainly because claiming to be of Abraham’s lineage was what made him understand himself as a good Jew. Besides that, Abraham seems to be the person in the room with the most authority; why talk to a beggar when the great patriarch is near? The old boy networking style always worked for him on earth.

Impressively, Lazarus does not yell down at him, “Got what you deserved didn’t you, you ungrateful, ungracious old miser!” He never says anything at all. Maybe he would have been willing go down to touch the rich man’s tongue with cool water—if for no other reason than that sometimes helping someone less fortunate can be such a self-satisfying way of feeling good about how kind we are. Or maybe Lazarus doesn’t even recognize him. How many rich men had stepped over him in his life?

In any case, there is no relationship between these two, not even in the after-life. They didn’t connect on earth, and they don’t now. They don’t speak to or about each other, except that the rich man asks that Lazarus serve him and his brothers. Not only is there is no love between them, there’s nothing much at all.

Perhaps the reason that God is not in the story is because God saw the wide chasm between the rich and the poor, between the insiders and the outsiders, between us and them. And so God willingly stepped OUT of that story. In the person of Jesus Christ, God leaves behind heaven to be among us, to SEE us and to help us SEE one another. He leaves behind a trail from heaven to hell, traversing the known universe with a path of light and hope and forgiveness bridging over the chasm. And because Jesus joined the rich and the poor on earth, called us each by name, saw us for who we truly are and loved us beyond all reason. Because Jesus would stop at nothing to welcome us as members of his Body and calls us to be one with each other … well, we can cross the chasm with him. Because we are loved by Jesus, the rich CAN go out to their gates and tend to the poor. Because we are loved by Jesus, the poor CAN approach the rich with the reminder that all of creation belongs to God. We can see each other and feast together as the forgiven Body of Christ.

Because we are loved by God who never delights in evil but rejoices with the truth we can risk loving one another—being honest with each other about who we are. We can risk trusting one another and being strong for one another. No one is meant to be always in need or always the giver—human relationships flourish when there is balance and affection. Because in the presence of God we are both rich and beggars, we are empowered to fulfill God’s purpose as instruments of love in the world.

Thanks be to God!

~Pastor Susan Schneider

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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