Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2001
The Gospel: Luke 16:19-31
Sermon: "Separation, Humility and Grace"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
"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. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house - for I have five brothers - that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
Separation, Humility and Grace
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost - September 30, 2001
It was Confirmation Sunday at the suburban Episcopal Church. The weather could not be better, sunny and cool. The leaves are changing and there is excitement in the air. All of the church's finery has been polished, cleaned, starched and pressed in preparation for this day. At the front of the building the confirmation class is gathering; the young men in suits; the young women in nice dresses, along with everyone else who will process. Parents, relatives and other members of the congregation make their way from the parking lot to the front of the church. Everyone is smiling and happy.
Everyone except the old man sitting on the far right side of the front steps. The clothing he wears is old, patched and worn. He has on a hat to keep the sun out of his eyes. He does not appear to have any money. In fact, he appears homeless and there is a bulge in his jacket pocket. Perhaps it is a bottle?
He is seated where the steps and the path from the parking lot intersect. Everyone coming from the parking lot must walk by him. As they approach and see him they move to the far side of the path, look away, and walk around him. It is as if he is not even there. No one stops. No one hesitates. No one speaks.
The procession lines up. The first chords of the pipe organ sound and the procession of acolytes, choir and servers moves into the church. As the priest crosses the threshold the old man stands up, brushes himself off, and joins the procession. The congregation is in shock!! No one moves but they all stare as the old man silently processes behind the priest to the front of the church and stops in front of the altar. People wonder what to do and when the music stops it is deathly quiet. Standing there in the silence the old man takes the bulge out of his pocket. It is a stole. He removes his hat, puts on the stole and turns to face the congregation. The congregation recognizes their newly elected bishop as he begins to celebrate the Eucharist.
This true and recent story of a humbled and surprised congregation bears some marked similarities to today's Gospel of Luke. They both teach us about separation, humility and grace. In the parable there is a rich man who was dressed lavishly, in purple and fine linen and ate lavishly. Everyday he passed a poor man named Lazarus who is ill, covered with sores, and hungry. The scripture says Lazarus "longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table". The rich man and Lazarus die. Lazarus is carried to the bosom of Abraham where he receives comfort and ministry. The rich man finds himself in Hades, in fiery torment, yet able to see Lazarus. The rich man is surprised by the outcome of being in Hades while Lazarus is being comforted, but he is still not humbled. The rich man's humility begins when he asks Abraham for help from Lazarus and is turned down. He is made aware of the permanent and fixed chasm between his location and Abraham's bosom.
In the parable and in the story of the church, separation occurs when the people walk away from those in need, Lazarus and the old man. Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees, to show them their false understanding of God's intention for the use of wealth, and to correct their misinterpretation of the scriptures. The rich man walks by Lazarus because he believes in the pharisaic teaching that prosperity and wealth are signs of God's blessing. Now having wealth is not sinful. But one's attitude towards others in association to that wealth can be. Pharisees believed and taught that one who has God's blessing, prosperity, does not associate with sinners. Lazarus, because of his poverty and illnesses would be labeled as a sinner. Therefore, the rich man could not associate with Lazarus. The teaching of the Pharisees created clear separations between those in need and those who had the greatest opportunity to help.
I would not presume to think that the priest of the church was teaching pharisaic beliefs, but I do know our society teaches them. Look at the commercials for instance. You are not "with it" if you are not wearing the right clothes, using the right computer, on the Internet, or driving the right automobile. The commercials, not the products, imply only the right people have the right products. Not having a particular car or a particular brand of clothes means you or I could be looked down upon or passed by. Why? Because we are not "with it". Being "with it" to members of our society is seen as the most important endeavor. Being "with it" implies there are people who do not have the right clothes, the right computer, or the right material possessions. Millions of dollars are spent on making commercials and buying air time. They attempt to convince us we are desperately in need of whatever product is the one thing we need to reach perfection. Having these products means we are in favor, blessed. If you or I do not have them we are not acceptable. We are different. We are separated.
It is so easy to fall into this pattern of separation and building chasms. I remember the first time I heard the story of this congregation and the bishop. My first thought was, "How foolish!! I am glad I am not like them". No sooner did the words get out of my mouth than I realized I was exactly like them. That realization, that single moment of mental clarity is the moment of humility. It is the moment when we realize we are human, we are fallible and we are sinful. In the story of the church that moment of clarity occurred when the bishop put on his stole, took off his hat and turned around. They recognized him and they realized what they had done. They were caught. In the parable it is the moment the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus with a drop of water to cool his tongue and the answer is No. Lazarus is not the sinner the rich man thought Lazarus was. On the contrary the rich man must now confront his own sinfulness.
After we are humbled, after we have stumbled over our own sinfulness what do we do? Is there anything we can do? We repent, admitting our shortcomings and failings to Christ and we attempt to follow Him. I said earlier that Jesus was telling this parable to the Pharisees. I also said that the chasm between Lazarus and the rich man was fixed. The chasm between the bosom of Abraham and Hades was permanent. The implied meaning is that once this life is over the opportunity to repair or bridge those chasms is over. However, it is important to remember this is a parable. The Pharisees, if they were listening, were being caught short, stumbling, and humbled. Moments before Jesus had taught the beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are hated; and he balanced these sayings with woes to the rich, the well fed, and those who laugh now. This parable is a story that brings these blessings and woes into sharp focus. All the Pharisees had to do and what we are called to do is pay attention to Jesus' teaching. Every time we respond to those in need we prevent the building of a chasm between us and somebody else. We prevent separation and promote community. We prevent loneliness and we share love. We share the love God shared with us, the love of the son, Jesus Christ. It is this love that Jesus took all the way to the cross to bridge all separation between God and humanity.
This bridge of love through Jesus Christ is grace. Grace occurs whenever we stay connected with Christ and the people around us. When the bishop took off his hat, he began to celebrate. He stayed in the church and celebrated, confirmed and communed the people of God. When we respond to those around us in this world, we celebrate our connectedness in God. We confirm our brokenness and need for God and each other. We live in a community where God's love through the Son bridges all separation and brings us to wholeness. God's grace.