Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Heat Is On

A Meditation for World Communion Sunday ~ Looking at Luke 16:19-31 ~ Jesus' parable about the 'great chasm' between a rich man and poor Lazarus at his gate.


Buddhist teachers like to say that you can’t meditate if you’re slouching: that you have to sit somewhat straight, attentive, alert.  It has to do with respect, I think.  Respect for the discipline of prayer, the training it requires of mind, body, spirit.  You meditate not only with your mind – but with your body and spirit as well.  Somehow you want to prepare your whole self for that kind of experience.  And you can’t meditate if you’re slouching. 

I guess I want to say the same thing about reading the gospel, about encountering these short, hard parables, Jesus’ teaching.  You have to sit up straight.  Lengthen your spine some.  Breathe attentively.  You read the gospel with mind, body, spirit – with your whole self.  And Jesus wants your undivided attention.  If nothing else about today’s parable seems clear, this much does.  Jesus is serious now; and he wants our undivided attention.

So he invites us – another strange gospel journey – Jesus invites us to visit a gate by a rich man’s home.  A gate.  Maybe it’s an open gate, welcoming, inviting.  Some gates are.  We’re drawn to them.  Or maybe, maybe this gate’s a forbidding barrier, a boundary not to be crossed.  It guards and protects.  What will we find?  Who will we find / at the gate by the rich man’s home?  Think about the gates that mark some of our neighborhoods or the gateway to the Westside down at the intersection of River Street and Highway One.  That gateway, in particular, is busy with foot traffic: neighbors, clients, friends in and out of the Homeless Service Center.  Or the huge wooden doors to this sanctuary, or the concrete threshold we pass into the church driveway every Sunday.  Welcoming?  Inviting?  Forbidding?  Intimidating?  Gates have something to do with relationships – with the kinds of relationships we welcome and the kinds we don’t. 

And that’s where Jesus begins.  Another hard parable, a demanding parable.  And this will be one about choices: between compassion and indifference, between vulnerability and ignorance.  Who’s hanging out at the gates in our lives?  Are we paying attention?  Do we know their names?  And what kind of theology – this is important stuff for the church – what kind of theology resonates around the boundaries, the margins, by the gates in our lives?   

Right from the start, Jesus wants us to feel the heat.  Feel the heat.  I forget who it was that was riffing on scripture when he said: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.  But first, it’ll make you flinch.”  Jesus doesn’t want this to be easy.  We’re supposed to flinch.  Jesus wants us to flinch.  From the rich man’s gate, we look inside and see a man, probably a professional, well-meaning man, dressed in purple, feasting sumptuously.  Jesus says nothing about his character, his family, his heart.  He could just as well be a delightful spirit, full of vim and vigor, attentive, generous with his kids.  All we get here is that he’s dressed in purple and feasting sumptuously every day: he’s got good clothing to wear and plenty to eat.  That’s all we’ve got.  You see what I mean?  The heat is on.   
Because there’s another man, just outside this particular gate, the rich man’s gate.  And this other man’s covered with sores, ravaged by hunger, licked at and chewed on by mangy city dogs.  And all kinds of passersby assume he deserves all this: after all, the poor make all kinds of mistakes, don’t they?  And they come from all kinds of seedy, disreputable places.  Right?  Bottom feeders.  They’re bottom feeders.  So these passersby look at the broken man, if they look at all, with a mixture of disgust and distrust.  I’m thinking about all the excuses I make when a disheveled beggar comes for me – and I cross the street in a hurry.  Disgust and distrust.  Jesus says nothing, mind you, nothing about this guy’s character, his family, his heart.  We know as little of him as we know of the rich man.  But there he is, at the gate, covered with sores and hungry.        

And he has a name.  This broken man, licked at by city dogs, has a name.  Lazarus.  And you might find it interesting to learn that he’s the only character in all of Jesus’ parables given a name.  Isn’t that something?  All kinds of farmers and kings and fathers and sons.  But only one name.  Only one Lazarus.  And Lazarus means something very much like “God helps.”  God helps.  Again, you’ve got to sit up straight.  You’ve got to lengthen your spine, breathe deeply.  The teacher turns up the heat.  Jesus wants our undivided attention.  This isn’t just a parable about poverty – this is a parable about God.  About what God does.  “So don’t make the same mistake,” Jesus says.  To you, to me, to the church.  “Don’t make the mistake the rich man makes.” 

You see, the rich man doesn’t see, or he chooses not to see, Lazarus sprawled out among the dogs and suffering by his gate.  He doesn’t see Lazarus out there, his humanity, and he certainly doesn’t step out to help.  This is also a parable, I think, about friendship.  This is a parable about what it means to be friends of God in the world.  And this guy’s no friend of God, is he?  Jesus turning up the heat.  How can he be?  No matter how purple his robes are, no matter how stunning the art on his walls, no matter how impressive his diplomas.  His indifference to Lazarus – to his suffering, his hunger, his loneliness in the street – the rich man’s indifference to human need exposes the hard edges of his own brokenness.  He’s no friend of God.  His heart is hard and callous and protected.  No matter how many prayers he tosses off or how many services he attends: the river within is running dry, and time is short. 


So there’s a chasm here, a great distance – not simply between the rich man and poor Lazarus, but between the rich man and God, who sits with Lazarus by the gate.  See what’s happening theologically in Luke’s gospel?  God identifies with Lazarus, with the lost sheep, with the prostitute turning her life around.  It’s the rich man who’s truly and woefully lost.  It’s the rich man whose sumptuous feast is just a meaningless orgy.  And when he dies, Jesus says, he begins to appreciate his loneliness and despair.  It starts to hit home.  In his own conflicted, tormented state, he looks up and sees Abraham, far away, with Lazarus – wait, is that Lazarus? – by his side.  “Father Abraham,” he cries, “have mercy on me.  Send old Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”   

Still, still, still.  The rich man’s ready to use Lazarus as a prop, as a tool, as a moveable part in his own story of redemption.  He’s still not seeing a man, a brother, a friend.  He’s still missing the point that redemption has a lot to do with justice and mercy and community.  Lazarus is expendable.  The rich man doesn’t really see him.  “So send him along,” he says to Abraham, “Send him along with some water.”

But Abraham says, “Child, remember.  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.”  There’s that old adage about the gospel: that Jesus in his inimitable way comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.  Pull at this thread and you find yourself with Mary, pregnant, prophetic, in the hill country: “God,” she sings with courage and delight.  “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Pull some more and you’re with Jesus again, preaching on the plain: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…but woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”  There’s this unsettling reversal of fortunes throughout Luke’s gospel.  God sides, again and again, with the hungry at the gate, with the desperate immigrants in the desert, with the wild-eyed beggar on Pacific Avenue.  And that seems true again this morning, doesn’t it, in this parable.  “A great chasm has been fixed.”  And the rich man’s on one side, and Lazarus is on another.

There seems no doubt that Jesus wants the comfortable among us to squirm a little, to feel the heat of the gospel itself.  He’s a master teacher and storyteller.  It’s not supposed to be easy; and he doesn’t want us going home satisfied and smug.  Not so long as there’s this grinding poverty, inequity, inhumanity enshrined in economic policy.  (One percent of Americans, for starters, control 50 percent of the wealth.  Imagine that.  A great chasm has been fixed.)  And for Jesus, these aren’t merely political topics, but theological concerns.  If we’re taking Jesus seriously, if God comes first in our lives, poverty has to hurt.  Generations ago, the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth used to say that we do our best theology with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other.  (Did I mention that one percent of Americans control 50 percent of the wealth?)  Genuine Christian spirituality welcomes discomfort, struggle.  We sit up straight.  And we wrestle with faith and conscience and human need.  Because that’s God out there at the gate.


And here’s where the church comes in, this church and others like us.  It’s obvious that Jesus wants our attention, that he wants to shake us up individually.  There’s a kind of personal, moral, spiritual urgency in this parable – that just doesn’t quit. 

But there’s this too: Within this Body of Christ, within the church, we are called, urged, invited to practice a kind of divine friendship with the poor.  There may be no mission as critical, as central, as crucial to who we are and who we must become.  Ask our sisters, the women who give their time as volunteers at the Holy Cross Food Pantry.  Ask them about friendship and prayer and faith and wholeness.  And ask the men and women who pass through steel gates at the county jail and juvenile hall every week.  Ask them about sores and despair and communion and hope.  Because we do these things together, because we make commitments together, because we read these stories and sing these hymns and say our prayers together, we hold out hope that even the rich man, dressed in purple and feasting sumptuously, can serve.  Even the privileged – if he dares to lay aside his privilege and his pride – can care and sacrifice and embrace.  The faithful church goes to the gate.  The faithful church takes Lazarus by the hand. 

It all comes down to love.  All kinds of things are possible when we love.  A church that loves is a light that shines.  A church that loves is a healing sign.  A church that truly, truly loves – like Jesus loves – is a living promise that with God all things are possible.  With God all things are truly and fantastically possible. 

I guess I’m hoping you’ll go home today rattled a bit by the parable.  By Lazarus and the rich man.  But I’m also hoping you’ll experience a connection – a connection with sisters and brothers right here who go home rattled too.  We care together.  We hurt together.  We see Lazarus and brother Jesus too by the gate.  “And everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, is in [Christ] transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely.”  This is what it’s all about: to see God in one another, to see God in Lazarus, in the wounded, in the lonely, and yes in the rich man.  This is what it’s all about: to see God in one another.  And to love.  Amen.