Seeing Lazarus

font.jpgsermon for the 26th Sunday in ordinary time …. Luke 16:19-31 …. Today’s gospel text always reminds me of Rita L., the friend and retired school principal I’ve told you about, who was the victim of gun violence while at home in Flint, caring for several neighborhood children. Rita was my Sunday school teacher, and I remember this text coming up during what I believe was my fourth-grade Sunday school year.  I recall being distracted from the main point of the lesson by my nine-year-old literalistic interpretation. Lazarus, who clearly seemed to be in the good place, was envied by the rich man, who obviously was in the bad place. Why would God allow the rich man in hell to spy on people in heaven? This just didn’t seem right to me, and I would not let it go. Those of you who think I’m a troublemaker could take as your evidence the frustration I caused for my Sunday school teacher in moments like this one. I let go of the subject only when Rita promised to consult the pastor, and bring us his answer the following week. While I don’t remember the specifics of the answer, I have the lingering impression that my pastor advised me to focus less on how the events in the story took place, and more on what point Jesus was trying to make by telling it.

In terms of the context in which the story was told, Jesus was speaking to an audience that contained Pharisees.  In verse 14, Luke adds an editorial comment about the Pharisees: they were “lovers of money.”  The way in which the Pharisees are set up in this text distances us from them emotionally; it does not readily invite personal comparisons.  Yet, in our time and culture, I think there may be times when we’re not all that different from the Pharisees.

This past spring, Thomas Edsall wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in which he commented upon data suggesting that the top 20% of Americans in terms of income also are becoming more segregated from other Americans by geography and education, gravitating toward neighborhoods and schools that are becoming less diverse.[1]  In this age of electronic media, it was interesting to see the variety of Facebook comments upon this editorial, some like these:

  • You fail to mention that it’s the top 20% who pay the majority of taxes and donate the most to charities. That hardly segregates us from the poor!
  • People in the top % have the opportunity to create jobs, increase wages and spread prosperity …. don’t bash people for trying to provide the best education for themselves and their children. 
  •  Most of those people earn that ‘privileged’ position. Instead of being jealous of the top fifth or the top 1%, get off your butt and get there yourself. Read some books. Do whatever it takes to earn a few extra bucks and invest it. Start a business. Do something.

If I’m honest – and if I remove just a little bit of the emotional edge from these comments – then I admit that I tend to agree with the general direction. I live and work in a generally safe community, but I don’t feel completely isolated from people living in poverty. I highly value the quality of life in Edwardsville, and the education my children received in its public schools. There are days that I, too, think others would do well to complain less and work more. In these respects, I probably am very much like the Pharisees of old.

As I studied for this sermon, I came across a couple of short sentences in the massive commentary on Luke by Joseph Fitzmyer. He wrote, “Jesus’ words are not meant as a ‘comment on a social problem,” but as a warning to people …. salvation involves a reaction of faith …. it calls … for ‘generous and gracious help for all the victims of poverty, sickness, and any other ill ….”[2]  Fitzmyer says that Jesus is addressing something different than an economic study of the limits of capitalism, something different than a debate about which political party best addresses social needs.  In the rich man, I think we have a character noticing someone in death who he never noticed during life.  I wonder whether the lesson at the root of this parable is as simple as a call to see your neighbor as a child of God, and respond graciously to his or her need.

On the Presbyterian planning calendar, today is designated as Evangelism Sunday.  “Evangelism” is our English word for the Greek world “Euangelion,” meaning “good news.” Evangelism is the word we use to describe the church’s efforts to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others.

As I thought about the juxtaposition of Evangelism Sunday with our text, it occurred to me that evangelism can sometimes be as simple as really seeing your neighbor, and offering a meaningful response to his or her need.

We’re baptizing children today. As I thought about the needs of families with young children, I recalled congregations I’ve visited, including First Presbyterian, Hernando, down near my children’s home in the Memphis area, where there are just as many parking spaces reserved for visitors as there are for disabled members. We do fine job of reserving spaces for those with mobility challenges. But, what if, in our new facility, we reserved some parking spaces near the door for parents with infants and toddlers? I wonder whether responding to Jesus’ challenge in today’s parable is as simple as really seeing our neighbor, and responding graciously to his or her need.

This congregation does a fine job of providing an gluten-free alternative bread source for those with celiac disease, and for that my wife and I are grateful.  This week, it was called to my attention that we say very little to protect our children with nut allergies, to assure their parents that we are being attentive to their needs. What if we assured our visitors that we take the health concerns of children as seriously as we do the health concerns of adults?  I wonder whether responding to Jesus’ challenge in today’s parable is as simple as taking time to really see our neighbor, and responding graciously to his or her need.

On Tuesday, I have an appointment at Goshen Elementary School, the facility that will house our worship services during the time between this Kansas St. building and the new Ridge View Rd. building. I’ll be meeting with administrators to conduct what I’m calling a “transitional ministry space review.” We’ll be discussing calendar and schedule of services next April – October. We’ll be reviewing issues related to worship space, education space, fellowship space, and signage.

Our congregation’s journey into temporary space offers a marvelous opportunity for congregational renewal. It will require us to move out of our comfort zone, to question assumptions about the ways we’ve been doing things for years, to see things as a new person would see them, because much of the experience will be new to us, too. Having a visitor information table and guides will be important because visitors and members will have questions about worship content and choreography. Perhaps you will want to volunteer to be a visitor guide. Interior signs will be important because visitors and members will have questions about where children are to gather, how to find the restrooms, and, importantly, where to find the donuts. Perhaps you will serve as a member of the hospitality team. Even temporary street entry signs will be important, because another congregation is renting Liberty School right next door, and we want visitors and members to show up at the right church. Perhaps you will serve on the set-up team.

I wonder whether responding to Jesus’ challenge in today’s parable is as simple as looking around, seeing in our neighbor a child of God, and responding graciously to his or her need.

This week, I invite you to plan and practice one concrete action that exhibits the spirit of Evangelism Sunday. Take a closer look at some person or group with which you have contact, and really see them for who they are. Identify a need, and do something to meet it. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Responding to Jesus’ challenge in today’s parable may be as simple as seeing our neighbor as a child of God, and responding to his or her need with grace.

                [1] Thomas B. Edsall, “How the Other Fifth Lives,” New York Times, 27 Apr. 2016, accessed 21 Sept. 2016

                [2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Vol. 28a in The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1985, pp. 1128-29.


~ by JohnH1962 on September 27, 2016.