Sermon for Proper 21C
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
In today’s gospel we have a familiar story – a rich man feasting in his mansion each day which, at his gate, a poor man named Lazarus sits hoping beyond hope that he might be fed even scraps from the rich man’s table.[i] Even if you’ve never heard the gospel story before, you know the set up. First, the gate. The rich man lives in a gated community, a community designed to do one thing – keep the insiders in and the outsiders out. Second, the location of the gate. It is right outside the rich man’s home. Presumably the rich man passes in and out of that gate on a daily basis as he conducts his business. Therefore, he cannot say, “I didn’t know about this poor man’s plight.” He cannot say, “I did not see.” Because the poor man, Lazarus, is literally right before his eyes.
Scott Bader-Saye in his commentary on today’s gospel writes, “Our global network of communication allows us to be more aware of the world’s suffering than ever before, but we have become adept at ignoring the suffering that is right at our doorstep.”[ii] For me, this morning’s gospel text tells me something else – our awareness of the world’s suffering is not a new phenomenon at all. Jesus is telling a story about it in the 1st century – our ability to see has been an issue for at least 20 centuries. The rich man is aware of the suffering outside his gate. What has changed is the distance we are able to see.
Today, in a matter of an hour or less, we can click our way through the headlines on the internet and can see the suffering of 5-year old Omran, a Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance in [click] protestors in Charlotte, North Carolina in the wake of yet another police officer shooting of an unarmed black man (his name is Keith Lamont Scott) [click] an oil spill causing a state of emergency to be declared in Shelby County, Alabama [click] devastating flooding in eastern Iowa causing evacuations [click] contract negotiations between teachers and school board at a deadlock in our own city of Evanston [click] someone sitting in the pew next to you whose hurts are expressed in a quiet post on Facebook.the aftermath of an airstrike in Aleppo last month
My friends in Christ, we know of the suffering outside our gate and we cannot say, “I didn’t know.” We cannot say, “I didn’t see.”
In the gospel story the rich man, after his death, is in Hades where he pleads with Abraham to please send Lazarus to his father’s house “that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”[iii] And Abraham tells him, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them . . . if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”[iv] We cannot say, “I didn’t see” and we cannot say, “I didn’t know” because like the rich man’s family we too have “Moses and the prophets” and we have the testimony of Jesus – a testimony of words and action. Jesus is not bringing forth a new thing in this gospel story. He is reminding us of a very old ethic – an ethic grounded in a God who seeks to bring the outsiders in and who asks nothing less of you and me. An ethic that may be at odds with our culture; but which every Christian is called upon to live into. In a prayer written based on this gospel story, the intercessor writes, we have a “God who sits high but looks low.”[v] That is the ethic we are called to live into, an ethic that says we must break down our gates, our walls of indifference, our walls of fear, our walls of excuses - and not only allow, but invite, the outsiders to come in.
We live in a culture that allows us to hide behind ill-conceived fears. Just this week, Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted a photo of a bowl of skittles with this caption: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” He then went on to say, “This image says it all. Let's end the politically correct agenda that doesn't put America first.”[vi] Donald Trump, Jr. wants us to live in fear. But the Gospel of Jesus tells a very different story. And if we need to hear the Gospel in contemporary language, we have at least 2 places we can go this week.
First, comedian and podcaster Eli Bosnick wrote this dialogue in direct response to Trump, Jr’s tweet:
"If I gave you a bowl of skittles and three of them were poison would you still eat them?"
"Are the other skittles human lives?”
"Like. Is there a good chance. A really good chance. I would be saving someone from a war zone and probably their life if I ate a skittle?"
"Well sure. But the point-"
"I would eat the skittles."
"Ok-well the point is-"
"I would GORGE myself on skittles. I would eat every single . . . skittle I could find. I would STUFF myself with skittles. And when I found the poison skittle and died I would make sure to leave behind a legacy of children and of friends who also ate skittle after skittle until there were no skittles to be eaten. And each person who found the poison skittle we would weep for. We would weep for their loss, for their sacrifice, and for the fact that they did not let themselves succumb to fear but made the world a better place by eating skittles.
Because your REAL question...the one you hid behind an . . . inaccurate, insensitive, dehumanizing racist little candy metaphor is, IS MY LIFE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS OF MEN, WOMEN, AND TERRIFIED CHILDREN...
... and what kind of monster would think the answer to that question... is yes?"[vii]
And, the second and perhaps more compelling version of the Gospel in contemporary language is this letter from 6-year-old Alex from Scarsdale, New York:
“Dear President Obama,
Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.
Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won't bring toys and doesn't have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine's lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn't let anyone touch it.
Thank you very much! I can't wait for you to come!
O, God who sits high but looks low, help us to see who is sitting outside our gate as we leave this sanctuary and do not permit us us to say, “I did not know.” For we have Moses and the prophets. We have Jesus. We have Eli Bosnick. And we have Alex.
[i] Luke 16:19-21.
[ii] Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective on Luke 16:19-31,” Feasting on the Word:Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 4, Season after Pentecost2 (Propers 17 – Reign of Christ), eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Kindle Edition, location 4495.
[iii] Luke 16:27-28.
[iv] Luke 16:29, 31.
[v] “Prayers of Intercession for September 25, 2016,” Sundays and Seasons Year C 2016: Guide toWorship Planning, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2015), 285.