The Pastor’s Pen – September 29, 2019

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‘…do good, be generous, and share’

September 29, 2019

Scripture Readings:1 Timothy 6:11-12, 17-19, Luke 16:19-31

I just loved the reading from 1st Timothy today as it seemed to sum up all that we must do as representatives of our faith in our daily walk through life.  It seemed as though if we could just ‘do good’, and if we could build up a ‘treasure of good works’, if we could be generous to all and share freely with others in need, then we would have lived into our calling as those who seek to follow after our Lord and Christ.  In fact, I thought that those principles could be a sort of set of behaviors to live by, a guide in how to live such that others might see the Christ in us.

But as I read through the gospel reading from Luke a little more closely, I realized that the call upon us is not just how we are to act as people of faith, but how critically important it is that we learn to really see and really hear when it comes to interacting with members of our community.  I realized that it is indeed not easy to voluntarily give our lives over into the service of our Lord, and that doing so sometimes entails much more than we may have been prepared for or were expecting, especially in these times, when the level of inequity in our society is much more pronounced than ever before.  Let me explain…

In our passage from Luke, Jesus is very carefully setting the stage for another of his teaching parables.  This story is part of a series of teachings Jesus gave on the relationship between faith and wealth.  Here Luke is speaking on the injustice that is often found when you have economic and social inequality and in particular, he is warning of the dangers of entitlement and selfish motivation that may accompany a surplus of resources or wealth.  A condition, and a temptation that is not all that different from what many of us face today.

Before getting too deeply into the particulars of the story however, I think it would be helpful to clarify something first.  This parable is a story meant to instruct and to teach, it is an allegory meant to cause reflection and pondering, it is not a lesson on the internal nature or makeup of reality.  Jesus is not here seeking to explain the actual physical make-up of reality, rather he is telling a story.  The word used for ‘Hell’ in this passage is the Greek word ‘Hades’, a part of Greek mythology which signified the place where the soul would go after death.  It was the similar to the Hebrew concept of Sheol in that both were seen to be a place of dimly lit shadowy reality often characterized by endless wandering of restless souls.  It was neither good nor bad and was not so tightly tied into one’s moral character while they were alive.  It was the final resting place of both righteous and unrighteous souls.  And in spite of the references in our passage to fire and torment, the Greek concept of Hades and the Hebrew Sheol are far, far different than the modern Christian notion of ‘Hell’ which was given much of its character and substance through the artistry of Dante Alighieri and in the words of John Milton’s Paradise Lost’.

Contrary to what a modern day Christian reading of this passage might imply, it was not Jesus’ intention in his parable to suggest a punishment of eternal damnation for wayward or selfish souls, rather he is focused of sharing the other side of this equation…seeking to teach that the call given to those who would follow him is ever and always to side with those who are oppressed, and to seek justice at all times and in all places.  Rather than a lesson on the afterlife, Jesus is speaking to his listeners about how they are to act and to be faithful while they are still very much alive!  Let us then look at our passage today as a gift of good and quite vivid literature meant to challenge and to inspire us rather than frighten or confuse anyone.

In this teaching Jesus is asking us to look at the stark contrast between the lifestyles of Lazarus and the rich man.  He is asking us to consider their individual choices and options.  To see that Lazarus is at the end of his rope…dumped there on the front step unable to advocate for himself, too sick even to get up and walk.  It seems Lazarus is noticed solely by the rich man’s dogs who are put out after eating their fill from the scraps of bread that are used to clean plates before the next course of the meal…scraps that are thrown on the floor of the rich man’s banquet table.

Jesus is also speaking very starkly and clearly about bondage…at how both of our characters are very much held captive by certain of their circumstances.  Lazarus by his very real infirmity and abject poverty, and the rich man by his seeming blindness to how his lifestyle and actions trample upon and oppress others, even to the point of death.  Both of them, both Lazarus and the rich man are deeply in need of liberation, both are unfulfilled, and somehow, in spite of how this particular episode turns out, Jesus is trying to show that both need each other…for the liberation of one of them would necessarily liberate the other.

If the rich man’s eyes or perhaps his heart could be opened just a little, so that he could actually see the poor beggar his dogs ministered to outside of his door, and if he were to find it in his heart to extend something towards Lazarus, then perhaps his story would have had a more merciful ending. It was not however just a story meant to urge those with much, to engage in charity and to give some of their surplus to those in need, but rather, as author and preacher George Buttrick cautioned, it is a call to much deeper engagement in the lives of those in need.  Buttrick wrote in his book titled, The Parables of Jesus, “(This parable in Luke) offers no support to the glib assumption that (The Rich Man) would have fulfilled all duty, had he (simply) dressed Lazarus’ sores and fed his hunger.  True charity is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not spasmodic or superficial.  (Seeking to improve another’s life with things) such as food and medicine are necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighborliness.”  The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary goes on to assert that “‘Fundamental neighborliness’ therefore is the barometer of the soul, an indication of the attitude of one’s heart that is prized in the sight of God.”

Our passage is at heart a challenge from Jesus to find ourselves, to locate ourselves within the parable.  To look at how we as individuals might or might not fit into this story in our own lives.  To see if it causes us to pause and to consider, just as those first hearers must have when they heard Jesus that day.  In doing this there are a couple of characters to whom we might relate.  There are of course the two extremes…there is the abject poverty of soul and spirit of Lazarus on the one hand contrasted sharply with the in-your-face opulence and carefree lifestyle of the rich man.  And while I feel none of us would claim to be as bad off as Lazarus, I do not think any of us wish to admit to the poor characterization given of the rich man either.  That leaves one other set of characters we might consider…the brothers or the family of the rich man…those on whom the rich man somehow finds compassion in the midst of his dire straits at the story’s end…those he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to in order to help them.  Are these others then, also well-off as the story would lead us to believe, perhaps the ones closest to ourselves?  For we too have heard, we to have read the words of the prophet’s…we too have heard the call of Jesus echoed throughout the scriptures to love one another.  And while I am sure we are not all that comfortable with their characterization either, do we honestly feel that we always act in ways all that foreign to those of the rich man or his brothers?

Where are we in this story…which of these three ‘characters’ or characterizations do we identify the most closely with?  Honestly, we must fall somewhere on the spectrum of love and compassion versus self-love and self-centered ‘gathering in’.  How much of a hurry are we really in, to turn our lives upside down for the sake of one such as Lazarus?

To answer that, we may need to gain a little perspective on just what Lazarus might look like today…for beggars on doorsteps are just not all that common here in our town, although you do not have to go too far to find them, however the problems here in our own community are just as real, and just as desperate.  So…let’s see…

Lazarus, oh Lazarus…where are you Lazarus? Is that you, aging and now very alone, your family either gone on before you or long having left you behind in the only town and heart-dwelling you have ever known…a town short-sighted and bent on solving all their problems by yet again raising your taxes just a bit more…eating ever more deeply into your fixed income of inadequate social security and a dwindling pension check…your expenses just to live, in a place you can’t afford to stay in or to leave, now exceeding your resources…Is that you dear Lazarus?

Lazarus, oh Lazarus…where are you Lazarus? …living on a back alley in the middle of town in a two bedroom apartment…together with three, or perhaps four or five other families…all crammed in, in order to be able to afford just a tiny slice of the American Dream you had heard so much about, trying so hard to look moderately presentable and ‘American enough’ around town, on the street, and at your child’s ‘Parent Teacher Night’ so as not to raise suspicion or cause anyone to question…Is that you Lazarus?

Lazarus, oh Lazarus…where are you Lazarus? …standing across the street in front of the church, looking longingly at those going into and out of the Food Pantry with bags stuffed full with food, the growling and hunger in your own stomach so loud you can think of almost nothing else…yet you are deathly afraid to go in for you just don’t think you speak the language well enough…be it English or Spanish or Chinese…or the dialect of just plain hard-luck and broken-ness…Is that you Lazarus?

Lazarus, oh Lazarus…where are you Lazarus? …sitting miles away, alone in a small cement block cell most of your days, your life passing you by as your young boy grows up without you and your wife grows more and more weary of waiting…hoping that there might be just a bit of a life to go back to when you finally escape this bondage caused by one mistake and then magnified far beyond ‘just’ or ‘fair’ by a legal and penal system unable to find compassion or understanding in its lockstep rigidity…Is that you Lazarus?

Lazarus, oh Lazarus…where are you Lazarus? …having just lost your job for no reason other than you do not fit so well into the machine any more…the machine that paid you well enough to live comfortably for a long time even while it robbed you of some of your joy and made you older and more tired than years alone could do…the machinery of commerce that just has no room for your story anymore…the machine that promises far more than it truly ever delivers…Is that you Lazarus?

Lazarus, oh Lazarus…where are you Lazarus? Is that you…sick and unable to afford a doctor’s care…all your money spent long ago in search of health and wholeness…despair and sadness now your only companion…friends still offering encouragement now and then but not really able to break through…or perhaps willing to get further involved in your burden…so many with burdens and trials of their own…Is that you Lazarus?

Is that you Lazarus? Is that you Lazarus? Is that you Lazarus?

        Jesus is seeking to teach us about righteousness before God…about a lifestyle in which we make choices that please our God, choices that help to bring about the long-prophesied Day of the Lord…that day when all named ‘Lazarus’ and all named ‘Rich Man’ might sit at table together in the fellowship of the Lord, each giving to the other the breath of true life…each liberated, each set free in their relationship one with each other.

In truth, the garment of righteousness is not something you put on yourself…like your father’s coveralls or your mother’s hose one leg at a time…it is not something you go out to find or seek to obtain through time-worn-out ritual or rote practice of religion as though it were a badge of rank or personal accomplishment…rather, the garment of righteousness is a loose yet perfectly fitted garment, carefully and lovingly fashioned by the Holy Spirit, woven with the thread of self-giving upon the loom of sacrifice and service that is extended to others without precondition…fashioned and fitted not upon our outward and physical being but rather onto the shadowy visage that follows in our immediate wake…

…for as we pass through life, the scent or the faint hint of the presence of our passing is that which carries any righteousness we may bear, that which holds any resemblance to our Christ, woven and fitted for us as a result of life lived, at least for a moment, solely for God.

True Godly righteousness is not the boastful many-colored plumage worn by so many, up front and out there…proudly displayed for all to see, propped up and puffed out by fair intention and boastful privilege…

…righteousness is not wrested from the Holy and placed upon our individual frame through our own strain and desire, but rather is carefully laid upon and draped loosely over our last and most recent act of divine love and grace extended….as though it were a wisp of a breeze on an otherwise still afternoon, or the faint scent of a flower nearby whose origin is secret but whose presence just will not be denied…

For in the end…the garment we wear that really matters is the one we are unsure is even there…for truly it exists only in the wake we leave behind us, as we make our way through the sea of human relationships.  It is the one that exists in-between the relationships we have and hold dear…either a garment for and by ourselves…or one truly made by giving to others…the choice is subtle, the difference…anything but.

… “how shall they know our Lord,” the scriptures ask us…they shall sense it on the wind as the righteous pass by, they shall know that Christ has drawn near not by the cloaks with which we don ourselves but rather by the Spirit-gifted garment that adorns only our shadow…

…live each moment in the place that was gifted to you…the place perfectly suited to your abilities and your strength…the place only you can dwell fully in…the place where you are ever being measured and fitted for the only real reason we are here…for the living out of our Lord’s love and mercy…as we are formed ever more closely into the image of love in which we were created…

…giving freely to those upon whom your shadow may fall…offering the breath of life that lingers in the wake of love freely given…

        …do good, be generous, and share,

…where are you Lazarus…I am ready to see you…

amen

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