Sunday, September 26, 2010

That I May See: Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

On Friday, on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Facebook creator and multi-gazillionaire Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would be giving $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey school system. Mr. Zuckerberg, who attended school in White Plains, NY, says he believes in the Newark school system. He also says he was really hoping his gift would be anonymous, but the administrators talked him into making it public so that other benefactors would be moved to give. Also, the fact that a really unflattering movie about him is coming out this week has absolutely nothing to do with his generosity.

I wonder if Mr. Zuckerberg has read today’s parable about the rich man and Lazarus. There’s nothing like a story about a guy roasting in hell for being rich and stingy to give one pause about one’s billions. The fact that we read it just before we enter into stewardship season has not been lost on me. Here’s what seems to be on our plate this morning: a big bucketful of eternal damnation, as well as a mega-chasm fixed between people on opposite ends of the reward/ punishment spectrum. Another day with Jesus and his storytelling, and this is a tough one.

The story begins by giving us a big hint that this is going to be one of Jesus’ “reversal of fortune” tales. He does this all the time: shows us how down is really up, and up is really down, and how those who appear to be blessed are really cursed and vice versa. It’s all very confusing. Here’s our hint: normally, it’s the rich who are well-known, the ones with the names. In our day, it’s Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey and Paris Hilton—we see them everywhere, in print, on TV, online. We know the names of the rich. In Jesus’ day, it was Herod and Pontius Pilate and Matthew the tax collector. The rich were well known then, too. Yet, in telling his story, Jesus does not give us a name for the rich man. Instead, we are told that the poor man is Lazarus, a name meaning “God helps.” This is the hint: Jesus’ original audience would have expected to be told the name of the rich man, and not the poor man. So now they know something is different. Something is upside down.

This is confirmed in the story about the afterlife. Poor Lazarus, who lived what sounds like an excruciating existence of starvation and illness and humiliation (dogs licking his sores!) is whisked away by the angels to be with Abraham—“the bosom of Abraham” is the traditional Hebrew scriptures image of peaceful rest. The unnamed rich man, on the other hand, who made merry day after day with his sumptuous feasts, is put in a tomb, and suffers the torments of Hades. This is exactly the opposite of what Jesus’ audience would have expected: the rich were presumed to be rich because they deserved it, and so they were rewarded. The poor were presumed to be poor because they deserved that, and so they were punished. But this is Jesus’ world, a world where what we expect is often turned upside down.

There’s more. In describing where the rich man is, Jesus tells us something that has truly been lost in translation. In saying that he is in Hades, Jesus uses a word that means, literally, “the unseen.” The rich man looks up from the place that is unseen—where he, now, instead of being the famous rich-man-about town, is, himself, unseen—and he sees Lazarus, safe, well, in the bosom of Abraham.

The problem is, this may well be the first time the rich man has seen Lazarus, the poor man who had been dumped outside his gate (that’s what it says in the original Greek—Lazarus was “thrown” there). And… if you’ve ever had the occasion to walk the streets of a city, any city, you know how easy it is for this to happen, for the poor to become invisible to us. Several times a week I find myself downtown on Goergeous Gentrified Street, where I’m heading into my friend’s beautiful framing gallery. But while I’m there, I’m also directly across the street from the Salvation Army. There, all kinds of people line up twice each day for hot meals, and the lines are populated both with those who fulfill our stereotypes of what poverty looks like and those who smash those stereotypes to bits. Regular people. Families. Several times a week I have occasion to walk right by these folks, without really seeing what is there: not just stereotypes, or statistics, but real human beings whose lives have been swamped by circumstances my small experience can’t even imagine. I walk right by, I look right at them. But most of the time I don’t truly see them.

So, for perhaps the first time, the rich man sees Lazarus. But in an instant, it seems as if he really doesn’t see at all, because what’s his next move? First, he tries to curry favor with Abraham by calling him “Father.” When in doubt, remind someone in charge that you really are one of the important people, that you really have been seated in the wrong section. Show them your credentials! The rich man’s second move is even more astounding: he tries to get Lazarus to fetch water for him! Even in torment (and maybe it’s not being seen that is the true torment), the rich man assumes the poor man will be made available to him, to relieve his discomfort, to be at his beck and call. It is not a pretty picture.

Abraham is having none of it. And the reasons he gives chill me to the bone. First, he says, in life, you, rich man, have had all the good stuff, and Lazarus has had all the bad stuff. It’s time for him to have what is good. You’ve had your fill. But beside this, Abraham says, “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” (Luke 16:26). You know, until this point, I have not felt bad for the rich man one bit, in all his fancy purple clothes. My attitude towards him has been, “I guess you should have dropped $100 million on Lazarus why you had the chance, huh?” But at Abraham’s mention of a fixed chasm, an unbridgeable gap, a barrier that cannot under any circumstance be crossed… my heart actually starts to go out to him. This seems harsh. Then, the rich man attempts to perform what may be his first ever unselfish act: he tries to send Lazarus as an emissary to his brothers, who he feels confident are going to follow him to this hell of being unseen. But he can’t do it. “They have Moses and the prophets,” Abraham sighs wearily, as if he has heard all this before. “Trust me, even someone being raised from the dead will not get their attention.”

Early on in the process of infant development newborns learn to focus their eyes on the human face. The newborn eye has a focus distance of between 8 and 15 inches—which just happens to coincide with the distance between the baby and the face of the person holding her. The human face is the newborn’s greatest fascination—and games like “peek-a-boo” are always a huge hit. Early on—as tiny babies—we take our greatest delight and comfort in seeing and being seen. Is it a coincidence that the great sin of the rich man consists in his not seeing the agony of a fellow human being who is right at his front door? Should it surprise us that the punishment for his failure of vision is that he becomes invisible, in all his torment?

I know I’ve shared this story with a number of you. Years ago my marriage was falling apart, and it’s fair to say it was an incredibly painful situation. “Torment” would not be an overstatement. My husband and I were in couples counseling together, but we hadn’t told anyone what was going on—not our children, not our parents, not anyone. One day after church, our pastor spoke to Ex at the coffee hour, and said, “What’s going on with you and Magdalene? You both look so sad.” When Ex told me about it later I cried. It was such an incredible relief to know that our pain had been seen.

I heard another story not too long ago about another pastor—a friend of a friend—who was a gay man in a long term committed relationship, though he was in the closet, he was not out to his congregation. His partner became very ill and died in the middle of Holy Week. The pastor simply soldiered on—he led services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and proclaimed the resurrection gospel on Easter Sunday, all without a single person in his congregation knowing the kind of searing, devastating loss he had just undergone. Who he was, the kind of pain he was in, was not seen, and his suffering was deepened by its invisibility.

Seeing one another—in all our pain, in all our vulnerability, in all our desperation—is one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another. Sometimes I think we feel overwhelmed by the prospect of one another’s pain. Maybe we feel we’ve got enough of our own. Maybe we think we can’t begin to put a dent in a problem like poverty or homelessness or discrimination, or we can’t fix our friend’s grief or joblessness or trouble with their children, so we close our eyes. We imagine the safest option is to act as if we don’t see it. And it’s true—unless there are some Mark Zuckerberg’s I don’t know about, hiding out here at St. Sociable, none of us can, alone, even begin to hope to “solve” these problems. None of us can “fix” another person’s pain, or heal another person’s life. But when we are willing to see it—when we try, not to solve the huge global problem, but to help this one person; when we try, not to heal our friend’s grief but to simply hear him out… we affirm one another at the deepest, most basic level of our humanity.

I find myself unable to be reconciled to this enormous, unbridgeable barrier between Lazarus and the rich man. There has to be a way across that great and terrible chasm. And it occurs to me… doesn’t Lazarus’ very name suggest to us where we might find the bridge? Abraham is sure there is no way across. But, as Lazarus’ name tells us, “God helps.” God helps, by teaching us to truly see one another. God helps, by opening our eyes to the suffering around us so that we might respond. God helps, by training others’ eyes on us when we are at our most vulnerable, in our deepest despair, so that we know we’re not alone. God helps, and so the greatest chasm, the most unbridgeable barrier, the gap between two human beings, falls away, and we are at last, face to face. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Lost and Found: Sermon on Luke 15

In seminary I was part of a study group that decided to meet at an apartment in Brooklyn. I didn’t know Brooklyn at all, but I was game—I’m rather proud of my good sense of direction, and I got great step-by-step instructions from the hostess on how to take the subway from 116th and Broadway. So I set out, ready for a little adventure.

All was well until we were about three stops into Brooklyn. It abruptly became very clear to me that I had boarded the wrong train—the express, rather than the local—and we were in the process of speeding past the stop I needed, as well as the next two. This meant I would get off the train a considerable distance from my destination. Add to this the fact that it was a weekend—a Sunday evening—and some stations were closed for maintenance. I exited the train with a very slight sense of panic beginning to build.

I climbed the stairs and looked for an attendant, and something about my expression must have been screaming “LOST,” because a woman attached herself to me, began following me around and sort of mumbling under her breath, her purpose being, apparently, to scare the daylights out of me. “You better be careful here. I mean it, be really careful. Last time I was at this stop someone set my hair on fire.” I ran out of the station into the twilight of a strange street in a strange city. I was lost and I was afraid.

No one likes being lost. To be lost is to be without our orientation, our sense of safety and familiarity, our sense of belonging. To be lost is to suddenly feel very small in a big and scary world. To be lost is to miss those faces and voices and landmarks that tell us everything is as it should be, everything is alright.

The 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke has Jesus telling three stories, three parables, about being lost. Our passage today covers two of those parables. Everything that happens in scripture has a context, a reason for being there. The context for these parables is pretty simple. Someone’s complaining. Someone’s not happy. The religious leaders are grumbling to one another about Jesus, about his dining habits, specifically, the fact that he tends to eat with those they regard as unsavory characters. We’ve talked about this before. The grumblers say, “‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So,” Luke tells us, “Jesus told them this parable. ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?’” [Luke 15:2b-4] I feel pretty sure that every hand went up.

I don’t remember the first time I ever heard this parable, but I know I was old enough to understand the math involved. And it made no sense to me whatsoever. Why would someone leave ninety-nine sheep in search of one lost one? Why risk the possibility that even more sheep would be lost, would wander away while you are off in pursuit of that one wanderer? Wouldn’t it be better to simply cut your losses? Isn’t a bird in the hand worth two in the bush? Well, as I was to learn, Jesus’ math doesn’t always add up the same way mine does.

The second parable feels a bit harder to translate into an era when we are debating the wisdom of even having some of our coins. (I read last week that pennies lose us a billion dollars a year in productivity). Jesus says, “‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?’” [Luke 15:8] The word “silver” is the key here: the coins in question are the equivalent of a day’s wages. The woman hasn’t lost a penny, or a nickel, or even a Susan B. Anthony dollar. She’s lost the equivalent of, maybe, $80.00 out of her total savings of $800. The sweeping of the house, blazing of the lights, turning over of the mattresses, moving of the tables and area rugs and knick knacks makes a lot more sense, in terms of the math (especially since her other coins are not in danger of wandering away while she looks). But still—my math and Jesus’ math are out of sync. I’m still not getting it.

The religious leaders complain about the company Jesus keeps. Jesus tells parables about things that are lost, and the lengths to which we will go to find them. I’ve shared a little bit of my own experience of being lost. But Jesus isn’t appealing to that instinct in the religious leaders. He isn’t saying, “Don’t you guys remember what it feels like to be lost? How frightening it is?” Instead, he’s appealing to their sense of the lengths they would go to recover those things that are precious to them.

I mentioned earlier that Jesus tells three parables, though our passage only deals with two: the loss of one out of a hundred sheep, and the loss of one out of ten coins. The third parable, the one we didn’t read today, tells of the loss of one out of two sons. And if the religious leaders are dense like I am, if they said, as I did, “Well, I don’t get why you would leave the ninety-nine sheep,” and then, sort of grudgingly, “I suppose it makes sense to look that hard for the coin,” they would surely have been stopped in their tracks by the third story. What would you do to look for a lost child? What wouldn’t you do?

It turns out, it’s not just the one who is lost who suffers. Yes, it is frightening to be lost, whether you are lost in a strange city at dusk or lost in a life that is killing your soul. But as much as we suffer when we are the one singular being who is alone, adrift, apart, those from whom we are estranged suffer as well. There is a restlessness in the flock at the loss of a brother. There is a queasiness about the future when the savings have gone missing. There is an emptiness beyond the power of description in the heart of the parent whose child has vanished. To be lost is to be apart from someone else who is suffering, too. We need each other. More than we know.

Jesus drives this point home when he ends each and every one of these parables with nothing less than an invitation to a party. When the shepherd returns home with the lost-and-found sheep on his shoulders, he “calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost’” [15:6]. When the diligent woman finds the coin and tucks it carefully away “she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost’” [15:9]. And this, in the final analysis, is what’s wrong with the religious leaders who are so dead set against Jesus sharing the table with those they deem unworthy. They are so caught up in their own sense of their righteousness, their purity, their perfection, they can’t bring themselves to celebrate when someone new, and different is brought into the fold. They can’t accept God’s invitation to the party.

I think part of what they object to is Jesus’ apparent definition of “repentance.” Jesus seems to think that, most of the time, the work is done by the Seeker, that it is enough to let oneself be found. There is certainly no useful way to think about a sheep or a coin “repenting” of past misdeeds. The lost-and-found son owns up to the ways in which he has sinned against God and against his father, and he offers himself as a hired hand. But the father wants none of that. Jesus wants none of that. For Jesus, as well as for the seeking shepherd and the diligent woman and the father, being found is enough. Letting ourselves be found is cause for celebration. Returning home, slightly stunned, to sit down in the midst of a big party that turns out to be all about us—that’s Jesus’ idea of how every lost-and-found story should end. A celebration. A party. Those who were incomplete are complete again, because the lost one has come home. This has profound implications for how we as a church ought to welcome everyone who comes to our doors. Unless we embrace our role as party-planning welcomers of all, we run the risk of being like those grumbling religious leaders, who wouldn’t know a party if it walked up and bit them.

We might wonder, what are the religious leaders so very afraid of? Why the fear about those they don’t want to associate with? I know I don’t have to tell you that the history of religion throughout the ages is a bloody one, and the bloodshed continues to our day. There seems to be a certain kind of zealot who cannot endure the idea of people with beliefs other than their own. Sometimes they fly planes into buildings. Sometimes they burn other people’s holy scriptures. Sometimes they herd people into death camps. Sometimes they just won’t even sit down at table with the “others.” Always, they allow their fear to become the determining factor in their actions. And Jesus, in his quiet way, says, “Let go of that fear. Don’t you know that God has invited us all to a party?”

I sat at a bus stop on a street in Brooklyn whose name I have forgotten, and I looked at every person who walked towards me as a potential evil hair burner. That’s the thing about fear, whether you view yourself as one of the lost or one of the never-was-lost-at-all: fear can turn every person you see into your enemy. I looked in vain for a cab, which never arrived, and for a bus of a certain number, which took its own sweet time in coming. And it kept getting darker.

All at once I heard a kind of joyous noisy eruption from a building behind me, as out of it streamed a group of maybe a dozen women—beautiful, dressed to the nines, wearing the most ornate and stunning hats I’d ever seen, which I have since learned are referred to as “crowns.” They were laughing and joking with one another. Their joy was infectious. They had just come from an afternoon at their church, and their talk was of bible study, the delicious meal, the fantastic music, the inspiring speaker. Something in me began to relax. When they surrounded me at the bus stop I felt my fear disappear entirely. I wasn’t quite “found” yet—I still had to get on that number-whatever-it-was bus and find my way to my study group. But I wasn’t quite lost any more either. I was safe. The party had come to me. Thanks be to God! Amen.