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.