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Thursday, September 29, 2016

September 25, 2016

Gospel: Luke 16:19-31 
1st Reading: Amos 6:1a, 4-7
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 6:6-19

I've been reading the Oregonian newspaper online for years. For the past few years, they've had a feature article most days, right in the middle of the front page, of lavish homes. Sometimes these are Street of Dreams Homes, sometimes they are mansions of the very wealthy, other times they are the most energy-efficient and greenest of the fanciest, biggest houses. Today you can read about luxurious treehouses on the Columbia river gorge and look at picture after picture of a place you can rent for $400 a night. I admit there have been times when I have been tempted to click, to pour over pictures of wood beams, sun rooms, and swimming pool. This year, however, many of these stories stand next to stories of people struggling with rising rents, or those living along the Springwater Corridor, or those being evicted for no reason. 

Here are two pictures, literally side by side, of the very rich and the very poor. One is easy to look at, to drool over, to admire. The other is difficult to look at, sad, depressing, without any easy solution. I have found myself drawn several times to write a letter to the editor, about this disconnect. Why put up stories so often about something unattainable to most of us? Why dangle this in front of us? It is like junk food, leading us into the temptation to always want more than we have? Where are the stories about happiness or fulfillment in life? I guess they aren't so easy to tell. They probably put those stories up about the homes of the very rich, because people read them, are interested in them. Until we stop clicking on these stories, they will continue to jam up our online newspaper.

In our Gospel reading for today, we also have two stories, two pictures, two lives lived right next to each other, and yet they couldn't be farther apart. We've got the rich man, wearing the finest clothes, eating the finest foods, living in the finest house. 

And we've got Lazarus, with weeping wounds, dying of hunger, laying right outside the rich man's house.

When we read a parable, we are invited to enter it, to put ourselves in the place of the characters. These are two such extremes, the rich man and Lazarus, that we might not be able to see ourselves in either of them. 

Martin Luther's last words on his deathbed were this, “We are beggars. This is true.” Martin Luther could identify with Lazarus. All his life, he saw himself as a sinner, constantly being attacked by the devil. He knew his own shortcomings. At the end of his life he was mostly blind and deaf and very ill. When he said these words, “We are beggards. This is true,” he was away from his family, having suffered a heart attack on the road on the way to the ordination of two pastors, and dying a few days later in the same town where he was born, just a few blocks away from the home he was born in. It must have been even more apparent there, without his family close by, that he had nothing but the grace and love of God. 

We are all beggars. We come into this life with nothing. We take nothing out of it. The things we have in this life are temporary. Our comforts do not last. They do not have lasting meaning or value.

But Martin Luther was not afraid to die, or discouraged in life. He had the only thing that lasted and had meaning and was valuable. He had God's love.

We are Lazarus. We are weak and wounded. Our bodies wear out. We rely on other people for our food and livelihood. We rely on God for our food, clothing, shelter, and healing.

Although many of us are rich, in a lot of ways we are not the rich man. Some of us are rich by our country's standards. We have money, we have a house, sometimes a vacation home. We have a car, sometimes for every driver in the family. We have computers, televisions, furniture, dishes, gadgets. We eat fancy foods with many ingredients. We eat free range eggs, can afford fruits and vegetables, even throw out food because we have too much. We use fancy shampoo, deodorant, makeup, hair extensions and colors, and perfumes. We have multiple coats, shoes, and outfits for for every occasion. We are rich.

Thankfully most of us do not worship our possessions. None of us is entirely out to just serve ourselves. However, I do feel hints of the rich man in myself, blind to the plight of others. For instance, wondering if every homeless person is on drugs or alcohol, while looking right past the beer in my own refrigerator, judging people for having their child in plastic diapers or smoking cigarettes, when I indulge in many vices that are also expensive, and I had access to laundry facilities and money to buy cloth diapers when my child was in diapers. I don't stop to talk to homeless people in my neighborhood to find out what I could do to help. I don't invite hungry people to my table to share my food. I don't even use the food in my cupboard as well as I could. Plenty gets wasted. While I am not entirely self-serving and blind, I am both of these things to a certain extent. I am rich and in some ways I am indifferent and blind to the plight of others.

Whether you are rich or poor, there is one thing you cannot escape, and that is death. In death, it turns out the rich man is actually poor. He is thirsty. He is in torment and agony. I'm not a big believer in the flames of hell. This story isn't trying to accurately describe the afterlife to us. It is about the chasms in our lives and the ways we are blind to each other. Maybe he is tormented by guilt. Maybe his torment is fear for his brother's lives. In any case, the one who was comfortable is no longer, and the one who was in agony is now at peace. The one who thought he was rich, is actually poor, and the one who was materially poor, is rich in God's love and grace. This part about hell adds an urgency to the story. It is telling us that we have a limited time to work this out. We can't put it off forever, opening our eyes and waking up to the suffering around us.

The rich man was blind. He never saw Lazarus there in front of his house. Or did he? When he needed something from him, then we find out he even knows his name. “Tell Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” He knew Lazarus' name, but he had ignored him until he needed something from him. The rich man continued the way he always had. Even after death, he was still so self-centered. He could only see Lazarus as his servant, there to bring him water. 

The one who really did see Lazarus, was the dog. The dog didn't walk past Lazarus. This is the thing we can learn from dogs, and that is not to discriminate or show favoritism. They don't care about fancy clothes or food or houses or oils or couches, or any of that. They are simply loyal. So if you want to ask who is Jesus in this story, he might just be the dog, noticing the person in need, licking the wounds, bringing healing.

We are a little bit the rich man, and a little bit Lazarus, but probably most of all, we are the brothers. We have more than our basic needs. We live pretty lavish lives. We are somewhat blind to those around us. But this isn't all that life can be. This isn't the life that really is life. So our eyes are being opened, the chasm is shrinking. The scriptures are showing us what really is life. The describe people tempted by money and charmed into thinking that things could satisfy them, whose entire focus was on themselves, but who were ultimately unhappy. This Gospel reading shows us what it takes to live a contented life.

In the NPR series on the American dream, I heard a young woman who immigrated to the US when she was a child talk about her mother's dreams for a new life that she was trying to give her daughter. Now her daughter works as a lawyer for refugees. The reason she does this is not a big salary or importance, but because her view of the American dream is no longer the big house and car and riches, it is that everyone would have enough food and shelter and clothing, and experience justice. Her dream isn't that far from God's dream. 

Jesus is trying to hand us a free gift of life, life that really is life. We feel a need, a chasm that we try to fill with things. Jesus is crossing that chasm, closing the gap between heaven and earth, closing the gap between people, showing us that what will fill our need, is relationship and love. When we know our brother or sister in need, when we do not judge others based on their clothes or house or car, when we recognize our need of healing and our own true riches and share them, we do find satisfaction.

Let us open our eyes to the person on the freeway offramp holding a sign. Let us open our eyes to the person gathering bottles and cans from our curbside recycling. Let us open our eyes to the children in our church and neighborhood. Let us open our eyes to the Syrian refugees all over the world. Let us open our eyes to the homebound person with no one to visit. Let us open our eyes to this wounded earth, covered with wounds from our abuse. Let us open our eyes to each other, acknowledging the wounds we all share when even one is suffering. Let us open our eyes to Jesus in our midst.

Jesus is the one who is truly rich, possessing everything, yet giving it all up to come and be among us, who are blind and clueless and covered with sores, the ugliness of what we do to ourselves and others. He knows what really matters, and that is that we are all brothers and sisters helping each other and having compassion for each other. So he gave himself that we might have abundant life in this one and the next. Receive this free gift of life that really is life.

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