Sheepscott Community Church September 26, 2010
Amos 6: 1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6: 6-19
Luke 16: 19-31
Hiding in Plain Sight
Lazarus, the poor man, the beggar of today’s gospel parable lies on the front step of the rich man’s house, hiding in plain sight. Just so do the poor in our society––panhandlers on the streets of Cambridge, MA, in the shadow of Harvard University; the homeless on the streets of Portland; the hungry in Augusta and on the backroads of Pemaquid––just so do they hide in plain sight. They’re not deliberately hiding, you understand, we simply choose not to see them.
Incidentally the rich man is traditionally named Dives, a word meaning “wealth,” while Lazarus, on the other hand, means “God helps.” The rich man does not really see, does not look at the beggar Lazarus, who disgusts him with his open sores licked by dogs, considered unclean animals in Jesus’ time. The rich man does not seem like a particularly bad man, and in a reality of suspended disbelief, might readily give of his riches to a charity that could benefit the likes of Lazarus and his kind. But look at Lazarus? Look at him and really see him as another man like himself? Highly unlikely.
And it is just that refusal to see, so absorbed in himself and in his affairs as he was, that led Dives to be condemned. He refused to see Lazarus’ loneliness, his flashes of insight and conscience and longing for God, so much like his own. His was the refusal to see this poor man as emanating from the same source and heading for the same place as he himself was; it was entirely out of the realm of consideration. Absurd. Or was it?
The contrast of the archetypal rich man Dives with another literary character, Shakespeare’s King Lear, is potentially enlightening. When tragedy overtook the once noble but benighted king, and he himself stood ruined on the heath, suffering enabled him to imagine how it was for the poor ragged folk who were exposed to the same terrible storm:
O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.”
King Lear, Act III, scene 4.
If we prolong this comparative parable, we can imagine that after death, the character of Lear might find himself in Abraham’s bosom, resting between Lazarus the beggar and indeed the wretches who would freeze and die on the heath. And they would have conversation with each other and sweet peace, as they rested there in the knowledge that they all come, that we all come from the same fountainhead, the same source.
Lear milked the wisdom out of his wretched circumstance to recognize the bonds of human family, whereas, even after death, when there is that great chasm fixed between the rich man and Abraham and Lazarus in this morning’s gospel, even then the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus over with some water for him. He continues to view Lazarus’ role in relation to him and his needs, not as if Lazarus himself has a role for himself that has nothing to do with the rich man. As the parable is drawing to a close, the rich man still doesn’t get it.
His final appeal, that Abraham allow Lazarus to go back and warn his brothers, the members of his family still living, of what awaits them after death unless they change their ways, is met with Abraham’s refusal. He says simply that they have Moses and the prophets to guide them, just as the rich man himself had. There are multiple interpretations of that last part of the parable, none of which I will consider because what I would rather focus on is the power of the parable to effect change in a person’s life. One such person was Albert Schweitzer, who after hearing this parable read at church, concluded that the continent of Africa was the beggar lying on Europe’s doorstep. He went off and founded the Lamberene Hospital in Gabon, on the West coast of equatorial Africa, in 1913, and spent the rest of hs life in service. It still operates today under the name of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. Google it for pictures.
Let’s go back to the disgust we can imagine someone like the rich man would have for the figure of Lazarus, covered with sores and lying on his front steps. How different would it be from the victims of the AIDS epidemic during the mid-’80s, especially in the advanced stages of that disease, when those suffering would be covered with sores? Or lepers in the ancient world or in medieval times or banned to the Island of Molokai in Hawaii or Carville, LA, in our own times––Carville, where the National Hansen’s Disease Clinical Center was located, and later moved to Baton Rouge? Not that different. When we turn away from what in another human being disgusts us, makes our stomachs turn over, it is not an overstatement to say that we turn away from Christ. When we do not recognize Christ in the drug addict, in the drunk, in the incarcerated, in our Muslim neighbors, in an estranged family member, in our bitterest enemy, we are refusing to recognize Christ, no less than the character of the rich man in this morning’s gospel.
I can imagine you might have already turned down the volume at this point so you can’t hear me anymore. It’s like, lighten up, Judith. You’re stretching a little too far here. No, no I’m not. “Whatever you do unto these, the least of my brethren, you do unto me.” Jesus speaking. The Christ speaking, calling us to witness his presence in the world, everywhere in every person, the light of Christ, perhaps burning very dimly, but burning, and needing our oxygen, our very breath of the Spirit of God in the world, to make that flame burn high and bright again. That oxygen may take the form of a kind word, a shared lunch, a community supper, a long-delayed phone call, an accompanying walk in the park, a letter that reaches into years past to seek or offer forgiveness.
My son Patrick, who is a movie buff and consequently a fan of the movie critic Roger Ebert, of Siskel and Ebert fame years ago, printed up a blog entry of Ebert’s from July. As some of you may know, Ebert has had cancer of the salivary glands, which has resulted in him being unable to speak and being somewhat grotesquely disfigured by the surgery necessary to eliminate the cancer. Yes, his audible speech is gone, but his written speech, his writing itself has improved, he says, and gained for him whole new audiences on line. That’s all pretty much irrelevant to what I want to say about him, but just an FYI for no extra charge.
In the referenced blog entry, Ebert said he has been in Alcoholics Anonymous since 1979, and talks at length about what the organization has meant and continues to mean to him. What spoke to me on the blog was this wonderful line, apparently one of AA’s rules: “Don’t take anyone else’s inventory.” Isn’t that great? I find that relevant to this morning’s gospel and this sermon. We have no idea what life has thrown at people that has brought them to this or that point, and we don’t have to speculate. It doesn’t matter. What matters is to go out on the front step, and whoever is lying there, bring them in. Yes, bring them right into the house. You know I’m speaking metaphorically, but I can as well be speaking literally. You never know what or who is going to appear on the front step, to be the phone call or life-changing letter in the mailbox on any given day.
How can you possibly be ready for that, you might wonder. Practice. While with us faulty humans practice may not make perfect, it will predispose us to act in a certain way if and when a situation takes us by surprise. I’ve talked before about a habit of virtue. That can be as simple as avoiding vice. And by the way, what’s vice for you is not necessarily vice for me, and visa-versa. It all depends on attitude. There’s a great few lines in Romans 14. “The man who will eat anything must not ridicule him who abstains from certain foods; the man who abstains must not sit in judgment on him who eats. After all, God himself has made him welcome.”
And further on, “If a man eats when his conscience has misgivings about eating, he is already condemned, because he is not acting in accordance with what he believes. Whatever does not accord with one’s belief is sinful.” Acting against our own conscience is sinful. And further, “Accept one another then, as Christ accepted you, for the glory of God.” Have a look at Romans 14 and 15 if you have a problem with overeating or undereating or judging others or yourself in that department. It’s enlightening and encouraging.
And before we leave scripture, in 1 Timothy, which Jan read, in verse 13 the writer of the epistle cites “Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.” What I think he is referring to is Jesus’ response to the question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” to which he replied, in effect, “That’s right.” There he was the King of the Jews, the Messiah, and he went unrecognized but for a few. He was Lazarus on the doorstep, i.e., the word of God made flesh, the Spirit of God in a man who surrendered himself entirely to the will of God, even as it meant death at the end. Recall the quotation from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 53, which Christian interpreters have appropriated as anticipating Jesus as the Messiah.
“Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him./ He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering./ Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not.” And so on. Do you see what I mean? Jesus was despised. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him. Artists and theologians have dressed him in magnificent robes, have made him a king before whom we easily and readily now bend the knee. I don’t know if Jesus is there. I think he is still out at the gate begging for a handout.
You have probably heard how during the Great Depression hobos, drifters would mark a gate or door or wall with a coded mark or sign that indicated to other hungry passersby that a kind woman lived in that house. To say that she was a soft touch, which in fact that mark communicated, did not indicate that the drifters were taking advantage of her, but that she simply saw and knew the Christ in those drifters. Whether or not she called it that, she looked at and recognized their common humanity with hers, as Lear did, and the bag of sandwiches and fruit, and perhaps a few cookies, was as surely communion as what we will share next Sunday. The unshaven faces, the felt hats pulled down, the worn overcoats with missing buttons, there is the Christ, not in raiment gold, but in raiment old and soiled and smelling of the earth.
I’ll conclude with a poem of mine I may have read to you before, “The Men of Lincoln Square.” Lincoln Square was that area in the North End of Worcester, which, before route 190 was built, included a market, a five and dime, the Boys Club on the far side of the rotary, which was centered around the tallest of flagpoles, from a child’s perspective. But what really stood out to me were the bars and hallways of buildings between the bars because we would often see the denizens of that neighborhood when we were on our way to the Plymouth Theater for the Sunday matinee. Two features, a cartoon and a newsreel for a quarter What a bargain.
The Men at Lincoln Square
and could blow their noses
between thumb and index finger
over the gutter neat as can be.
I tried it but it didn’t work for me.
The lucky ones had cigarettes
a felt hat
a pint in the pocket.
They hung in hallways
like bats against the walls.
Sometimes they smiled as we children
made our way past them to matinees.
I wanted to take their winter hands
in mine and bring them inside the theater
to spend my candy money on them.
I wanted to hear them laugh out loud
at cartoons, Martin and Lewis, newsreels
anything to bring them alive in the bright darkness
that for long moments
walled judgment outside.
In poverty of spirit we are all the men of Lincoln Square, and the children walking to the theater, and the minister in the church I passed by, whose son I would one day marry. We are the ticket seller at the theater and the usher with his flashlight, all walking through our days in this dark world, lit by the recognition that we are all related in the family of God, all equally loved, one no more than another. Our brother the Christ is hiding in plain sight among us, in each of us. Amen.