WORSHIP THIS WEEK: This Sunday, October 29, in addition to our annual Reformation Sunday celebration of God’s good work in the origins of the Lutheran church, we look forward to celebrating confirmation for five of our young people. You are invited to wear red in honor of the day, the color that reminds us of the many powerful things the Holy Spirit can do. Join us at 10:00 in our physical sanctuary at 300 Shunpike Road or in our digital sanctuary here: https://www.youtube.com/live/1Eu6jOdVZDI?si=IFoIICnnD6pXv1Z6
September 25, 2022
I spent some time early Monday morning watching Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. I find these kinds of elaborate services kind of fascinating – probably because I’m not the one having to prepare them, preside over them, or preach for them. I’ve often watched the services at the National Cathedral in Washington when a major dignitary from our own country dies. The liturgy, the music, the ceremony of it all can be quite impressive.
There was certainly a lot of pageantry for Queen Elizabeth’s service. Bagpipes and angelic choruses of choir boys and trumpet fanfares and pages of prayers and a homily by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was beautiful. And yet I couldn’t help but think that, no matter how much pomp and circumstance was unfolding, the Queen was just as dead as all those who had died in obscurity. None of the dramatic touches made her any less dead.
I don’t say this to be disrespectful or morbid. It’s just the truth. A reminder of what we heard in our second reading: We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.
Sometimes we harbor the illusion that wealth is a sign of great goodness or a measure of success when it’s often not either of those things. And whatever it is, money doesn’t keep people from suffering. It doesn’t keep them from dying.
This morning Jesus tells us another story that has to do with wealth. It’s not quite as baffling as last week’s (thankfully), but it’s also not completely straightforward.
It helps to remind ourselves what we actually know from the text and what we don’t.
We know that the rich man is rich. He’s the dress-in-designer-clothes kind of rich. He’s the throw-lavish-dinner-parties kind of rich.
And we know that Lazarus is poor. Lazarus spends his days beside the entrance to the rich man’s estate. He’s always hungry and would settle for some scraps but no one seems to notice him except the neighborhood dogs, who come to lick his sores.
What we don’t know is what kind of interactions, if any, these two men had while they were alive. Presumably the rich man occasionally enters and leaves through his gate, and presumably Lazarus would have been right there. But we have no evidence that the rich man is ever intentionally cruel to Lazarus; the suggestion is more that he ignored Lazarus. Nor do we have any evidence that Lazarus is a better human being than other people. We don’t know what kind of person he is at all, other than someone who is so poor that he has to beg for scraps.
But we want the consequences to make sense, right? In stories and in life? We want it to work so that people get what they deserve, so that their status reflects their character. We want the moral people to get rewarded and the “bad” people to get punished. We want to believe that people who have wealth “deserve” it. We struggle when a person on the street asks for money because we wonder if giving money is the best way to help or if the money is going to end up being spent on drugs. We try to turn all kinds of things about the rich and the poor into a morality play.
But then Jesus comes along and tells this story about how everything gets flipped in the afterlife. When he dies, Lazarus ends up hanging out with the great patriarch Abraham, but when the rich man dies, he ends up in eternal torment. The rich guy does come off as pretty entitled when he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some water. But it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him. After all, he’s a man who’s used to having everything he needs. He’s not used to hearing no. And, again – Jesus doesn’t point to some particular wickedness on the part of the rich man. Just cluelessness. The rich man hasn’t seen people like Lazarus.
We talked last week about the Torah’s insistence that God’s people should care for the poor and welcome the stranger. When Abraham tells the rich man that his family “has Moses and the prophets,” that’s what he means. They have all the direction they need to do what is right. Jesus is equally consistent in his message to feed and welcome. Again and again he spends time with the poor, feeds the hungry, and reminds everyone not to worship money. Just minutes before today’s story, Jesus told those stories of lost things – lost sheep, lost coins, the lost son who is welcomed home after squandering his inheritance. Jesus tells us to seek the lost, to welcome them – which means we have to be willing to see them in the first place.
We forget to pay attention. We forget to see people as people and not just as something to distract or annoy us. We sometimes get embarrassed by seeing people’s needs because they remind us of our own – or they make us worry that the needs are too great for us to be of any help.
About a month ago I was with a friend in the city, and we couldn’t resist the lure of the big shiny Krispy Kreme doughnut place there in Midtown. We each got a couple of doughnuts from the walk-up window and then moved over to a small area set up near that window for people to eat their doughnuts while they’re fresh. As we approached, we witnessed a tense moment between a Krispy Kreme employee and a man who appeared to be having a pretty hard time. It looked like the man was approaching customers one after another, and the Krispy Kreme employee was trying to get him to move along somewhere else. Both got increasingly agitated; they started yelling at each other. And look, the Krispy Kreme guy is not a villain. He was just trying to protect the customers from being bothered. But neither is the other guy, who was just having a hard time.
The man finally started to leave, pausing beside where we stood, having just opened our doughnut boxes. The man looked at us and said, “I just wanted a doughnut.” My friend, without any hesitation, handed the guy one of his doughnuts. The guy took it and shuffled away, instantly calm. He said again, softly: “I just wanted a doughnut.”
There’s a great chasm, Abraham says in the story.
There is a chasm. There’s a chasm in a world where a man wants a doughnut and can’t afford to buy one as he stands beside an entire building filled with hundreds of doughnuts in the middle of a city filled with vast amounts of wealth.
And there’s a chasm in our attention. We can easily see the bright light of the “Hot Now” sign in the window, but we don’t want to see the man right in front of us asking for a doughnut. We want him to go away.
But Jesus steps into that chasm. In his living, in his dying, and in his rising, Jesus flips the script one more time, so that no one is beyond saving. He connects all of us, one to another, binding us into a community where it’s possible to see each other’s needs and to respond.
And so, when we breathe our last, when we return to earth and our thoughts perish, our hope is in the Lord, who gives justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger [Psalm 146:4-7]. May we trust in that hope to help us see what is right in front of us this week. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
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