” . . . set [your] hopes [not] on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God . . . be rich in good works, generous, & ready to share . . . so that [you] may take hold of the life that really is life.” [I Tim. 6:19]
Most of us are made to feel a bit uncomfortable by today’s readings. We find ourselves not in the story of the poor described in the reading from Amos, nor in the character of Lazarus in the Gospel, but with the rich man. As one commentator stated, “if that doesn’t make us squirm, it should.” [Claire Fischer-Davies, Christ Episcopal Church, Blacksburg, Virginia, “Synthesis”, 9/30/07]
Most of us have plenty to eat, a place to sleep, clothes to wear, cars to drive & an abundance of gadgets (necessary & not so necessary) to make our lives easier. We are convicted by our wealth, & we find excuses to overlook it on a daily basis. But the truth is that we in America live better than most people on this planet, where there are so many who suffer from malnutrition, poor housing, preventable disease, & have little beyond the basics of food, clothing & shelter to sustain them. Even in these recessionary times, we are better off than most. Yet, we try to hold on to what we’ve got with tenacious regularity.
What’s wrong with having a nice house, good meals, hot showers, the latest electronic equipment & enjoying the finer things in life if one can afford it? It’s not hurting anyone . . . or is it? We humans have a highly developed facility for denial. We readily accept the ease & comfort of our lives as a birthright – the idea that each generation has a right to live better than their parents – that’s the American dream, the American promise. But we have this at a cost. Our creature comforts can rob us of our empathy. Those who “have” tend not to want to see or acknowledge those who “have not”. That’s what’s happened to the rich man in today’s story. Surrounded by all the things his wealth could give him, he could no longer see Lazarus as a human being of equal worth, deserving of his mercy, his pity, his help.
When we visited Canada a couple of years ago, we spent a day on the streets of Victoria, window shopping & partaking of the food & other delights of the city. We’d gone into a specialty store that carries expensive dark chocolates, filled with wonderful, gooey, flavorful centers & bought a box of our hand-picked favorites, spending more than we usually would; but, hey, we were on vacation, time to indulge ourselves!.
It was a cold April day, with a brisk wind blowing, & we felt snug in our jackets. As we left, I noticed (again) an older man, sitting in a chair near the store, begging. I’d seen him (& ignored him) on my way into the store – after all, that’s how to handle “those people”; we all know that it’s easiest just to ignore them & go on about one’s business. But on our way back up the street, having passed him again, I asked Darryl for a few dollars to give him & went back. Something nudged me to talk to him, to really look at him & not be content simply to thrust the bills into his hands & leave.
We started talking, & he told me what he’d really like was a hot cup of coffee from the 7/11 across the street, but it was difficult for him to get there himself (a problem with his legs). So, I asked if he wanted milk or sugar; & Darryl & I went off to purchase the coffee, a nice tall cup with plenty of milk added. Then we went back across the street & gave it to the man. He was grateful, overly so, for the little time & money this had taken us to do. Others, many others, continued to walk past the man without a glance, or a word, or a handout. Maybe he sat there every day, begging, & the locals were used to ignoring him; I don’t know; but I do know that afterwards, Darryl & I went to a very nice pub on the high street & had a delicious, hot meal with some Canadian beer, continuing to enjoy our vacation in this beautiful city.
Yet I kept thinking about this man who was ignored by so many around him in this city full of people. What had happened to put him in this position? Unemployment? Some kind of disability, a war veteran perhaps? And where was his family? Was there no one to help him? Had he done something to alienate those close to him? And what did it matter, anyhow…?
Why hadn’t I thought to get him some food as well as the coffee? He hadn’t asked for it, true; but if someone is begging like that, surely they need food as well as a hot cup of coffee? Better yet, why hadn’t I invited him along for dinner, to share a hot meal in a nice restaurant with us, out of the cold for just a bit, that’s what Jesus might have done – he ate with tax collectors & sinners, the unseen of his age, all the time. So why hadn’t I done this? Because it’s just “not done”? Because people would have looked at us? Because we were on our vacation, after all, & that’s no way to interrupt a good time?
I felt guilty, but I didn’t do anything more about the man. Yet, he stayed in my thoughts, chipping away at my certainties about how I live my life & what I can & can’t do for others. 2½ years later, I still think about him.
We, as a culture, have become desensitized, I think, by all the images of poverty & war & natural disasters that play out on our TV screens. We’ve seen it all from our living room sofas, but do we feel it anymore? There is such polarization, such a looming distance between “us” & “them” – whether its people who are poor, or the jobless, or immigrants, or Democrats & Republicans, the Tea Party advocates, Israelis & Palestinians, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindis, atheists, or agnostics. We’ve created giant chasms between these groups that are becoming larger all the time, with our rhetoric & our emotions having shifted into high gear.
“E Pluribus Unum” is our national motto, but how many of us remember what it means? That short Latin phrase means, “out of many, one”. We are supposed to live as a single Unity, as one people, as one nation, & under One God, however we name Him – all these diverse groups are included in that brief synopsis of our national identity.
To serve God, as Christians, we are called to internalize God in the person of the Holy Spirit, to let the Spirit guide & direct our hearts to action, to “set our moral trajectory”, as one person named it. [Paul Keim, Goshen College, Indiana, “The Christian Century” 9/19/07] How often do we do that? How often do we really think about bringing God into the breach of our relationships with others, seeking reconciliation with rather than retribution against those with whom we differ?
When we live as Christ’s disciples, we’re called to get rid of these distinctions, to live beyond the labels that individuals or groups are saddled with. We are called to “love one another,” “to love our neighbor as ourselves,” “to show hospitality to strangers.”
As Christians, we are called to bridge these chasms in relationships, not widen them.
We are called to find solutions,
to work as God’s partners in God’s work in the world,
to heal the wounds that divide,
to bring loving hearts to the situations that break our hearts wide open,
to act in concert with a God who shows mercy & pity,
to comfort & to help the under-dog,
the under-the-radar, but still human, beings in our midst.
Dare to think of the possibilities of changing our outlook, to coincide more closely with God’s outlook on humanity. To be more outwardly focused than inward – “To take hold of the life that really is life”, as Paul wrote to Timothy.
And so, I leave you with a prayer (which you can find on the table in the back if you want a copy) as you go into the week ahead:
“May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use
those gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence
settle into your bones and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance,
praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.
May today there be peace within.”
[from Gunilla Norris, “Weavings,” Vol.XXV, #4, 2010, p.39]
-The Reverend Deacon Katharine Holland
St. David of Wales
September 26, 2010