St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Dyersburg, Tennessee
The Reverend Alexander H. Webb II (“Sandy”)
September 29, 2010
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21C)
Revised Common Lectionary
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” Fair warning: Rich people do not tend to fare very well in Jesus’ parables, and this man will not prove to be an exception.
Whenever the rich man left his estate, he had to walk right past a poor man, Lazarus, who begged at his gate. When the rich man would go to work, there was Lazarus. To the store, there was Lazarus. Even just out for walk after dinner, there was Lazarus, with the dogs licking his sores.
Maybe the rich man gave Lazarus a few coins every now and then, maybe a few leftovers from his groaning board, but for the most part, the rich man would walk right by. After a while, the rich man probably didn’t notice Lazarus anymore. To him, it was as though Lazarus was not even there. A physical boundary kept Lazarus out of the rich man’s estate and an invisible boundary kept Lazarus out of the rich man’s consciousness.
Boundaries are sometimes necessary for our safety and our health. Ours is a violent age and it is not always safe for us to engage with people we do not know. Ours is a broken world and our souls can only withstand so much bombardment by sorrow and sadness. Yet, the practical necessity of our boundaries does not negate the harshness of their reality. High walls, of both the visible and invisible varieties, serve only to separate the children of God one from the other, and there is no way to escape the spiritual tragedy of that separation.
I have to believe that God will give us license to keep ourselves safe, but I cannot believe that God would ever give us license to ignore the needs of those around us. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not at liberty to create divisions so firm or fix chasms so wide that we are unable to see the people suffering on the far side of them.
When we ignore the suffering of others, we create a space not only between them and us, but also between ourselves and the ones for whom God expresses a special, even preferential love. The Psalmist writes: “[The Lord] gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The Lord sets the prisoners free [and] opens the eyes of the blind…The Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow…”
All of the divisions and disunities in our world – the divisions between rich and poor, young and old, male and female, black and white – are the outward and visible signs of a world that has been subsumed by sin. We can train ourselves to ignore these divisions, but in so doing, we make them wider and deeper and starker than they already are.
When Lazarus passes from this life into the next, the angels carry him to a place of eternal rest. When the rich man dies, he is taken to a place of torment. Jesus tells us very little about the rich man’s torment, but I have a theory: I suspect that the rich man’s torment is being made to peer across the chasm that he had fixed. I suspect that the rich man’s torment is having to acknowledge the separation that he created and then so long ignored.
In death, the rich man is forced to see Lazarus – literally and figuratively. He is forced to reckon for the first time with Lazarus’ core identity as a beloved child of God. The rich man’s torment is the shame of knowing that he has allowed another human being to suffer because it was too awkward, too uncomfortable, or too inconvenient for him to do anything about it.
Yet, as we interpret this parable, we should not too closely associate ourselves with either Lazarus or the rich man. In this story, we are the ones whom the rich man ultimately tries to save. We are not yet dead. We are alive. We are the living ones who have on our ears the words of the prophets and the teachings of Christ. We are the living ones for whom God raised his Son from the dead. We are the living ones who have within ourselves the power to choose, the power to repent, the power to tear down the divisions that serve to separate us from the children of God whose physical needs are not being met.
In preparing to worship with you this morning, I learned about Matthew 25:40, a ministry that you founded and that now share with your community partners. As I understand it, Matthew 25:40 gives food and clothing to people who need them, financial assistance to the extent that you are able, and advocacy for the unique needs of children. Would that the rich man in Jesus’ parable had St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dyersburg as an example of what to do, as an example of how not to walk past those in need. Today’s story might have turned out very differently.
In today’s parable, Jesus invites us to see the world as it really is and then to imagine what the world really could be. Jesus invites us to reach across our boundaries, visible and invisible boundaries just the same.
St. Mary’s is off to a very good start. St. Mary’s stands as an example to its neighbors in the City of Dyersburg and its neighbors in the Diocese of West Tennessee. St. Mary’s makes a difference, but St. Mary’s cannot stop there. Our Lord will not let you rest on your laurels. Our Lord insists that you keep pressing on until every gate has been torn down, until every boundary has been beaten under foot, until every Lazarus has had his needs met and has been invited into the fellowship of the faithful.
We know what Moses and the prophets would want us to do. So, let’s go do it: Feed the hungry and heal the sick. Preach the Good News and transform the world.
 I commend to everyone reading this note the work of Matthew 25:40, as described in this useful brochure: http://matthew-2540.org/brochure.php