This sermon is based on the parable that Jesus told to the Pharisees, Luke 16:9-31.
Have you seen pictures of the holocaust? The grainy, black and white gruesome ones of people stacked like cord wood. Those pictures make your heart ache, but it is still a distant crime. It isn’t until you read a diary written by a young teenage girl fruitlessly living in hiding for years to avoid this fate does this crime become something that we know and understand. Each one of these images is a person, like Anne Franke with dreams, talents, annoying behaviors and endearing qualities. Each one is human. When that sinks in the enormity of this evil sinks in and we become resolute to do something about it.
Through the first 80 years of America, slavery was allowed in half of our territory and supported through apathy by most of our citizens. African slaves were different than European immigrants. They were thought of as closer to an animal and thus the savagery and injustice of slavery seemed like less of a crime even in the North where slavery never had much of a foothold.
Harriet Beacher Stowe changed this in the North. In 1852 she wrote a melodramatic novel about one slave family in Kentucky called Uncle Tom’s Cabin. For the first time people who had never met a slave or an African for that matter saw them as human not animal. Suddenly their plight became an injustice. Cattle could be treated this way, but not people like us. The nation’s opinion against slavery turned quickly in the 1850’s. Abraham Lincoln is purported to have said to her, “So you are the little woman that caused this big war.”
When we stop seeing another person as human, an image of God like us, we make it easier to stop having compassion for them and their circumstance. The rich man had failed to see Lazarus as a life equal to his own. Just as I can’t tell you the color of my neighbor’s car though I pass it several times a day parked in her driveway, the rich man in this parable from Jesus never noticed Lazarus at his gate. He was just some of the garbage that blew around outside his palace walls.
While Lazarus starved 100 feet from his table, he feasted daily on more food than anyone needs, using bread as napkins to wipe the grease from his hands and throwing it uneaten to the floor. As his skin was refreshed in a relaxing warm water bath, scented with oils, he never considered the sores that ached daily on Lazarus. As he lay in his sumptuous bed with servants close by in case he stirred in the night, his dreams were never invaded by thoughts of Lazarus who slept leaning against his gated wall.
The sin of the rich man in the parable of Jesus was not that he owned a nice house, ate fine food or dressed in purple and fine linens. His sin was that he lacked compassion. Somehow, Lazarus lived a tortured life right next to his luxury and he never noticed, never cared or never thought it was his problem. Lazarus’ suffering never pricked his conscious.
It is easy to do. We get numbed by all the tragedy around us. There are only so many telethons for diseases or natural disasters that we can respond. Daily there is suffering that we see on CNN or with our own eyes that a meaningful response is hard is to come up with. If we wanted to help the starving people in Somalia, who would we send money too? They have not had a functioning government in 20 years. How do we help a panhandler in downtown Columbus as we move resolutely down the sidewalk towards an appointment? Do we give him money? Food? Time? Prayer? All four? How much is enough, we have appointments to meet?
Our impotence to alter their plight leads us to not to consider their needs at all lest we exist permanently in a state of guilt and anguish. At that point, it becomes easier on our conscious to ignore them. We avert our eyes, don’t pick up the paper, or don’t dwell on the most recent tragedy to affect our globe. We forget the people hurting our men or women, with dreams, desires, and capabilities. They are loved, and cherished by God.
Even though we are numbed by our wealth, sometimes our consciouses are picked. Passion enflames us and we battle for a man with AIDS who is losing his housing, a 60 year old Viet Nam Vet who just needs a job, a 50 year old physically disabled mother raising a mentally disabled daughter who just needs help with her heat.
Helping is hard, though and their problems wear us out. The man with AIDS is cranky and does not like the housing we find him. The Viet Nam Vet talked so much about the problems during the interview with a friend we arranged for him, that our friend couldn’t see putting him in the customer service job available. The disabled mother that needed help with heat in the winter needed help with electricity that summer. How much are we expected to do? What is faithful?
We remember that check we wrote for that charity, what was it now, breast cancer? Fortunately, no one adds up those checks and publishes them for the world to see as happened for Vice President Joe Biden. He and his wife made over $300,000 last year. Of that they only wrote $3500 with charitable causes, around 1%. This supports what researchers tell us. The wealthier an American gets the less percentage of their wealth they share in charity to others.
Our guilt at Lazarus at our gate has to be appeased and we convince ourselves there is simply not much we could do. It’s not like we’re rich. I read a blog post this week from a guy who makes $450,000 a year, lives in a $1 million dollar house, pays $60,000 a year for his elementary kids to go to private school, saves $70,000 a year towards retirement and called himself an average working class Joe. This working class Joe, by his record, gave no money to charity. He wishes he could help out more, but $450,000 only goes so far.
The rich man in the parable wants Father Abraham to send Lazarus down to refresh him with some water. Don’t you love how even in hell he is ordering Lazarus around like a servant? When this is ruled out he asks if Abraham could send the boy to tell his brothers, who are similarly living numbed compassionless lives to change course quickly. Surely if they saw a ghost, that would scare them into it. Father Abraham dismisses this idea, too. If all the teachings of the Jewish faith couldn’t convince them, over 20 passages from Moses to the prophets about taking care of those in need, one guy coming back from the dead isn’t going to teach them about living life faithfully.
This is how the parable ends, almost cynically, as if the numbing of the rich cannot be reversed. As if compassion always decreases as our bank accounts increase. Will one guy coming back from the dead teach us how to live? How many stories like this do we need to hear before we are convicted and ready to repent?
Each of us has been abundantly gifted in wealth, time or talents and some all three. God has hopes for those gifts to serve the least, the lost, the forgotten. If we fail to notice Lazarus at our gates, we will never fulfill God’s hope for our lives. If we become cynical that our efforts will not make a difference, than the plight of so many will never by lightened.
In the waters of baptism, repentance is possible. When the Holy Spirit washes over us in this great bath, new gifts come to us enabling us to serve God’s creation. Exactly the gift God needs for our brothers and sisters God sees suffering. To use those gifts as God hopes, we must see the world with God’s eyes. The bodies stacked like cordwood are precocious teenage girls who dream of being famous, having a first kiss and seeking revenge on their older, prettier sister. The panhandler on High Street is a father, with children, hopes, gifts and passions. God does not avert God’s eyes nor do we, even though the grief may be too much to bear. God does not give up, nor do we. How much is enough? Until the creation is as God intended and the Kingdom of God reigns around us. Amen