SERMON 25 SEPTEMBER 2016
In many churches, the reading of the gospel is followed by the phrase “This is the gospel of the Lord” and the response “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”. I rather like the phrase we use here “May your word dwell in us – and bear much fruit in our lives.” We know that the word “Gospel” means “good news”, the good news that Jesus brings and the story of his own life and ministry, even his death because it was followed by continuing new resurrection life. The good news is about hope and much more.
As I was thinking about the teachings of Jesus that we have heard in the last few weeks, teachings that took the form of stories, parables that vividly illustrate his point, it also struck me how the book we are following this year, Luke’s gospel, is fundamentally a story about people’s lives. Skim through it all some time. It is full of deeply human life: there is so much about food and drink, ordinary meals and celebratory ones; about the people who were part of these meals, people from all walks of life; it is about people’s struggles with sickness and the issues of poverty; it is about wealth and the use of money. And the over-arching message is about God in Jesus touching into all these lives and showing the people God’s love, understanding and purpose. It is about bringing hope for the poor and needy and warning those who were comfortable. The gospel is not some unrelated teaching about theoretical wisdom and how the obtain purity and a spiritual high-life. It is about discovering God’s message in the stories of everyday living. People flocked to hear Jesus because what he said and did related to their own lives, their own stories of struggle and their longing to know their lives were of worth.
So we come to today’s parable which we flagged last week as we thought about the unscrupulous manager. It’s a wonderfully vivid story. The rich man, dressed in his expensive purple which in itself is an ostentatious show of wealth, feasting sumptuously every day. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. The poor man, Lazarus, who dies, presumably of starvation and related infection as the dogs lick his sores. He wasn’t even begging though he longed to be given even the left-overs from the rich man’s table. He was just lying there. It is a contemporary image for us today, just as it would have meant something to Jesus’ and Luke’s original hearers. So we too have to wrestle with what it means for us. We have to wrestle with where we “site” ourselves in this story. Are we rich? Probably, if we are thinking on comparative terms. Let’s say now that Jesus isn’t passing judgement on those who live comfortably because of their monetary status. This is a parable about how people live their lives – though, at the same time, it doesn’t allow us to feel comfortable at all. The heart of the story follows from the death of these two men: the rich man who remains anonymous, and the wretchedly poor man who has a name, Lazarus, which means “God has helped”. And that’s a bit tough isn’t it – God helped when his life was over.
Once again, we see an illustration of Luke’s great reversal: the poor man has been lifted up and the rich man put down. He has had his opportunities but he didn’t even see them as such and took everything for granted. He ends up in the fires of Hades. Even then he wants to treat Lazarus as a slave to bring him water. It seems he did actually know Lazarus’ name though he had had absolutely no compassion for him. Did you notice how Abraham responds? He calls the rich man “child” as he reminds him of how he has lived his life ignoring Lazarus and his needs. The rich man responds by calling Abraham “father” as he begs Abraham to let Lazarus go to his own father’s house and warn his brothers about their likely fate. There is something about this appeal for his nearest and dearest that brings the whole story into quite a sharp emotional focus while it highlights the distance for the unrelated man he has ignored just outside the house. They had been separated by a gate that was as much a gate on the heart as a solid physical barrier.
It’s all too late. There is now not just a gate but a chasm lying between the two main characters in the story, a chasm that cannot now be bridged. There was a different kind of chasm before: a chasm of indifference and hard heartedness. That could have been bridged. There were plenty of opportunities day by day but they were never taken. The parable ends with Abraham refuting the rich man’s hope that someone coming from the dead to warn his brothers would make them change. It is very strongly stated that if people don’t pay attention to the living, they will not be convinced by someone rising from the dead.
Isn’t that a powerful statement! Of course it prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection. But the indication is that we are to pay attention to the living, to the here and now. It makes me think back to John the Baptist’s disciples being sent to Jesus quite early on to ask him if he really is “the one who is to come”, the Messiah, because he is so very different in the way he acts from what people were expecting, which was a powerful political leader. Instead they got this man who spent his time involved in people’s everyday lives. Today’s parable very strongly tells us to pay attention to the living, to those who are right there around us in the present. That is where we discover how God’s kingdom is created: right among us as we learn to see and hear each other.
Everyone has a story. Everyone’s story is part of a much bigger story of God’s own story with us. So often we only see categories of people: elderly, young, well-dressed, casually careless, tattooed, wearing a turban, a hijab, a sari, black, white, yellow, brown, pink, able-bodied, disabled, and so on and so on. Everyone has a story. But we so often judge by appearances, or manage our responses according to what we see. The lovely kind young woman, Bianca, who is my gym trainer once a fortnight has an arm that is now covered in tattoos. She got the first small one after her mother died on Christmas Eve nearly three years ago. Recently she was in the doctor’s waiting room and a mother came in with her child. The child was a bit restless. Bianca smiled at her and the mother pulled the child back telling her not to go near Bianca, who heard her saying “she’s too rough”. Then also, not so long ago Clive and I sat in a restaurant having a meal with a brother and sister “of Middle Eastern appearance”. The sister was wearing a hijab. We soon became aware of some not so friendly curious glances in our direction. The woman, by the way, had just finished her PhD. Her brother was being supported by the wider family so he could become a serious Islamic scholar. There are many stories behind both these situations.
Everyone has a story. How do we think about homeless people? I hope we don’t think that they are people who have brought it on themselves by abusing drink or drugs or gambling. There is a multitude of reasons why people end up on the streets. But unless we know their stories, we don’t see them as individuals, as people of worth in God’s eyes even if not in the eyes of society. Thankfully we have an opportunity here through the Lindara programme to become more aware of some of the stories of human struggle that come to the workers on the programme. It isn’t always easy knowing the stories and it doesn’t always mean we can help. I was saddened one early morning, getting off the train at Central station to see a man I knew from the psychiatric hospital, sitting on a window ledge at the pavement, looking very ragged and unwell. And no, I didn’t stop. And yes, I probably should have done. It can be tempting to try and turn a deaf ear to some of the multitude of stories that there are around us, on our TV screens and internet. It can all be too much, even if there are plenty of good stories as well as painful and sad ones. But, as this parable suggests, there are those around us we are asked to notice, to give time to and, if possible to hear their stories. The rich man had never once tried to do that. It had never occurred to him. He never listened. He barely saw. He never practised any care. His wealth cut him off. It protected him, so why should he change his comfortable lifestyle! It was not in his interests to see injustice, and that is was about. There is, in this, a life that has missed the point. It had become about his image, his displays of wealth in food and clothing. He had lost the unique self he had been created to be as he tried to become what he perceived of as successful. His story is ultimately one of the sadness of lost opportunities and a lost soul. Lazarus has a name as a unique person whose life may not have been fulfilled as it was meant to be, but who, on the other hand, has not been lost by pretending to be what he was not. Maybe he never had that opportunity. We don’t know whether Lazarus was a good man or not. But he has been found at the end, so, in the end, it is about God’s grace not human success or failure.
Everyone has a story, and the message of Jesus is that everyone is of equal worth, be they rich or poor, or whatever category we might use. The way we live our lives matters, not just for ourselves, but for those among whom we live. We each have a uniqueness to be valued. Jesus was so widely misunderstood because of the way he lived his life open to all, among those who most needed to know that their stories were important and heard. He shocked people who thought they were in the right with God because he told them how blinkered and self-serving their view was. He was not afraid of not belonging in the right places himself because what was important was belonging with God and he showed people where God was – with those who struggled under injustice and poverty and pain in their lives. He welcomed those who sought a deeper meaning and wanted to live with integrity. The parable we heard today tells us that we are meant to be looking for these God-things among the living, among those with whom we journey in faith and with those among whom our journey is set, whoever they are – the people who are our neighbours in every sense of that word. It is in the stories of the living, and those who have lived in faith, that we see the story of God-with-us revealed. And then we come to understand what the gospel, the good news of God-with-us in Jesus is all about – grace, mercy, understanding and companionship. Which is love.