September 25- sermon- Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text...


September 25, 2022                                      Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

Luke 16:19-31                                               The Federated Church, UCC


     When I was a boy, my brother once jumped out of a closet as I was walking by and screamed at the top of his lungs to scare me. It totally worked. I collapsed in a heap on the floor and burst into tears. I may not have had exactly that reaction to the story we just heard, but it’s not far off. The parable Jesus tells about the rich man and Lazarus has a way of shearing away some illusions that hold us captive. It jumps out from its hiding place and shocks us with an image that us startlingly discomfiting but at the same time profoundly true.

     I confess, as a preacher, that this is not particularly the message I would choose to bring to a congregation. It’s a story that really none of us wants to hear. It may, in fact, be the most unnerving story Jesus tells. And if you’re like me, it may well leave you squirming in your seat.

     You and I have come here today, though, because, whether we know it or not, we’re seeking a wisdom deeper than our own. We’re looking for a truth beyond what we might think of if left to our own devices. We come to this place today as if to say to God, “Tell us something we don’t know, because we haven’t been able to solve our dilemmas and make the world right with what we think we already know.” So today we hear a story that is grating and unsettling certainly, and at the same time, deeply nourishing and true.

     And while, as we regularly remind ourselves, this isn’t a story to be taken literally—it’s not a roadmap of what happens to us at death, but rather is focused on earthly life—while it is certainly not intended to be taken literally, this story of Jesus is nevertheless one that shocks us out of our lethargy. “There once was a rich man,” the story begins, “expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption” (Luke 16:1, The Message). And while few if any of us may be as wealthy in our time as this man was in his, Jesus, in his hyperbolic way, tells the story primarily to those of us who are on the more comfortable side of society—us who generally have more-than-adequate clothes and cars and homes. If we don’t see ourselves in this wealthy person, it may be because we’d just rather not, thank you very much. Jesus, though, clearly aims it at those of us who do quite well, who lack for little, and most of whom have plenty to spare.

     Outside this man’s door lies a poor person, who has little to eat, and whose body is covered with sores. Oddly, this poor person has a name. Jesus tells some thirty parables in the gospels, and not a single character in any of them has a name—except this poor person lying at the door. This man is Lazarus. His name gives him a dignity we might not expect. The wealthy person has no name, but the poor person does. Against societal expectations, that name marks the impoverished person as somebody who matters. Lazarus. To Jesus he counts.

     Both of them, the wealthy person and the poor person, then die. One goes to a home of eternal torment, the other to a place of eternal comfort. Not just Jesus’ first listeners but we, too, have been conditioned to imagine that it would be the wealthy person who will be comforted in death. We think the important, deserving people are the ones who have done well in a material sense. Aren’t Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates the successful ones, the ones who deserve their reward. They’re the ones who have left their mark. They’re the ones who have created jobs and products and services that are widely desired. So they’re the ones who should be rewarded. Right?

     Not in Jesus’ eyes, though. The one granted eternal peace is the one who hasn’t done anything of worldly significance. When we go to the funerals of “successful” people, we’re sure they’re the ones who will now be embraced by God in death. At this “funeral,” though, it’s the street person who gets the glowing eulogy. It’s the poverty-stricken resident of the streets of Mumbai who is blessed with eternal joy. It’s the Nicaraguan peasant who is rewarded with life everlasting.

     The one who is strikingly not rewarded with such bliss is the one with all the earthly success and accolades, the one who lives in the mansion up on the hill, the one who has made the headlines in life. And the reason for this harsh judgment, I suspect, is he doesn’t really see the impoverished Lazarus lying at his door. He never really acknowledges that there’s a person there who wanted to be a dentist, perhaps, whose childhood happiness was marred by parents who ignored him, maybe, and the love of whose life left him when he got sick. There’s a human being there, with a heart and hopes and desires and wounds and ambitions. And the wealthy person can’t see any of this. The wealthy person sees only a cipher lying at the doorway, a useless throwaway worth next to nothing.

     It’s likely this willful blindness as much as anything that Jesus is excoriating here. Jesus knows how often we look right past the people who don’t count in our eyes. How many times have you and I walked past people begging on the sidewalk, or averted our eyes from the person standing at the street corner looking for money for food or child support? If you haven’t ignored someone in such dire circumstances, then you’re a better person than I am. When we come across someone who makes us apprehensive, how easy it is to look the other way.

     And this sort of refusal to see happens in all sorts of settings. In a church I served earlier in my life, there was a teenage boy who couldn’t speak, who suffered regular seizures, and who got around in a wheelchair. And I confess I felt lost when I was around him. I didn’t know what to say or how to be with him. One day I watched as Mary went over to him and knelt down beside him and started talking with him and laughing with him, and I realized how thoroughly I had looked past him. It was a sobering moment for me. I had done with that boy what the rich man does in today’s parable: I hadn’t really seen him. He had a name. And his name was Josh.

     Father Gregory Boyle, who works with gang members as the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, has said that gang members are used to being watched but not used to being seen. Whom do you and I watch but not see? Whom do we look past? Is it the person who buses our table; the neighbor on the autism spectrum with whom we struggle to communicate; the trans person whose journey we can’t seem to understand; the resident of the Hough neighborhood in Cleveland whose language and habits seem so far from ours; the Republican; the Democrat; the aging person with dementia; the apparently curt service agent on the other end of the phone; the nasty sibling; the disappointing child; the betraying parent; the organizational leader who is not what you had hoped they would be? The list could go on and on. There are so many people we look right past, people we may watch but never really see.

     Seeing, acknowledging, appreciating people who may be extremely different from us in all outward ways: Jesus sees how often this is a major failing, likely for all of us. And for those of us who live in comfortable, middle- or upper-middle-class suburbia, our stubborn blindness is likely exacerbated when we encounter those who have little to their name. Subconsciously we may hold people responsible for their own poverty—“they didn’t work hard enough, they weren’t disciplined enough, they didn’t save or invest well enough.” We sometimes act as if poverty is a moral failing, or as if it’s contagious, and so stay as far away from it as possible.

     And when we engage in that sort of judgment from the sidelines, judgment that is passed without any real knowledge of a person’s history or circumstances, then whether we like it or not, we’re the rich person in the story. When we fail to see the breaks we may have gotten that others didn’t; the inheritance we may have received that whole swaths of people haven’t received; the connections that have privileged us, and not others, because we’re white or male or hetero or cis or even a Buckeye—when we pass judgment and don’t take in the full picture of what others’ lives are like, then we haven’t really seen the person whose life we so easily dismiss. We have been that unseeing rich person in Jesus’ parable.

     And, as the parable makes abundantly clear, a good part of the reason we dismiss others so readily is that they are poor and we are not. It’s this that Jesus is eager to call into question. He knows, and he wants us to know, that the poor, apparently inconsequential, person lying at the door, or coming to the food bank, or asking for money on the sidewalk, or traveling here from another country, is just as special in God’s eyes as we are. In fact, they are, to God, even more special. Not because they are inherently worth more, but because they have lived with a deeper sort of suffering, and that divine care is crucial.

     It is perhaps worth a word or two about people who have traveled here from other countries. Border crossings have become a prominent issue in our life, even more so in these last several weeks. Any realistic appraisal of the situation will require that we look seriously at what resources this country has available to support those who have come here from other countries. No country, including this one, has unlimited resources. Difficult choices must, of necessity, be made.

     That said, though, careful attention to the story Jesus tells demands of us that we at least see those who have made the journey here, often from countries in Central and South America. Do we see the poverty from which they have come, the tyranny from which they may be fleeing? Do we see the limited opportunities that have squelched the deepest hopes and yearnings that dwell in the breast of those who seek a new home here? The reason human migration happens, almost without exception, from poorer countries to wealthier ones is because physical comforts make a difference. For us who are predominantly comfortable to essentially say, “We’re not going to allow you to have what we have” is to say that we’re more deserving of such riches than are those who come here from poorer nations. Not only that, but when we bus or transport people from one state to another, have we really seen them? Or are we instead using human beings as pawns in a culture war? To see people is to engage with them. It’s to collaborate with them. It’s to strategize with them about how best to respond to their pressing needs. It’s fair to say that putting people on a bus or a plane to another state and not telling them where they’re going and not telling the states to which they’re traveling that those visitors will be arriving is perhaps not really to see them. It’s not to acknowledge the pain and suffering and deprivation that have prompted them to leave their homes. It’s not to see their full humanity.

     What Federated Church tries to do is to see people in all their glorious fullness. We seek to acknowledge the unending pain and resource-scarcity that are part of the lives of so many, and to minister to it. When we’re at our best, we’re giving generously to the offering we know as Neighbors in Need; we’re contributing to the Hunger Fund; we’re supporting places where human need is deep, such as St. Paul’s Church and Chagrin Falls Park; and we’re supporting the daily, weekly, yearly care-giving and outreach of Federated by giving to its ministries and supporting its operations and seeking to make a difference with and for those who may, this very moment, be lying at our door, some with some obvious, and some with invisible, poverty. Our role, our deepest faithfulness, is to be present with, and to see, those whose lives are so often broken, and then to give out of our abundance to alleviate their suffering.

     And it’s seeing that is at the core. In one of the first churches I served, a small Vermont country church, a newcomer to the church, a man in his early- to mid-70s, asked one day if he could come to talk to me. When he did, he told me he had recently been released from prison, where he had spent three years for having sexually abused his own granddaughters. It was an awful thing he did, and he knew it. He was extraordinarily open about his violations, he had been in extensive treatment for it, and his contrition ran deep. And he wanted to know if it was alright for him to be part of the church. I told him I would check with leadership and get back to him.

     When I talked with church leaders, and relayed this conversation, they were remarkable. They knew that what this man had done was a grotesque violation of his granddaughters. And they had the natural trepidations that would accompany such a request. Would we just be saps turning a blind eye and asking for trouble if we allowed him to be part of our community?

     So here’s what they decided. They appropriately said this man should never be alone with any child in the church, and that we would hold vigilantly to that standard. And at the same time, they knew that he was a person who needed the embrace and care of God at least as much as any of the rest of us. So, they said, we should welcome him with open arms and share with him the grace and love of God. They saw him. And they welcomed him. And they made sure that he was not to be left to himself. God was holding him. And so would they. He had a name. And his name was Paul.

     When I think about seeing people, I think about the gracious and tender embrace of that small country church. They saw. They welcomed. They cared. They knew his name. And it made all the difference. May it always be so for us, as well. May we see. And may we respond. For it’s as we do that that we embody the love and grace of the God who sees and responds always to us.