Today’s gospel is one of the most detailed and arresting stories in all of scripture. A poor man named Lazarus lives a miserable life begging for scraps of food in the gate of a rich man. Both men die and go on to very different afterlives. The rich man brings with him to Hades his unexamined privilege, and so asks that good ol’ Lazarus be sent to help him out. Sorry, says Father Abraham, no can do.
Continuing to see Lazarus as his servant, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers, to warn them to be merciful to the poor, lest they end up in Hades as well. Abraham replies, basically saying: They should know better, since their entire religious tradition teaches them to care for the poor.
So far this is a great moral tale, but kept at arms length from us who hear it. It is the final exchange that is the zinger – the gotcha moment that turns the spotlight from the rich man from 2,000 years ago to us today. The rich man insists, “But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” To which Abraham replies: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Someone did rise from the dead, of course: namely, Jesus who is telling this story. He is the God who made both the rich man and Lazarus, he is the Word of mercy and justice, he was in the beginning, and his care for each and all is woven through the law, the prophets, the parables, the fabric of being itself.
There is no teaching more central to scripture – all of scripture – than love of neighbor, especially the neighbor in need. And in the Christian understanding, since God is love, attending to those in need is participating in the life of God. Love is not an abstract concept or a romantic notion; love is what we do: how we spend our time, our money, what we pray for, whom we feed, how we vote.
I love this story of Lazarus and the rich man, but honestly, I’m never quite sure how to preach on it here at Good Shepherd. You are not lounging on beds of ivory, singing idle songs and drinking wine from bowls like those the prophet Amos depicts. This is not a congregation that needs to be convinced to care about those in need. You do not need to be lectured to about how complex the interlocking problems of poverty, racism, and violence are. Nor are you unaware of your privilege and your responsibility to respond.
What I want to do this morning, then, is to focus on some ways that we are a community seek to embody love for our neighbor in need, and to invite you to use them more fully, and in so doing to discern your particular call to love, beyond the ministry we share as a congregation. And I want to do this by picking up on the image from the gospel story of the gate. Lazarus sat in the gate of the rich man’s house. We do not have a gate here, but we do have an entryway – a narthex –and a big red parish house door. These are the portals through which we enter and exit. Our narthex and our parish house door are the liminal spaces where we move from our individual lives to our corporate life. They are also places of encounter. Let’s see what happens in our gates.
Each Sunday, we invite you as your first act of worship to place an item of food in the basket in the narthex to give to your neighbor who cannot afford to purchase it. Our goal as a congregation is to have as many items in that basket as we have people attending worship, We have only achieved that goal once in 6 years. Filling that basket will not solve the problem of food injustice nor will it end hunger in our time. It is a spiritual practice that changes us as much as it helps others. It reminds us that we are called to feed. That the meal we receive at this altar is not just for us; it is to prepare us to go feed others.
Our narthex also includes a prayer board, where we can share our concerns, so that others can be invited to pray with us. These prayers are seen not just by Sunday parishioners, but by HBC members, Tai Chi practitioners, Blue Heron singers. They are a gateway to caring that may have effects we could never imagine. This week, each of you is being given two prayer cards. I invite you to fill one out and place it on the board today. Take the other one home and pay attention. Read more deeply into the front-page story about an injustice; listen more deeply to the radio report on the homeless; when your co-worker tells you about their mom who is in the hospital, ask for her name and write it down. Then next week, let’s fill the board with new concerns – let’s connect ourselves with people and places that are not in our sites today because we’ve not attended to them yet.
Out this door and down the hall is the parish house door, through which hundreds of people enter each week. Some of them are here for Good Shepherd events, but many more are here for other services and discussions that are life-saving. Our parish halls host five weekly Narcotics Anonymous meetings, a Divorced and Separated Support Group, A training session for people who are unemployed and seeking new work, the Toastmasters (who are often immigrants trying to learn how to present themselves and speak in a way that allows them to thrive in a new land), and most recently the WIC program. (Women, Infants, and Children) which provides supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk. We have begun to wonder about how we could build relationships with all these people. There presence raises important questions for us.
Also through that parish house door, on both Sundays are during the week, come people who are in great need and who are asking for help. Sometimes they ask for money or food, sometimes for ideas about where to find housing. I generally have gift cards from a local grocery store in the parish office, funded through my Rector’s Discretionary Fund, that can be offered to people, and Ken and I try to stay current on what the resources are in Watertown for housing and other social services, so that we can try to direct people to other places with greater capacity to be of help. We pray with people and try to be of help, but we don’t give out cash. If you see cash being given out, that is because someone in his or her personal spiritual practice is moved to offer it.
I mentioned the discretionary fund, and I do want to remind you that this is a fund that allows me – on behalf of the whole congregation – to offer help to those in need and to support organizations that work with those in need. Any cash put in the collection plate on the first Sunday of each month goes into the discretionary fund. You can also offer a check at any time, made out to CGS, with discretionary fund in the memo. We are a small church and our funds are pretty modest – rarely more than $800 in the fund at any time – but sometimes a small gift can make a great difference to people.
I share all of this with you not because I think we should pat ourselves on the back. But rather because I want you to be aware of it, to make use of it and to understand that it is not meant to be enough. Church is a place where we come to try on spiritual practices, to reflect and be inspired, and to then go out and do more. That “more” will be different for each of us, depending on our particular gifts, our resources, and our loves.
That more will include both works of mercy and work towards justice. Both are part of our calling, and both are needed. Tragedies such as the shootings in Tulsa and in Charlotte this week won’t be solved by compassion alone; it will take hard work for changing laws, training processes, attitudes, and access to authority. The Bishops of the Episcopal Church reminded us of this in a statement they issued this week at the end of their five day gathering in Flint and Detroit, Michigan. It reads as follows:
We decry angry political rhetoric which rages while fissures widen within society along racial, economic, educational, religious, cultural and generational lines. We refuse to look away as poverty, cruelty and war force families to become migrants enduring statelessness and demonization. We renounce the gun violence and drug addiction that steal lives and crush souls while others succumb to fear and cynicism, abandoning any sense of neighborliness.
Yet, in all this, “we do not despair” (2 Cor. 4:8.). We remember that God in Christ entered our earthly neighborhood during a time of political volatility and economic inequality. To this current crisis we bring our faith in Jesus. We choose to see in this moment an urgent opportunity to follow Jesus into our fractured neighborhoods, the nation and the world.
Every member of the church has been “called for a time such as this.” (Esther 4:14) Let prophets tell the truth in love. Let reconcilers move boldly into places of division and disagreement. … Let leaders lead with courage and joy.
In the hope of the Resurrection let us all pray for God to work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish God’s purposes on earth.
Thank you for being a parish that cares. Of course we cannot do enough: the needs of the world are enormous. But let us engage with hope and whole-heartedness the ministry of compassion and presence that we can offer and always look for ways to grow it. Let our gates be places we do not pass through without thought, but rather places that heal and connect and stir us. This is what it truly looks like to “rock our souls in the bosom of Abraham.”