This morning I have the pleasure to speak and celebrate at St. Mark’s, Syracuse
I am not a big puzzle person, but the puzzles I do enjoy are the picture puzzles in which you are asked to find the pictures hidden within the picture. Currently there is a sketch of a tree making the rounds on Facebook with the question, “How many faces can you find.” According to the comments, people have found anywhere from ten to fourteen faces hidden within the branches. I find these drawings serve to remind us of how little we actually see.
In this morning’s Gospel, we heard the parable of Poor Lazarus and the Very Rich Man. It is a story of how wealth and entitlement can blind us from seeing God. In this case, the Rich Man sees the world as his, and everything else is basically there to serve him. While alive, the Rich Man lived well, his purple robes indicate he was of nobility, which means he lived in a fine house, ate his fill each day. Despite his good fortune, he had no compassion for those less fortunate. This is evident by his lack of concern for Poor Lazarus who sat at his gate hoping to gather the crumbs left by the Rich Man’s dogs. Even after he died and was suffering in the pit of Hell, the Rich Man saw himself as entitled and Lazarus as nothing more than a servant. “Please, he asks Abraham, “have Lazarus dip his finger in water and have him place it in my mouth.”
What the Rich Man failed to see in life and even in death was how in God’s eyes, both were equal, both were equally beloved children of God. This is probably one of the hardest concepts for us to accept as Christians . . . that all of us are equally beloved children of God. After all, we spend most of our lives trying to differentiate ourselves from one another . . . trying to figure out what makes us unique or special. We also live in a time and place, whether we want to admit it or not, in which a class structure still prevails and seems to be getting stronger.
The problem with being born and raised within a culture is, we become immune or unaware of its injustices. Because we so readily accept the norms and values of our culture, we are not even aware of how this influences our understanding of the world.
How we see and understand the world is like that picture from Facebook, unless we are told to look for the faces, all we will see is the tree. In the case of the Rich Man, it is easy to cast aspersions his way, he was, after all, very uncaring, one could even say cruel to poor Lazarus. But, he was a product of his environment. Ancient Palestine /Ancient Rome thrived on a class system. There is little doubt the Rich Man believed he was entitled to his wealth because somehow his family was more righteous before God. And,well, in poor Lazarus’ case, it was obvious, he is the result of very unrighteous stock. It was obvious his problems were the result of a sinful family.
Both Lazarus and the Rich Man are part of a system that accepted the cruel unjust world as it was and never thought the world could be different. Ellen Davis writes, the problem with the world today is that few of us are willing to engage the religious imagination, an imagination that tells us that the world can be so much better or even so much worse than it is today. I believe Jesus is at the heart of the religious imagination. It is Jesus, who came into the world and proclaimed the Kingdom is at hand. And it is Jesus, who challenged the status quo in ancient Palestine telling the marginalized and the lowly there is a place for them in the Kingdom of God.
This is the primary focus of Luke’s Gospel. Even before Luke tells the story of the Nativity, he proclaims great changes are to take place. When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, she declares that “the lowly will be lifted up and the mighty will be made low.” In this morning’s parable, Jesus demonstrates how different the Kingdom will be by 1, giving poor Lazarus a name and not the Rich Man, and 2, by telling how Lazarus, the man whose life on earth was tainted by sin, finds paradise with God after death and the Rich Man now suffers.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall inherit the earth.” The popular misconception is that Jesus is speaking of those who mourn loved ones. In actuality, it’s about those who mourn the state of this world, who see the injustice within and work towards change. When we hear the words, “blessed are those who mourn,” our minds should turn to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa and perhaps even Pope Francis. All of these people mourned the state of the world and in their own way sought to prepare the way for the Reign of God.
As I reflect on today’s Gospel, I believe there are two questions we need to answer. The first is, do we/you believe this world, and even more specifically, this country, this town is in need of great change? And second, do you believe that this world, this country, this town can be transformed into the Reign of God? To ask these questions in the language of Dr. King, “ Do you believe we are living in the promised land, or do we continue to wander in the desert?”
For those whom the status quo is working, we live the promise and only see the tree. For those of us who are still wandering the desert, we see the tree and the faces as well.
There was a time when I only saw the tree. As an educated white male, I commanded all the advantages America has to offer. As a young man, I could not imagine there being any need for change. And like St. Paul, there came a day when my eyes were opened.
It began during seminary when my bishop demanded I take a year off and spend time working in an inner-city parish in order to see and to experience a world I had been shielded from most of my life. Over seventeen years the scales slowly dropped from my eyes as I went from parish, to community service, to children’s protective services. To this day I can almost tell you at what point on my journey a scale dropped from my eyes and how the myths I was raised with slowly drifted away and the faces in the tree emerged.
I will never forget the young men I met at Long Lane School. Most labeled them as dangerous gang bangers. In the safety of Long Lane, they became bright young people, who had an incredible knack for entrepreneurial ship. As a social worker, I met a myriad of young mothers who had given up, lost hope, and found themselves trapped in a system that literally kept them poor and dependent on welfare.
As these faces began emerging from the picture of the tree I once only saw, I came to understand the need to mourn for this world.
I believe the Reign of God, the Promised Land is within our reach. I believe with God’s help, God’s reign can and will happen on this earth and that we, as the Baptized, are called to work towards is making this a reality. Or in the words of Isaiah, “ To prepare the way of the Lord.”
I realize this cannot and will not happen through legislation at any level, but through the transformation of our hearts one by one. A transformation of the heart that moves us from accepting the myth of scarcity to believing that God provides in abundance. A transformation of heart that leads us to accept that we are all beloved children of God and yes! we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. A transformation of the heart that tells us, yes! God’s ways are different than our ways and yes! they are better than our ways.
Yes, as Jesus taught, the Reign is near, but the suffering of Lazarus continues. And it will continue until we are willing to look for the faces in the tree and accept them as our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.