Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Seeing Jesus

Luke 16: 19-31
September 25, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Jesus has been debating with the Pharisees. He is telling parables in an effort to get through to them. He has told them about a shrewd manager, about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and then about a lost son who left home and came back to a father’s welcome.

Jesus has been telling these stories hoping that the Pharisees and the scribes will have a change of perspective – hoping that they will begin to see the world in a new way. Jesus has urged them to repent, to return to God, and they have not yet seen him for who he is. So now he tells this story of the rich man and Lazarus.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried.
In Hades, where he was being tormented,
he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me,
and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue;
for I am in agony in these flames.’

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

In Davidson, North Carolina, in the midst of an upscale neighborhood of well-kept homes, there is a sculpture in front of St. Alban’s Episcopal church. The sculpture is a bench, much like any park bench, and on the bench is a life-size figure wrapped in a blanket. The figure is a man, stretched out, his face and hands covered by the blanket. His bare feet are visible, uncovered. If you sit down on the bench and look closely at those sculpted feet, you can see the wounds in his feet. The scars are visible - scars of the nails of the crucifixion.

If you are farther away, or if it is night, the sculpture looks quite real. In fact, not long after it was installed, a woman who lives nearby drove past, thought it was a vagrant sleeping on a bench, and called the police.

Some of the neighbors think it is creepy, others find it insulting. One neighbor said “it demeans the neighborhood” to have what appears to be a homeless man sleeping on a bench outside the church.

The sculpture is titled “Jesus the Homeless.”[1] The sculptor, a Canadian artist named Timothy Schmalz, offered the statue to St. Michael’s cathedral in Toronto, but they declined. Then he approached St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City, and they said “no thanks” as well. People have said they find the statue disturbing, inspiring, challenging.

At least they noticed it.

So often, people walk past homeless people without even seeing them. Last year in New Zealand, the Auckland Police Department tried a unique recruiting experiment. They paid a child actor to rummage in a trash can, as if he were looking for food. He was dirty, poorly dressed. Of the five hundred or so people who passed by the boy in about a half hour, most did not even look at him. Three groups – a total of seven people – stopped and spoke to the boy. They asked him if he needed help, if he was hungry, if he had family.

Seven. Out of five hundred.

The rich man must have walked right past Lazarus outside his front door, day after day.
He must have noticed the dogs licking at Lazarus’ sores. Surely he saw Lazarus, didn’t he?
Or did he walk past him so often that Lazarus just faded into the background?

Jesus’ story is rich in visual images –
the rich man in his purple robe,
sitting at his fancy table,
eating his sumptuous food.

What a contrast to this pathetic beggar, Lazarus, with dogs licking his sores.
He was so hungry he’d have eaten the food that fell to the floor.

So in the first scene of the parable,
we see Lazarus, miserable, outside the gate,
and the rich man, fat and happy, inside the wall.

Next scene, they are both dead.
Lazarus is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
The rich man – he’s just dead.
They both go to Hades, the realm of the dead.
It isn’t heaven, or hell – it is the place where all the dead go.
But the contrast continues.
Lazarus is with Abraham, and the rich man is suffering.
Between them is an abyss, a deep gorge that cannot be bridged.

Now, suddenly, in the third scene, the rich man notices Lazarus.
Recognizes him, even.
Now he even knows Lazarus by name!
Because now the rich man has a job for the poor beggar.
He is suffering, in agony, so he calls out to Father Abraham:
“Send Lazarus to bring me a drop of water. Cool my tongue.”
Nope, Abraham says, this gap is too wide – you cannot cross over.
Well then, says the rich man, send him to warn my brothers.

You have to wonder what Lazarus was thinking – how this rich man had acted as if he were invisible, and now the rich man wants Lazarus to do his bidding.

But Abraham denies that second request, too. He tells the rich man that his five brothers already have Moses and the prophets. They haven’t listened to the God of the covenant up to now, they aren’t likely to start listening. In fact, those brothers in the parable wouldn’t be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.

And that’s the end of the parable.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, it can have multiple meanings. Generations of preachers in many Christian traditions have interpreted the story in many different ways. Some have said it is a story about heaven and hell. But both Lazarus and the rich man seem to be in the same vicinity. Besides, Jesus is standing there telling it, in the context of other events, so it would seem that he has something else in mind.

One way to think about this parable is to consider the elements of the story. First we see the rich man, in his fine clothing, eating his luxurious meals. Luke has earlier identified these Pharisees as “lovers of money,” so we can be pretty sure that the rich guy is not the hero of this story.

Next we see Lazarus, miserable, poverty stricken, afflicted, poor. He is the only character in any of Jesus’ parables who is given a name! We don’t have any indication of his moral character, or how he came to be in such a dreadful state. But we do know that at that time people thought that someone like Lazarus was in such appalling condition due to some fault of his own.

So the judgment of a person’s economic condition went hand in hand with moral judgment – the person must be shiftless, or irresponsible, or careless, or depraved or corrupt. Many people still believe that about the poor and homeless today.

Certainly, the story focuses on Lazarus, but he is no hero. Then we have Abraham, Father Abraham, who signifies God’s covenant promise to the Jewish people. And then there are the rich man’s five brothers, who, apparently like him, also ignore the poor and afflicted.

But wait, there’s one more important image here ---that great chasm, the one that separated the rich man from Lazarus. On one side of the chasm, Lazarus is comforted in the arms of Abraham. On the other side of the chasm, the rich man suffers torment and pain.

Even though that chasm isn’t mentioned until the last scene, it is there in the first scene. It’s just that their positions are reversed, the rich man and Lazarus. The chasm that separates them is so wide and so deep, that the rich man can’t even see Lazarus, can’t even recognize his suffering. Presumably, the rich man’s brothers are still walking around on the earth, and the poor are invisible to them – too far across the divide to even be seen.

It isn’t so very different today.

I confess to you that I find it harder and harder to look at those who are afflicted in our society. Not because I don’t want to see them, or help them, but because it is so painful, and I feel so helpless. There are so many people suffering in this world, and it seems like there is so little I can do to help. You know what I mean?

We can’t go around handing out money to every panhandler.
We don’t have the resources to feed every child.
We don’t have the power to mend the broken relationships
between the races in our country.
We haven’t the means to heal all who are sick.

So maybe we need to change our perspective. Maybe we need to take a new look at the world, see things in a new way. Maybe, like the rich man, or like the Pharisees, we need to pay attention to those who are suffering in our immediate vicinity. Right outside our doorsteps.

It isn’t easy.
In fact, it might be painful.
We might feel like some of those people in Davidson, North Carolina, who see that sculpture of Jesus the Homeless and feel uncomfortable, disturbed, challenged. 

But as Christians, we aren’t called to be comfortable. 
We are called to serve.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says it explicitly:
I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.’
… ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

The second chapter of James echoes the words of Jesus:
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,
and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,”
and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

In the parable, Abraham says, about the five brothers,
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.

Throughout the scripture, Old Testament and New,
the words of the prophets, the disciples, the epistles,
God keeps telling us to really see people, to see their need and respond to it.

Are we convinced?

Our risen Lord has called us to service,
to reach across the chasms that separate us one from another,
to seeing those who are suffering and caring for them.
To love them as Jesus loves them.

Mother Teresa offered a simple method for that, a way to see people through the lens of Christianity. She said, “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”

Maybe that’s all that Jesus really asks of us –
to see the poor, the sick, the naked, the hungry, and to see him.

Maybe it is all just as simple as that –
as simple as seeing Jesus.

May we be convinced by the one who is risen from the dead.


[1] http://www.npr.org/2014/04/13/302019921/statue-of-a-homeless-jesus-startles-a-wealthy-community

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