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    Sep 29, 2019

    The 16th Sunday after Pentecost

    Passage: Luke 16:19-31

    Preacher: The Rev. Canon Patricia Grace

    Series: Year C: 2019-2020

    Category: Pentecost

    Detail:

    No doubt, Jesus was sharing a cautionary tale

                by offering the parable we hear today.

    No doubt he was condemning greed

    and the self-absorption that can lead us astray.

    No doubt he was warning us of the self-indulgence

    that convinces us we can neglect his call

    to care for the least of people.

    No doubt he was telling God’s faithful people

                that if we choose to turn a deaf ear toward the wisdom

    of the mothers and fathers of our faith –

    we will reap as we sow.

     

    In God’s economy,

    the rich, who are always known and honored

    by the powers and principalities of this world,

    are nameless in the world to come.

    In God’s scheme,

                things are ultimately turned upside down…

    The elite of the hierarchy in the reign of heaven

                consists of the least of all -

    not those who are at the top of the world’s organizational charts.

     

    Okay, we’re all clear about that–

    end of sermon for today; we’ve heard this before. We get it.

    So let’s move on and get out of church early.

    Hmmm…not so fast.

     

    This is a serious topic.

    Failure to follow the ancient tradition of God’s people,

                handed down through Abraham, Moses,

    the prophets, and Jesus, himself,

    is a violation –

    a violation, a breach of relationship, of covenant.

    From the beginning, when Yahweh said to Abraham,

                “you will be my people, and I will be your God”

    there were strings attached.

    First shared by word of mouth, then encoded in the Law of Moses,

                God’s people were directed to take care of those less fortunate…

    like widows and orphans, who were mentioned specifically.

    They were taught to be welcoming to all strangers,

    who might be angels stopping by…

    hey were told to follow the two biggies:

    Love God and love your neighbor –

                which is actually one, linked, commandment.

    You cannot do one and not the other.

     

    So how has it happened,

                that we, created in God’s image,

    God’s chosen people,

    sometimes wander far

                            from the heart of God, our creator?

    How can we fail to love like God,

                who, the Scriptures tell us, is full of compassion,

    the ability to suffer with someone…

    who is on record as the One who will fill the hungry with good things

                and send the rich, empty, away;

    who has such a wideness of mercy,

                extending from generation to generation,

                that God is, as the old hymn proclaims,

    so wonderfully kind.

     

    How, where, and when can we grow in our ability

    to continue in the tradition that God, God’s very self,

    has set for us;

    how do we nurture the godliness that is in us;

    that is, our ability to be compassionate,

    to be merciful and overflowing with loving kindness?

    We turn to Jesus, of course,

    for instruction by example.

    Thinking about how Jesus made his way

                throughout his life,

    we begin to see, that even more than greed and self-absorption,

                the problem of the rich man in our parable

    is more about a failure to notice, to see and listen,

                and to be willing to encounter others without judgement

                            in the hope that there might be a relationship.

    In the stories we hear about Jesus,

                we see that he always took time…

    always paused to look around, noticing who was there

                and what they were up to.

    He noticed the disabled man

    who sat by the pool at the sheep gate for years…

                            unable to benefit from the healing waters

    because no one would help him get down and then up from the pool.

    He noticed beggars, demons, lepers, street walkers;

    He noticed     tax gatherers, mothers demanding his healing attention;

    a sassy Samaritan woman

    who was checking him out at the well of Jacob;

    he noticed those made unclean by chronic illness,

                or the specter of the sins of their fathers;

    he noticed those who because of position or wealth

                thought they had it made.

    He noticed repentant thieves, on the cross! –

    Roman soldiers with sick children,

    and confused teachers of Israel who came to him

    under cover of darkness.

    Jesus not only noticed, he truly saw these folks.

                He listened deeply to their lives;

    to the things they said and left unsaid.

    He opened himself to them, without judgement;

    Always in the hope of an opportunity to form a relationship.

    And then he did what he could to heal, protect,

    exhort and claim them as his own.

    Not so our rich man.

    Lazarus did not even register on his senses –

    and I want us to really think about that…

    day after day, Lazarus lay outside his front door,

    covered with sores…

    sores being licked at by dogs!

    …begging for some slight respite, some small comfort,

                a little piece of bread, a drop of water.

    How could the rich man not see him?

    How could he so cruelly ignore the man?

    To be fair, this might have been a self-protective move.

    I remember when I was graduating from college,

                and so many of my friends moved to Manhattan

    to begin life in the big city.

    I lived in a small town in Western Pennsylvania,

    and I loved visiting them –

    enjoying all that a cosmopolitan and vibrant place had to offer.

    But it was also very uncomfortable –

                I was very troubled by the people we would encounter

    on our way to the theater or restaurants or shops.

    Folks literally living in the street…

    mired in poverty, in deadly addiction,

                in the prisons of prostitution, or a life of crime…

    They were all around us.

    One day, as a friend and I made our way to a new exhibit

    at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

    she, without skipping a beat or interrupting our conversation,

    stepped over a person sleeping on the sidewalk,

    (or maybe even dead) -

    as you would avoid a bag of garbage or other barrier left there by mistake.

     

    I commented about it.

    She replied, “Pat, if you want to be able to live in this city,

                you have to learn not to see or hear things…

    especially things like that.” (As she pointed to the man.)

    Things (not people) like that….

     

    I remember being greatly disappointed in her,

                judging her as callous and cold.

    I promised myself I would never allow myself to get to that point…

                where I intentionally would blind myself to the pain of the world.

    I felt that way until 30 years later, when I moved to Atlanta,

    and experienced the constant and aggressive pressure

                of panhandlers and others in the downtown area.

    I often would walk to St. Luke’s, the church I was serving,

    on Sunday mornings – it was only a mile –

    but even at 7 am, I would be accosted by 10-15 people:

                some amusing in their creative ways of asking for money,

    some threatening trouble if money was not forthcoming.

    I had to struggle not to respond as my friend had learned to.

    And I was not always successful in being caring and respectful.

     

    But when I did manage to encounter folks – really meet them…

                And I discovered that possibility of relationship.

    And during those five years on Peachtree,

                I made some lunch buddies – who would sit with me

    while we shared a Subway or a sandwich from McDonald’s…

                who would tell me about their lives, their hopes

                            and their sorrows and would listen to mine.

    Sometimes we found a way to get some help;

    sometimes, we just got to know each other better.

    But to be honest those times were few and far between…

                the truth is that the way things are today makes it difficult

                            for anything but a cursory transaction -

    a handoff of cash or a brush-off of a person.

    Even so, to just try is to sometimes to make a difference.

    Because when people are really seen, really heard and really accepted,

    real transformation is possible.

    There’s an ancient story told about the famous physician, Avicenna.

    He was renowned for his knowledge and healing powers.

     

    One time he was called to help a young prince,

    who was in despair over how to feed his people

                            because of a serious drought and famine in the land.

    In solidarity with them, the prince had stopped eating completely.

    He then developed a weird delusion –

    He believed he was a cow and must be slaughtered to feed the people.

    No amount of argument or coaxing could dissuade him.

    So Avicenna was sent for…

                and rather than try to talk him out of his belief…

    The physician sat with the prince, day after day;

                Quietly, just being with him,

    trying to enter and understand this strange world

    the prince how inhabited.

    Avicenna watched and listened with his heart and soul.

    After several days, Avicenna said to the prince,

    “Your highness, I now understand what you are saying.

    And you are quite right.

    You are a cow and you must be slaughtered.

    But since you have not eaten in so long,

    you are a very sorry cow.

    So we must fatten you up

    so that you can truly feed your people.”

    The prince consented to eat, and gradually,

                with better nutrition

    and the listening, seeing, non-judging presence of Avicenna,

    the prince became open to a more amenable plan to feed the people

                and escaped the blade of the butcher.

     

    Pausing, seeing, listening, opening ourselves to others without judgment,

                is indeed transforming

    and can even be redemptive.

    A parishioner told me recently about her experience

    caring for her beloved husband,

    who spent the last year or so of his life in an increasing state of dementia.

    Folks with disorders of the mind and perception

                often see and hear things that are not evident in the shared reality

                            of those who love and care for them.

    He would say very strange things.

    He would ask for very strange things.

    But rather than try to convince him that he was not seeing or hearing

                what he thought he was,

    she said, he taught her to approach these experiences playfully

    with an open heart and mind.

    She went along with whatever he said…

                within safety and reason, of course.

    Over time, because she engaged him where he was able to be,

                she could translate what he actually wanted to share.

    A wild story about his feet being cruelly bound

    or encased in shoes too tight,

    when he was clearly barefoot,

                was about him needing a soothing foot bath

                            and some good lotion.

    What might have been a year of torture for them both,

                while still very difficult and heartbreaking,

    is now adorned in her memory with lots of laughter,

                sweet affection and deepening love and understanding

                            during a time when often so often, all of that is lost.

    Gerald May, was a physician, psychiatrist,

    spiritual director and trainer of spiritual directors

    through the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC.

    He taught a five step spiritual practice[1] that

    He felt was the foundation for all others.

    You’ll recognized the steps because they were first

    demonstrated by Jesus:

    • Pausing – allowing time for the opening of contemplative spaces of just being, where, says May, we can catch a glimpse of Love, itself
    • Noticing (really seeing and hearing) others where they are
    • Opening – trying to experience the moment or person without judgement
    • Stretching and Yielding: allowing ourselves to grow in relationship to the moment, learning to lean not on our own understanding but on God’s larger vision for the moment and our lives
    • Responding – practicing radical acceptance of where God might be leading

     

    Now Jesus was right, my dear brothers and sisters,

                we must be obedient to the laws of our forebears

                            in faith.

    We must listen and heed the good counsel

                of Abraham, Moses, our saints and sages,

                            prophets and priests…

    and of course, Jesus, himself.

     

    And by cultivating those five spiritual practices,

    pausing, noticing, opening, stretching and yielding, responding,

    we can do just that – and even more.

    These five steps can bring us into the very heart of God,

                where we can nurture and express

    the compassion of our creator,

    who is so slow to anger and abounding in mercy,

    …who is so wonderfully kind.

     

    And by so doing the dreadful chasm that separates the rich and the poor…

    those of material wealth and those who are poor in spirit;

    well, that chasm need not remain so fixed.

    In so doing, we can become more of what God created us to be,

                more and more like God in all things,

    We can be part of God’s reconciling, God’s redeeming work,

    uniting those who are separated

                by the yawning fissure of protective callousness,

                            and lack of awareness fueled by fear and apathy.

    The Gospel raises some tough questions

    for us today…

                for us, who can see the descendants of Lazarus

    sitting, languishing, right outside our doors.

    Who is sitting out there, sorely burdened and sorrowful,

                going to the dogs, right under our noses,

    remaining unseen, unheard, unknown, unloved and unwelcome?

    Who is near at hand,

    perhaps even feared, despised and in danger

    because they are poor or different?

     

    How are we called – right here and now –

    to share our richness in good works,

    in generosity, and a readiness to share

    as we hear in the letter to Timothy?

    How might we offer to those who need it so much,

    the same invitation we have received and accepted:

    to share in the love and life of God and each other …

    to share in the life that is really life?

    Pause, notice, open, stretch and yield, respond.

    Rinse and repeat – again and again.

    Reap what can be sown

                by people committed to live and love like God, God’s self.

               

     

               

     

     

     

     

     

     

               

     

     

     

    [1] May, Gerald. The Awakened Heart: Opening Yourself to the Love You Need. New York: Harper One, 1993.