"And at his gate"-Sermon for Proper 21, Luke16:19-31
So, I want to begin by playing a video that I shared at a Holy Tuesday service some years ago…and as there are typically, like at most churches to be fair, only a handful of us gathered at our services on the first few days of Holy Week, I thought I would share it again today. For, I believe it might provide a helpful perspective to hear afresh Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Just for some context, the women in the video that we are about to see is named Sarah Churman. She was born deaf and spent almost her first three decades alive without any hearing. But, through medical and technological advancements, in 2011, she was given for the very first time the gift of hearing…hearing what not all…for sure…but many of us take for granted…hearing her own voice, her husband’s and children’s and family’s and friends’ voices, and, over time, all the great cacophony of surround sound that is produced by all the life that makes up God’s intricately connected and wonderfully diverse world…all the sounds…that so profoundly fill our sense of hearing…call us to attention…bring delight to our souls…and help us connect more deeply with one another and all that is made. And in this video, we get to see the very beginning…her reaction to hearing…hearing sound for the very, very first time.
For video, click here.
Now the video, on its own, is deeply moving and gives much food for thought. And, it led me to read some of the posts in Sarah’s blog that she began after receiving the gift of hearing. And, one theme that seems to reoccur frequently in her posts is the gift of meaningful connection…connection with loved ones, with music, and with the world in a whole new and deeply intentional way that was not previously possible for her. She admits that before receiving her hearing, at times, in frustration and, even, anger, caused by the confusion she experienced with not hearing the voices and sounds around her that she would just disconnect from the people and things happening in her life, many of whom were people she loved…leaving them in a sense, unseen and unheard. Thus, she writes of life after hearing as something like coming alive, paying closer attention to the people and experiences happening all around her, reveling in the gift of a deeper level of connection, with all her senses engaged, with those who surround her whether they are suffering or celebrating. Thus, by being more attuned to the world around her, she is able to attend in more intentional, responsive, and meaningful ways to all those people whose paths she crosses. Though, Sarah regained her physical hearing…her writings remind me of someone who’s spiritual senses are turned on…that is a person whose internal and external senses are so finely tuned and so ready to connect with God and others that she is profoundly aware of those who surround her and, more so, ready to empathize with their feelings and listen to their experiences…ready to bless and serve or just be present to those who need her friendship. Thus, she writes of what I would describe as a person becoming spiritually aware, spiritually alive, spiritually turned on and turned up to the world around her.
And this is where I think Sarah’s story can be helpful for us as we just begin to dig into, again, the parable that Jesus sets before us today. You see, I think the tragedy and deep sadness that proceeds and leads to both Lazarus’ suffering and the rich man’s decent into torment begins long before either actually dies. Instead, it begins when the rich man no longer hears and sees Lazarus…when he no longer has any connection with the person suffering and starving at his own doorstep. Further, I believe the rich man making Lazarus unheard and unseen…is not just a function of him being rich…it is not just a money matter…but a spiritual matter…being spiritually turned off…tuned out…turned all the way down. Now, having said this, I think it is important to say that I think wealth and privilege and material comfort…can, indeed, atrophy our spiritual senses…turn them way down if not entirely off. Further, wealth can cut us off, economically, geographically, culturally, and spiritually, from the lives and experiences of those with far too little. And, to this end, it would be wrong to suggest that this parable is not about money…for it is…in large part. Almost a third of Jesus’ parables in the gospels deal directly with the spiritual challenges caused by money. And, in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus says quite specifically, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
But I don’t think this parable is a critique of earning a living, putting a roof over our loved one’s heads, food on the table, providing for our family good education and opportunities for travel, saving for retirement, or, even, just having some fun along the way. Instead, the challenge is that wealth, and more so a preoccupation with it, can lead us to placing things like our sense of meaning, our purpose in life, our sense of security, even our hope for the future in all the wrong places…in a magic number on a computer screen…rather than the God of love and the people we are blessed to share a life with. A preoccupation with wealth, in ways that are hard for me to even describe, is so often connected and leads to a disordered preoccupation with self. We should love ourselves…very much so. But when we do so in healthy and productive ways, we find that self-love can only lead to other-directed love. For this reason, Jesus connects love of self with love of neighbor, when he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Christian spirituality, in its most basic essence, is a desire to connect the love that is in ourselves with the love that is in God and each other. Thus, a self-love that is not other directed, that is so often tied up with a compulsion to accumulate money and material things, always leads to spiritual atrophy…to being spiritually turned down and tuned out…and, thus, disconnection with God and others.
Which takes me back to the beginning of this tragic parable in which both parties suffer mightily, if at different points. For it could be said the rich man’s preoccupation with both wealth and his own well-being has atrophied his spiritual senses so entirely, so completely that he no longer can hear or see the suffering of the other that lies right in front of him…Lazarus…the poor suffering human on his own door step…who would be grateful just for the crumbs that fall from his table…he doesn’t even desire a place at the table…or the leftovers…just the crumbs. And, this inability to connect, physically and spiritually, with the one so close who suffers is not just killing Lazarus…it is killing the rich man…from the inside out. And the great tragedy and irony here is that his salvation is so close at hand…all the hell-ish torment that follows is entirely avoidable. Like Sarah describes in her blog after receiving her hearing, if only the rich man can come alive on the inside…if only he can begin to hear the voices and pay attention to those who surround him…revel in the gift of connecting with the experiences and stories of those different than himself...beginning with the one sick and starving on his own door step…if only his spiritual senses could be turned on and turned up…the chance to be connected…the chance for a whole new and different life…an end to their suffering…and their shared salvation…remains. And though this is just a parable, if it is tragically too late for the rich man to find his salvation by hearing Lazarus and really connecting with him, it is surely not too late for us.
In Sarah’s blog, she often refers to the day she received her hearing as being turned on. And, I think Jesus is saying to both his first century audience and us, who hear his words today, turn on your spiritual antenna…be aware of things like a preoccupation with wealth that weaken your spiritual senses and come alive...that you might see and hear those around you who need you…who need to be heard and seen…and who you need in return.
Suffering is surely as ubiquitous today as it was when Jesus walked among us…and, of course, this includes refugees and homeless veterans and the addicted and those cut off from our upwardly mobile world because of the color of their skin, the language they speak, or their level of education…but it is also true of each other right now...those among us who have lost a loved one or lost a job…who are struggling with ageing or illness or one of their own children…who are suffering with depression…or who just need a friend to listen. We all bring suffering onto this doorstep we share…that sits before this dining table we share…in this church we share…every week we share it together. Thus, our work of becoming spiritually turned on and aware of all the people and needs that surround us…really does begin on our own doorstep…as we pay attention to the cacophony of sights and sounds that surround us…as we are more spiritually attuned to one another…as we come alive spiritually with a love that flows from self to other…as we really hear each other’s voices and love each other well…life-giving, two-way, relationships are forged…and God’s own voice is heard reverberating in our very midst…and we will likely find our own lives among those whom God’s love is saving. Amen.