Sermon in Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Panama City, Florida, Sunday, 25 September 2016. Proper 21C. Luke 16:19-26. The Rev. Tom Weller
Jesus said, "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. Moreover the dog 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 Hell, 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 gulf, 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.’"
The Gospel is not Good News. Shaken by Truth, unable to make a silk purse of a sow’s ear, I shall preach this Gospel as I hear Jesus telling it. You may be seated.
In his sophistication some thirty years ago, Roger Ebert gave it two and a half stars. Except for one maudlin scene, I’d give it five stars, but what the heck do I know? Ebert was the professional film critic, and I who see two or three movies a decade am sentimental for a cliff-hanger about a boy who gets lost from his parents and falls into enemy hands.
Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film Empire of the Sun, is about Jim, an English boy, son of wealthy parents who live in obscene luxury in an exclusive British neighborhood of Shanghai until the Japanese invasion of 1941. From an autobiography of real life, the story was charming in places, but searing in other scenes.
Downtrodden and oppressed by wealthy Europeans — including British racial and cultural superiority of arrogant, selfish, cruel, even brutal racist colonialism — the Chinese hated the foreigners among them, and for cause: haughty, entitled, flashy, superior, grotesquely flaunted wealth in a scenario of horrifying poverty. In a scene shown more than once (and straight out of this morning’s gospel), Jim’s father’s chauffeur-driven Packard limousine eases out the gates of their high-walled mansion into the quiet, grand, elegant boulevard, while in the back seat looking out through the car window, the boy, Jim, a child, stares captivated, apparently puzzled, at the Chinese beggar, an old man in rags always outside the gate, squatting on the sidewalk, leaning against the high brick wall, waiting, waiting. Waiting. Hopefully waiting, or hopelessly. Always ignored, contemned, inferior, bottom of the barrel dregs of humanity. Resentful and Bitter. Lazarus of the Gospel.
The Chinese beggar’s resentment was evident, palpable. But I was unsure how Spielberg meant us to read the look on Jim’s face as he stared, seemingly puzzled, uncomprehending, at the beggar: pointed, searing, the gospel scenario, Good News in pictures. Now you “get it”, now you don’t, in the movie I could not tell for sure whether Jim “got it” or not, but I think he was one of the Oblivious Entitled.
So here we are. Immersed in glorious worship, fellowship, liturgy, elegant music and moving hymns, we read but do not hear, see, or understand Jesus. Jesus who in our liturgical theology is personally present in and as the gospel (which is why we stand respectfully to read and hear the Gospel, because Jesus comes into the midst of us, did you know that’s why we stand? well, know it now) — Jesus means us to see ourselves when he tells a story. But we Westerners, we Christians, colonialist imperialists who love a good story, are blind to ourselves. We do not repent of the evil that enslaves us, (God help us, we are oblivious to it)
The evil we have done,
And the evil done on our behalf.
Oblivious to ourselves and our cultural certainties, we may see the sins of others but are blind to our own grievous fault of indifference to the plight of those around us; both internationally but even more damningly at home, domestically, fellow Americans. More Southern and Southerner than anyone in this room (if only because I’m the oldest, I was here first) I was born at Panama City Hospital downtown, grew up a few blocks from this pulpit, in the Cove, a racially segregated society that to me seemed natural, right, good and proper, the way life is meant to be. Like the foreigners in Spielberg’s film, it never occurred to me that anything was wrong, that my very Being grieved the Holy Spirit. All white neighborhood, all white schools from first grade at Cove School and Bay High (people of color went to Rosenwald), right through college at the all-white-only University of Florida (people of color went to Florida A&M). Segregated Ritz Theatre downtown, white and colored water fountains, blacks in the back of buses, whites in front, totally, legally-enforced, racially segregated and separate society and cultures, restaurants, beaches — yes, no people of color allowed on our beach or in our hotels or restaurants; none in our churches, yes, churches, our perfect, private and exclusively white Christian churches, church, my church, the Episcopal Church. Lazarus outside the gate, in his place.
I mean “Make America Great Again” God help us. GREAT as when? AGAIN as when? And who says? Dives the Rich Man? Surely not Lazarus. In my lifetime America has evolved, changed, began changing, to change, Americans are not yet “changed” in heart and soul, but are changing, we hate change and changing, we resist change, we vote against change, we love hating, love to hate, filled with certainty, cling to certitude. Oblivious. Didn’t you notice: Dives the rich man never even noticed Lazarus, never saw Lazarus.
Piously Sunday by Sunday we recite a Confession of Sin as we recall the naughty things we have thought and done and said, and cross ourselves as the sign of the cross is waved mercifully over us. In the image of the European colonizers who came before us, and founded us, and in whose likeness we are, we are “Dives” a proper name commonly given the rich man of the gospel* (it comes from the Latin Vulgate Bible, by the way), certitudinous in our righteous living, unmoved and uninformed by history, our history, world history; oblivious, untouched and unmoved by Heilsgeschichte, our holy history, unpersuaded by Israel’s devastating history of which Jeremiah warns, and even by the parables of Jesus. By our way of life inured to the Gospel just as Jim and his parents in Spielberg’s film, we neither hear, nor see, nor understand.
The Gospel is not good news, this morning a raw warning from Jesus himself, kicking our gospel garbage cans upside down, the Word of God, Himself the Logos who called all things into being, threatening with an incredible story of fiery damnation and everlasting thirst, Jesus and his parable, this story, cannot be whitewashed into the innocuous: the Gospel is not good news, and you are not Lazarus.
A bargain, we have a bargain with God, we have a covenant. God seals it with us at our Baptism: we accept Jesus, and God saves us through Jesus’ death and resurrection; and then because we are backsliders, because we forget to remember, we renew the covenant from time to time, witnessing to each other's renewal. Not a passive covenant, God requires not belief and promises, but action, that we live in a certain way, the Way of the Cross.
This is a good and generous parish, people here are not mindless of the needs of others: our Backpack Ministry, our Food Bank, the generosity of Holy Nativity Parish, Holy Nativity School and Holy Nativity School Foundation in helping needy families — we do not have to beat ourselves up as Dives oblivious of the beggar at the gate.
On the other hand, this is an election year. Hate, hatred, hate going round, stirred up and encouraged to divide us. Don’t get caught up in hatred, political hatred, hating other people, other groups, other colors, other religions, other cultures, indifference to pain. In today’s gospel, the hatred of indifference is the evil side of our human nature that Jesus calls us away from with terrible warning. All of that silent hate and contempt for those different from us returns in Spielberg’s movie Empire of the Sun, and now excruciatingly this morning as Jesus warns me with his Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man: indifference to the plight of those who are “other” — INDIFFERENCE is Detestable to God.
The gospel is clear: we are not Lazarus; and unless Jesus is a fraud, INDIFFERENCE to the suffering of others is a mortal sin unto thirsty, everlasting damnation: The Gospel of the Lord and Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
- Lucas 16:19 Biblia Sacra Vulgata (VULGATE) 19 homo quidam erat dives et induebatur purpura et bysso et epulabatur cotidie splendide. (man certain was rich)
Art: pinched online ЕВАНГЕЛИЕ О ЛАЗАРЕ И БОГАЧЕ
At seminary (decades before the internet) we were told, taught, warned, cautioned, never, ever to put our sermons into print; but that if we were pressed and with no choice, to print not what we said, but what we meant to say, what we wished we had said. Just so then. TW+