“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.” – Acts 9:36-43
This past week, my facebook, instagram, and twitter feeds have been filled with posts and articles lamenting the sudden death of Rachel Held Evans, a progressive 37 year old Christian author and blogger. And it’s no wonder: Rachel has made an incredible impact on millions of people, particularly many who are vulnerable and who have been disheartened, hurt, or rejected by the church.
As two other Christian authors and speakers – Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu – wrote in the Washington Post: “Rachel was ‘for’ an all-embracing vision of Christ’s church and the relentless inclusion of refugees and those suffering poverty, of LGBTQ people, of women and especially women of color, of the unseen and unheard and swept aside… She used her writing to build the bridges so many of us needed to get back to God’s love, to one another, and to the church.”
As I was watching this large community grieve on social media this past week, I was reminded of Tabitha in this morning’s passage in Acts and how she – too – must have made such an impact on her community.
You see, Tabitha had a special ministry for a group of widows, who were in dire need of a provider, a place to belong, and somewhere to have a voice. Because a woman at this time had no inheritance rights and was defined by the social status of first her father, and then her husband, when she lost her husband or her connection with her father or brothers, she also lost her identity, her possessions, her property, and her place of belonging. Widows were considered outcasts in society and were often taken advantage of and were exposed to abuse and oppression.
Because of this, widows usually had to rely on public charity to provide for them in order to survive. And, yet, they did not always find such a provider of charity in the early church. Just a few chapters before our passage for today in Acts we see that the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected of the daily distribution of food. This was such an issue in the early church that it led to the twelve apostles appointing a committee to make sure all the widows were cared for.
In our text for today, we see that Tabitha – the only woman in the entire Bible who was called a disciple – was a sort of provider for her community of widows. We don’t know where she got the financial means to support them. We just know that somehow she acquired some wealth. And she used it – along with her artistic and creative abilities – to help those who were in need the most.
Acts tells us that she was devoted to good works and charity, and she made tunics and other articles of clothing by hand and had given them to the widows. These articles of clothing would have been very valuable in the first century, and it would have taken an incredible amount of time for Tabitha to make each item. And yet, she sacrificed her time and money to make these pieces of clothing. She saw the needs of these widows. And – like Rachel Held Evans – out of love and compassion, Tabitha used her privilege and her gifts to help those who were most vulnerable.
Tabitha was loved and cherished by her community of widows. So it is no wonder that they mourned so much when she died. It is no wonder that they called out of desperation for Peter when they heard he was near Joppa. For he was the one – who by the power of the Holy Spirit – had been performing great miracles in the name of Jesus.
It is no wonder that when he arrived, they wept and passed around their tunics and articles of clothing that were made by Tabitha, reminding themselves and one another of the memories they shared with her and of the many pieces of clothing she had woven out of love and compassion for them. These women had lost their dear friend and the one who had clothed them with the love of Jesus, invested in them, empowered them to speak their voice, and find belonging where they had not found it elsewhere.
“There is a sacredness in tears,” an author once wrote. “They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”
And so when Peter enters this upper room and sees the amount of tears these widows were shedding and the loss they were experiencing, he falls to his knees.
This reminds me of a scene in the movie Life Itself. Rodrigo, a college student who is studying in New York, goes home to Spain during a college break. While he is in Spain, his mother finds out she is terminally ill, and so Rodrigo tells his mother he wants to stay home with her. But as he stands next to her bedside, she convinces him to go back to school and to continue to live his life. “Life brings you to your knees,” she tells him in her final goodbye to him. “It brings you lower than you think you can go. But if you stand back up and move forward, if you go just a little further, you will always find love.”
Sometimes life brings us to our knees. And when it does, we might just need to kneel in that place of grief and hold it for a while.
But eventually – when we are ready – we will need to stand back up and move forward.
Now, moving forward should not be confused with moving on. Nora McInerny explains this in her Ted Talk about grief.
As she discusses how she has remarried since losing her husband Aaron to cancer, she says: “By any measure, life is really good. But I have not moved on. I hate that phrase so much… because what it says is that Aaron’s life and death and love are just moments that I can leave behind me – and that I probably should. When I talk about Aaron, I slip so easily into the present tense, and I’ve noticed that everybody [who has lost a loved one] does it.
And it’s not because we are in denial or because we’re forgetful,” she continues. “It’s because the people we love, who we’ve lost, are still so present for us. So when I say: oh, Aaron is… it’s because Aaron still is. He is present for me in the work that I do, in the child that we had together, in these three other children I’m raising who never met him, who share none of his DNA, but who are only in my life because I had Aaron, and because I lost Aaron. He’s present in my marriage to Matthew because Aaron’s life and love and death made me the person that Matthew wanted to marry. So I’ve not moved on from Aaron. I’ve moved forward with him.”
Sometimes life brings us to our knees. But if we stand back up and move forward, if we go just a little further, we will find love.
Peter sure does in our passage in Acts.
Seeing how the livelihoods of this community of widows were completely dependent upon Tabatha’s care, Peter makes sure that her spirit and ministry live on. And so – there in that upper room – Peter breaths new life into death. He stands up, moves forward, and does not only find love, but he passes it on.
There is so much death in our world around us. Illness. Shootings. The deadly affects of climate change. Poverty, racism, all kinds of hate.
There is so much death, that we are often brought to our knees.
But when we are, we can find hope as we remember, Tabitha, who breathed new life into the death rooms of her community of widows. And who’s love will carry on because Peter breathed new life into her death room.
We can find inspiration as we remember Rachel Held Evans, who breathed new life into the death rooms of millions of disheartened and hurting Christians. And who’s love will carry on as the people she has impacted will continue to breath new life into the places of death around them.
We can find healing as we remember our own loved ones, who breathed new life into our lives when we felt dead. And who’s love will continue to live on in and through us.
So, let us choose to stand up, move forward, and join those who have gone before us in breathing new life into the places of death around us.
This is what it means to for us to live as resurrection people. This is how we proclaim that Christ is risen, indeed.
Easter reveals to us that death is not the end of the story. Death does not have the final say. In his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and breaths forth new life.
So may we rise up and join him in this life-giving work.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:14-21
If you have read any of my faith reflections or have heard me speak a lot – whether in church or at community events – you may have noticed that I love our passage from today’s Gospel.
I like to reference it… A LOT.
I often quote this passage – not only because of its content (which I DO, in fact, love), but also because it is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and message. It is Jesus’ inaugural address… His thesis… His mission statement. And it foreshadows everything we are about to hear him say and see him do for the rest of Luke’s 24 chapters.
We are at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has already been baptized by John in the River Jordan, and it’s not been long since he left the wilderness, where he spent 40 days and nights being tempted by the devil. And now here – in our passage for today – Jesus, who is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, returns to the region of Galilee. And after teaching in several area synagogues, has reached his hometown of Nazareth to preach his first recorded sermon in Luke’s Gospel.
It’s the Sabbath day. And so, just as he had done throughout his life, Jesus goes to the local synagogue where he and his family worship. And as was the custom in the synagogue, Jesus stands up to read the scripture: an action that almost any male attendee could do. When he is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he unrolls the scroll, selects a few verses from the 61st chapter in Isaiah, and begins to read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then Jesus rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits down. At this point, everyone’s eyes are fixed on Jesus. It was custom for the reader to sit after he read the scripture and to give an interpretation of what the scripture meant. So everyone in the synagogue was anxiously waiting for Jesus to do just that.
I sometimes wonder what this crowd in the Nazareth synagogue was hoping to hear from their very own Jesus. While they first find his words to be gracious, their approval of Jesus’ message does not last very long, as we will soon see when we continue to read the rest of Luke 4 next week.
This Isaiah text speaks of hope and justice for those most vulnerable in the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day: the poor, the blind, the prisoners, and the oppressed. This text even gives hope to the slaves and to those in debt. This year of the Lord’s favor that is mentioned in Isaiah is the year of Jubilee, which was supposed to occur every 50 years and was the year when land would be returned to its original owners, all Hebrew slaves would be set free and could go home to their families, and all debts would be remitted.
For those who were suffering and most vulnerable, this was not just good news. It was great news. It was liberating news.
And as Jesus sits down, he explains to the congregation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is taking place right here and now.
While this may have sounded too good to be true to some who gathered to hear Jesus in the synagogue that day, I wonder if this started to make others feel a little uneasy. I wonder if some of Jesus’ neighbors and acquaintances started to question how this was good news for them. Where was the good news for those who were not the poor nor the blind, not the imprisoned nor the oppressed, not the slave nor those who were in debt? Didn’t their lives matter, too?
This sort of reminds me of a common response many people have made this past year to the blacklivesmatter movement. Some people have not felt comfortable with the phrase blacklivesmatter because they feel it suggests that other lives don’t matter. Many of these individuals have responded to blacklivesmatter with the phrase: “all lives matter” because – they often state: “don’t we believe that all lives matter equally” or “don’t we believe that all lives matter to God?”
I understand where the question is coming from. But the answer is: “Yes… AND…”
Yes… As people of faith, and as Christians, we DO believe that all lives matter to God. Because they do. And yet, this is the very reason why saying blacklivesmatter is so important today… Because while we know that all lives do matter to God, 400 years of systemic racism in our country has claimed otherwise.To say blacklivesmatter doesn’t mean that black lives matter more than other lives. Rather, it’s quite the opposite. To say blacklivesmatter is to admit that in our culture and throughout our country black lives have not mattered and still do not matter as much as white lives have and do. To say blacklivesmatter is to say that systemic racism is wrong. It is to say that black lives DO matter, too!
One way many people have explained this is through a metaphor of a burning house. If there is a house that catches on fire, you send a firefighter to that particular house, not because the other houses on the block don’t also matter, but because the house that is on fire especially matters in that moment. Blacklivesmatter activists are saying: “right now, our house is on fire.”
I heard another great metaphor explaining blacklivesmatter from a fellow pastor. He said that if one of his children came up to him and said: “Dad, I don’t feel like you love me as much as you love my sisters,” that child doesn’t need her father to respond to her: “Honey, I love all of my children the same.” Rather, she needs her father to say: “Honey, I hear you. I see you. I love you very much. I am sorry for the things I’ve done to make you feel this way, and I will do whatever I can to make sure you know that you matter to me just as much as your sisters matter to me.” And this daughter may need her father to give her some extra attention for a while.
I think this is similar to what Jesus is claiming in his mission statement at the beginning of his ministry as he reads from Isaiah in front of his home congregation in Luke. The lives of those whom the world has cast away – the poor, the blind, the prisoner, the oppressed, the slave, the one in debt: the last and least – DO in fact matter to God. Their houses have been on fire. And now Jesus – this God in the flesh – has come to say: “I hear you. I see you. I love you. You matter.” And this God in the flesh comes, proclaiming good news full of justice, equality, and liberation for those who need it most.
As David Lose states in his commentary on Luke 4: “In this first sermon of Jesus, we cannot avoid the conclusion that perhaps one of the chief powers of Jesus is to declare that God sees all of us – not just those the world sees, but everyone. Because the very fact that Jesus’ sermon is all about what God will do for the least of those in the world tells us that God gives special attention to those whom the world doesn’t want to see.”
In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming this radical mission statement in the synagogue in his hometown. And then throughout the book of Luke, we see this mission statement being carried out as Jesus continues to love the last and the least: the women, the widows, the children, the sick, the poor, the blind, the lepers, and those who are held captive in a variety of ways. But Jesus doesn’t end there. He commands his followers to do the same: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I love that our second reading from 1 Corinthians is paired with Luke 4 this morning. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is writing to the early Christians in the Corinth church, calling them to unity and to embrace and celebrate their differences rather than allowing their differences to divide them. Essentially, Paul explains that contrary to what the world says – in Christ, there are no last and least. There are no outsiders. For ALL are welcomed into the body of Christ. And ALL members of the body are needed.
“Indeed,” Paul says to the Corinthians (and to us today, as well), “the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? …As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'”
You see, every single one of us here is needed in the body, not despite of our differences, but because of our differences. Each one of us has a different story with different struggles, joys, failures, successes. Each one of us has different gifts and insights to share, life experiences and life circumstances. And each one of us – with our often complicated story – is needed in this body. No matter if the world sees us or not, God sees us. God hears us. God loves us – joys, successes, failures, struggles and all.
And as members of the body of Christ, we are called to see, to hear, and to love our brothers and sisters in this way, as well, and to give special care to those the world casts out.
Paul continues: “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
When Paul was writing to the Corinth church, he was specifically talking to and about members of the body of Christ: that all of us are called to embrace one another’s differences and to see, love, and hear our fellow members of the body of Christ. For us, this means that we are called to embrace the diversity within this body and to offer this kind of love and care for our fellow members here at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, as well for all of our brothers and sisters in the Church (with a capital “C”) – across all denominations and throughout the world. However, our call to love and care is not limited to only our neighbors within the body of Christ. As we see in Jesus’ mission statement and throughout his ministry, the good news is for ALL members of the human family – whether Christian or not.
Here in Luke 4, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we hear him boldly reciting his radical mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As David Lose continues to explain in his commentary: “[This means that] God sees all, loves all, and intends and promises to redeem all. It also means that God sees the parts of us that we don’t want seen. That God sees the parts of us that we deem ugly and unlovable and loves us anyway. That God will not wait for us to improve enough to be loved, and that God is never satisfied that we are all we can be. God loves us enough to see us, God loves us enough to forgive us, God loves us enough to challenge us, and God loves us enough to send us out to see and love others – especially those the world does not see. To do that is to share in the peculiar power that drives Jesus to preach such an odd and inclusive sermon. God sees all, loves all, and intends and promises to redeem all. Good news for those who heard it then and for those who hear it today.”
So may each one of us – cherished and important members of the body of Christ – place Jesus’ mission statement at the heart of our lives and our ministries. May we be bold enough to see, to hear, to embrace our brothers and sisters and to spread this good news to all – especially to, for, and with those who need it the most!
“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” – Mark 10:17-31
Jesus has set out on a journey when he encounters a man who is in need of some answers.
“Good Teacher,” he says, “what must I do in order to inherit eternal life?”
Now, the eternal life this man is asking about is not what we often think of when we see it on bumper stickers or hear it preached about by televangelists. It’s not a life lived forever in an other-worldly place somewhere up there. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-long” or “partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief or fleeting.” It is having “the quality describing a particular age” or a period of time. And this eternal life the man was asking Jesus about was a life in the “Age to Come.”
You see, many First Century Jews maintained hope that the Present Age in which they currently lived – that was full of inequalities and where many of God’s people faced suffering and oppression -would one day end and the Age to Come would begin – where God would restore God’s kingdom to the earth and oppression and injustice would cease. And the question on many of these first Century Jews’ minds was how they might inherit this eternal life… How they might ensure that they would enter into this Age to Come.
And this rabbi named Jesus seemed to be a likely candidate to have answers to this question. He had been teaching about this Age to Come, this Kingdom of God – he often called it – which he proclaimed was not just in the far future, but was soon to come. And as the early Christian audience of Mark’s Gospel came to believe, this Kingdom of God started to break through into the earth at Jesus’ death and resurrection, and thus was not just something that was in the future when Jesus would return – although it would not be fully realized until then – but it was also something at work in the present. It was an upside down Kingdom of God – both in the here and now and that which is to come, where the last would be first and the first will be last, the poor will be blessed, and the slave will be free.
But before Jesus’ death, for many of the religious, the inheritance of the Age to Come came by strictly following their particular interpretations of the Mosaic Law. And so on the surface, part of Jesus’ response to this man who is kneeling before him may not have been very surprising. After saying to the man: “What do you mean by calling me good? Nobody is good except for God,” Jesus goes on to say to him: “Now you know the commandments…” and then he lists some of them off. ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”
“Of course,” the man jumps in confidently. “Teacher, I have kept these commandments since my youth.”
Now, this man’s response suggests that he may not quite get Jesus’ point.
He doesn’t seem to catch what Jesus is saying about how it is only God – and God alone – who can be deemed as fully good and without flaw or sin, no matter how great of a commandment-obeyer one might be. He doesn’t seem to notice that Jesus did not list ALL the 10 commandments. That Jesus named only the commandments that talk about how to treat some of our neighbors in particular ways, but that Jesus skipped the commandments that relate directly to our relationship with God and the commandments about coveting – or yearning for – our neighbor’s stuff.
“Well,” Jesus seems to be implying by his choice of omitting several of these commandments, “Yes, you may be obeying these particular commandments. Yes, you may be quite the honorable man who does not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or defraud your neighbors, and you may be one who honors your mother and father. But what about your relationship with God? What about making time for Sabbath? Do you take a break from the business of work and all the things that get in the way of your relationship with God and make time to rest in God’s presence? What about creating other gods in your life that come before God the Father? Do you put money, your personal image, your possessions, and social status before God and turn them into gods, themselves, by idolizing them? What about saying God’s name in vain? Do you misuse God’s name to justify societal structures and your personal actions that contribute to the marginalization and suffering of your neighbors? What about coveting what your neighbors have? Do you long for the kind of status, wealth, power, and possessions that they have – so much that you do whatever you can to gain more for yourself?”
“While you may obey many of these commandments,” Jesus says to the man as he looks at him and feels a deep love for him: “You still lack one thing. So go, shed from your life the things that get in the way of your relationship with God and with others. Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me. Let go of the things that keep you from obeying the greatest commandment: to love God fully and in doing so, to love your neighbor as yourself.”
When the man heard this, he was shocked, and he went away grieving, for he was wealthy and owned a lot of possessions.
Then Jesus looked around at his disciples and said: “How hard will it be for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were perplexed by Jesus’ words. But Jesus said to them again: “How hard is it to get into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to get through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of God!”
This reminds me of a conversation I had with a woman I met a few years ago about how hard it was to live in poverty when she was in middle and high school. Because her single mother struggled on and off with unemployment, there were many times when Sarah and her younger brother went to school not knowing if they would have much for dinner that night. And yet, she said that even though she could have used the extra money, there were times when she would babysit the neighbor children for free during the summer when their parents couldn’t pay for daycare. She also told me that when her mom’s job became a little more stable, her mom helped her friend pay her bills for a few months while she was going through a divorce. And there were many times when Sarah’s family had neighbors over for dinner when they had the money to buy extra food or when they allowed friends to stay at their apartment when their friends were temporarily homeless. Sarah told me that she and her family wanted to be as generous as they could be with others in need because they knew how hard it was to go to bed hungry or to worry about being evicted from their apartment because they couldn’t pay their rent.
However, Sarah said that things changed after she got a well-paying job as an adult and began to live very comfortably. She sadly explained to me that the more money she made over the years, the less generous she became. When I asked her why she thought that was, she said: “I think when you have more than enough money to live comfortably, it can become really easy to stay in your own bubble and forget that there are many people around you who are suffering. And I think the more money you have, the harder it is to give it away. At a certain point, it becomes really difficult not to try to keep up with the Jones’… And we all know that once you start that race, it will never end because you can never actually catch up with them. You will never be fully satisfied with what you have. You will always want something more for yourself. And because of this, you focus on your own wants and forget how to love and care for those around you.”
No, it is not easy to enter in this Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of when we idolize wealth and the possessions, power, and social status that come with it – whether we have this wealth or we long for and strive to have it. It is not easy to get into this upside down Age to Come that is already breaking forth into the here and now – where the last shall be first and the first shall be last… Where we are called to be co-workers with God in challenging oppression, inequalities, and injustice until they forever shall cease.
No, it is not easy to shed from our lives the things that get in the way of loving God fully and thus, in doing so, loving our neighbor as ourself.
But, as Jesus goes onto say to his disciples: while it may be impossible for us to do so on our own, it is not impossible for God. Because for God, all things are possible. And therefore, all things are possible withthe help and by the grace of God.
In a little while, we will have the wonderful opportunity of celebrating two baptisms. And in doing so, we are also being called to remember our own baptism. As we look to the cleansing baptismal waters this morning, let us reflect on what it is that we need to be cleansed of… what it is that we need to shed from our lives so that we can love God and love our neighbor fully.
And no matter how difficult it may be for us to let these things go, may we hold onto the promise that with God’s help and by God’s grace, all things are possible.
Because in our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our mistakes, failures, and struggles. Because – as our Hebrews text for today reminds us – “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help [us and others] in time of need.”
In the midst of what is being called “Chiberia” – where the weather in Chicago has been colder than the South Pole this week – I cannot help but think about the thousands of Chicagoans who remain homeless and struggle to seek shelter from this bitter cold. (According to the Chicago Coalition for Homeless, 116,042 Chicagoans were homeless in the course of 2012-2013.)
As many of us are able to seek refuge in our warm apartments, homes, coffee shops, and libraries from this Chiberia without giving much thought to those who are not so privileged, I thought I’d share a sermon I preached at Ebenezer Lutheran Church on Sunday, Sept. 29 (the Festival of St. Michael and All Angels)… “The Rich Man and the Man With A Name.”
‘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.” ’
(photo courtesy of bohocommunity.org)
A few years ago while I was serving as an intern pastor at a church about a mile from here, I attended a pastor’s conference in Denver. The conference was held at the Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center, which is quite the hotel: with a gorgeous lobby, beautiful rooms, incredibly comfortable beds, great food served by the hotel staff… you name it. And it is located right downtown on the 16th Street Mall, the main business district of Denver. If you’ve ever stayed in a really nice hotel like this, you might know what it felt like for me – as a second year seminarian and a pastoral intern, having the opportunity to get away from my studies and messy apartment and stay in this luxurious hotel – I sort of felt like I was royalty for the week.
Our first full day at the conference included several workshops and classes beginning in the early morning and lasting until dinner-time. So you can imagine how ready we all were to rush out of the convention center to enjoy our hour and a half break on the town. When our last workshop ended, we all quickly met up with our groups of friends and ran outside – everyone hurrying in order to beat the crowd of the 500 other pastors. We all wanted to ensure that we got a table at our top-choice restaurant, since we knew that the bill was on the house, thanks to our home congregations.
As my new pastor and seminarian friends and I rushed down 16th Street to get to our desired restaurant, a man came up to us holding out his bare hands that were bright red from the cold and asked in a small shaky voice if we could buy him a little something to eat. I only noticed him because he had actually walked up onto the sidewalk next to one of my new friends who was walking directly in front of me. But just as he finished speaking, my friend quickly said: “Sorry, sir. We are in a hurry.” And she and her friends next to her picked up their pace and scurried on by. So this man, who was as skinny as a stick – so skinny that his eyes sunk into his skull – with only a stocking cap and an over-sized hoody sweatshirt to shield him from the January cold, was left standing on the sidewalk with his bright red fingers stretched out to me and with a look of complete hunger and desperation in his eyes.
I stopped, looked at him, and considered my options as the rest of my new friends continued to make their way quickly down 16th street without me. I could stop and get him some food somewhere or I could brush him off, and rush on by to catch up to the rest of my group. If I stopped, this would interrupt my overly comfortable and luxurious week and it would keep me from experiencing my very short social time that I really was looking forward to.
The easiest thing would be to just brush him off, ignore him, and quickly walk away. I had a small time frame and a lot on my plate, after all. (Pun intended.)
I think that this is a somewhat similar situation for the characters in Jesus’ parable in our text for today in Luke.
In Jesus’ parable…
There was a rich man…
And this rich man wore some of the finest, top-of the line clothes of his day – fine linens and articles of clothing that were purple – a color that was favored by the royalty and that only the extremely wealthy could afford.
And this man feasted sumptuously… He consumed large amounts of the finest foods and delicacies that would have been prepared and served to him by his servants – not just on special occasions, as feasts were saved for – but he feasted every single day.
And he lived in a home: probably with the finest dining hall and most comfortable and warm beds.
And this home was protected by a gate: something that only the most elite urban resident would have owned and that would have kept out the most miserable weather conditions… and not to mention the least “desirable” city folk.
And then there is another man…
In extreme contrast to the rich man, this man is very ill and extremely poor.
Instead of being clothed with fine linens and purple garments, he is clothed in large sores that covered his body… that were so bad that the hungry wild city dogs would lick them as they impatiently waited for the scraps of the rich man’s food to be thrown outside of the gate.
This man is helpless, lying on the ground at the front of the rich man’s gate – for who knows how many days and nights.
How he got there, we don’t know. Maybe a compassionate person in town dropped him off at the gate in hopes that the rich man’s scraps would save him from his ultimate destiny of a miserable death caused by hunger. Or maybe this poor man went to this rich man’s quarters in hopes for just a bit of food to tide him over, and in the long, miserable wait, his body couldn’t take the malnourishment anymore and collapsed.
And we don’t know how or what caused him to be in such a dire situation in the first place: whether it was unemployment, lack of health care, or being taken advantage of by greedy business owners… Depression, lack of good education, family abuse in his early years that left him on the streets to fend for himself since he was a child, or a system that did not help him get back up when he was pushed down.
We just don’t know.
What we do know is that he was so hungry and desperate to satisfy his hunger, that he put himself in such a humiliating situation: lying so helplessly at the foot of the gate of one of the most elite’s living quarters, waiting for the scraps of food from the rich man’s luxurious and abundant daily feasts. Scraps that would not have been even left-overs from the rich man’s plate, but rather pieces of pita bread that the rich man and any others dining with him would have dipped into a bowl of water, wiped their dirty hands with as a cleaning devise, and would have thrown under the table. Scraps that after the feast was over, the rich man’s servants would have cleaned up from the dirty floor and thrown out to the trash… to the unclean wild city dogs.
This poor man was desperate, and he was seeking out his last possible chance to survive through the night.
And while we may not know how this man got to this dire and humiliating situation, the audience of Jesus who was listening to the story would have taken a guess. The scriptures had been misinterpreted for years: the common belief was that such poverty was a consequence of sin and poor choices and that wealth was a consequence of piety and was a sign of God’s blessing.
So to Jesus’ audience, it would have made sense that the rich man would have stepped over the poor man in his condition in order to enter his gate and his home – possibly day in and day out – giving this poor man little notice.
The poor man was not deserving of anything else. Plus, the rich man had a lot of important things to think about: a household to take care of, feasts and parties to tend to… Stopping to help or acknowledge this man would interrupt his important agenda. It’s likely that this rich man didn’t even see this poor man. He was not his concern and was just one of the many unlucky and undeserving poor folks he walked by every day in the city. Why would he see or notice THIS one?
But isn’t this a familiar and common narrative in our capitalistic society today?
Don’t we often praise those who have worked hard for their extravagant paychecks that allow for mass and luxurious consumption and demonize those who can barely make enough to get by?
Don’t we often hear this type of demonization of the poor and homeless – and in many cases even think it ourselves?
It’s their fault that they got themselves into this situation. We shouldn’t punish the hard-working wealthy class by increasing their taxes. Why should we stop what we are doing to acknowledge and give to someone who is begging for some change, food, or time, when we have more important things to do and they are obviously lazy?
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend in college. I had been talking to Larry, a man I became acquaintances with whose home was a tent on a campsite – when he was lucky and his tent was not stolen – and who hung out at the university union building during the day, hoping to get a meal or a few bucks for a hot coffee and possibly a bit of human socialization.
After I said goodbye to Larry one day, a friend of mine from the Christian campus ministry I was involved in came up to me quickly and said, “Emily, you should not be talking to that homeless man or giving him money or food. He is just lazy and choosing not to get a job. You are enabling him to mooch off other people.”
Yet, after getting to know him over the course of my four years in college, I had realized that this guy was not just a homeless man.
And the stories that Larry shared with me as we would eat a sandwich or drink coffee together – about his past, his losses, and his sufferings that led him to this place in life told me otherwise. They opened up my eyes to see Larry as a beloved child of God…
As someone who was just like me…
Who was once a kid who wore a backpack and went to school; who had parents and siblings; and who had experienced many joys and celebrations as well as many losses and sufferings in life.
And yet, somehow I was the lucky one – not because I worked harder than he did – but because I had the resources and the opportunities to make it through high school and to go to college… And to not have to ever live in a tent or worry about putting food – good food, might I add – on my table.
Yet, I am ashamed to admit that it took me a very long time to get to that point where I could truly look at Larry as an acquaintance and as an equal to myself: as someone who I just happened to share my stories with and listened to his while we sat outside the union over a coffee or a sandwich, rather than just seeing him as someone I was doing charity work for.
This reminds me of a video that has been shared all over facebook this past year. It is an interview with a man named Ronald Davis who talks about what it is like to be homeless in Chicago. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you watch it.
One of the most touching parts of the video is hearing about how he is treated and looked at while on the streets trying to get a few dollars in order to stay in a safe bed at night or to get some food to eat.
“It’s really humiliating to be shaking a cup 24 hours a day, and people just look at you like you’re some kind of little bum.” He goes on to tell the interviewer about how passers-by have hollered at him to “get a job, bum.”
“I’m not a bum,” Ronald says, as he breaks down in tears. “I’m a human being.”
Yet, too often, we don’t look at people who are living differently than we are, who have not had the same kind of upbringing, or opportunities or resources, or second or third chances like we have – as human beings, with stories, and with a name.
And this is the problem that Jesus is identifying in his parable as Jesus continues the story in our text for today. The rich man was so focused on his wealth, his possessions, his home… his feasts and parties, his status, his to-do lists, that he was unable to see the poor man who was desperately lying at his front gate.
The rich man’s blindness, his love of his abundant wealth, and his fear of having to give any of it up kept him from seeing and responding to the poor man for who he was: a human being and a beloved child of God… a man with a story and a man with a name.
To Jesus, this is such an offense against God and God’s children that it had major consequences.
In Jesus’ story, after both of the men die, it is the rich man – the one who was considered to have received divine blessings and a high societal status – who remains nameless and who is being tormented with a burning tongue in Hades (the place – according to Jewish thought – where people would go after they died and were buried.)
And it was this poor, desperate, dying man – the one who had been seen as no more worthy than a dirty, city wild dog to the rich man – who was given a name…
A name that means: “one who is helped by God.”
And it is this Lazarus – not the rich man – who is carried up in the after-life by the angels to sit at a place of honor next to Abraham.
Jesus’ warning from just a few chapters earlier in Luke was likely now ringing in the ears of Jesus’ audience…
The last shall be first and the first shall be last…
And it is not until the rich man is experiencing a bit of the poor man’s earthly plight in Hades, that he somewhat sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side.
And yet, even in this after-life scenario, the rich man’s eyes are still not fully opened to who Lazarus truly is in God’s eyes. And instead of taking responsibility for his own selfish actions on earth, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus – the one he, himself, refused to see and to help on earth – to now come to him and to cool his burning tongue – giving him relief from his own anguish. So even as the roles are reversed, in his torment the rich man still does not see and affirm the poor man’s humanity. And he is given no relief from his agony.
Now, most of us here are probably not even close to as wealthy as the rich man in our story. But many of us here do live lives that are full of abundance and comfort: the ability to go out to eat in Andersonville – maybe even once a week or more; to get the new update on our iphone; to sleep in a warm and comfortable bed on a cold January evening; to grab a hot cup of coffee at Starbucks on our way to work because we didn’t have time to make coffee at home; to travel to another city like Denver and go to a conference in an amazing hotel…
Or just to be able to fill our schedules with so many activities, meetings, and social events, that we are too busy to stop and even just acknowledge the existence of a man sitting at our gate – shaking his cup and asking for food.
We may not be as “rich” as the rich man in Jesus’ parable, but we do live rich and abundant lives in so many ways compared to the majority of people around the world. Hey, we don’t have to go too far from Ebenezer Lutheran Church to pass by many of the individuals and families who could only dream of having a taste of our abundance.
Now it’s not this abundance that we have that Jesus is condemning… Abraham, himself, was a man of earthly wealth – and yet is sitting in a place of honor in the after-life of Jesus’ parable. But it is the love of this worldly wealth, status, and abundance that Jesus is warning us about.
Such love of abundance keeps us from truly seeing the humanity of others and sharing some of that abundance with others in need.
As St. John Chrysostom put it: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them.” And as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel explained: “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.”
Now some of you might be wondering what happened with the man I encountered in Denver. While I was so tempted to go with my friends, something tugged on my heart that night to stay with this man and take him out to a sit-down dinner.
And even though it was obvious that other customers in the restaurant we went to didn’t think he belonged there – as we could feel the constant glares and looks and even heard the whispers of a few of the people around us – Richard still told me at the end of the night that for the first time in years he felt like he was a normal human being who was equal to the others who were dining in the restaurant – rather than a piece of dirt.
And he told me that he truly felt that I had been an angel sent to him by God that night.
But what was so amazing to me was that while I had gone into this dinner thinking I was making such a sacrifice and was doing my good deed for the night, in hearing the stories about Richard’s life and his continued faith through so many tragedies and crises: I began to realize that I was the one who finally was experiencing the beauty and joy of true humanity again in that moment.
And I began to realize that it was Richard who was an angel sent to me that night.
The stories of Richard’s life and his love for others touched me and inspired me in ways that I could not have possibly imagined and that I will never forget.
In my time with Richard, God opened my eyes to see the beauty and faith in him that I was so tempted to ignore.
And in allowing myself to see Richard for who he truly is, God also released me from some of my own torment – like the rich man in Hades – that comes with too much focus on the abundance, comfort, and busyness of life.
So how might we hear what Jesus is speaking to each of us through his parable in our passage in Luke?
Maybe some of us need to first recognize the abundance that we do have and explore how God wants us to share that abundance with others: whether it be our money, possessions, food, time, gifts, resources, or stories.
Or maybe it is figuring out how we might better see, get to know, and respond to the needs of others around us – esp. those who we might otherwise ignore and disregard as fellow human beings and children of God.
And if we don’t know where to start on this process, maybe we need to begin with a daily morning prayer, asking God to help open our eyes each day to the fullness of God’s kingdom and God’s children around us. In doing this, we might actually be pleasantly surprised at what God might help us see, how God might teach and touch us through our new relationships, and how God might release us from our own torment that comes with focusing on and worshiping our worldly abundance and riches.
I’d like to leave you with a benediction that was posted this week on d365.org, a daily online devotional:
“May God fill your soul with waters of generosity; Taking you to the gate of thirsty neighbors; That you might come to know them and, knowing them; Share from the richness of God’s love.”