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Sermon: September 29, 2019

Proper 21 – Luke 16:19 – 31

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; 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.”’

He was 16 when I met him.  A native Canadian, Joe had lived a difficult life. We didn’t know the details but his paperwork all pointed to the fact that this young man and his family had lived in some pretty challenging situations.  Now he was a part of a two-week residential theological program run through my seminary and we were blessed to welcome him into our midst as we all grew together.

One of the most popular aspects with the kids was the day that we sent them out into new experiences.  They got to choose their preferences and the leadership assigned them based partly on their request, but also on our wanting to push them outside of their comfort zones only enough so that they could experience growth.

Some of the kids would go to a food pantry to help organize and distribute food.  Some would go to a L’Arche residential program that housed people that would live in institutions were it not for L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ontario.  And some would choose the Immersion Experience where they were put on a subway to downtown Toronto with $2 and a subway ticket back.  They had to find food, medical care and somewhere to spend the night – although they would return long before dark.

On the sign-up sheets Joe had chosen only one option.  The immersion.  His choice resulted in a lot of conversation among the leaders.  We were concerned that the experience might trigger some unpleasant memories for Joe.  We didn’t want to stir things up in a way that would be unhelpful for him.  In the end we decided that the adults who would trail the kids during their immersion experience would just keep a closer eye on Joe and if they were concerned, we would intervene and we talked about what that might look like.

As Joe and the group hopped off the subway, Joe found a space along the sidewalk, took off his hat and placed it between his feet.  He sat against the wall, feet tucked up, arms leaning on his knees, staring at the sidewalk. He became invisible.

The adults watched this amazing transformation. In the space of less than a minute, Joe was totally transformed.  If you weren’t looking for him, you probably wouldn’t have seen him.  He was panhandling and it was obvious that this wasn’t the first time he’d done this.  They weren’t sure what to do.  

This was a first for the program and they were seasoned.  Normally the kids go about exploring, entranced by all that the downtown of a very large city has to offer.  The other kids in the group didn’t quite know what to do either.  They tried to join him but weren’t nearly as successful at becoming a part of the wall.  Because Joe was so good at becoming invisible, the crowds walked past him without paying him any mind.  A very few dropped loose change into his hat.  Most did not. There was a great chasm between the passers-by and Joe.

Lazarus had that same skill, if you can call it that. Sitting outside the rich man’s gate he was a part of the wall.  It wasn’t so much that the rich man ignored Lazarus.  It was more like he didn’t even see him.  Lazarus was invisible, far away on the other side of a great chasm.

Luke continues the imagery of a huge abyss between Lazarus and the rich man even after death.  They are separated by such a huge crater that there is no way that either can journey to the other side.  This time, however, there is a reversal.  Now Lazarus is experiencing the abundance that the rich man had known in life and the rich man is experiencing what it is like to be on the margins, invisible to those who might help relieve his situation.

This kind of reversal is nothing new for this author.  Way back in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel we sing along with Mary as she learns she is carrying the Son of God.  “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52 – 53)

Jesus himself echoes these words in the Sermon on the Plain in the 6thchapter of Luke.  “He looked up at his disciples and said:  ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…….But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”  (Luke 6:20 – 21, 24 – 25)

Jesus recognizes that the poor yearn for something more.  And he sees that those who are “rich”, move through life completely oblivious to all that their brothers and sisters experience.  And they are missing out on so much.  Let’s face it, there aren’t many of us who would choose to live on the margins of society, invisible to all those with power.  

I’m not so sure being invisible is something that Lazarus wanted.  He did, afterall, yearn to receive even the crumbs from the rich man’s table.  Not the leftovers that you might pack away in Tupperware containers for another meal.  Perhaps he knew that receiving such a windfall was a total pipe dream. No.  He dreamed about receiving the crumbs that fell.  The very things that the dogs who licked his wounds would taste as they lapped up every single thing that dropped to the floor.

Jesus sees Lazarus and sees something different for his future.  Jesus sees Lazarus as a beloved child of God.  And Jesus knows that it’s worth crossing the abyss that lies between Lazarus and those who ignore him.  It’s worth doing in the here and now because later it will be too late.  

Jesus is all about building relationships with the sick, the hungry, those on the margins of life.  Those whom the world ignores.  Time and time again Jesus has cured the sick, raised the dead, forgiven sins, sent demons packing, restored the forgotten.  All to bridge the chasms that exist between us.  And when we walk across those bridges, amazing things happen.

Levi was a tax collector.  Most people would really rather not see Levi.  Afterall, who really wants to find a letter from the IRS in their mailbox?  Levi knew what it meant to be invisible.  Jesus saw Levi sitting at the tax booth way back in the beginning of his ministry. Jesus began a relationship with Levi with an invitation.  “Follow me.” (Luke 5:27)  And Levi stood up and left it all to be with Jesus.  The chasm was bridged.

We hear a bit about the story of Mary, called Magdalene in the 8thchapter of Luke.  She’s described as a woman who had been possessed by seven demons, all of which had left her likely as a result of Jesus’s healing.  I suspect that most of society tried really hard to ignore Mary.  That kind of possession was a signal that the person wasn’t right with God and if you entered into relationship with her, you risked making yourself ritually unclean.

Jesus saw Mary, a beloved child of God.  Jesus was willing to create a bridge and to walk across, casting out Mary’s demons.  And a relationship was born.  When we hear about Mary, she’s a part of a group of women who had been touched and changed by Jesus’s willingness to see them.  Now they travelled with Jesus and the disciples providing for them out of their own resources.

When you’re willing to bridge the chasms that are so much a part of normal human life, you can experience the rich treasures of learning about God from a different and new perspective.

That’s how I would describe my relationship with Joe. Quite frankly, his past experiences weren’t anything I could possibly relate to.  If I had been on the immersion experience with him, I likely would have found myself trying to imitate his behavior but being unable to really become invisible the way he had.  I suspect that Joe had a lot of experience being invisible.

By applying for and participating in this two-week residential experience, Joe had accepted that he wasn’t invisible.  He was, is and always will be a beloved child of God.  In that place Joe’s life experiences were respected although no one ever invaded the privacy of his story.  Joe noticed. He saw that this amazing group of people was willing to step into his present and we all respected him for who he was.

The night that the kids all returned from their various excursions, we always had a time of sharing about the experience. Joe shared that night.  He knew that no one expected him to sit down against the wall to panhandle.  Somehow, he knew he’d made everyone uncomfortable.  He said he knew that he and the group had to eat and he wasn’t yet familiar with where things were in downtown Toronto.  He knew the only thing he could do was to make enough money to feed them all just in case they didn’t find anything.  

He was asked if that was the first time he’d done that.  For a fleeting moment he slid back into invisibility as he shrugged his shoulders and gazed at the floor.  The group respected his privacy and, not feeling pressured to share more than he was comfortable with, he rejoined participating in the group.

That was a turning point for Joe.  We’d been learning a lot from Joe about his culture. Early on he shared that for Native Canadians, it was very disrespectful to look directly into the eyes of another. They believed that our eyes are windows into our souls and that to gaze into the soul of another was to take some of who they are as a person.  Joe was explaining why he always looked just above a person’s eyes or just below.  He told us that if he ever did look directly into our eyes, in his tradition that would be considered a great and powerful gift.

After our final night of sharing about our experiences of the past two weeks, Joe came up to me.  He wanted to thank me for listening to him.  For trusting him.  For respecting him.  As we all arrived, there was a great chasm between us.  None of us shared identical life experiences.  Each of us was at a different point on our faith journeys. I’d recognized Joe’s reluctance at the very beginning of our time together and he and I shared in a lot of conversations over the two weeks.  Together we’d built a bridge and as our relationship changed and grew over those two weeks, that bridge had opened the way for both of us to experience God’s presence.

Joe moved me to tears as he was able to articulate what the past two weeks had meant for him.  He could even share a bit about how he’d changed.  As he drew his thanksgivings to an end, he gazed deeply into my eyes and simply said, “Thank you”.  Today I can’t remember the exact words he spoke.  His eyes gazing into mine, that I remember as clearly as if it had just happened.  The chasm was bridged and my life will never, ever be the same.