Sunday, September 29, 2013

What Don't We See?

Luke 16:19-31
September 29, 2013

            Hear these words from a rather famous ghost story. 
            Scrooge fell upon his knees and clasped his hands before his face. 
            “Mercy!” he said.  “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?” 
            “Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”
            “I do,” said Scrooge.  “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
            “It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.  It is doomed to wander through the world – oh woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
            Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.
            “You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling.  “Tell me why?”
            “I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost.  “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.  Is its pattern strange to you?”
            Scrooge trembled more and more. 
            “Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?  It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago.  You have labored on it since.  It is a ponderous chain!”
            Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable: but he could see nothing.
            “Jacob,” he said, imploringly.  “Old Jacob Marley, tell me more.  Speak comfort to me, Jacob.”
            “I have none to give,” the Ghost replied.  “It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.  Nor can I tell you what I would.  A very little more is all permitted to me.  I cannot rest.  I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere.  My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house – mark me! – in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!” from A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens.

            Many, if not most, of Charles Dickens’ stories were inspired by the inequity of the English class system and the misery of the poor.  Not only did he see this inequity in the society in which he lived, this inequity was played out in his own life as well.  It does not take a great intellectual leap, then, to see the motivation for “A Christmas Carol.”    
            Whenever I read this passage from Luke I can’t help but think about this scene between Scrooge and Marley.  Scrooge, for whatever reason, is being given a chance to redeem himself, change his ways.  Marley’s visit is the opening of the door between the living and the dead that gives Scrooge that opportunity.  The ghostly visit from Marley and the following three ghosts opened his eyes before it was too late. 
However for the rich man in this parable, it was too late.  He and Ebenezer Scrooge share a few things in common.  They were both rich; albeit the rich man in our parable lived his wealth.  His was a rich, sumptuous, extravagant life, while Scrooge’s was small and miserly.  They both had vivid examples of poverty living at their very doors.  Lazarus was a man starving to death, living outside the rich man’s gate.  He would have gladly taken crumbs from the rich man’s table.  But the only attention given to his physical condition came from the dogs that licked his sores. Bob Cratchitt worked in Scrooge’s cold, cramped office every day.  Had Scrooge really looked at him, he would have seen Bob’s poverty.  But he didn’t; not until the timely visits from Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas.  This is where the two stories diverge. 
In our passage the rich man and Lazarus both die.  All the comforts and solace that Lazarus never received in life, he now receives at Father Abraham’s side.  The rich man went to Hades and was tormented.  But he could look up and see Lazarus.  So he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to him, to dip his finger in water and give him some relief from the terrible flames.  But Abraham refuses.  He tells him, “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.” 
The rich man begs Abraham yet again to send Lazarus, I guess in ghostly form, to his house to warn his five brothers.  Maybe they can be saved from this torment.  Abraham reminds the rich man that his brothers have Moses and the prophets.  They’ve been warned.  They should already know all of this.  The rich man pleads again, saying that if someone from the dead comes back to warn them, they’ll repent.   Father Abraham tells the rich man that if his five brothers won’t listen to the words of Moses and the prophets, then a spirit from the dead will not convince them either.
            In “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens decided that a ghostly visitation, actually four of them, could convince a mean, miserly, miserable old man named Ebenezer Scrooge to turn his heart and change his future.  Lucky for literature and for us that he did.  His ghosts remind us, at least at Christmas, that there are others far less fortunate and far more in need than we may ever be.  It is a powerful tale.  But Luke’s gospel reminds us of the same fact at every season, at every turning of the year.  His words bear the real power.
            Jesus tells this parable in response to the Pharisees who ridiculed his words about wealth because they loved it.         It is a parable that tells of great reversal, the predominant theme in Luke.  With the coming of the kingdom, with the intersecting of the divine and the everyday, what is low shall be made high, what is high shall be made low.  What is rich shall become poor and what is poor shall become rich.  One who feasts in one life shall suffer in the next.  And so it goes with Lazarus and the rich man.  They literally switch places.  It is an abrupt shift from the parable we heard last week.  If that parable was utterly confusing, this one seems to make too much sense.  Take care of those around you now, or else you’ll pay for it later.
            Yet the Pharisees were probably not alone in their thinking about wealth.  They were operating under the belief that if one was wealthy that person was in great favor with God.  There are passages in the Old Testament that attribute wealth and good fortune, worldly success and prosperity to God.  If one is wealthy and well-fed, successful and thriving, then one is obviously receiving God’s blessings. 
            Jesus turns this belief on its head.  Certainly as many passages as there are that can be interpreted this way, there are also passages that state very clearly how the poor, the homeless, the transient, the unloved are to be cared for.  The rich man may have lived it up when he was alive, but his fortune is reversed upon his death.  And poor Lazarus, who suffered so in this life, is finally being cared for in the shelter of Abraham’s arms.
            Being wealthy may be a circumstance of good birth, good planning and just plain good luck, but that doesn’t mean that it is a blessing.  Paired with this passage from Luke is our lesson from I Timothy warning about the dangers of riches.  Longing for riches leads us into many a temptation.  It is in this passage that we read the famous maxim, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”  I’ve seen this adage cross-stitched and embroidered in a variety of ways in a variety of homes and other places.  I never thought about it much, other than it’s a good quote from the Bible.  But as much as those handcrafted works of art were visual aids to staying the course of faith, and reminders that our greed is never very far from us, I find it interesting that people generally stop with these words.  They never complete the sentence as it is in our text.  “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
            In our eagerness to be rich.  I don’t know that I’m particularly eager to be rich, but I’m not eager to be poor either.  But no matter how broke, I believe myself to be, I am not poor.  I have so much more than so many others.  I have a car, a home, too many clothes for my closet, regular meals and the kids and I are drowning in our technological gadgets.  But I forget that.  Not only do I forget that I am far from being poor myself, I don’t see the depth of the poverty around me.  I sort of see it.  As I said last week, we in this congregation, in this neighborhood have a clear view of the poverty all around us.  But even with that, I don’t see, really see, what it is to be poor. 
            I think that’s another similarity between the rich man of this parable and Scrooge.  Neither of them saw the poverty that literally lay at their doorstep.  Maybe the real truth is that neither of them wanted to see.  Because once we see something, once the blinders come off, it’s hard to go back to being blind. 
              What don’t we see?  Who don’t we see?  Do we see the growing chasm between rich and poor, not only in this country, but around the world?  Do we see the desperate circumstances in which so many, too many people live?  What don’t we see? 
            I don’t want to be that rich man who finds out in death what he should have been doing in life.  I don’t want to be Ebenezer Scrooge who needs a night of ghosts to wake me up to the life that is in front of me.
            I don’t want any eagerness I may have to be rich to blind me to the needs of the poor right around me.  I want to work towards building up the kingdom, not just my bank account.  And I never want to forget that it is caring for the poor, ministering to the sick, and loving the unlovable that we come face-to-face with the living Christ.  I suspect that’s what I don’t see the most – the living Christ in the least of these.  But as we share the blessings of our lives with others, as we give from what we have been given, our eyes are opened.  May the God of mercy, grace and love open our eyes and our hearts to those who are right at our doorsteps, praying to be seen.  May God open our eyes to what we do not see.  Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.”

Dickens, Charles, "A Christmas Carol".  First published in 1843.  Published in 1986 by Bantam Books.

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