“At Our Gate” 03/26/2017 by Amy Clark Feldman (Click on title for audio)

Scripture:  Luke 16:19-31

“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.’”


My guess is most of us have been present to a scene like this – with kids in our care or kids we’ve witnessed.  The scene is something like: a family walking through a downtown area or the subway – trying to get where they’re going; mind their own business –and suddenly the child, in a voice and with hand gestures much too loud points to a nearby bench and says, with real curiosity   and concern “Mommy, how come that guy is sleeping over there?  or Grandpa, how come that lady has so many bags around her?”  It’s so familiar it’s almost cliché – how we as adults, in order to get through our days – distracted maybe, or daunted by complexities and problems outside our control –walk down streets, or into so many situations and avert our eyes.  Avoid seeing the humanity and pain in corners, or at the margins – the outer gates, if you will – of our communities and lives.  But children have special kind of vision, new eyes that see people and realities – the Lazarus – that have become invisible to us or to which we have become inured or chose not to face.  Jesus had that kind of vision too.  I’ve been blessed by the children of this church as we’ve been working with them this month on these Mini-Missions.  The kids come to this kind of service with such open eyes and hearts.  I have this image of our kids curious and looking outside the limits of their own daily realities and lives and finding with these projects, people and animals there at the gates worthy of care and love – seeing a Lazarus and inviting him in, into the walls of this church, into the sphere of our vision, up to the abundance of our table.

St. Augustine writes:  “What does love look like?

Love has hands to help others.

It has feet to hasten to the poor and needy.

It has eyes to see misery and want.

It has ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men (and women).

This is what love looks like.”

I think we see what loves looks like and orient ourselves toward it when we are led by our children.

Let us pray:   May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts lead us every closer to you and your Love. Amen

I have been thinking a lot lately about who is outside and inside – who is seen and who is unseen – literally, and figuratively – I can’t help it, the news in our world and country seems rife with this theme.    So much of the strife in our world is and always has revolved around the reality or perception of being in or out – of being seen, and seen as worthy; of whether people on the inside use their insider power over others, or for others.   Jesus knew this – he was killed, the ultimate outsider,  outside the city gates.

No matter where we stand on the politics of our day, we can feel the heartbreak and brokenness of it.  There are so many images of Lazarus in our world.  There was the report out this week about the dramatic rise in rates of suicides and addiction deaths among people ages 45-54, especially white men in rural areas with high-school degrees whose job situation is uncertain and see no hope. Their deaths are being called “Deaths of Despair.”[1]  These are men, women and families that felt they once had a place at a comfortable table, who now feel (are) unseen and at the gates.  And in totally different conversations this week, I met with a colleague who is Catholic priest from Nigeria who asked for prayer for his community in Boston – many of whom he says are feeling scared. Many felt compelled to leave their countries, but now feel like outsiders here also.  There are friends and families he knows that are literally out in the cold, trying to flee to Canada – and he asked for prayers particularly for a group who crossed the Canadian border, but without proper clothing, developed frostbite, and faced the amputation of their fingers.

If these stories are deeply uncomfortable, today’s Gospel passage is deeply uncomfortable too.   We have stark images in this parable of insiders and outsiders – and also a vision of God’s kingdom when it comes to who is really on the inside and who is on the outside.  We see the rich man – securely inside at first.  Literally in lavish clothes, inside the gates, in a lavish house, around a lavish table.  We know little about him, but we do see him inside a circle of wealth and power.   And then we have Lazarus – the only person in Jesus’ parables that is  actually gives a NAME – a name which means, tellingly “God Helps”.   Lazarus is on the outside of the gates, outside of wealth and power (and health).  He’s not entirely invisible – we find out the Rich man knows his name, which somehow makes his treatment of Lazarus even worse – but to the Rich Man, Lazarus’ humanity is invisible. He is outside the man’s vision as worthy to be invited in or treated with dignity and care.    The second half of the parable, of course, is a reversal (Luke Gospel is full of these Godly reversals).  The one who seemed so blessed and ‘inside’ during life, isn’t the one blessed by God in death. Instead, he’s OUTSIDE God’s comfort and care, trapped in hell; and Lazarus is now on the inside, sitting with Abraham – “gathered with the Jewish Fathers in blessing”[2].   A more accurate translation of original Greek of this phrase: Abraham with “Lazarus by his side” is “Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham.”  That Gospel song, “Rockin’ my soul in the bosom of Abraham” – is from this passage.  Lazarus isn’t just up there sitting, he is there inside the comfort of an almost maternal heavenly embrace.

In this Great Reversal there’s a new beggar – a new outsider – the Rich man. And yet the Rich man, hard-hearted, still doesn’t get it, and tries to send Lazarus as a servant twice – once to get him water, and once to warn his brothers.

And here at the end of the parable, we get two important points – leveled directly at Jesus’ listeners (the Pharisees, and US):  the first about Loving Neighbor, and the second about Loving God.   In a brilliant maneuver of storytelling, what Abraham doesn’t allow in the story – for Lazarus to give a warning to the living – Jesus does through the parable. Abraham doesn’t show mercy to those brothers, but Jesus does show mercy to us, his Listeners.    Jesus’ listeners get the warning the brothers weren’t allowed.  (It’s not necessarily comfortable to imagine the finger of the rich man pointed at us!)

But what is this warning?  What is it Lazarus want his brothers to know? Clearly the Rich Man doesn’t entirely get the message himself as he continues to treat Lazarus as ‘less than,’ –  but Jesus’ warning to us is trying to relate something important here about what God’s Kingdom looks like – about how God through Jesus desires us to live with compassion – and what happens when wealth, or power or our insider status becomes central enough in our lives that they blinds us to those at our gates.  Love of neighbor over love of wealth; seeing and inviting those on the outside, in.

And then there is Love of God, because in Jesus, Love of God and Love of Neighbor are inextricably intertwined.  The 2nd twist of storytelling in this parable is in Abraham’s response that the Rich Man who still doesn’t get it.   Abraham won’t let Lazarus warn the brothers, because, he says, God has already been so clear about this! In the law, through the prophets.  Abraham says, if their hearts are so hardened that they can’t understand and feel God’s position on this, they’re not going to be convinced by someone raised from the dead.  Abraham is talking about Lazarus, but Jesus, as we know, is talking about himself – and the hearts that won’t listen to God’s message through Jesus, even if he overcomes death.  Both Abraham and Jesus seem to be saying, “If you loved God, and listened to God, you could not help but love and show compassion to your neighbor.  IF your heart is oriented towards wealth and power and you don’t have that kind of Love and love of God at your center, no  amount of warning is going to help.

The other night, some of you know, we had a youth sleepover here at the church.  It was a lot of fun, and after pizza and games, we sat in a circle around a low circular table here in front and shared communion by candlelight.  I shared with the youth an old Christian symbol – it shows up at least as early as the writings of an early desert monk, Dortheos of Gaza, born around 505AD.  It’s the symbol of – I said wagon wheel to the youth – but we can imagine a circle drawn with a compass. The type where you put a point in the middle and then draw a perfect circle – with infinite radii leading from the outside circle into the center.  Abba Dorotheos imagined the center point as God, and specifically, God’s Love; the perimeter, as the world – worldly things and ambitions;  and the radii are our lives.  We are each placed on a radius and we can choose what direction to walk.  When we walk towards the center: God’s Love — by design, we come closer and closer to one another.  But if we orient ourselves and our hearts, not towards God’s Love, but toward things like wealth or worldly power over others, by design we get further and further away from our neighbor.  The Rich Man in this story is dis-oriented.  He things he’s on the inside, but in orienting himself toward wealth, he has oriented himself away from God’s love, a path leading him to a lonely and disconnected place.

We are two weeks away from the start of Holy Week – when we remember Jesus, stripped of everything, covered in wounds, crucified outside the city gates.   The parallels to Lazarus in this parable aren’t a coincidence.  But the night before Jesus is to be betrayed he offers a vision of God’s Kingdom – A Table that stands in stark contrast to the image of the lavish and lonely table of the Rich Man.  This Table, Jesus’ table, stands a symbol of God’s kingdom over and against the violence and divisions of the Cross.   If we are to put God’s love as the center, Jesus’ table is right there in the center too – a symbol of that Love and how we are to live that Love out in the world.  Around Jesus’ table all chasms/gaps between insiders or outsiders, hungry or wealthy, powerful or powerless, heaven and earth are bridges – all who gather are equally beloved and worthy, and there is enough for everyone.    It is a vision that can feel so far from the reality of our world. But we come together around the Jesus’ Table month after month, week after week, to remember — to re-orient ourselves around the Hope and the vision it offers, to re-orient ourselves toward God’s Love, moving ever closer to that center of God’s Love and by doing so, ever closer to one another.


[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/23/521083335/the-forces-driving-middle-aged-white-peoples-deaths-of-despair

[2] Darrell L. Bock “The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Ethics of Jesus.” (Southwestern Journal of Theology 40, no. 1, September 1997).