Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon: Healing the Blind

Luke 16:19-31
Healing the Blind
James Sledge                                                                                       September 29, 2013

We’ve been hearing a lot of parables from Jesus lately. Many of Jesus’ parables are beloved stories, but I rather doubt today’s is anyone’s favorite. The basic story is not original to Jesus. Most all cultures have folk tales celebrating reversals of fortune, and this one resembles an Egyptian tale. Its outline was probably familiar to Jesus’ original audience. The images of Hades and such were stock ones, and so they would not have thought that Jesus was teaching anything new about life after death.
Surely, however, they were surprised to learn the poor man’s name.  No other character in Jesus’ parables is named, and this fellow seems a most unlikely candidate for such an honor. Wealthy people get their names on things, not some homeless, poor person who sleeps under a bridge.
That first audience may also have puzzled over the lack of details about the rich man. Along with us, they probably would have liked to know more, to hear about his sweatshop that took advantage of poor people like Lazarus, to know that he was some heartless corporate bigwig who put profits over everything else. But Jesus says nothing of the sort. For all we know, he tithed at his church, ran a foundation that funded worthy causes, and donated money for the new wing at Jerusalem Memorial Hospital.
All Jesus says is there was a very rich man, and poor one in terrible distress. It’s just how things are. No blame is assigned; no fault. It just is.

I usually go through Seven Corners as I travel to and from church. Occasionally there are people there with handwritten signs saying something like, “Homeless – Please Help – God Bless.” It’s easy to understand why they are at Seven Corners with all that traffic. They can probably walk by the driver’s window of 20 or more cars each time the traffic lights cycle.
I have no idea how successful this is. From what I’ve seen, not that many people roll down their windows. The vast majority, myself included, tend to avert our gaze. It seems to be a well understood form of non-verbal communication. Look away, avoiding any eye contact, and the person with the sign keeps moving on to the next car.
I suspect that people who are poor and homeless are used to not being seen, to being invisible. And so when I don’t look at them outside my window, they understand that I would like them to remain invisible, and they don’t see much point insisting that I look. I’ve never had anyone bang on my window and demand my attention, though I assume it happens.
When the latest statistics came out a couple of weeks ago, they showed that about fifteen percent of Americans live in poverty. For children, it’s twenty percent. But those are just numbers, and if I don’t see people in poverty, maybe they don’t really exist. And so we move to nice neighborhoods where there aren’t many poor people. We move to the suburbs, away from the cities where poor people live. We live in gated communities, where no poor people are allowed. If we have means, we can largely avoid seeing people who are poor and suffering. And if we encounter them at a stop light, we can always look away. We’re not bad people, but what can we do? How do we know that the person at the stop light isn’t trying to scam us? Besides, we give money to church and to charity. It’s not like we’re callous or anything.
Quite likely the rich man in Jesus’ parable could say the same. He tried to live a reasonably good life. He didn’t cheat people and wasn’t cruel to them. He gave to charities. He felt compassion for people in need, but of course he rarely saw them, living in his nice house, insulated in his gated community, Lazarus just outside, invisible to him.
The really scary thing about Jesus’ parable is that the rich man finds himself punished in Hades with no condemnation of how he lived or judgment on some terrible thing he did. All he’s told is, “Remember, in your lifetime you received your good things.”
That’s it? If you’ve got it made now, you’re toast later? Man, wait till Joel Osteen hears about this. Actually, Luke’s gospel has been telling us this from the beginning. Before Jesus’ birth, Mary sings, “(God) 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.” Nothing about bad, rich folks; just “the rich.”
Jesus himself says, “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.” Pretty much what happens to the rich guy in our parable.
This is one of those parables where it’s hard to find an uplifting side, but the meaning is fairly clear. Money and possessions may well come between us and God. They keep us from seeing as we should, and such blindness obscures the ways of God from us. It makes those called most blessed by God, those whom God notices and Jesus names, invisible.
In Jesus’ parable, it is too late for the rich man. In his lifetime, he lived in one world and Lazarus in another. Now that is reversed, and there is no going back. But presumably, Jesus tells this parable as more than a bit of good news for folks like Lazarus. The parable itself has the rich man seek to warn his living brothers. But Father Abraham says they have all the warning they need.
 So do we. The Bible is full of God’s special concern for the poor and oppressed. But in our world, the rich keep getting richer while to poor struggle and are reviled. And as with  Lazarus, many of us scarcely notice. Never mind that Jesus warned us specifically about this. We still don’t listen, even though he rose from the dead.
As we move into stewardship season, it would be tempting to say that Jesus’ warning means you’d better give more to the church, but that would cheapen what he says. I’m sure that those who do hear Jesus are quite generous in giving to the church and to others, but Jesus is talking about something much bigger than church budgets. He’s talking about whether or not our money, our wealth, and our possessions, put us at odds with God, in opposition to God’s ways and to the world God seeks to bring in Jesus.
When you look at the world around you, who gets noticed? Who gets named? Who is important? And who is unimportant, anonymous, invisible? When Jesus tells a story about God’s view of things, we meet an anonymous rich man and a poor man named Lazarus who is noticed and beloved by God.
Very often in the church, salvation is thought of primarily as a status. But in the gospels, it is very often, perhaps more often, a healing. Sometimes what needs healing is our vision. Jesus, comes to save, to heal. O Lord, let us see as you see.

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