Dives & Lazarus

The 14th verse of the 91st Psalm resounds in my head like the peal of a bell this morning.

“Because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him; * I will protect him, because he knows my Name.”

As I reflect on this verse, I don’t know whether to say thanks be to God or to cry. Especially as I consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

So let me tell you another story instead. This story is about two boyhood friends – Richie and Robby. The boys were born months apart and, because of the relationship between their mothers, they were thrust together right away.

The wonderful thing about infants is that they aren’t particularly discerning, they are prone to fascination with whomever or whatever they encounter. Relationships between them form quickly with little concern for what others think.

In addition to this infantile inclination to forge bonds of love, Richie and Robbie had so much else in common. Their dads were both Navy war veterans, they were both the youngest child, and as country boys they both loved the outdoors and dogs.

These were the makings of a fast friendship. On an almost daily basis the boys were either roaming the woods with the dogs, giggling and fishing, building tree houses, or generally getting into mischief.

Everyone knew Richie and Robby, and when you saw one you expected the other to be along shortly, probably with dogs right behind him.

With the passage of years though, responsibilities such as chores and schoolwork began to intrude on their ability to hang out together. They saw less and less of each other because of the demands of growing up, because of social expectations, and because they did not live near each other.

You see, Richie was white and a child of privilege, whereas Robby was black and child of poverty.

Robby’s father was in the state prison for manslaughter; Richie’s dad was the lawyer who had unsuccessfully defended Robby’s dad. And Robby’s mom was the housemaid and cook for Richie’s family.

Despite the entanglement of their families and their lives, social convention demanded a disentanglement of Robby and Richie’s bond – an estrangement of their natural affection.

After a few years, Richie’s family moved to another town for a better job; and the estrangement of Richie and Robby became an unbridgeable gulf of distance, difference, and discrimination. The infantile bonds of mutual fascination and love had been broken.

Richie often thought about Robby, wondering what had become of him, but he didn’t allow himself to dwell on it too much. The bond was too tenuous, and the demands of social conventions and keeping up appearances were too pressing.

For his part, Robby also wondered what had become of Richie; but life got in the way. After high school Robby joined the Navy, he became a Seabee, and saw horrific combat. He was twice wounded, and suffered what was known in the day as battle fatigue.

Robby was eventually honorably discharged, but the debilitating emotional distress and the pain of his wounds made it hard for him to hold a job, and he slipped into a spiral of substance abuse and addiction.

Robby became a vagrant; paranoid and living on the streets in a town far from his home. But Robby did find a good alley to sleep in. It was under the eaves of a large house that protected him from the worst of the wind and rain. And best of all, there were dogs.

No one paid Robby any mind; he was invisible, except to the dogs. He could count on their company and their consoling licks. Despite the years of separation, the dogs still remembered their playmate Robby.

Richie and Robby’s story, like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is timeless; but it is not lost to time like some artifact locked in a forgotten time capsule. This story is timeless in the sense that it is lived out generation after generation with little variation.

The details may vary, but the outcome … not so much. Our native or God-given mutual interests and attractions give way to social conventions to the point where over time we hardly recognize each other because we’re trying so hard to fit in.

In his parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus presses home the divide – indeed the chasm – that we create between us to illustrate the soul-rending consequences of the divide we allow to separate us not to scare us into defying social convention and pressures so much as to remind us what we have lost in our alienation from Robby or Richie.

The soul-rending consequences are to remind us of what the dogs know – that all that separates us is a door, which we have the ability to open.

Jesus uses father Abraham, that vagabond patriarch and timeless paragon of faithful hospitality, the ultimate outsider and questionable opportunist, to embody the epitome of grace that flies in the face of social convention and assaults our polite sensibilities perhaps so that we might remember the Robbys or Richies in our lives and open the door to reconciliation.

Not because we fear the consequences of the divide, but because we remember that the Richies and Robbys were once bound to us in love, therefore we will deliver them; * we will protect them, because they know our names.

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ISO the lost

Luke tells us, “the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’”[1] To which I say, ‘Thanks be to God!’

Thanks be to God, because without Jesus’ inordinate compassion for sinners I would still be lost and outside the fold. How about you?

Perhaps you have not experienced being lost. If this is the case, I invite you to reflect upon what it might feel like to be lost – to be outside the fold.

Perhaps like Paul, while he was still Saul and persecuting followers of “the way”; you may feel you are in the right and not aware of the harm you do or that you are separated from the flock.

Or perhaps you need your space, your quiet, and don’t realize that you have isolated yourself, and the community has lost you. Or worse yet, perhaps you feel ostracized; you are not lost as much as forced out.

And finally, perhaps you are lost or isolated because of your grief, disability, or illness.

Do you recognize yourself or others in these examples? These are not hypothetical circumstances; rather they are the reality facing members of Epiphany.

With this in mind, I invite you to consider an additional perspective. What it is like to be the one going to inordinate lengths to search for the lost.

In his short story Watch With Me, Wendell Berry tells a wonderful tale of a community that goes to inordinate lengths to restore a lost member to the fold.

Set in rural Kentucky of 1916, this tale relates the story of a special member of the community – one Thacker Hample, whom I describe as “tetched”, that is slightly peculiar, one who is not all there, or one who is differently sighted.

Thacker’s nickname is “Nightlife.” In his more “tetched” moments Nightlife occupies a differently sighted world of his own and the Lord’s; he becomes oblivious to the world as you and I experience it. This vexes some of his neighbors and elicits bemused interest from others.

In this story Nightlife is engaged in a differently sighted ramble that begins when he is turned away by people who are disturbed by his peculiarity. The suddenness of his departure leaves his elderly mother alone and fearful for his wellbeing.

Early on in his cross-country ramble he wanders through the farm of Ptolemy ‘Tol’ Proudfoot where Nightlife helps himself to Tol’s shotgun ‘ole Fetcher’.

Tol, knowing Nightlife well, understands that he is in one of his tetched moments and is not stealing ole Fetcher. Yet he is concerned that Nightlife might harm himself. So Tol sets off after him following at a safe distance, but not before dispatching his nephew Sam to round up two of his cousins and others to help.

Unlike Nightlife who is lost to himself in his own circumstance; Tol, who is very level headed, knows he will need companionship and support on this journey.

The ramble they are embarking on will last over 24 hours and cover innumerable miles across ridgelines, hollows, streams, farmsteads, the river and the valley.

Along the way, Tol’s call for help gathers a community of five experienced trackers. In addition their wives gather to support Nightlife’s mother and one another as they prepare for the uncertain outcome of this search for the lost.

With out weapons or provisions, the men track the meandering wanderings of Nightlife while also providing respite and support to each other. At no point do they accost or challenge him. They simply walk with him – at a respectful distance in deference to ole Fetcher – until Nightlife is prepared to become aware of them.

After a chill night in the woods, they follow Nightlife back to where it all begins without his ever coming out of his differently sighted world. In the end, mother nature intervenes and Nightlife is returned to his right mind by the distress of a mother hen when he innocently comes between her and her nest of incubating eggs.

In this story, Nightlife is the catalyst that sets the story in motion; but it is Tol and his community of family and neighbors that are the protagonists. This community of friends and neighbors takes responsibility for their lost neighbor.

Given the length and topography of the journey, one could say that they took an inordinate amount of care of this strange neighbor until he was restored to the fold. But in truth, they simply loved their neighbor as one of their own.

Only when Nightlife was safely restored to the fold, did they gather for a breaking of their fast with joy over the return of the wandering one to their community.

What Tol and the others demonstrate toward Nightlife is the same out-of-proportion care or stewardship that the shepherd and the woman of Jesus’ parables demonstrate for the lost sheep and the lost coin.

This sort of inordinate interest in the one, the individual – especially the lost – is essential to the nature of Christian stewardship as Jesus presents it.

The circumstance of most of our lost sheep and coins do not necessarily require of us the sort of out-of-proportion ordeal demanded of Tol and his band; but they do require our shared, and sometimes inconvenienced, efforts of persistent and compassionate presence.

It is the practice this sort of compassionate stewardship of relationships among those we know “in appearance strange and unfamiliar”[2] that we become the hands, feet, and face of Jesus himself to them.

We do this not only for the sake of the lost but for ourselves. Just as we become the hands, feet, and face of Jesus to others; through this stewardship of compassion, we come to see the face of Jesus in the suffering and lost, and we are reminded that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them” amid all our ramblings and suffering. Thanks be to God!

[1] Luke 15:2

[2] From a prayer amidst challenges by the Rev. Theodore Parker Ferris. Mark S. Anschutz, From the Rector: A Collection of Prayers for the Pilgrimage which is Life [Dallas: Full Court Press, 2002] 12.

Stewardship or Possession?

“[N]one of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

How’s that for the shortest and most audacious pledge appeal ever. Nuff said, hand it over, we’re done here!

Now that I’ve got your attention, it’s worth pointing out that this pronouncement is unique to Luke, and reflects his favorite idea of disposing of material possessions.[1]

This is not to say that this verse is not note worthy – because it is; but putting this monumental pronouncement into proper perspective will help some of us to get over our shock.

This particular pronouncement opens the door for us to begin a conversation about our possessions and the other stuff of our lives in different terms. Terms that reflect our understanding of God, and our relationship with God and creation.

Jesus makes this pronouncement before large crowds that are following him on his way to Jerusalem. These crowds include disciples – Jesus’ followers and a lot of other people who are simply curious or who are enjoying his verbal sparring matches with religious authorities.

The parables of building a tower and the king waging war, as well as the audacious pronouncement to give up all our possessions, send a clear message to the crowds that this is not a sideshow for your entertainment rather this is a serious calling, and yes there are costs associated with it.

This will thin the crowd out; those who are not prepared to be disciples will fall away. In some respects it has a similar effect among us. Do we count the costs of discipleship or are we simply curious? Do we have it within us to change our minds or our thinking?

The short answer is yes, but the honest answer is that we can’t simply flip the switch from one way of understanding to another just like that. And threats and pronouncements do not bring about real or lasting change; they just alienate us.

Neither Jesus nor God want to alienate us. What they seek from us is authentic change, not the appearance of change or conformity. God and Jesus seek this because they know we are capable of it. After all we are made in God’s image, and God is capable of changing his mind.

The Old Testament is full of stories about God changing God’s mind because of our potential to be reworked from something spoiled into something new. Jeremiah’s metaphor of the potter and the clay is just one such story, but it is particularly appropriate.

That which is spoiled, that which we might see as ruined, is not beyond redemption but can be reworked into something new – not at the flip of a switch, but with attention, a steady hand, and care.

But, for me, the real take away from this story is God’s willingness to change, “I will change my mind ….”[2] You and I have the ability to change God’s mind through the exercise of our God-given capacity to change our behavior.

Yes, there is the threat of evil as an incentive, but at its heart there is God’s desire to spare us – to save us if we will just change. Paraphrasing the final sentence of this lesson, “Turn now, all of you, and change your ways; that I might change my mind.”

You and I, as God’s creatures, have the capacity to change God’s mind! Certainly we have it within us – with God’s attention, steady hand, and care to become with effort and time a reworked and wonderful vessel.

But of course change demands something of us. Perhaps it is giving up some habit that is harmful for us and those we love. Or in the case of Philemon, perhaps it is changing our mind about something we think we possess by right of law.

We don’t know the circumstances that lead to Philemon’s slave Onesimus ending up in prison with Paul. It is possible that he runs away, or that Philemon sends him to Paul to serve him. But we do know that Paul pleads with Philemon to accept Onesimus back on different terms. Not as a slave but as a brother in Christ.

For Paul this is a spiritual issue, yet he frames it as an economic issue, “[As a slave, Onesimus] was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to both you and to me.”[3]

In essence Philemon, by changing your thinking about your possessions, not as property but as gifts entrusted to you for your use and to share, these gifts become even more useful for you and your community of faith.

This change of thinking on Philemon’s part will have some economic consequence for him. He can’t simply sell Onesimus because he is angry with him or is tired of him. But Paul’s argument is that as a brother in Christ Onesimus has much more value to Philemon and the community of believers than he has as a possession.

We don’t know how this story ends; we don’t know on what terms Philemon accepts Onesimus back, which is a little awkward. Nonetheless, we can say with assurance that there are costs involved – either economic or spiritual – or both.

Just as Jeremiah is pleading to the house of Israel for a change of heart, Paul is pleading for a change of heart on Philemon’s part so that a spiritual economy of stewardship can replace an economy of possession.

A spiritual economy of stewardship is one characterized by gratitude and a sense of abundance; whereas, an economy of possession is one of shortage, grasping, and insufficiency.

In essence Jesus is calling us as disciples to a new understanding of our priorities among relationships and possessions. Will we choose an economy of gratitude and abundance, or will we choose one of grasping and insufficiency?

Either way, there are costs to be counted, both economic and spiritual, and it is not as simple as tallying the pros and cons and making the decision.

Rather it is a matter of acknowledging that we have deep-seated understandings and attachments that are challenged by this call, and that these attachments cannot be changed at the flip of a switch.

This is why we are beginning a conversation like Paul and Philemon’s that begins to discuss these attachments in the light of our relationship with our creator and the best good for our communities of faith and living.

Through conversation and prayer, over time and with effort, these attachments – like us – will be reworked by the potter’s hand into wonderful vessels, as seem good to him.

[1] Joseph A Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, vol. 28A of The Anchor Yale Bible [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010], 1061.

[2] Jeremiah 18 vv. 8 & 10.

[3] Philemon v. 11