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What If?

October 2, 2016

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church, Blessing of the Animals / World Communion Sunday, October 2, 2016. A version of this sermon was originally written and preached by (his wife) The Rev. Noelle Damico for a congregation in Florida on September 25. As a birthday gift for Jeff and to free him up for a day of celebration (Oct. 1), the sermon was adapted for WPPC to gather up our social commitments, our trust in and love of God, and welcome a newly baptized child into the community of faith. A special Peace and Global Witness Offering was taken to support pilot programs in five cities to specifically address what the PC(USA) has called “the worsening light of the African American Male” 

Luke 16:19-31

This parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a familiar one. According to Luke, Jesus tells it to his disciples and to a group of tax-collectors and Pharisees that had come out to hear him.

At first glance the parable seems pretty straight-forward. Oh, we think. Well the rich man shouldn’t walk by Lazarus. He shouldn’t let him suffer; he should help. And, assuming we are the rich man, if we don’t help the poor people around us, then we won’t go to heaven. It’s a cautionary tale and one the church should heed. End of story. But there’s more.

The parable pivots around the concept of crossing a huge divide.

The divide between Lazarus and the rich man on earth is the divide at the property’s edge where on one side a man suffers horribly and on the other a man lives in extreme ease; and the divide in life beyond death, where again we see one man suffering horribly and the other living in extreme ease – though this time their fortunes are reversed.

The divide in the after life is impassable. There is absolutely no surmounting it. But on earth? On earth there is a gate.

There are two gates in this parable. There is a literal gate where Lazarus and the rich man encounter each other. The gate is that place where the two worlds, one of suffering and one of ease that might seem to be separate, are shown to be related. For the rich man can pass through the gate and move between these two worlds freely. That’s the literal gate in this parable.

But there is also a metaphorical gate in this passage.

Did you hear it? And now I can see by your faces that the wheels are turning. Metaphorical gate, metaphorical gate, wait, where’s the metaphorical gate? Good! Good! That’s what parables are supposed to do, get the mind working! The metaphorical gate is the most important moment in the passage. And that metaphorical gate moves us from the world within the story, to world outside the story. And if we truly pass through that gate, rather than just hear about it and nod and think “yup, that’s the gate;” glad I know what it is,” the promise is that our world will be utterly transformed.

The story that Jesus is telling doesn’t exist in the ether. It has a context – as does Luke’s retelling of it. Now in Jesus’ day, you’ll remember that the Roman Empire was occupying Galilee and Judea. Usually we think about this briefly during Christmas when we read the tender and shocking birth narrative of the savior of the world not being born to a powerful family in a splendid palace, but being born to a poor, unmarried couple for whom there was no room in the inn. Luke writes these familiar words: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

But the Roman occupation was not peaceful. Two decades before Jesus’ birth, its army slaughtered its way through Galilee, destroying whole villages and enslaving those that survived to build monuments to Rome’s glory. Then Pompey the Great sacked Jerusalem. The Roman Empire suppressed the population and extracted resources from the region through direct military conquest and forced labor but also through administration and the collection of heavy taxes that made the majority of the population who survived living at subsistence, ever more vulnerable. That’s why Joseph and Mary with him had to be registered. The census wasn’t just a head count. It was a head count so Rome could know who was available to tax. The occupation and the way it structured economic and social relationships was further guaranteed by terror – the terror of crucifixion. Rome crucified thousands upon thousands of people as a way of keeping order. They crucified people who were accused of sedition, of being enemies of the state. Jesus himself, eventually, was among them.

The characters in Jesus’ parable are not just individuals; they are characters whose actions and whose words provide a snapshot of the imperial world of Jesus’ day. The rich man, you’ll note, is dressed in purple, a color regulated by the Roman Empire: only those associated with Rome could wear purple. Lazarus, in his extreme suffering, illustrates in his very body, the brutality of the Roman occupation on the masses of people whose dignity was exploited and whose resources were viciously extracted.

The tax-collectors and Pharisees would not have had to stretch their minds very far to know that when Jesus told this parable, he was describing the vicious impact of Rome’s occupation that was made possible by those who collaborated with it. This is not a story about how individual rich people need to be charitable toward individual poor people if they’re going to get to heaven. This parable describes the way unaccountable power, greed, and violence distort relationships in our world; shaping our economic and social relationships with each other, consigning the very few to luxury and many to horror. But Jesus is not telling this parable it to immobilize the Pharisees and tax collectors – he’s telling it to move them, to change them.

Remember, there is more than one gate. The hearers are all very familiar with that literal gate through which Rome and its collaborators extract resources and dignity from the people and then continue, heedlessly or even righteously, on their way.

But there is another gate, a metaphorical gate; a gate that causes them and us as hearers to wonder “what if?” It is Abraham who points out this second gate saying in response to the rich man’s request for Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his family. Abraham says, ““If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

But what if they did? What if they did listen to Moses and the prophets? And what if they not only listened but acted? What if, instead of seeing Lazarus as a thing to be used, a means of production or revenue generation, a tool for building monuments, or a threat to be suppressed, what if, instead, the “rich men” listening remembered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself,” and came to recognize not only Lazarus’s humanity, but their own as well? What might happen?

A couple of months ago we began reading the second half of the Gospel of Luke. It opens with Jesus, having completed his work in the Galilee, determined to go to Jerusalem. There he will speak and demonstrate God’s in-breaking kingdom among the occupying Roman forces and the leaders of the religious establishment. Jesus’ ministry of shared meals and communal goods, his non-violent response to a violent world and his building of a community committed to God and one another has set the pattern his disciples are to follow. All he could promise them was that the way would be hard – and by that he meant both the way of life they were to model and the physical way that was the road to Jerusalem – but that they would be participating in bringing the kingdom of God near.

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Over the past years our nation has become ever more aware of the racism that continues to infect our society. Though our nation has elected a black man president, twice, we dare not think we are in a post-racial America, that opportunities have magically opened up or that violence against people of color has abated. Like the divide between the rich man and Lazarus on earth, racism, woven into the fabric of our society, has continued to create separate and unequal institutions, neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. Whether we look at the segregated patterns of housing here in Westchester – for which the USDOJ has placed the county under a court-mandated settlement to change but which county officials continue to aggressively fight – or we look at continuous stream of violence by police and the shocking miscarriage of justice at all levels of the criminal justice system against people of color, particularly against black and brown men, from the Supreme Court, to the Congress, to the grindingly slow operation of the courts, to abuse in the prisons themselves, there is no denying that we live in a divided society. And that those divides are not just individual, they are systemic.

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But this congregation has been taking up the “what if?” From studying Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, to advocating for police accountability here in White Plains, from successfully working to Ban the Box from government employment applications in White Plains, from marching to proclaim black lives matter, from engaging with the Presbytery Prison Partnership – we are crossing the divides erected by our society and proclaiming our love for God and love for each other. By providing stories that went into Noelle’s testimony in Federal Court about the dire need for fair and affordable housing in Westchester, from working hand in hand with Community Voices Heard to advance these housing goals on a municipal and state level – we are crossing the divides erected by our society and proclaiming our love for God and love for one another. Over the last several years our congregation has marched in support of immigrants’ rights, provided immediate and ongoing, essential material support to an immigrant family made homeless by Hurricane Sandy, and just this last week our church Council joined an impressive coalition of community organizations to advocate with congress, county legislators, local municipalities and our neighbors for the settlement and support of a substantial number of refugees in Westchester, Rockland and Hudson Valley communities. The Call to Action is posted on the bulletin board out in the hallway.

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The divides that exist in our society are only truly crossed when we recognize our common humanity. That means not just doing a good deed, but digging in, listening, reasoning together, and working together to build a bridge of love, as Moses and the prophets commanded.

Our work is certainly not done, but it is underway. May we continue to notice the divides, to stretch across them, and to build to overcome them, for the healing of our community, nation, and world.

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