Sometimes we come across a statement that jumps out at us as a deep and obvious truth. That happened to me recently as I read the folder about our diocese’s Grassroots Outreach and Development Fund, better known as the G.O.D. Fund. The paragraph about Christ Episcopal Center in Flint included this statement: One way a community can insure the future is by redeeming the present.
One way a community can insure the future is by redeeming the present. These days many of us are worried about the future: what it holds for us, our families, our country, our world. We want to insure the future, if that is possible. Redeeming the present is one way to do so.
Today’s Gospel is a dramatic story about how one man fails to redeem the present moment in which he finds himself. This man—tradition calls him Dives—becomes imprisoned in his own conspicuous consumption and does not fear the righteous judgment of God. A poor man lies literally on his doorstep, and he knows it, he knows the man Lazarus by name. Dives refuses to redeem the present, though he has the means and opportunity to do so. As a result, he ruins the future for himself, an eternal future.
You and I may not regard ourselves as wealthy, but each one of us is. Even poor people in America are wealthy by the standards of this planet. But your wealth and mine is not limited to money. You and I enjoy many good things, not all of them material.
—Each of us is healthy enough to have made it to church this morning.
—Each of us is free enough to come to God’s house today.
—Each of us is safe enough to make our way here. We are not threatened by rival militias, by aerial bombing, or by land mines buried in the earth.
—Each of us is privileged enough in all these ways that we are in danger of becoming Dives and refusing to recognize the Lazarus who lies on our doorstep.
The problem is not these various forms of wealth in themselves. Money and health and freedom and safety can be used to good effect. The problem is when these advantages cause us to allow our hearts to harden. The problem is when we assume that our wealth in its different forms is a sign that God is pleased with us, and that the poverty many people experience is a sign that God is displeased with them.
We can easily to slip into this bankrupt theology, but it is dangerously false. The Gospel never blames anybody for being rich or being poor, but how we use whatever we have—that is what comes under the judgment of God.
The matter is made worse because the world is insistent on propagating the wrong set of values. Archbishop William Temple of Canterbury put it this way:
“The world, as we live in it, is like a shop window into which some mischievous person has got overnight, and shifted all the price-labels so that the cheap things have the high-price labels on them, and the really precious things are priced low. We let ourselves be taken in. Repentance means getting those price-labels back in the right place.”
Dives is aware of Lazarus on his doorstep. He knows the poor man by name. There’s reason to believe he employs him as an errand boy. But he never welcomes him as a brother. Never sits him down at that rich table where he stuffs his own face each and every day.
Even after death, when he’s in torment, Dives still does not get it. He talks about Lazarus as though the poor man is still available to be his errand boy. He talks about how he has five brothers back home. He still doesn’t see that Lazarus and every beggar is his brother.
Dives’ great mistake was that he failed to close the social distance. He failed to close the distance between himself and Lazarus. He refused to see him as a person.
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Closing the distance is not easy, yet it is essential. Closing the social distance is what we mean every time we renew our Christian commitment, when we pledge ourselves to love our neighbors, to respect the dignity of each person.
A true story. Rabbi Joshua, the son of Levi, traveled to Rome in the third century. He was astonished at the magnificent buildings he saw. He was especially struck to see how the statues were cared for, because they were covered with fine cloth to protect them from summer heat and winter cold. As he admired these statues, a beggar pulled at his sleeve and asked for a crust of bread.
“Here are statues of stone covered with expensive clothes,” thought Rabbi Joshua. “Here is a man, created in the image of God, covered with rags. A civilization that pays more attention to statues than to people shall surely perish.”
Rabbi Joshua was right, of course. The decline of Rome had already begun.
Any wealthy society faces the danger of moral collapse, destruction from within. The events of September 11, 2001 demonstrated that America can respond magnificently to many a Lazarus in trouble. The outpouring of support for those who died, those who grieved, those who risked their lives proved to be tremendous. Gently America took each Lazarus by the hand and brought him to the table of abundance.
This behavior cannot be restricted to times of national crisis. It must be an everyday occurrence. We need to recognize people of many sorts and conditions as the Lazarus on our doorstep. We need again and again to take him by the hand and bring him to the table of abundance. This is not something the high do for the low. It is simple justice. The way things should be. What one brother does for another. This is how we are to redeem the present and insure the future.
Today’s Gospel tells us nothing about how it came about that Dives was wealthy and Lazarus was destitute. What it announces in no uncertain terms is the moral imperative that Dives, while he lived, needed to fulfill: an imperative of caring for Lazarus as his brother, of reconciling with him, of bridging the gap before it was too late.
One way a community can insure the future is by redeeming the present.
The price of redeeming the present is steep. The cross tells us that.
Insuring the future, redeeming the present, requires that we exercise moral imagination. We need to recognize Lazarus as our brother.
Who is the Lazarus on your doorstep?
Who is the Lazarus on the doorstep of our nation?
What are you doing to help?
One way a community can insure the future is by redeeming the present. More than that, redeeming the present is the only way to insure the future.
Our Lazarus waits for us.
—Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).