Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
September 29, 2019
I invite you to step with me from a still-feels-like-summer Sunday in Richmond to a chilly autumn morning in Buffalo. I was about to set out for my work day as a Hospice social worker but when I climbed into the driver’s seat of my car, I discovered that the battery was dead. The only other vehicle I had access to at that moment was an old clunker that I had been trying to sell. Technically speaking, it ran but it was held together…barely…by the rust from snowy winters and made loud, clanging noises when going over 30 miles per hour. That particular morning, I had scheduled back-to-back home visits with Hospice families, so a running car was better than no car at all. I flipped open my map book…some of you may remember that before the days of GPS…and I saw that my first visit of the day was in an affluent suburb to the north. My vehicle chugged and sputtered all the way, but it got me there reasonably on time. When I pulled into the driveway of my client’s luxurious home in a very exclusive neighborhood, I definitely felt like the pizza delivery person, not the grief counselor. But as it happens, grief and bereavement know no economic bounds. I was greeted at the door and ushered into an ornate and brightly lit sitting room, where tea was already waiting. But then, we sat silently as I attempted to push the conversation forward by talking about the anticipated processes of grief. Every time my client looked as if she might cry during our conversation, she would turn away, or excuse herself to another room. The vulnerability of emotion in which our human grief resides was palpable. It was too much for her to bear, being in another person’s presence in that vulnerable state. In retrospect, my own vulnerability and insecurity as a young social worker wearing clearance rack clothes and driving a beat up car compounded the gulf of silence between us. After what seemed a much longer time than it actually was, I thanked her for the tea, left a packet of information and my card and we parted cordially. But, I knew she was unlikely to invite me back. The chasm was just too wide.
My next visit took me into the thick of the city, driving through the west-side neighborhood I had lived while a student with its particular ethnic mix of Italian, Puerto Rican, and Jamaican culture. It was a low-income area, what some would consider “spotty” with some streets of single family and duplex homes next to boarded up houses with the markings of gang activity. I felt right at home, though, with my old car and my knowledge of how to navigate these streets. The address of my visit was several blocks beyond that more familiar neighborhood. I recognized the street names from the local news reports. People took note of me as I looked for a parking place. When I pulled up curbside to my client’s home, three young men walked towards me. As I opened my door they said, “Are you the Hospice lady here to see Grandma?” I nodded yes and introduced myself with my name badge. The tallest said, “We’ll sit here and watch your car for you” and motioned to the others to bring lawn chairs down from the porch. I tried to joke a little and said, “I don’t think anyone will bother this thing!” He remained serious and said, “people here don’t like strangers, but if you’re taking care of Grandma then your part of the family.” They walked me to the door and introduced me to their Grandmother who was newly bereaved. She hugged me and welcomed me like a long-lost family member. Her house was filled with pictures, and vases of flowers that still lingered from his home-going celebration. She paused me by the refrigerator where she kept his obituary: “I tell him who’s here to visit and what I’m up to whenever I pass by” she said. She looked at her late husband’s smiling face and said “This is Sarah and she’s one of the Hospice people here to check on me.” We sat at the kitchen table and spoke vulnerably and honestly about love, and loss and grief that day, our two worlds coming together in mutual support.
I can’t help looking back on those two visits like a personal parable which is my window to see into today’s scripture lessons. The Gospel offers a vivid illustration of the great spiritual chasm that lies between the structures of wealth and power in this world, and the mercies of God’s reign to come. We hear that Gospel lesson after a foundation of scripture: The prophetic words of Amos to those at ease and secure in this lifetime; the refrain of a great reversal of fortune evident in the Psalm; then the Epistle lesson exhorting the early church to guard against this division on the world’s terms, “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” Like the Magnificat Mary sings, the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. For us and for the hearers of Jesus’ time, there was already a foundation of scripture and prophecy underscoring this parable of the rich man and the poor servant Lazarus: “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.” Lesson upon lesson today, we are reminded that there is a great reversal unfolding in the reign of God, up-ending the divisions that we have created and perpetuated here on earth.
But upending the status quo isn’t the end of the story, either. As Dorothy reminded us last week: the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. It would be so easy to get caught up in a good vs. bad dichotomy in this parable, perhaps in an attempt to align with those who eventually get rewarded. But I think there are some important clues in our Gospel text that encourage us to reach down deeper, to consider the artificiality of these divisions, and to challenge the necessity of that chasm we create when we think in dualities of “us” and “them.” The lesson isn’t a literal tale of the great beyond, but about living into the greater depths of what is already here.
You will notice as the Gospel lesson unfolds that the rich man and the poor servant are both referenced in word or image as beloved children. Both, we might note, have fled the mortal coils of this life. And both had been trapped by their social positions. It’s like my first client and I, unable to see our common humanity because we were fixated on the gulf between. If we try to take this parabolic story literally and see the life to come only as an enforced reckoning of what has already been…then we become fixated on securing our position in the great beyond just as we’ve been fixated on our social position in this life.
But as this parable reminds us, there have already been so many lessons that teach us to see beyond and reach across that chasm: what has Jesus been teaching; how has Jesus been living; with whom has Jesus preached, and healed, and dined with, and prayed with? Jesus, though this parable, teaches us to bridge the chasms of this world…in this world…through the power of the one who has come with outstretched arms to be the bridge. This is not a bridge we demand to cross in our privilege, or shrink from in our vulnerability. Jesus comes to be present, to overcome this spiritual chasm for us, to live in His life and in ministry; in His death and resurrection as the connection point bridging all the margins of this world which would threaten to divide us forever.
Like the young men and their lawn chairs, Jesus shows up and welcomes us to the family.
And there’s a little more to my parable, too.
When I returned to my car that autumn morning, the three young men were still sitting curbside in their lawn chairs, reminiscing about their Grandfather and engaging in that loving family banter that we do when we are known and loved. They stood up when the saw me, and I thanked them for inviting me into their family circle that day. I realized in that very moment that while Grandma and I were talking inside, they were uniting with each other and the memory and influence of their Grandfather. It was all happening right there, on a city sidewalk in one of those areas of the city people had written off. My car was irrelevant. So was race, social class, gender and all the other labels of this world which divide us. Love and family and connection were happening right there, where most people only thought gang activity took place. God was present, filling the human power gap with divine love.
Just like grief and love are present everywhere, so God is present for all of us, the beloved Children of God. We are loved in our poverty and our wealth, in mansions and boarded up apartments. We are loved when our engines don’t start and when we are sputtering and dragging to keep up. We are loved when we have clarity, and courage and conviction. We are loved when we are vulnerable, hurting, and scared. But mostly we are reminded that what divides us in this world isn’t of any consequence to the love of Christ which is beyond all of that vulnerability, beyond all the false security of this world. It is in that divine, bridging love…in the depths of that belovedness…that we come to experience being enfolded into the family of God. In this world and the next, with those who have gone before us, and those who will continue to live after us…we are supported by the bridge that is the boundless love of Christ. In that love is our hope; in that love is what unites us; in that love is our identity as children of God and our connection with each other in this world, and in the life of the world to come.
So, I invite you to bring your lawn chairs and join the family. Today, that might even mean literally at Bryan Park! No need to wait for the great beyond: today and every day, let’s recommit to bridging the margins of this world and living as Christ teaches us, insuring that the chasms and social barriers of this world never get in the way of our common bonds as the whole, human family. Keep watch with the vulnerable and stay in the conversation with your own vulnerability. Greet those you know and those who you don’t know yet in the name of Jesus Christ, who unites us all in love. This bridge Jesus offers isn’t just for the world to come, it is for this world…our world…all of us as the beloved family of God.