SERMON 16 Pentecost C 9 29 19
We've all seen the bumper sticker:
It's a notion that is much more than a slogan or a bumper sticker. It is an understanding of more than how the world works. It is a description of how God wants the world to work. There it is. That is the formula. With all its simplicity those few words tell us what our charge is.
There are many kinds of justice. Social justice. Economic justice. Even food justice. What we can do to level the playing field for others is all about justice. We also should remember there's another bumper sticker that says a lot on the topic:
NO JUSTICE--NO PEACE
KNOW JUSTICE--KNOW PEACE
Our Gospel lesson today, the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus, tells the tale quite clearly. Lazarus was so destitute that the dogs licked his sores; he couldn't afford doctors or medicines or bandages. He obviously couldn't dissuade the dogs from bothering him, either. There was no justice for Lazarus. Our heart goes out to him. Dreadfully sick and no one cares, not even the rich man with his fine clothes and his palace and all he can eat and then some.
It might occur to us to compare this with the immigrant children separated from their families at the border or the sick children the Trump administration was trying to deport a month ago, demanding they return to their home countries even though they came here legally. And even though to send them back meant they wouldn't receive the live-saving treatments they were receiving here. That they would probably die. Like the son of Iraqi immigrants who was sent "back" to Iraq, his parents' home country, even though he'd never even been there, didn't speak the language and couldn't obtain insulin. He died of diabetes-related problems that were easily contained in the US.
The scale of indifference to suffering we hear about from the Trump administration is at least biblical in proportion. An utter compassion deficit. Unlike the rich man, our national administration comes up with plan after plan to penalize and harm vulnerable immigrants because they can. The rich man in the Gospel was indifferent and oblivious. And in case you missed it, it seems that God thought that was just as bad as causing harm intentionally.
So when Lazarus died he was welcomed into heaven and cared for by Abraham. Then the rich man died and went to the other place. Across the vast chasm between heaven and hell he begged Abraham to send Lazarus to wait on him and cool him down. Abraham declined, telling him he had received his good things. Then the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers. And Abraham declared that they had plenty of good guidance from Moses and the Prophets. The rich man played his last card, saying that the readings concerning Moses and the Prophets wouldn't move his brothers, but someone returning from the dead certainly would. Abraham shot down that argument with: 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'
The clear message here is that the parable Jesus told was about justice; that people should be looking out for each other; and that there is little to do for those who are so selfish and self-seeking that they ignore human suffering. He was also saying that this wasn't a new idea he cooked up. In fact Moses and the Prophets were recommended by Jesus for advice to be given the rich man's brothers.
In terms of this being the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Jesus is saying that his prospective resurrection won't be able to impress people who aren't moved toward justice and kindness courtesy of the teachings of Moses and the Prophets. He's not laying down new rules. He's emphasizing them in a new way.
But the larger and sadder point is that an awful lot of people just don't care about human suffering. Or they don't care enough to do anything about it. Or they think they can ignore it and no one will notice. The trouble with that line of logic is that they will know themselves. They will know that they have failed to love God and love their neighbor. And their souls will rot just a little more each time they fail to at least make the attempt to love God and their neighbor. Ultimately their moral bankruptcy will be complete. They will have nothing to show for their lack of a soul.
Recently I read a meditation which said, in part, that rather than follow Jesus and the way of life he brought to us two thousand years ago, Christians instead focused on worshiping him. In that process we paid more attention to the worship than the work he gave us to do. And that is our calling, doing what we can to help others. That is one of the major and obvious attractions of this parish: we put our resources and our hands and our backs and our wallets to work providing food for the hungry here at St. Paul's. We do this because we believe we have been blessed with comparative plenty and we want to share that in Jesus' name. It is interesting to observe how folks respond to the decision to establish and operate a food pantry at our church.
I remember when Molly and I were looking at St. Paul's parish profile when I was still serving in a church in Germany. We had been frustrated there because it was difficult to find much outreach work for our volunteers. That's because in Germany the government provides good, housing, education, health and jobs for folks. A little different from here. So we were excited about the prospect of joining a church where outreach was a major ministry. We haven't been disappointed.
But shortly after we came here we met some new friends and when they heard where our church was they asked, "Aren't they communists?" That's some people's view of what it means when we provide food for the poor.
We do other things to try to help folks and be part of the community that probably fits under the heading of justice also, but you get the idea. It's central to our vision of God's role for us here.
God is so committed to justice that my concordance--the book that shows the quotations of every substantive word in the Bible--shows over one hundred utterances of the word justice in the Bible. In fact when we look again at Jesus' mentioning of Moses and the Prophets and what they had to say about justice, 92 of the 104 justice citations in my concordance are from the Hebrew Bible. This idea is a lot older than Christianity.
However, there is a direct correlation between Abraham's closing statement in the Gospel and the benefits of seeking justice and care for all. Jesus' parable quoted Abraham as saying, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' Already we noted the connection between the Jewish traditions of justice and Jesus' teaching on that subject. But what we also should not miss is that the pursuit of justice is one of the elements which contribute to the health of our souls, our spirits, if you will. And it is in seeking justice that we recognize our own eternal souls are repaired and restored. In that sense, following Jesus' instructions, we are fulfilling our own desire for an eternal spiritual life. Amen