I begin with a confession: the story of Lazarus and the rich man (traditionallly called “Dives”) has always terrified me. It shows up in our lectionary only once every three years, and I have usually found a way to avoid talking about it—either choosing another reading to talk about or by artfully arranging the preaching schedule. I don’t have this reaction to any other story Jesus tells, but this one really freaks me out. Perhaps my reaction has something to do with the details. Listen again to the beginning:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. [Luke 16.19-21]
You don’t have to be a creative writing teacher to notice how utterly concrete and realistic Jesus is being here. And then it gets worse:
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. [Luke 16.22-23]
In life, Dives enjoyed comfort and Lazarus suffered in misery. In death the situation is reversed. And then the story gives us one more twist of the knife:
[Dives] called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “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. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” [Luke 16.24-26]
A couple of things make me squirm here. One is the great unpassable gulf between the place of agony and the place of bliss. The other is that even in death Dives doesn’t get it. He continues to think of Lazarus as his servant. I’m surprised Abraham didn’t respond by snapping, “Go and get your own damn ice water!”
Why does this story scare me so much? Perhaps my fear comes from my ambivalent relation to my own affluence. Though I don’t dress in purple and linen and try not to feast sumptuously every day, it’s hard for me to ignore the extent of my comfort, especially when I get out of the Fantasy Island confines of Evanston’s First Ward. In Malwai Kathy and I once visited a village so remote that they had never seen white people before. We were the only people wearing shoes. It doesn’t take a literary genius to see who was Dives and who Lazarus in that cross-cultural encounter. At least we had the grace not to ask them to go get us some lemonade.
Today is the day we have set aside to remember two men who are new to our calendar of saints, William Bliss and Richard Ely. Bliss organized the first Christian Socialist society in the United States and edited the movement’s magazine, The Dawn. Richard Ely was Professor of Economics first at Johns Hopkins and then at the University of Wisconsin, and he was a member of the Social Gospel movement and advocated labor unions and the abolition of child labor. Both were Episcopalians and both flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It is in the spirit of the celebration of William Bliss and Richard Ely and their witness that we heard the opening words of the 61st chapter of Isaiah, the same passage which Jesus reads when he visits the synagogue:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the broken-hearted,to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners. [Isaiah 61.1]
Both the Episcopal Church and Seabury-Western are at a pivotal moment in their history. The church has miraculously navigated the rapids of the sexuality debate and suddenly finds itself for the first time in 40 years without a polarizing social issue (Civil Rights, Vietnam, the Ordination of Women, the Arms Race, Human Sexuality) to fight about. Seabury has similarly come out of the other end of the reorganization process and its administration and board will now have to find something to do other than wring our hands about deficits. Both the wider church and the school it serves suddenly occupy a liberating (and perhaps terrifying) place. We are free, now, from the wrangles which have distracted us. We are able (perhaps compelled) to think together about what Jesus actually wants us next to do.
When our son Oliver was a junior in college at Berkeley, Kathy and I moved from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. We rented a van and spent a weekend with him in Monterey before moving some of his things to the Bay Area. On the Saturday in that weekend I had an accident with the van and had to spend the entire day at the rental car company sorting it out. When I complained to my therapist about the waste of a precious day I could have spent with my son before leaving California, she said, “Of course you did. You had to find something to think about other than your own grief.”
My experience of using a car accident to mask my grief helps me understand our church’s recent history. We are all, all of us, terrified by the implications of the story of Dives and Lazarus. I don’t suggest for a minute that the issues we have engaged over the past decades are unimportant. Far from it: I’ve been a partisan in all those issue debates for thirty years, and it has been vital to press the church to grapple with problems of war, peace, and human dignity. These questions of identity are justice questions, and the church must always be on the side of justice. But we have let them occupy too much of our spiritual space. If we had really been organized around Jesus’s mission of service to the poor, would we have thought for two seconds about the race, gender, or sexual orientation of those who were gathered together in this work? So here’s a thought. Perhaps we have fought with each other about polarizing social issues, perhaps we have dug ourselves into and out of an institutional chasm, because we want to find something to think about other than our own relative affluence. It would be a terrible mistake to think that God does not love us affluent people; remember that, in this story, Abraham calls Dives, the rich man, “my child.” What rankles God and Jesus about us affluent folks is how self-absorbed and callous we have become to the suffering of others. We complain about our minor discomforts while most of the world’s people are starving. And worse than that, like Dives, we often want them both to serve us and to help us feel better about ourselves.
Might I suggest that there is only one thing that you and I both as Episcopalians and as members of the Seabury community should be thinking about? We should be thinking about the primary thing that Jesus thought about, and that is: how to serve the poor. And by “poor” I mean just that: the hungry, the destitute, those without houses and healthcare. All of us relatively affluent Episcopalians—white, black, gay, straight, women, men—have a larger cause to come together in service of. We are anointed, as Isaiah and Jesus were, to proclaim good news to the poor. That is now, as it has always been, our primary mission.
And we in the seminary community have to think critically and creatively about what that mission means for us. If we are to serve a church mobilized on behalf of the poor, then we ought to care about them ourselves. We talk a lot about leadership. What would it mean to be educating lay and ordained leaders to be advocates for the poor? We talk a lot about congregational development. What would it mean for us to be challenging congregations not only to grow but to mobilize for feeding Lazarus, getting him housing and healthcare, and not simply holding Dives’ hand?
These are tough questions. We’re all terrified of this story and its implications for us, and so we all distract ourselves from engaging the central calling of Jesus’s life. But the best way to engage our terror is to face into and not away from it. If we are serious about being a transformed, missional seminary serving the church and world, the image of Lazarus has to be at the center of everything we do. That is the implication of the lives and witnesses of William Bliss and Richard Ely for us today, and it is for the ways in which their ministries both call and challenge us to stand with and for those with and for whom Jesus stood that we proceed, in the Eucharist, to give thanks. Amen.