The danger of not noticing: Sermon for Old High Communion, 27 October 2013

Communion Service at the Old High Church, Inverness
Sunday 27 October 2013
SERMON
Text: Luke 16:19-31

The danger of not noticing
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In most homes, the dining table is an important piece of furniture. The dining table in our kitchen is special, indeed was already special even before it came to us. We were not long in Carntyne, living in a manse for the first time, in a house which was much larger than any we had lived in before, when Alan and Helen came to me. Helen said, ‘Peter, we have had so many happy times around our dining table. We had all our family meals around it, and even when the children grew up they would come for Christmas and at other special times, bringing grandchildren, and we have such fond memories of that table. But now we are getting on, and the children invite us to their homes instead, so that I don’t have all the work to do. And we’ve been thinking, we don’t use the table really now. And we would like it go to a good home. And here we have a new minister with his wife and baby and we know you don’t have one, and, well, Peter, we would like you to have our table’.

And now my children have grown up around that table. For the table is the place where we gather as a family, day by day, to eat and to enjoy each other’s company. Our children know that they will hardly ever get to eat their dinner anywhere else, for example, in front of the television. The last time we did that, as far as I can remember, was when we watched the live coverage of President Barak Obama’s first inauguration ceremony. It has to be that important before we don’t sit at the table for our dinner.

Maybe that’s why I find celebrating Communion so special. I get to lead you as we all gather around a table, and share bread and wine with each other. I have been at a Communion service in a football stadium with thousands of people, and I have celebrated the sacrament with in a sick room with only three of us present. But I cannot forget how it started, in an upstairs room. There was Jesus, and his twelve closest friends. They were apprehensive. They were fearful. They did not understand what was going on. The suspected a crisis was at hand. Afterwards, Judas slipped off to betray his master. Peter would shortly deny knowing Jesus, not once, but three times. In other words, they were all very human. And yet Jesus offered them all bread and wine, and said they symbolised deep things- and still the disciples didn’t quite understand. They were like a family about to be riven by tragedy, before they could experience joy. And the ones who were left passed on to the later followers of Jesus a deep sense that this family meal was something to be repeated again and again, down through the ages and in different circumstances, in homes and prisons and hospitals, on wild moors and in stadiums, in wooden mission halls and great gothic cathedrals. For wherever the people of Jesus Christ meet, they gather around a table and share bread and wine, and tell the stories of Jesus.

Lazarus at the rich man’s gate by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1886 (Wikipedia Commons)

But sometimes the stories of Jesus we retell at times like this are unsettling. One such is the Gospel reading we have just heard. It is a parable, a story which of course we realise has a kind of double meaning. And in the first part of the story, we hear about a table, and it is rather unsettling for us:

There was once a rich man who dressed in the most expensive clothes and lived in great luxury every day. There was also a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who used to be brought to the rich man’s door, hoping to eat the bits of food that fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

In this world, the rich man (tradition calls him Dives) feasts royally every day. In this world, Lazarus can only hope for titbits from Dives’ table. In this world, Lazarus only companions are the street dogs. In this world, Dives and Lazarus live next to each other, with a gate to keep Lazarus out of Dives’ house. In this world, Dives does not notice Lazarus, even if he has to step over him to get into his house.

But then the scene changes to the next world (and the story reflects the beliefs about the afterlife current at the time):

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to sit beside Abraham at the feast in heaven. The rich man died and was buried, and in Hades, where he was in great pain, he looked up and saw Abraham, far away, with Lazarus at his side.

In the next world (called Hades here), it is Lazarus who feasts, seated at table alongside the spiritual father of the Jewish people, Abraham. And in the next world, Dives notices Lazarus. The common belief was that the inhabitants of these two afterlife worlds could see each other. Dives, in torment, begs Abraham for mercy: ‘Father Abraham! Take pity on me, and send Lazarus to dip his finger in some water and cool off my tongue, because I am in great pain in this fire!’ He may be in torment, but he still seems himself as Lazarus’ social superior- he wants Lazarus to be sent to him as his servant. But in the old way of thinking about the afterlife, what Dives asks for is impossible:

“‘But Abraham said, ‘Remember, my son, that in your lifetime you were given all the good things, while Lazarus got all the bad things. But now he is enjoying himself here, while you are in pain. Besides all that, there is a deep pit lying between us, so that those who want to cross over from here to you cannot do so, nor can anyone cross over to us from where you are.'”‘

This is classic tale of role reversal was an old story even when Jesus told it- we have versions of it in other ancient literature (Craddock, in Harper’s Bible Commentary, p1034). It’s a story which must have cheered many a peasant in Israel chafing under the rents of the hereditary landlords and the taxes of the Romans. If today Dives was a banker, we’d probably cheer at his fate!

Yet Luke the Gospel writer places this story just after Jesus saying, ‘No servant can be the slave of two masters; such a slave will hate one and love the other or will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money’. And then Luke tells us, ‘When the Pharisees heard all this, they made fun of Jesus, because they loved money’. So perhaps Jesus used this folk tale against his fiercest critics, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the strictest sect of Judaism, but Jesus called them hypocrites. They may be terribly religious, but their religion, according to Jesus, is all show, and no heart. They do all the rituals, but, says Jesus to them, ‘you neglect justice and love for God’ (Luke 11.42). The Pharisees used to insist on ritually washing their cups and plates before they ate. But Jesus said to them: ‘But give what is in your cups and plates to the poor, and everything will be ritually clean for you’ (Luke 11.41).

And once again, we might be cheered by this. Here’s those hypocritical religious leaders, the Pharisees, getting panned again by Jesus. They have their fancy rituals, but they lock out the poor. But… here we are about to take part in a ritual sharing of bread and wine around the Communion Table. And I wonder, are we the Pharisees, are we Dives? We are if we lock the gate to the poor, enjoying our religious rituals but not noticing the suffering of the poor. We are if all we have are scraps from the table to offer to the Lazaruses of today.

A few weeks ago I read an article by the Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of the campaign group Faith in Public Life, whom I met in her office in Washington DC last year. She was writing in reaction to a decision of Congress to cut food aid to the families of the unemployed. Incredibly, some Congress members had quoted the Bible in support of their action, a verse in which St Paul says, ‘he who does not work shall not eat’ (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Ms Butler commented that this was ‘misinterpreting Scripture and ignoring Jesus’s admonition that we will be judged by how we treat the least among us’, as well as failing to recognise that this particular programme was very efficient at getting help to those, especially children, who most needed help1. I’m afraid these politicians do sound like Pharisees- twisting the Bible and harming the poor and vulnerable at the same time.

We have modern, secular Pharisees as well. They are the people who will find ways of avoiding doing justice, seeking the good of others, because they can always find a way, some sort of justification, for not doing so. They tell us that the market cannot be bucked. They will find reasons for not paying their taxes. They will claim that their way of doing business is somehow good for us all as they solely seek profit and wealth for themselves, even when poverty and suffering are the results of their greed. We had a good example of that this week, as a multimillionaire showed he was quite prepared to hold a nation to ransom, and gamble with the lives and livelihoods of his hardworking employees, for the sake of a bit of extra profit for himself. Like the Pharisees of old, they are quite sure that they will Who will such a person listen to?

Jesus adds something to the folk tale of Dives and Lazarus. Here’s his coda:

The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, father Abraham, send Lazarus to my father’s house, where I have five brothers. Let him go and warn them so that they, at least, will not come to this place of pain.’ Abraham said, ‘Your brothers have Moses and the prophets to warn them; your brothers should listen to what they say.’ The rich man answered, ‘That is not enough, father Abraham! But if someone were to rise from death and go to them, then they would turn from their sins.’ But Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone were to rise from death.'”

Jesus tells Dives, as I think he would tell those ignorant Congressmen, or a heartless venture capitalist throwing people out of work for no good reasons, and as he certainly tells us, that we should know better. ‘They have Moses and the prophets to warn them’.

Even if we did not have the New Testament, we would have the Old Testament- Moses and the prophets, as the Jews called it back then- to tell us, again and again, that God cares for the poor, and that we should care for the poor. For example, Psalm 146 says that God is the one ‘who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry… lifts up those who are bowed down… watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin’. And there are many more such examples in the Hebrew Scriptures. If Dives’ brothers, and we ourselves, cannot hear the plain testimony of scripture to God’s concern for justice, then not even someone coming back from the dead will convince them or us.

Jesus tells this old folk tale, not to instruct us about the next life, but to tell us how to live faithfully in this life. This is not a theological treatise on whether there is a heaven and a hell, but a parable to tell us that how we treat the poor and vulnerable is something God cares deeply about. As we gather around this table, there are people in our world living in poverty and pain. Do we notice them, or ignore them? They will be one day feast in heaven with Abraham. Will we join them?

We may know little about the next life, but we do have actually have someone who has been there and come back. At this table, the risen Christ is the host. The one who told these uncomfortable stories, to shake our complacency, to make us ask if we really live up to our religious principles, he invites us here. And he asks that there be not gates, no fences, no walls around this table. For this table is supposed to be a foretaste of the feast in heaven, hosted by Abraham, with Lazarus at his side.

You know, I really like it when, in this congregation, we have a meal around a table and then celebrate Communion. We have done so for many years in the run-up to Christmas, at our Alternativity service. We have extended the idea recently, holding one such meal and worship service during our Christian Basics course in the spring, and again more recently just a few weeks ago. It’s a rather lovely and meaningful tradition in this congregation, this meal for the church family.

And so I wonder what would happen if, instead of holding it such meals our hall here at St Stephen’s, we held it in our hall in Academy Street, the Old High Hall, and invited in anyone who needed a meal in the city centre off the street to join us? That would really be taking down the gates, letting anyone in to join us as we feast together. It would be a symbol that we do notice those in need in our city. We have had some good times around our family dining table, where the risen Christ is the host. But maybe it’s time for our table to hosting some new guests!

Ascription of Praise

Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

who by his great mercy

in raising Jesus Christ from the dead

has given us new birth into a living hope:

the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us

which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!

From 1 Peter 1.3-4

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, except where otherwise noted
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo