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The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19C)
26 September 2010

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running to obtain thy promises, may be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Amos 6:1-7
Psalm
1 Timothy 6:11-19
Luke 16:19-31

Just the other day I received a phone call from Lazarus. He was in prison and had spent one of his few dollars to make the call. In fact he had been trying to reach me for several weeks and we had not had the chance to speak since there was no way for me to return his calls. I had spoken several times with his attorneys who explained that he wanted me to come to his trial to offer moral support and to send him some books. I was feeling bad that I had been unable to go to court as the proceedings had begun on only twenty-four hours notice. It had also taken me quite a while to get a formal address to which I could send him some books from Amazon.com and I did not want him to think that I had forgotten him.

When we spoke, he explained what had happened and, while it sounds a cliché, this law and order advocate actually believes that he was set-up by the police in a “buy-and-bust” sting. Nonetheless, he was facing a stiff prison sentence and was really calling to thank me for sending him two books: the Oxford Annotated Bible and The Showings of Julian of Norwich. As an Episcopalian I felt duty bound to send him a critical edition of the Scriptures. I had sent him Julian because he had shared with me sometime ago that he was a writer and poet and that he wrote about his spiritual life. I thought he would appreciate her mystical poetry, written in seclusion and in contemplation of Our Lord. I was deeply moved when he shared with me how much he loved reading Julian, how he had found her imagery relevant to his life and situation, and how he especially appreciated her discussion of the motherhood of God.

Indeed, I had first met this Lazarus when I had to step over him to open up the church doors on 87th Street one morning in the months after I had come to Saint Ignatius. I asked him to move so we could keep the entrance to our building clear during the daytime. He asked about coming back at night because being visible to the outreach workers who look for the homeless at night was an important step in getting housing and getting off the streets. I told him that we were not going to police the steps over night and that he was welcome so long as he would be a good neighbour and keep the place clean. Eventually he got into the system and found a place off the streets. I would see him from time to time on the street and he would always stop me to chat. The last time I saw him we discussed getting him connected with the writers workshop at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. Unfortunately, he got himself into trouble again and the next thing I heard was him calling from jail.

Lazarus—his real name is Victor—and I came to see each other as people, as children of God and he trusted that relationship enough to reach out from prison across a divide for support. He did not want me to "get him out" or “do” anything more than connect with him as a person in time of need.

I don't tell you this story as a means of self-congratulation. Indeed, I find working with our homeless brothers and sisters—our homeless neighbours—is challenging for me. This work has always been one of my “growing edges” (as the jargon of priestly formation puts it). I have chosen to engage with each Lazarus who comes to our doorstep because God calls me to do it. When I resist I remember today's Gospel, I remember God’s call for us to love our neighbours and not simply those whom we love already. When I resist I think of Victor and Bernard and the guy whose stuff we threw away and whom I ended up putting on a bus to Florida so he could reconnect with his church down there (really!). When I resist, I remember the life and witness of our brother Don McCall who, amid the complexity and difficulty of his personal life (complexity both for us as a community and for him), witnessed to the faithfulness that can grow and flourish on the margins of society and that can be welcomed into the life of community. When I resist, I respond because God gives me the strength to do so even when I am reluctant or frightened or even disgusted at what I see. Indeed, this is not easy work and, on occasion, I have had to call the police to help deal with a Lazarus. In the end, however, I have been strengthened in the Eucharist that we all share that knits my body with the Body of Christ and knits my Body with each and every one of you—here and throughout the world—who shares with me in this Sacrament of love and reconciliation.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus is one of the most powerful for urban Christians. We see ourselves in the story without having to imagine too much. Sometimes we are the rich man. Sometimes we are Lazarus. The Scripture speaks to us clearly about our call to engage with each other; to see each other as we really are. The Scripture speaks to us clearly that we are to love God and love our neighbour as our self. This is the voice of Moses and the prophets. This is the voice of Jesus Christ who himself suffered and died and arose again from the dead to defeat the hate and ignorance and fear that keeps us from forging connexions and reaching out rather than stepping over.

How each of us does this work is not for me to say. Each of us has gifts and talents and skills and we are called to discern how to use those so that we may best serve and not step over and ignore our neighbours. We do this work of discernment in community gathered around the Eucharist and it is work we also do on our own, knowing that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are united with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ in this project of reconciliation and love. I invite each and every one of us into that work and pray that we may strengthen each other, hear the words of Moses and the prophets and of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and enter into relationship with the Lazarus at our door.

 

Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Feria, 24 September 2010

 

© 2010 Andrew Charles Blume