A Sermon for Covenant
“Poverty and Proximity”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
September 29, 2013
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Everyone knows this is a watch-out! parable to the rich and that we are the rich.
But I also want to ask, “Have you even been a Lazarus, begging for someone to notice you, but getting no response?” While I do not want to belittle the plight of the actual poor, I want to pause for a second and acknowledge the common human experience—rich or poor—of needing help, or desiring attention, or silently begging. Have you ever been silently crying out, “Somebody notice, somebody notice?” I know I have.
To summon up the great courage to ask for help and then be ignored is a painful thing. Some of us cannot muster the strength to say out loud, “I need help,” or if we do, the cry comes out so feeble and shy that it goes misheard or unheard.
Have you ever been a Lazarus, begging for some sustenance in a dark season, but not getting so much as a crumb? Have you ever been needing somebody to notice your pain and tend to your wounds? Have you ever felt alone in your suffering? Have you ever been neglected, rejected, or ignored? Passed over by blinded eyes? Has it ever felt like you are not being seen? Not being heard? Not being cared for in the ways you need to be cared for? Have you ever felt like no one is understanding what you are going through?
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of talking about wealth and poverty, because that is certainly an undeniable factor at play here. But I am thinking of Jesus when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and I am thinking that when we tap into our own inner Lazarus, when we begin to know our neediness and our emptiness and our poverty, we begin to see the people around us with clearer eyes. Obviously I am not referring to an obsessive wallowing in our crud, but a healthy self-awareness that makes authentic human relation possible.
Lazarus was needy for someone in the household to take note of him; whereas, the rich man greedily clung to his possessions, perhaps so he wouldn’t need anyone. Then, when they reached the next world, Grace rushed forward to meet the open arms of Lazarus while the abundance skirted altogether the closed fists of the rich man. The posture we take in this life is the posture that follows us into the next. We are setting ourselves up either to receive or to forfeit God’s goodness. Either your empty broken places crack you open, make you ready to receive, or your empty broken places get covered up with bandaids. You alleviate the pressure with money, ill-gotten gain, empty entertainment. You cushion your pain and fill your crevices with fluff and there is no space left for you to receive the real grace that wants to flood you. Either you allow your brokenness to drive you towards human connection, or you let your brokenness drive you away from human connection and into the less complicated comfort of stuff.
I know one of the ways I find myself crying out like a Lazarus is with my writing—I write and write and write and wonder if it matters to put my tattered soul out into the world again and again and again. If no one comments, no one reacts, no one responds, no one engages what I have written, then I wonder, is it all for naught? If there is no exchange of our common humanity, then maybe I might as well shut my mouth and put the cap on the pen and close the journal. But when I get a response, when someone says, “You know, I read your poem and it made me think about this, or it got me wondering about this,” then I start to know, oh, we are relating now. It’s not about wanting a pat-on-the-back; it’s about wanting connectivity and exchange and mutual engagement around a topic or a feeling or a thought. So, if I want to be read, can I first take deliberate time to read others? I am painfully aware that I still pass by people’s words at a frantic, distracted pace. That I’m not pausing to really hear and really respond with focused attentiveness. But if what I am crying for in the world is to be heard, then I can assume others are issuing the same cry, and that I have the power to answer the cry when it reaches me. Might I start changing my tiny corner of the world by hearing the voices of those around me?
The more you get to know people, the more you see that no one got a free pass, no one escapes the pain of living and dying, no one gets by without any wounds. We give the rich man a hard time for living a life of comfort, but really, nobody is that comfortable, least of all the rich, or they wouldn’t be cushioning their lives with so much fluff to try and take the edge off life.
All of us have an inner Lazarus, in need of other human beings for our survival and our healing. Sometimes we think it might be selfish or simply weak to name our needs, but really, naming our needs opens our gates. Instead of hiding behind walls in our fancy homes, naming a need and asking for help brings us out into the world. Allowing yourself to be served is like a prerequisite for an expanded capacity to serve in genuine selflessness. Awareness of our own neediness increases our ability to see the needs of others and propels us into the world where we might rub shoulders with true humanity at last.
Let me ask you this: Have you ever been a brother left behind? If so, what would take for you to hear and believe a message from above, or a message from below? Would someone rising from the dead do the trick or are your eyes closed, no matter what miracles present themselves to you?
Have you ever been a brother left behind? The rich man left five brothers at his passing. Have you stood at a grave sight, beside a coffin, seen a loved one buried and wondered what they might say to you from the other side, if they could? The imagery of a chasm is one we understand this side of heaven, because we’ve felt it when someone passes. A wide and uncomfortable gap opens between us and the deceased: we cannot and will not see them or hear from them again. All the missed opportunities are gone and unredeemable, all the words we never spoke to one another cannot be said, all the time we failed to spend with one another, now lost. There is a chasm now, that cannot be crossed, and whatever chasm already existed in life now feels exaggerated and final.
In this sense, there is nothing surprising or un-relatable about the rich man’s predicament. He is stuck, fastened on the wrong end of a wide chasm, carved out by his own doing, or not-doing, this side of eternity. What this man has enacted on earth gets extended into eternity dramatically.
The shocking thing, perhaps, is that we thought there would be more chance for redemption; this isn’t a parable about the forgiveness of sins. Instead his fate is sealed. Notice that even in the after-life, the rich man changes not. He wants someone to warn his brothers, but he himself does not change. He still views Lazarus as someone he can command. Riches stripped aside he must face the neediness of his soul that was there all along, but even as he resorts to begging Abraham, he still doesn’t see Lazarus as anything but an errand boy. It is a wonder that he knows his name at all.
And so now I ask you, have you ever been the rich man? Have you been the one who failed to see the other, crying out silently to you for your attention? The good news, the gospel is, it’s not too late to pay attention because unlike the rich man, you are still alive.
At Covenant we are preparing for our upcoming retreat, and in the context of our retreat, we are going to talk about how to be with people who are suffering. In our planning meeting, Cynthia was talking to us about caring for victims of trauma, and she used a little phrase that jumped out at me. She said, “If you get to be the one who hears their story.”
“If you get to be the one”—as if it would be an honor to be trusted with another person’s pain and poverty. Too often we have the opposite reaction to suffering. We run and hide. We avoid. Or we don’t know what to say. Or we say the wrong thing in our frantic compulsion to help. We simplify complex things or we try to fix what we cannot fix, instead of recognizing it as an honor when someone trusts us with their pain, being reverent with what we have seen, and doing our best to be a good steward of what we have heard.
Have you ever been the rich man? One of the main hindrances to our compassion is not lack of compassion but the crippling weight of the sheer amount of suffering. We have to pad ourselves with wealth and comforts to keep from feeling it all, to keep from exhausting ourselves. But as far as we can tell from this parable, the rich man isn’t indicted for failing to do it all. The rich man loses out in the end for failing to see Lazarus, the one man who was right in front of his face.
Was the real issue in the parable Lazarus’ poverty or Lazarus’ proximity? “At his gate lay a poor man . . .” says our text. Everyone else in the story rushes to Lazarus’ side: the angels, Abraham, even the dogs, but the rich man has this man-in-need at his gate and doesn’t see him.
As a pastor, I get emails, phone calls, and snail mail nearly every day inviting our church to participate in some new mission, and every day, I throw flyers away, delete emails, and don’t return phone calls because we can’t. We can’t do it all.
I don’t have the energy or the skill or the time to invest in every good opportunity for service and every mission, but I do ask myself how I can be a good steward of what I see and experience and hear with my own eyes and ears. For example, I am fighting to hold on to Moldova, and the face of the ten-year-old girl there who told me about the violence she endures. What is my responsibility to that place and to the stories I know? Now that I’m back to “normal” life in my own country, it would be so much easier to stay behind my gates, in the comfort of my own home, and forget.
Or, how do I be a good steward of our own Covenant homeless bags? I mean, how much easier does it get to extend a little bit of sustenance to the person on the street than to share a pre-made bag, but it is more comfortable to keep the windows rolled up the way the rich man kept his gates closed, and I imagine, his shades drawn too so as not to see the dogs licking Lazarus’ wounds. We cannot keep thinking that if we do not look suffering in the face, then perhaps we will never have to suffer, because it isn’t true. So then, how do we be good stewards of what we are coming to learn via Renee about human-trafficking? How do we be good stewards of the unlikely little connection we have with the eastern Congo?
You don’t end up in hell for failing to save the world. But if we don’t extend the grace of heaven to the person God puts right in our path’s way, so that we have to step over them to get on with our life, well, then, maybe we are forfeiting the grace of heaven for ourselves.
I think loving God and letting go of our grip on money starts small. We start by being kind to one another. By admitting our own needs, thereby opening ourselves up to real and authentic relationship. By noticing and listening to the ones in our path and letting the suffering we see into our hearts. We let what we see into our hearts, even when it is painful, even when we’d rather turn a blind eye and escape to a more comfortable existence.
So may you let God crack you open. Don’t crowd your true self out with riches or avoidance or overworking or under-knowing. Instead, open the cavernous space inside of you; let love fill and expand your being. Like oxygen rushing to an empty lung, let love pump through you—in, then out, in, then out, in, then out.