Proper 21 (26), Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
25 September 2022
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:6-19
I have been part of the church my whole life. I was baptized in the cathedral church of my hometown, went to the preschool of the neighbourhood congregation, and eventually became part of the youth group, perhaps around the time my parents began to attend regularly.
So I have known the story Jesus tells about the rich man and poor Lazarus for a long time. It’s a story of contrasts and Lazarus evokes our compassion.
The thing though is that through all of my youth I never saw poverty. Yes, there were many people who lived in postwar apartment buildings and there were the residents of some very modest homes, so modest that my parents looked down upon them, but while those people may have had fewer means than my family, they did not live in poverty. I did not see poverty until I was twenty and travelled to London (England) where we visited immigrant neighbourhoods.
When Jackie and I were newly-weds in our mid twenties there was an alcoholic we would see sleeping in the park, and we volunteered in a soup kitchen, so there was clearly need. But for pretty much all of my childhood I saw poverty only as reported in the media but not at home.
I imagine that this is mostly true for Canada also, except for First Nations reserves. Just like security guards at every store are a new phenomenon, so is the sight of the homeless poor in intersections or in front of stores. The increase in people suffering mental health issues and addictions publicly is also a new phenomenon. The increase in poverty in our communities is paralleled by the increase in billionaires.
When I was young I could imagine the poor man at the doorstep only elsewhere, it was almost as if he almost belonged in the realm of fairy tales. These days poverty is an every day occurrence and we have no trouble imagining it. And for many the cost of housing is part of it.
And yet being able to imagine it does not mean that we do imagine it. Admittedly, I do not live near Elmbridge and Alderbridge, but surely the opposition to the Temporary Modular Housing was in part about people not wishing to see the poverty that exists in our midst. Wishing to be blind to poverty is a response most of us know; acknowledging it yet favouring a larger dog park over shelter for people experiencing homelessness ranks lower on my moral scale, though I like dogs.
We tend to seek to be with people like us. It makes it easier to relate. And so we are all effected by selective vision. When we moved to Abbotsford someone advised us that if we wanted to be able to converse with our neighbours, we would want to live on the east side of town. This was not a racist comment, mostly a statement of fact, and yet it cements segregation. When we were living in Winnipeg, a friend and neighbour advised us that any educational program the public schools offered that is somehow specialized is a good program to enrol your kids in because the families that do are often more engaged in the lives of their children. We are guilty of that and although our children went to public schools, they were somewhat segregated from the general population.
All this is relevant because what happens in the story that Jesus tells us is that the rich man never notices Lazarus who lies at his gate. You see, nowhere does it say that the rich man refused to offer help to Lazarus, or that he hired security to have him removed from his gate. His sin is that he did not see him, that he is just too busy with his own comfortable life and his own kind that he does not see anything or anybody else. Because his world was alright he never saw that the world others lived in might not be. I remember people in Abbotsford thinking that mental health and addiction issues were big city problems that could not possibly exist in their own community.
Thinking about the selective vision of the rich man I realized that one could also have selective vision for all that ills the world. Such selective vision would be unable to see anything good, and it would drive us to despair. And that is the reason that I have removed myself from the 24 hour news cycle.
Life is simpler when we perceive it to be one dimensional. Yet the problem is that life is multi-dimensional, and that includes our own experiences.
I remember one particular memorable description of life as one-dimensional in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. In May of 1944 he writes about his fellow prisoners, lamenting that so few are able to harbour conflicting emotions at the same time, “When bombers come, they are all fear; when there is something nice to eat, they are all greed; when they are disappointed, they are all despair; when they are successful, they can think of nothing else.” And Bonhoeffer concludes that they thus “miss the fullness of life and the wholeness of an independent existence; everything objective and subjective is dissolved for them into fragments.”1
A few days before, Bonhoeffer makes a musical analogy. He says that God and eternity must be loved with all our heart but not in such a way that it would lessen our love for the things in this world, but that rather it become the melody that organize all sub themes of our lives. Bonhoeffer describes life as a polyphonic composition, with God’s love as the cantus firmus and our life stories as the counter-melody. If you are wondering what this means musically, Alex, Calla, Bev, and others will be able to explain this better than I can, I just know it when I hear it.2
And so Bonhoeffer can say in the paragraph about being one dimensional that those who are in Christ weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12), and even though we are concerned about our own safety (as during the bombing raid that had interrupted his writing), we remember the tasks entrusted to us, and in the midst of chaos and fear we bear God’s peace because Christ is our peace.
The rich man’s selfishness did not consist in a refusal to help but in the decision not to see. How could it be possible to see such poverty and remain unmoved?
We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Living with and in God means that God makes room in us for things other than ourselves and our favourite pre-occupations, room for God, and for the whole world.
There is a hymn in our hymn book that articulates the challenge of which Bonhoeffer speaks, a challenge that is also our promise. It is one of my favourite hymns and you know it, too:
Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey;
I’ll tell ev’rybody about you wherever I go:
you alone are our life and our peace and our love.
Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey.3
Jesus is our song through which all other songs find their place.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter and Papers From Prison, Collier Books – MacMillan Publishing Company, 1972: New York, page 310
2 But here is a visualization that may help: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddbxFi3-UO4
3 ♫808 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Text: Les Petites Soeurs de Jésus and L’Arche Community; tr. Stephen Somerville, b. 1931