Sunday, September 26, 2010

Invisible Suffering

18th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 21) – Year C (RCL)
Amos 6:1a ,4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Sunday, September 26, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

Certainly one of the obvious meanings of today’s Gospel lesson is the dichotomy between rich and poor. More specifically, the implication that riches are evil and those who are rich will suffer in the world to come, while those who have suffered poverty in this life will be blessed in the next. And the other readings for the day certainly support this theme. But part of the lesson from 1 Timothy implies that wealth in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. We’ve talked about this several times this past summer, including last week in Father David’s sermon. What is important is our attitude toward wealth, that we not become obsessed with it, distracting us from what is truly important. What is important is what we do with our riches. Rather than harp on that theme again, there are a couple of sub-themes in today’s Gospel lesson that are worth exploring – themes that transcend wealth and speak to us regardless of socioeconomic status.

The first is what one scholar refers to as “invisible suffering.” The Gospel lesson tells us that Lazarus, a poor beggar, positioned himself at the rich man’s gate. Whenever he came or went, the rich man would have had to have passed Lazarus. The rich man couldn’t help but see Lazarus laying there. But he did nothing to help ease Lazarus’ plight. It’s not that the rich man had anything against Lazarus. The reality is that while he may have seen him, the rich man did not notice Lazarus. Many of us have probably had experiences where we have seen someone, say a homeless person, and walked right on by as if they didn’t exist. When I lived in Los Angeles and in Chicago, I saw a lot of homeless. When you see them all the time, it can become easy to see them but to not really take notice. They just become part of the landscape. This is what is meant by the “invisible suffering.” They are there, but we just don’t pay attention to them. They suffer, but we don’t notice.

This disregard is further illustrated by the rich man’s actions after the two have died and gone to the place of the dead. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to ease his agony and later asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn the rich man’s brothers. Not only does the rich man treat Lazarus as an inferior, as a servant, he also speaks about Lazarus in the third person, as if he is not even there, just as he treated him in life.

The interesting thing about the plight of the poor and the invisible suffering is that thanks to mass media and the internet, we are much more aware of global suffering than we ever were before. But we are still detached. When we grow weary of seeing it, we can always change the channel or surf to a happier website. That way we don’t have to see the ugliness, feel the sorrow or pain. And if we do choose to help, it is often in an equally detached way. Just a click of a mouse and we can send money from our credit card to some organization that will help. No need to get our hands dirty. But while we may be aware of needs in some distant third world country, are we even aware of the magnitude of need in our own country, in our own city? Just like the rich man, when confronted with it on our own doorsteps, more often than not, we just walk by, anesthetized to the plight of others.

In the dichotomy between the rich man and Lazarus, the Gospel lesson is not just providing a message in how we use our financial resources. It is about something broader and more fundamental. It is about our humanity, about having compassion for others, for our fellow human beings. And not just to the poor. While Lazarus is an example of the typical marginalized person in first century Palestine, he also serves as an archetype of a much broader category of invisible suffering. He is the archetype of all who are marginalized – all who are the victims of violence, oppression, or neglect because of who they are – be that based on socioeconomic status, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. All who are marginalized regardless of the reason suffer in some way, generally in ways that we cannot see. Invisible suffering takes on a whole new meaning.

The fundamental message is that as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ, it is our imperative to see the marginalized, to make visible the suffering and injustice in the world, and to reach out in compassion, with respect, and do what we can to help ease the plight of the other. Right in our own Baptismal Covenant, we pledge to strive for justice and to respect the dignity of every human being. It is a fundamental part of who we are as Christians.

The whole scene in the Gospel lesson that takes place in the underworld gives us a clue as to why this is so important. No, it’s not that we will be damned to eternity in flaming agony if we don’t seek justice and mercy for the marginalized. As I see it, the scene in underworld is not so much about damnation for what we do or don’t do in life, but more an image to help us understand faithfulness. Abraham, as the founder of the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, can be seen as a representation of what our tradition views as faithfulness, and particularly faithful living. After all, Abraham’s whole life was about faithfully following God and doing his will. The chasm can be seen as the separation between faithfulness and unfaithfulness. Scripture repeatedly tell us that God has preference for the marginalized. This is symbolized by Lazarus resting with Abraham. Our God and our faith tradition call us to be on the side of the suffering and the marginalized, to do what we can to ease their suffering, to comfort them. Now if we are truly living our faith and doing what God is calling us to do, that puts us on the Abraham side of the chasm that separates the faithful from the unfaithful, that separates those who really get it from those who are self-absorbed and don’t get it.

But living our faith is not always easy. Sometimes we get so busy that we just don’t see the marginalized in front of us. Or if we do, we aren’t willing to take the time to respond. When I am confronted with and ignore the marginalized in my midst, my inaction seems to haunt me. I cannot help but agonize over my inaction, dwelling on that moment when I was more absorbed in my own business and did not take the opportunity to live my faith as God calls me to. Invariably, I then find myself thinking about the afterlife. The interesting thing is that I don’t worry about what God will say to me about what I did and did not do in this life. What I think about is what will happen if and when I run into someone I have ignored or somehow mistreated. I wonder if they will remember what I did or did not do. If so, I wonder what they might say to me. What if they ask why I didn’t help? What will say to them? Will they forgive me?

But before that happens, I have a choice. I can choose to be more aware of my brothers and sisters who are marginalized. I can choose to do something instead of just walking by as if there were no one there. I can choose to live my faith, doing what I am able to live God’s call for justice and mercy.

As I read the Gospel lesson, another question comes to mind. What is our motivation for attempting to live our faith? Why do we strive to do what God asks us to do? The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, to warn them, so that they might change their ways and not end up suffering the same fate as the rich man. Somehow, the motivation seems all wrong. The rich man is implying that we should do the right thing, not because it is the right thing, not because it is what God asks us to do, but because it will score brownie points with God. Rack up enough point and you get into heaven. No, Lazarus going back to the brothers would be sending the wrong message – be kind, do mercy in order to save yourself from eternal damnation. That’s not the way it works.

God has given us free will. We have a choice in how we respond to the situations that present themselves, including how we deal with the invisible suffering. As Abraham points out, we have the law and the prophets to guide us. We are given the Scriptures to educate us as to how we are to live our lives, how we are to treat others, how we are to work for justice and mercy. God sent Christ into the world out of his love for all humanity. We are given the gift of Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift of mercy to humanity, to guide us in how to live faithfully. We can follow Christ and be motivated by the example of God’s love for us to love our neighbors and to care for them, especially our neighbors who are the invisible suffering. Or we can be motivated by fear of God’s wrath and eternal damnation if we don’t do the right things.

God wants us to follow him and to follow his commands because we want to out of gratitude and love, not out of fear. We don’t need someone to come back to warn us, because the only one who has ever come back, been resurrected, Jesus Christ, has shown us the path of love that leads to eternal life, for us and for all God’s children, including the invisible suffering. And through his death and resurrection, we do not need to worry about which side of the chasm we are on, whether we are the rich man or Lazarus. But we are the rich man’s brothers and sisters. And we have a choice.

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