“The Call to Reconciliation”
Psalm 91 & Luke 16: 19-31 ~ Northwood UC ~ September 25, 2022
This morning’s gospel lection, I would guess, would be among the least known of Jesus’ parables. It is a teaching story that, if well known, would likely be avoided. I suggest this because it is so difficult to hear the painful truth contained within. And, on a Sunday that gives us the 91st Psalm with the hopefulness found “On Eagle’s Wings”, it is quite tempting to avoid this profound parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Yet, this morning, as we move towards the September 30th observance of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Jesus’ powerful teaching must be heard. And so, we spend time considering Jesus’ teaching as we seek to follow in His Way.
We notice, of course, that the text is supernatural and, almost, surreal. Different worlds…heaven and hell. Different classes…the rich man and the poor Lazarus. Surely, we counter, it cannot offer any instruction to our modern world today? Yet, as we ponder the realities of heaven and hell, we know that we have ALL visited these planes of existence. You will likely know that part of Northwood’s ministry assists a 12 step group helping people dealing with the demons of gambling. The people who attend these groups know the depths of hell, they have felt the flames of hades, they know (firsthand) what it is to live a ‘living hell’. Earlier this month, we held time in prayer for the stabbing victims that occurred in the James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon, Saskatchewan. These communities, our nation experienced a ‘living hell’ in the aftermath of that tragedy. We see, day in and day out, sisters and brothers living on the streets of our city who are navigating difficult times: dealing with poverty, homelessness, addiction, mental health, and many ‘hell-like’ times. As we gather this weekend for two funerals, we know that right here, many of our own people have lost loved ones and feel these pains. The truth of this parable is that many in our world know the depth and darkness of hell far too well. Indeed, this parable, sadly, fits right into our modern world as it did two millennia ago.
And as we look towards September 30th and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we recall the horrible history that stems back to 1876 that began with the passing of the Indian Act, and we are reminded that our Indigenous siblings have experienced a ‘living hell’ too. The horrible legacy that ensued over the following century and one-half is know all too well: land stolen, families separated, Residential Schools created, cultural genocide attempted, murder, rape and the pains of many generations that followed. As we know, our very own denomination of the United Church along with other Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church operated many of these schools. As we gather, we know that we are complicit in this terrible history. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in Canada in 2008 with the purpose of documenting this history and the lasting impacts of the Residential Schools. The TRC concluded its work in 2015 with 94 “Calls to Action” regarding reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous people.” 5 of those Calls to Action were directed at the church, with one specifically directed at the Pope of the Catholic Church (which he began to fulfill this very year!) And, as we don our orange shirts, we do so remembering the ‘living hell’ experienced by our Indigenous siblings. Indeed, this parable has much to teach.
One of the deep teachings in this gospel lection underscores the importance of our paying attention to the past in order for reconciliation to continue to move ahead. The parable teaches Luke’s familiar images of the reversals of fortune between rich and poor. At the beginning of the gospel, we heard Luke do it as Mary sang her Magnificat. The angel Gabrielle visits her with the news of the birth, and proclaims how the poor will overcome. And Mary sang: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord…for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant… the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. He has shown strength with his arm, scattered the proud…brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” And throughout Luke’s gospel, you will hear Jesus’ love for the poor in parable after parable, in teaching after teaching, to hope that the fortunes of the poor will be restored, and all will be reversed.
That is what we are hearing in this morning’s parable. God’s promise to lift up the lowly; to feed the hungry; to restore their misfortunes. In the parable, we hear a series of reversals: The poor man is actually given a name (Lazarus); whereas the rich man is not given the dignity of one. The rich man is dressed in purple (a colour reserved for the wealthy), whereas the poor man is dressed in sores. The rich man feasts sumptuously at the table; whereas Lazarus longs to eat the scraps that fall from it. At the time of death, all is reversed! The rich man has a burial; whereas, Lazarus is carried away by the angels. By the end of the story there is a complete reversal of fortune. Lazarus is looking down from the heavens in glory, and the rich man is looking up from the depths, begging. At the beginning the poor Lazarus is in need; at the end the Rich man is in a time of need.
One of the deep teachings Jesus offers in this parable is the call to see ‘the other’. To see ‘the other’ in their pain. In the beginning, the Rich Man does not see Lazarus. At the end, the Rich Man cannot be seen. They were invisible to each other in their times of suffering. This parable teaches that the profound call to reconciliation begins with seeing ‘the other’ in need. It is that of making visible, the (seemingly) invisible suffering occurring in the world. It is seeing the pains being suffered in the other. It is why we wear orange shirts, and learn painful stories, and continue to honour this legacy that we would rather forget. If we read this parable, as being instructive to our faith, then we must not, we cannot, turn a blind eye to what has happened. We cannot turn away from the legacy that we have inflicted. To anyone that might dare to say ‘let the past be the past’, Jesus offers this parable calling us to a vision of reconciliation. We must see the ‘other’ in the time of need.
I wonder what might have happened in this parable if the Rich Man and Lazarus (actually) saw one another in their times of need? If the Rich Man saw Lazarus in his time of pain and suffering, in his time of ‘going through hell’? What might have happened if the Rich Man saw? Or at the end, what might have happened, if the Rich Man was ‘seen’ when he was going through his ‘hellish’ existence? The reason Jesus told this parable is to give us eyes to see those navigating periods of hell. It is a call to us, 2 millennia later, in our modern times, to see be the person who looks into the eyes of ‘the other’, the one who is in need, the one who suffers, the ones whom cultural genocide was attempted. It is a call to look into their eyes and weep with them, heal with them, create a new world with them.
History records the first explorers arriving in Canada, jubilantly reported back to Britain and France: “there are no people here!” They saw the Indigenous people, not as people, but (in their own words) as “savages” and did not acknowledge that it was their land. They were not the first to discover it; it was already inhabited! They arrogantly saw this land as theirs for the taking. The irony of our own government finally giving Indigenous people the ‘right’ to vote in 1960 is a horrible irony indeed. Author William Faulkner wrote: “the past is never dead…it is not even past. It continues to impact us in the present”. The importance of us in learning to see, in learning from the past, being educated, is a key part of reconciliation indeed.
In another gospel account, Matthew’s Jesus, concludes his gospel, that when we have eyes to see others in need, it is then that we see will Christ: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The call to reconciliation is a call to sharpening our vision, to see the pains of others. For when we do this, we see Christ in our midst! In this parable, Lazarus is the Christ figure whom the Rich Man never saw. Do we have the wisdom to see ‘the other’, to see Christ, and to walk the Way of our faith.