“Lazarus at the Gate” Colchester Federated Church, September 29, 2019, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Luke 16:19-31)

A former Youth Director and I once took members of our youth group on a work camp through the Youth Service Opportunities Project in Washington DC over April Vacation.  We had the opportunity to listen to a speaker named Allen Banks tell us about his experience of homelessness.  He began by addressing stereotypes.  Allen asked our youth (and the other church youth group with whom we shared the Church of the Epiphany that week) to list reasons why people are homeless in the first place.  There was hesitation at first, but we came up with stereotypical reasons: addiction to alcohol and drugs, crimes committed, mental illness, lack of education, and, well, laziness.

Allen provided some facts—the top two causes of homelessness in our country are lack of affordable housing and the inability to make a living on minimum wage.  In DC for example, the minimum wage is $14 while the average rent of an apartment in that city is $2,227.[1]  It can be simply hard to make ends meet.  That whole lazy stereotype that people sometimes associate with homelessness is really not true either, 40% of homeless people do work day labor and minimum wage jobs.[2]

Allen told us that one of the hardest aspects of being homeless is feeling dehumanized.  Every single day you have to find a safe place to sleep and to shower, food to eat, and a place to stay during the day and night.  You constantly feel unwanted and unwelcome.  All that time you are just trying to survive, people walk by you avoiding eye contact.  Acting as if you don’t exist at all.  Acting like they can see right through you.  Acting like you don’t matter.  It’s that psychological level of homelessness that cuts deep, sometimes deeper than the mere survival aspects of your daily existence.

Allen Banks’ story is unfortunately not that unique, and it’s not even solely modern.  This is exactly what we see in Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel according to Luke.  Jesus sets the scene for us—there is a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen.  He feasts sumptuously every day.  And then there’s Lazarus at the gate, covered in sores, wanting to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table.  Lazarus is hanging out with the dogs who lick his sores, the dogs he would probably have to fight off for those table scraps, the dogs being the only creatures who acknowledge his existence.  Both men die.  Lazarus ends up in heaven and the rich man ends up in hell, not an especially happy tale.

There are a couple interesting aspects of this story.  First of all, Luke presents this story (from the mouth of Jesus himself) with a complete reversal of the status quo.  Typically a poor man lying at one’s gate would be nameless.  He would have no identity, no one would care who he is.  But this time, in this story, the poor man has a name.  He is Lazarus.  The rich man is the one whose name we don’t even know.  Moreover, even when the rich man is in hell, he’s trying to order people around.  He asks Abraham to go warn his brothers.  He asks Lazarus to get him some water.  No one heeds his orders.  No one meets his demands, though these demands that he makes shows his level of privilege.  The rich man still thinks he can order around servants to do his bidding even in hell.

Now Luke describes Jesus’ ministry throughout the Gospel as bringing good news to the poor.  There are parts of Luke where Jesus’ concern for the poor ends up implying a corresponding hostility for the rich.  Jesus says that God will provide the hungry with good things, but will send the rich away empty; the poor are blessed, the rich are doomed.[3]  Last Sunday we heard Jesus say that we cannot serve God and wealth.  So if anybody is getting upset at me about these sermons, please keep in mind that we are engaging with the words of Jesus here straight from the Gospels to our ears.  Jesus said that the poor are blessed and the rich are doomed.  Jesus said that we cannot serve God and wealth.  But today may be the harshest story of all.  The story of a rich man in hell and Lazarus (the poor man named and claimed by God) in heaven.

You know what would have completely changed this story?  If the rich man had taken a break from his feasting, gone out to his gate, and invited Lazarus to come on in for dinner.  And let me give you some clean clothes while I’m at it.  And do you want to take a bath before we eat?  Do you need a doctor to look at those sores?  Do you have a place to sleep tonight?  With great power comes great responsibility.

One of the moments I was most proud of with my youth group in DC was when we prepared a meal at the church for dozens of homeless men and women.  We got assigned our stations, chopped and cooked and cleaned, set up tables and put out games to play, and made popcorn and lemonade as an appetizer to welcome our guests to the church.  We greeted our guests, sat down with them at table, and had simple conversations—we just talked.  It allowed all of us to be seen and known, named and loved by God and one another.  Looking around that room and seeing those young people engaged in these personal conversations and discovering commonalities with our guests was beautiful.  And that personal meal in the church basement ended up being one of their favorite nights on the whole trip—to be together, to make a meal, and to sit with our guests and have a conversation, to see and be seen by one another ended up touching them deeply.

Most of us don’t want to be like the rich man who never even acknowledged Lazarus at his gate.  We’re not hearing this story that Jesus tells and thinking that the rich man is a great role model here.  The blessing in the midst of an uncomfortable story is that we have opportunities to serve and acknowledge the humanity of our neighbors.  Every month we have the Community Lunches here at CFC.  And it’s amazing when things align like this in the Lectionary because today some of our own youth and a few of us adults will head over to Middletown to serve Sunday Dinner at St. Vincent de Paul, using the food and money that our church family here was kind enough to donate to feed hungry people.

So today we can remember that Lazarus is named, and the rich man is not.  Lazarus ends up in heaven, and the rich man does not.  I contrast Lazarus’ tale and even the formative experience of my old youth group in DC and the experience our youth group has every year serving in Middletown with a street musician in Cleveland who I remember distinctly from childhood.  You have to understand that the Cleveland Browns (as much as I love them) are sometimes painful to watch, especially when you have season tickets like my family did for over three decades.  Though there was awhile that every game my dad and grandpa would take me to, the Browns would actually win.  My grandpa deemed me the Browns’ lucky charm, so I got to go to games with them all the time.

Missing kickoff is a cardinal sin in my family, and we would have to hustle and descend flight after flight of stairs to get down to the stadium, right on the shores of Lake Erie.  Following my grandpa who was 6’4” and a scout in the Army wasn’t easy partly because I tended to get easily distracted by a musician.  Every home game there he was—stationed by a railing in the middle of these flights of stairs, playing his alto saxophone as Browns fans filed down into the stadium.  I always wanted to listen more; he was so good.  But we couldn’t miss kick-off and my dad didn’t want me to get crushed by the crowds behind us.  So he and grandpa would hurry me along past the man.

Browns fans loved him, even the Cleveland Police never bothered him; he was there every Sunday without fail playing his saxophone.  I remember him and his music so vividly and regret that I never took the time (or maybe had the courage as a child given those stranger danger lessons) to just say hello and ask his name.  Years later I learned that Cleveland’s “Sax Man” as he was called by his many fans was a professional musician named Maurice Reedus Jr. who played outside events throughout the city because he loved to play, and he needed the money.  The city at one point cited him for “misconduct” on public transit and not having a vendor’s license for playing his saxophone.  And people were up in arms when they heard, so the City Council later passed the “Sax Man Ordinance” to legalize playing music on the streets of Cleveland for money.  After Maurice Reedus died just last year, a former Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman reflected, “The truth is real cities have Maurices . . . he brought people joy and Cleveland is going to be less because he’s not here any more.”[4]

In the end, it may seem like Jesus is asking a lot of us today.  After all there are a lot of Lazaruses and Maurices and Allens in our midst.  But what Jesus is asking of us is important.  Jesus is asking us to recognize God in one another, and to recognize God especially in the lost and the least.  To recognize the divine light in people who may not be able to see it or feel it in themselves.  Because this is what Jesus is emphasizing with the story of Lazarus and the rich man.  That it’s our sacred God-given duty to let our little lights shine one good deed at a time and thus help God mend the world.  It’s our sacred God-given duty to recognize God in one another.  It’s our sacred God-given duty to acknowledge the humanity of one another and help each other tend the sacred spark in each of us, especially the Lazaruses of our community.  May it be so with us, and thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] “State Minimum Wages|2019 Minimum by State” National Conference of State Legislatures, http://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/state-minimum-wage-chart.aspx and “Washington DC, Rental Market Trends” RENTCafe https://www.rentcafe.com/average-rent-market-trends/us/dc/washington/
[2] Allen Banks, Youth Service Opportunities Project presentation.
[3] Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels, 93.[4] Michael McIntyre, “Cleveland ‘Sax Man,’ Maurice Reedus Jr., dies at age 65,” April 16, 2018 https://www.cleveland.com/tipoff/2018/04/clevelands_sax_man_maurice_ree.html