The Adventurous Lectionary – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 25, 2016
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19 , Luke 16:19-31
This week’s Gospel reading along with some good words from my pastoral colleague inspired me to title my sermon, “Ubuntu at Cape Cod.” The parable speaks of the apparently unbridgeable gulf between the rich and the poor, and invites us to close the gap between wealth and poverty, in and out, saved and unsaved, faith and practice. A rich man appears to be lost – indeed lost forever – because he failed to hear the cries of a poor beggar. In the spirit of Mary’s Magnificat, the impoverished man is lifted, receives the bounty denied in this lifetime, while the wealthy man experiences the pain of isolation, physical torment, and thirst. This spiritual and economic role reversal is a call to transformation. Jesus’ parable is a wakeup call for societies as well as individuals and a challenge to see if our politics and economics create greater, rather than lesser separation, between the rich and poor, and insiders and outsiders. The parable reminds us that the chasm is a matter of spirituality as well as greed and inattentiveness.
“Ubuntu […] speaks of the very essence of being human. [We] say… ‘Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’….A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
Ubuntu reflects the grace of interdependence in which we recognize that our lives are completely dependent on others: institutional structures, the accidents of birth, family of origin, national origin, the hard work of others, including forgotten and impoverished people, the love of parents, grandparents, and teachers, and the gentle – yet persistent – providence of God. The tragedy of the story is that the wealthy man had the resources to uplift his “neighbor” but was insentient and uncaring. Perhaps, he saw his wealth as a matter of entitlement and effort and the poverty of the beggar as a matter of personal laziness or lack of initiative. His failure to see and hear, to empathize, created a gulf in this life that echoed into eternity.
This very prophetic parable, reflective of the prophets of Israel, reminds us that God is concerned with the details of our lives – our attitudes toward the poor, “nuisances and nobodies,” addicted, and homeless persons – and that those whom we neglect are also God’s children. There is a price to pay for our insentience and neglect, our apathy and complacence toward others’ pain and destitution: while I don’t see the price as damnation for the apathetic and heartless, the price is alienation from God’s highest call in our lives. God called the rich man to a simple spiritual exercise: pause, notice, open, stretch, and respond. (For more on this practice, see Gerald May, The Awakened Heart and Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.)Wake up, listen, feel, and respond with generosity. “A person is a person through other persons” or “I am because of you.” What are we missing spiritually when we turn away from others’ pain? What spiritual depths emerge when we are empathetic rather than apathetic? While we realize that there are limits to generosity and empathy in the personal and interpersonal realm, and we must make decisions about who we can best love and who we are most obligated to love, we are never released from the responsibility to feel and respond, and – to be honest – to experience an “uneasy conscience” about our spiritual, economic, and political limits in terms of kindness and generosity. That’s what it means to be human. That’s what it means to follow Jesus.
The choice to hear the cries of the poor and to observe our own attitudes and responses occurs moment by moment. It occurs as I pick up the newspaper or check my news feeds online. It occurs as I pay my bills and respond to the worthy causes that present themselves to me. It occurs in the stewardship of time and talent, that is, will my use of my gifts and resources bring greater or lesser beauty of experience to the world. It occurs as we choose to listen or turn away from the pain and joy of a grandchild, child, or children in our community. Our choices open the door for greater or lesser manifestations of God’s vision in the world. They bring greater or lesser beauty to God’s experience of the world. God rejoices or suffers as a result of our moment by moment decisions. Nothing is too large or small for God’s consideration, no one is less behind by God nor should anyone be left behind by us. (For a children’s conversation, you might look at Dr. Suess’ “Horton Hears a Who” – “a person’s a person no matter how small.”)
Though things seem dim in terms of our nation’s corporate responses to poverty and environmental destruction, the reading from Jeremiah tells us that there is always hope. We can change our ways, personally and corporately, and once again the nation will flourish for all. We can choose to hear the cries of the poor, the grief of Syrian refugee parents, the anxiety of the working poor, the despair of homeless persons, and our own sense of hopelessness as we look at the future. The words from Timothy challenge us to a life of contentment. We came into the world with nothing, and rich or poor, we will depart with nothing. We depend on others as well as our own initiative to have a good and faithful life. Spiritual contentment comes from placing our relationship to God and others before acquisitiveness and ownership. Our spiritual journeys are fulfilled in compassionate action and full-hearted awareness of the poor.
The adventurous preacher is called to open her or his own heart and invite the congregation to ponder places we need to open our hearts to those we are tempted to neglect, judge, or forget. Awareness is the first step to empathy and action as partners with God in healing the earth.