Monday, September 30

Sermon for the Ninteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Memorial of Michael the Archangel

Last week in our discussion following the sermon, I mentioned that parables were like puzzles – that they were not intended to have a simple and easy interpretation, but over the centuries there have been pat answers associated with most of them. Or theologies have developed that color how we “hear” them and make them less of a challenge than they were meant to be.

And to be perfectly honest, I’ve never given the parable of Lazarus much thought, other than that I like the Lazarus statues with him nearly naked on crutches with dogs licking at his sores. I get a kick out of the fact that within Christianity, there’s a honoring, or elevating of those who suffer. That we in fact worship at the feet of a broken body on a cross has great appeal to me.

The reason I tended to dismiss the parable and focus on the statue, has to do with my discomfort with the way heaven and hell are used abusively by so many Christians.

Elizabeth Rawlings wrote a blog post called, “How to be a Christian without being a jerk about it” Number one was: Stop threatening people with hellfire and damnation. Nobody likes it. It achieves approximately nothing so far as spreading the gospel is concerned. I have no idea what threats of hellfire are supposed to accomplish. It’s like screaming at someone, “I think you’re ugly and awful! Date me and I’ll fix all of your flaws!”

Deeper than that, the threat of hell is used to control, condemn, break people’s spirits, get them to do things they wouldn’t normally do. I spoke with a woman once who clearly had a heart of compassion, she took care of people, cared for the stray animals in her neighborhood, but had come under the influence of a pastor who twisted the Good News into one of convincing people they were going to hell unless they interpreted the Gospel just as he did. His interpretation was racist and anti-Semitic. I could see the pain in her eyes as she tried to convince me of that part of the message, it hurt her so say racist and anti-Semitic things, but she thought the choice was that or both of us would go to hell.

This is some of what I had to clear from my mind to be able to see this story with fresh eyes, to be able to look at the puzzle and see what it had to say, not just to me, but what I could find in this story to speak of tonight. It took deep prayer and meditation and frankly some pleading with Jesus to show me how I might feed his sheep through this story.

With fresh eyes, I saw that this story contained within itself a message that scare tactics won’t work. The rich man wants to send a message to his brothers, a message based in avoiding torment. Abraham tells him that they have Moses and the Prophets, they should listen to them. The message should be how to be in relationship with God, not how to avoid suffering.

So how does this story speak to being in relationship to God? Let’s see if we can puzzle some of it out. A parable can work on many levels; we need not and probably cannot solve it. How does it speak to you, is an excellent question. Maybe ask yourself who do you identity with in the story and why?

As a middle class WASP, I certainly have been rich compared to the larger part of this world’s population, the rich man in this story is way beyond me – we’re talking lifestyles of the rich and famous fare here. And while I have had lean times, and have lived with constant hunger at times, neither have I suffered on the level of Lazarus. Honestly, though, residual fear from decades of believing I was destined for hell has me instinctively identifying with the rich man.

Looking more closely at the rich man, one notices a few puzzling things. The rich man accepts his fate. He does not question why he’s tormented in flames. He doesn’t ask to join Abraham on the other side of the chasm. He does not protest his innocence. The only reason explicit in the story for his position is that he didn’t suffer in life. It almost seems the story contains a, “suffer now or suffer later” rationale.

Neither is the story explicit about his relationship with Lazarus prior to death. Did he ignore Lazarus completely? Did Lazarus ever get scraps from his table? Yet the story does contain very important clues to his attitude towards Lazarus.

He never addresses Lazarus directly. He expects Abraham to send Lazarus on errands like a servant. Clearly he sees Lazarus as beneath him. He “others” Lazarus.

By “othering”, I mean mentally classifying an individual or group as “not one of us” making it easier to, or downright justifying dismissing them as in some way less human; less worthy of respect and dignity. Someone labeled and classified as “unclean” for example. When we practice “othering” we can easily fall into the habit. Soon there can be no longer an “us.” Now the less than human is everyone else. The other is now “not me.” Another piece of the puzzle is that the rich man is alone.

And isolation is death. I’m not speaking of introverts here. It is not a question of “do I get my energy restored in crowds or by myself?” I’m speaking of what happens to someone who can hear no other opinion, who can tolerate no feedback. When we are alone in our heads we get crazy. Grievous harm to self and others easily results.

No one was other to Jesus. All the commandments that Jesus broke are in the purity category; the laws that are designed to “other” people. Pharisees (who are likely the audience that Jesus is addressing this story to) were using these laws in similar ways that preachers (such as I mentioned above) use to justify racism and anti-Semitism. But also sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism and the list goes on. These laws can also be used against oneself, to “other” oneself in the presence of God.

When I speak of “othering” yourself, I’m speaking of beating up on yourself, of taking on the shame our culture so easily dishes out, of hopelessness and despair, of denying the possibility of redemption; of thinking of yourself as less than human. We need to remember, no one was less than human to Jesus.

As humans, however, there is a certain truth to our being other in the presence of God. Not less than human, but absolutely less than God. God is the Wholly Other, outside of creation. We do not have to make ourselves sub-human to approach God with fear and trembling. As described in an article on Rudolf Otto’s thought, this can be a: “Sense of unworthiness and need for "covering."

I want to emphasize that unworthiness in the presence of God speaks to the fact that we are totally dependent on God, that our very life and the world that sustains us is God’s and not ours. “God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” There is nothing we’ve done or can do to earn our existence. “We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.” We are who we are because of God. That does not in any way imply there is anything wrong with who we are (not fundamentally anyway – we all fall short ; not one of us is without need of improvement.)   

But Otto uses another key word besides unworthiness, “covering.” Otto says we need a "covering," or a consecration or grace, "that renders the approacher ‘sanctified,' frees him from his unworthiness," so that he is no longer unfit to relate to the Wholly Other.” The word covering is in our prayers and scriptures tonight as well. The psalmists have faith God will do this for us, God will cover us with his pinions, and under his wings we will find refuge. In the Kontakion to Archangel Michel today, we ask the angel to protect us with his immaterial wings from all visible and invisible enemies.

In the Nicene Creed we begin with “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” The angles are spirit, invisible, immaterial. In a kind of reverse sense of othering, we speak of spirit in material ways, give them wings, depict them as looking like us. This is not a bad thing as long as we hold these mortal concepts lightly, understand them to be the poetic allusions they are.

With that in mind, in reading up on Michael, I found that in some traditions the angel has a Valkyrie-like aspect, being the angel that escorts the souls of the dead. Perhaps it was Michael who carried Lazarus to be with Abraham. In other translations, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. I’d be curious if when I asked, who do you identify with in the story, if any of you imagined yourself in the bosom of Abraham, comforted after a hard life.

There are devotional statues of Lazarus as I mentioned. It points to a wonderful aspect of our faith. We venerate those who have been “othered.” The meek, the poor, the hungry, the mourning are all to be blessed. I know for sure that many of us here tonight have been othered, I suspect all of us have been and in ways I haven’t even considered. I know in my own journey I have othered myself to the point of cutting myself off from God.

And from the comfort God can provide. God doesn’t step in and feed Lazarus or bind his wounds. God sends angels to bring him to Abraham’s bosom. But this comfort is not just in heaven. In times of trial, God will cover us with his pinions, and under his wings we will find refuge. Remember what I said about poetic allusions, visualizing these images of comfort can bring you into the spiritual reality of them. When I was troubling over this text and spoke to Jesus, I let myself in my imagination be resting on his bosom. Ideas come to me that way that I don’t think would have if I simply just conversed.

I have faith that that comfort, and the strength and lifting up I receive from it is from beyond me. That it is intimacy with the Wholly Other. Certainly there are times that encounter with God challenges us, makes us look deeply at where we need change. I’m not speaking of staying in our comfort zone here. But when the challenges of our life, our growth, our culture, our livelihood, our faith, or of our relationships bring pain and suffering, reach for the intimacy and comfort available to us.

God’s comfort is the Good News; through Jesus, the seen and the unseen have been combined. “Christ Jesus alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion.” Christ Jesus spoke constantly of the love and intimacy he had with the Wholly Other, who he called not father, but Abba similar to Poppa

And if one can truly find and connect with this intimacy with the Wholly Other, how can one continue to “other” anyone else? How can we not see all God’s beloved creation in this context? Acting out of this infusion of love and care and being cherished, out of these riches follow the good works. This is the treasure to be stored up , that allows us to take hold of the life that really is life, it is to no longer be isolated and to find intimacy with the Wholly Other through all others.

Readings for this sermon: