A Church is a Door by Vicar Atticus Zavaletta
Updated: Oct 6, 2019
Proper 21C 2019
I wonder, what must it have been like for Lazarus to sit outside this wealthy person’s house, day in and day out--poor, starving, and sick, watching all of the pleasures and frivolities going on inside? I think if I had been Lazarus, it would have made me mad. But here we get no indication of Lazarus’s internal state-- except for this evocative image: it says that he “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”
He longs for the crumbs. Why the crumbs? This doesn’t seem like justice to me. I get upset thinking about it, because I want for Lazarus to yearn for more. I want Lazarus to long for what he deserves as a human being, which is the right to be free and to grow and to flourish.
And, when Lazarus and the rich man die, what happens there doesn’t seem like justice to me either. Restorative justice focuses not on punishment but on repair. Here, we only see the rich man punished, but is anything repaired?
According to the principles of restorative justice, “Crime causes harm and justice should focus on repairing that harm. The people most affected by the crime should be able to participate in its resolution.”
Restorative justice has me imagine that this scene plays out in a dream.
The rich man lays his head down to sleep, and has this dream, of going to Hades of being burned up with thirst, while for the first time maybe, noticing the poor man, Lazarus, in heaven next to Father Abraham. Then the rich man would wake up and know he needs to change his life.
And actually, I think it kind of is kind of a dream.
Episcopal priest Peter Jarret Schell points out that while most parables are earthly tales that tell of heavenly things, this Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a heavenly tale about earthly things. In other words, the events happening in heaven here show what actually happens on earth.
Abraham says, “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us."
When we build gates and keep people out, when we don’t connect with our neighbors, when we fail to pay attention to the need around us, we end up twisted up, we end up in Hades on earth. We end up isolated and alone, filled with brittleness and judgment. We may “look nice,” like this rich man dressed in purple clothes, but we are not nice on the inside.
In the same way that we need to be in relationship with other people to experience and understand and get better at love, we need other people to get free. What the rich man did not understand was that his liberation was bound up in Lazarus’s liberation. And that’s what we fail to understand when we neglect people who are despised and crucified by the world.
But you know, Lazarus is isolated, too. Lazarus also does not have a community, and that is because of the invisible wall that society builds between “people in the land of the living” and the people who live on the margins of that life.
The chasm that separates the rich man from Abraham and Lazarus, and in effect, from a quench to his thirst, also separates Lazarus from full participation in society.
So who are those people that are kept out of the gates?
It’s anyone that you come across in daily life, and do not feel the obligation to show by some sign of body language, or sometimes words, that you acknowledge their existence.
When I acknowledge someone’s right to be, I might take a step to the side to make way for them, or nod my head slightly, smile, or just make brief eye contact. I might say a quick "hi" or "hello," or "excuse me." You know what I mean?
Then there are the other set of people, whose existence is like a question in an echochamber, where no one hears, and no one cares.
Sometimes these folks haven’t washed recently from lack of access to bathroom facilities, sometimes they have a form of mental illness, sometimes they have unattended medical needs, often they don’t have family, sometimes they have issues with addiction.
Sometimes… they’re not who you might think they would be. Sometimes, it’s a woman. Sometimes, it’s a person of color. Sometimes it is an African American doctor, who you notice, you don’t show the respect you would do if they were white. Sometimes, it is a female clergyperson, who, again, you realize you don’t esteem in the same way if she were a man.
They might not be languishing outside the city gates, but they are invisible like Lazarus, they have gone through life lacking opportunity like Lazarus, they don’t receive the same medical care that others get, like Lazarus.
But ALWAYS, these folks, that we leave at the gates? They are survivors, ALWAYS they are creative, resourceful, brilliant.
They are on every corner, and as much as they need us to care, we need them, because knowing them transforms us.
The thing is, connection is uncomfortable. See, the rich man wasn’t trying to be a jerk. He didn’t set out in life and say, I want to live in ways that take no account of the other human beings around me. I want to contribute to this poor man Lazarus’s suffering. I want to get fat while he wastes away.
No, he just wants to be comfortable. He just wants to enjoy his wealth and have a good time. And maybe he thinks that his wealth buys him out of the necessity of discomfort.
Well, a comfortable life is a life in which there is no growth. It’s also a life in which there is no relationship. The most uncomfortable situations come out of our relationships with other people, where we get to rub our rough spots against each other, till we become smoother and smoother. And what you will have if you don’t risk an uncomfortable life, is a tragic life. A life in which you have built a grand and ornate house around yourself, and locked everyone out.
Some people have felt that churches should have gates governing who gets to pass into the realm of the Almighty, and who does not. But churches shouldn’t be walls. Churches shouldn’t be gated communities.
Churches should be doors.
They should be openings into a way of life that places love above money and grace above worth, into a reality that God is for us, into a purpose, that we are for others. At these doors, there is no admittance fee. There’s no dress code. Just a doorway that opens for every seeker, into a realm where the earthly things that surround us everyday are transformed in front of our eyes to heavenly things, and that’s when we see and acknowledge the truth, when we think we’re in the presence of the holy- of what really matters.
What really matters is that we show each other we care, whether or not it makes us uncomfortable.
In the end, what will have mattered is not that we indulged in comfort and pleasure every day of our lives, but that we as a church welcomed the people who chose to honor us with their seeking and with their need and walked through this door on the way to God.
May it be so. Amen.