Confronting Need

 Sermon for Sunday, September 29, 2013 || Proper 21C || Luke 16:19-31; 1 Timothy 6:6-19)

This story takes place on a brisk afternoon in mid-December of 2007. I was one week away from being ordained a deacon and six months away from graduating seminary. Margot was my spiritual director back then, and she and I decided it would be a good idea for me to give a formal confession in preparation for ordination. I wrote out everything I could think of on several yellow sheets of paper, and Margot listened to my confession up at the altar rail of St. Alban’s church in D.C. When I was done, she pronounced my forgiveness. I can’t tell you how good I felt afterwards. I was exhausted but overjoyed. I felt completely empty, but in a good way – like all this brush had been cleared away ready for new construction; like there was so much more room within me for God to fill.

I got in my car, drove down Rock Creek Parkway, and turned onto Memorial Bridge on my way back to Alexandria. As I pulled up to a traffic light in Arlington, I saw a sight familiar to the area: a person standing on the curb with a cardboard sign in hand. But as I got closer, the sight became less familiar. The person was, in fact, a young woman, beautiful beneath a layer of dirt on her face. She wore tattered jeans, and a duffel bag lay by her feet. My car came to a halt about fifteen feet from her. And this part I remember with crystal clarity. She looked right at me. Her gaze was neither plaintive, nor hopeful, nor condemning. She just looked at me as anyone with mild curiosity might do. And yet, for the flash of a moment that our eyes met, I felt her gaze pierce me down to the depths of the happy emptiness I had experienced after my confession.

And then I looked away. I couldn’t bring myself to meet her eyes. I willed the traffic light to turn green so I could drive away, so I could leave that place, so I didn’t have to choose not to look at her. After a small piece of eternity, the light did change. I did drive away. I did leave that place. But this young woman with the tattered jeans and cardboard sign hovered in the corner of my vision like when you look at the sun and then look away. And I burst into tears.

Less than fifteen minutes since my confession, since I heard the glorious news that God had forgiven me, would always forgive me, and I committed a brand new, heartbreaking sin. God was staring out at me through the eyes of the young woman. Her gaze pierced me to the depths of my happy emptiness, which God yearned to fill with compassion and solidarity and the fervent desire to answer the call to help people in her position. But I looked away. I did not engage.

My sin that day in 2007 (and my sin many, many times since then) was the sin of the rich man in today’s parable. The need at his gate is so visible that this man must actively choose not to see Lazarus lying there. If a film were shot from the rich man’s perspective, Lazarus would always be a bit to the side and out of focus. The man chooses to ignore the need at his gate, and thus his sin is the sin of non-engagement.

His wealth allows him to live inside the illusion of self-sufficiency; he needs no one’s help, and so he never offers to help. His wealth has led him to total isolation. When he dies, his self-chosen isolation follows him to the grave. The “great chasm” between himself and Abraham is of his own making.

The sin of non-engagement runs throughout this entire section of the Gospel according to Luke, all the way back to when Jesus sets his feet toward Jerusalem. The priest and the Levite commit the sin of non-engagement when they cross to the other side of the road upon being confronted with the beaten man. The Good Samaritan, on the other hand, engages him and tends to his wounds. The foolish man who desires to build bigger barns for his wealth commits the sin of non-engagement when he turns inward and decides to hoard his assets. Both brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son commit the sin of non-engagement: the younger when he takes his inheritance and runs away, and the older when he won’t come to the party honoring his brother’s return. When their father goes out to meet them in their isolation, he seeks to heal the gashes made by this sin. And now we have the rich man and Lazarus. Like in each of these other parables, today Jesus seeks to shake up how the establishment has been living, to indict how it has been ignoring the need around it, and to offer a new model for engaging with those whom they would rather not see.

Or should I say those whom we would rather not see, whom I would rather not see. This week at the Wednesday Bible study, Sheri Anderson saw right through my excuses as to why I rarely engage with people on the street. “I don’t carry cash,” I said (a thin defense, I know).

“And you couldn’t offer them a prayer or a blessing instead?” asked Sheri. I quibbled for a few minutes, but she was right. Too often, I have left Park Street station and walked the hundred yards to the cathedral wearing dark sunglasses and headphones. Too often, I have set my eyes straight ahead and chosen to ignore the need around me – because acknowledging that need makes me feel so small, so helpless.

But as Bill Viscomi said at the Haiti Ministry Night, “We can’t do everything, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing something.” Every week, we confess the things we have done and the things we have left undone. The enormity of the need around us has led me to respond by backing away, by disengaging, by allowing so many things to be left undone. But this week, Jesus’ words, along with Sheri’s challenge and Bill’s hope, have convicted me.

Next week, when I go to the cathedral for a meeting, I will be prepared. By the grace of God, I promise not to ignore the need around me. I promise to engage it in my own small way. I hope you will join me in this promise. As Paul says today to Timothy: “Command [the rich] not…to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”

Compared to the enormity of the need around us – in our communities and in this world – we are the rich ones whom Jesus and Paul speak to today. We can’t do everything, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing something. When we promise God that we will participate in God’s good work among the least of those in our society, we can be assured that God will be with us in our efforts, that God will push and prod us toward facing the need rather than looking away. With God’s help, we can start small: a promise to pray with a man on the street, to pass out small gift cards to the grocery store, to sit with guests at the Long Island Shelter and talk with them.

The more we do these “somethings,” the fewer things we leave undone. And as we trust God enough to engage with those in need, God will confront us with greater and greater opportunities to serve God in this world at both the personal and systemic levels. So I challenge you today, and I challenge myself: trust God enough to keep from being overwhelmed by the needs of the world. Find a corner of the need, and start working on it. And God will bless our engagement. We can’t do everything, but, by the grace of God, that will not stop us from doing something.

* You can hear my song “Miserere Mei,” the first verse of which recounts the story at the beginning of this sermon, here.

Just Roy (Davies Tales #2)

Aiden Davies looked out his second-story window and saw yesterday’s snow retreating from the small quad that his dormitory bordered. That didn’t last long, he thought as he raised the window to let the cool February morning freshen his musty room. “It smells like my old soccer bag,” he said aloud to no one in particular. He pinched his nostrils together with one hand and with the other ineffectually pushed the stale air out of the room. His eyes traveled from the green islands emerging in the melting snow to the brick sidewalk, which looped like a pretzel across the quad – and was salted like one, too. A man he had never seen before on campus stood at the far end of the quad, looking up and squinting in the morning sun. The man surveyed each of the buildings enclosing the quad and then turned up the street, one hand shielding his eyes as he glanced at the other buildings on campus. Davies watched him walk into the library and then, promptly, forgot about him.

After lunch, Davies returned to his room to exchange his winter jacket for a lighter one. The day, it seemed, had botched its cue and started singing of spring a few measures early. After his morning class, Davies had walked past a pair of sunbathers in swimsuits and winter hats reading on the quad. He had thought it oddly incongruous – not the winter hats and swimsuits – but the tanning while reading John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a volume that Davies had used to prop his door open when he moved in last August. His second year of graduate school (which is what he called “seminary” to non-church people and to women he met) was on the downhill climb. In a month, he would attend his “Candidacy” meeting, a forty-five minute chat with eight members of a committee, which advised the bishop whether Davies should be ordained to the priesthood. After that, a few short months would see him become a senior for the third time in his life.

He pulled on the corduroy coat, grabbed his backpack, and snatched his sermon from the printer on his way out the door. As he walked to class, Davies spoke his sermon aloud to the trees and benches, delighted that he couldn’t see his breath. His disappointment that yesterday’s snow turned out to be a one hit wonder was forgotten in the sun-drenched promise of spring. After homiletics class, Davies left the academic building and began walking back to his dorm when a man came up to him from the direction of the library.

He wore a heavy winter coat, puffy with insulation and frayed at the cuffs. His gloves were cut off, allowing the tips of his fingers to poke through. He was shaped like a retired linebacker, tall, a slight limp in his right leg. But his arms, Davies thought, looked like they could remember their old strength if push came to shove. As the man approached, Davies recalled him from the morning and realized he had been on campus all day. The heavy winter coat on a cool, but not cold, day. The loitering on a seminary campus. This man’s homeless and he’s looking for a handout. Davies hated himself for making such a snap judgment, but he knew he was right all the same. “Hello there, sir,” Davies called out, his “sir” ringing false and he knew it and he smiled too widely to cover it up.

“God bless you, bless you, I know you could. I seen you from across the way and know you could. I read the Good Book and I know, I know the Lord helps the man to do whatever he set his mind to. I’m from down South Carolina, and I’m trying to get back home. God bless you, son, bless you, praise Jesus.” The man said it all in one breath, like a telemarketer trying to keep a customer from hanging up.

Davies held out his hand. “My friends call me Davies,” he said. My friends call me Davies? I never say that. “What’s you name, sir?” The “sir” came out more naturally this time, and Davies wondered if the man noticed the difference.

“Roy. Just Roy.” His linebacker hand found Davies’s and squeezed. “I believe what the Good Book say, yes I do. I been saved since I was eleven years old, praise Jesus.”

Davies suppressed another smile, wondering if Roy always gave his Christian resume before asking for help. Maybe he’s been to churches that only give handouts to born again Christians. What a depressing thought. “What brings you here, Roy?” Davies said, hoping that both asking the question and using the man’s name would help him care about the answer, but it didn’t. I’m going to be an awful priest.

“I’m trying to get back home, but my car’s got a flat and it’s up near St. John’s church and they said if I could get to them by three they’d help me out, but I need a ride up there and God bless you I been saved since I was eleven, praise Jesus.”

The part of Davies that wanted to quit seminary and become a staff writer for Law and Order wondered how Roy got to campus if his car was up near St. John’s, five miles and change away. He tried to push the incongruity out of his mind. You gonna tell me the truth, he wanted to say, but it came out, “I think I’ve got time to drive you up to St. John’s.”

“Bless you son, I know you could. The good Lord has a plan, don’t he, yes he do. Yes. He. Do. I just got to get to St. John’s church by three and they say they can pay for my tire, praise Jesus.”

“Okay, Roy, let’s go.” They turned a corner onto the salted pretzel sidewalk and headed for the parking lot. “One second,” Davies said, and he held up his backpack. “Let me drop this inside.” My friends call me Davies…do you have any friends? I think I’ve got time…which is obviously more precious than yours. Let me drop this inside…so you won’t steal it from me. Who the hell am I to say such things? Davies flung his backpack onto his bed and slammed the door behind him.

He pounded the steps back downstairs, letting his frustration absorb into the staircase. He passed an open door, stopped, and turned around. He popped his head into Mark Riley’s room. “What’s up, brother,” Mark said, swiveling around in his desk chair, Calvin’s Institutes and a highlighter in hand. He always called Davies “brother.”

“I’ve got this guy, Roy, outside who’s looking for a ride up to St. John’s. You got a few minutes to go with me? I’m just not…” Davies’s voice trailed off. Mark jumped up, put the highlighter in the book, and tossed it onto his bed. Grabbing a hooded sweatshirt off the back of his chair, he said “Sure thing.”

Davies and Mark Riley met Roy outside. “I got to get St. John’s church by three, the good Lord has a plan, yes he do.” Mark shook Roy’s hand. “Yes he do,” Mark echoed.

They piled into Davies’s car and Davies turned out of the parking lot, while Mark and Roy chatted, with a “praise Jesus” and a “the Good Book says” punctuating their conversation every few sentences. He does it so easily, Davies thought. I feel inconvenienced. Mark feels…joy.

They arrived at the St. John’s parking lot ten minutes later. No car with a flat tire. No cars at all. Davies looked at the dashboard clock. Two-fifteen. You gonna tell me the truth now, he wanted to say, but he said nothing instead. “They said three, they pay for my tire, the good Lord has a plan.” Roy didn’t seem to notice the lack of a car to put his new tire on.

Davies looked at him in the rearview mirror: “There’s no one here, Roy. What do you want to do?” A long pause. A siren from the main road. Mark drumming his fingers on his knee.

“I could use some food.”

He said it without a “God bless you” or a “praise Jesus.” Davies turned around and looked at Roy. The imposing retired linebacker was gone. His need had deflated him. The heavy winter coat with the frayed cuffs seemed the only weight on Roy’s frame. He looked straight ahead and rocked back and forth, his exposed fingertips pressed together. Davies stared at him for a long moment. I feel like a plantation owner. The thought made Davies want to vomit.

“There’s a Panera Bread right over there,” Mark said, pointing to the shopping center across the street. Davies put the car in gear and reached into his back pocket at the same time. A twenty and two ones. He passed the singles to Mark who added a few of his own. They dropped Roy off, and Mark pressed the bills into his hand. Roy squeezed the money, a new smile creasing his face. “The good Lord has a plan, praise Jesus.”

“Bless you, brother,” said Mark. Roy walked toward the restaurant. Davies pulled out of the parking space. He looked at Mark. Mark looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “He could’ve just asked us to buy him lunch,” said Davies.

Mark scowled. “You ever ask anyone to buy you lunch?”


At the traffic light, Davies looked back at the Panera. What the hell is wrong with me? It was Roy. Just Roy. He needed help. That didn’t make him another species. That didn’t make him less than human… It made him Jesus. “For I was hungry and you gave me food…” The Good Book say. Yes it do. Yes. It. Do.