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.

The Sweepings of the Wheat

(Sermon for Sunday, September 19, 2010 || Proper 20, Year C, RCL || Amos 8:4-7)

Imagine with me a fellow of no particular consequence, an Israelite who lives in the capital city of Samaria. The year is 752 BCE, thirty years before the Assyrians conquer Israel. Through the words of prophets such as Amos, however, we know that the people of Israel lost themselves long before the Assyrians came. Our fellow of no particular consequence knows first hand the truth behind Amos’s words. His name is Dallim. This is his story.

He said I was free. He said I had paid my debt. He said I no longer had to work for him. The steward said these things as he walked me to the front of the estate. He opened a postern door in the baked clay walls and gestured to me. I shuffled through the small doorway, and without another word, the steward began walking back to the main house. I was about to call out to him when the guard shut the door in my face. I slumped against the warm, looming wall. He said I was free. But as I crouch here…now…on another forsaken threshing floor, searching for scraps of wheat to lessen my hunger, I know one thing for certain. I may no longer be indebted to his master, but I am unquestionably not free.

It all started six years ago. I wasn’t rich by any stretch of the imagination. But I wasn’t poor either – not like the beggars in the street. I got by. We got by – my wife and I. I ran a small stall in the marketplace selling whatever I could get my hands on. I called my stall a “specialty” store; everyone else called it “Dallim’s Junk Shoppe.” But I did a fair bit of business. I was the guy who could find things – a scrounger.

The day my wife told me she was pregnant was the happiest day of my life. I started trading for all of the things I imagined new parents would need – swaddling clothes and wooden toys and a woven bassinet. Then one day, something went wrong. She shouldn’t have gone into labor for three more months. She delivered our little girl on the floor of our hut. The baby never opened her eyes. My wife took to bed and a week later closed her eyes for the last time. For months, I didn’t leave the hut.

When I finally came back to myself, I had next to nothing. My family was gone. My landlord kicked me out of the hut. I went to the stall in the marketplace and found that my “specialty” store had truly become the junk shop. The thieves left a few baubles and trinkets, the things not worth stealing. They took everything else, including my scales, a gift from my wife’s father. That made me miss her all over again. Those scales were priceless, and not just for the memory. They were weighted perfectly – my father-in-law was no cheat. I used the scales so much that I nearly stopped needing them: I could weigh a shekel in my hand.

As the shock of the theft of my merchandise subsided, I realized how badly I needed food. I had been subsisting on dust and grief for too long. I put the worthless trinkets in a sack and slung it over my shoulder. I walked through the marketplace until I found a grain merchant. I tried to trade him the trinkets for some grain, but he would have none of that. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll give you an ephah of grain and you can pay me next week, eh?” I was amazed. How generous he was. He handed me a sack of grain and asked for my sandals as surety that I would come back. You can’t eat sandals, so I readily agreed. I was so relieved that I didn’t notice how small this merchant’s ephah really was.

The week went by, and I still had no money to pay him. “No problem,” he said. “You can pay next week.” I went away with another sack of grain. This happened several more times – I’m not quite sure how many. I planned to sell my stall to repay him, but I just couldn’t find a buyer. The last time I went to see the merchant for grain, I told him my plight. His smile faded from his face. “You have no money. Then I will take your stall.” Again I was relieved. “But your stall,” he continued, “is not nearly enough. No. No. I will take you, as well.”

The genial merchant was gone. He was a hard, grim man from that moment on. I was indebted to him, and I worked and I worked. But I rarely saw him, and he didn’t even know my name. The steward gave me my orders. I filled the grain sacks and noticed them shrink year after year. The moment the sun set every Sabbath day, I hitched the horses to the grain carts so my master could immediately go back to market – no doubt to seduce more helpless people like me. What’s a few sacks of grain to half a dozen years of free labor?

In those years, I often thought of the life I could have had – with a wife and children and a small, successful business. That was my dream, and I woke to my nightmare. I was a nameless drone, a slave to a corrupt man, whose corruption seemed to be rewarded at every turn.

I lost count of the days working in that estate. They ran into each other and made weeks. The weeks made months and the months years. So I was surprised the day the steward walked me to the postern door. The guard shut the door in my face, and I slumped against the warm, looming wall. I thanked God for giving me my life back. I was Dallim again, not the grain merchant’s debt-slave. I was free.

At least, I thought I was free. But I had nothing. The beggars had more than I – they had begging bowls. But I promised myself I would not fall into debt again. I used to be good at finding things. I used to be a scrounger. I could do that again. But oh, I felt the darkness creeping in, the same heaviness that gripped me after the deaths of my wife and baby girl. I started sleeping in doorways and alleys. I could not make myself get up. My world shrank to the space within reach of my prone position. I wasted away.

When I finally came back to myself, I was beyond hunger. In my reflection I could see where each of my ribs met my breastbone. I went to a windswept hill near my old master’s holdings to find a threshing floor. The floor was bare. I went to another. It, too, was bare. And here I am now – crouching on a third bare floor, swept clean of the scraps of wheat that are supposed to belong to the poor. And driving away I see the distinctive cart to which I hitched the horses for so many years. My old master: stealing the poor by loaning them the very grain that is rightfully theirs. Ours. Mine.

I’m trying to muster some righteous anger or indignant surprise. But I simply feel…ragged. I will never be free while the threshing floors stay bare, while I’m stuck in this soul-rending poverty. How can I exist in a world where corrupt men like my old master trample on the needy? How can I live when they bring to ruin the poor of the land? How can I find a morsel of food when they sell the sweepings of the wheat? They move through life making collateral damage out of everyone that can’t afford to get out of their way. They see only what they want to see and the poor fade into the scenery. They consume and consume with no regard for the welfare of those that they have taught themselves to ignore.

But God: you know I’m not collateral damage, don’t you? In your eyes, the merchant and I are the same, right? You won’t ignore me like they do. God: you still know my name. My name is Dallim. And I matter.

I matter.

I matter.