Sunday, September 25, 2016

Proper 21 Year C- Sunday, Sep. 25, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC 
Proper 21 Year C- Sunday, September 25, 2016

( Icon from the Prosopon  School of Iconography)
The transformation that takes place in following Jesus as Luke frames it is from the hellfire of blindness, resistance to God, and isolation to the purifying fire of the gift of seeing myself and my neighbor in God’s light, humility, and connection.  As Luke continually presents Jesus as the one who upends expectations and embodies a surprising and shocking quality of mercy to the other, this kingdom way of being human is offered in all its scandalous revolution.  Jesus bursts onto the scene as the genuinely new.  Love him or hate him, but no one leaves an encounter with him neutral.  The kingdom is among us, Jesus says, if we would dare to celebrate it and our identity within it.  The kingdom is the dawning movement from hellfire to purifying fire but it requires a willingness to have our religious and cultural categories of who is in and who is out dismantled, our personal masks and defenses removed, and then, grasping nothing and hiding nothing, to stand with nothing but our desire before the one who freely offers us his welcome into a new identity. We are asked to be simple enough to receive it, to say yes, to allow ourselves to participate in the kingdom which is to be given new eyes.  This new way is modeled in Luke in those who say their “yes”: Mary, Elizabeth, Simeon, the Gerasene demoniac, the penitent thief on the cross, and many others in the historical narrative as well as parabolic characters like the tax collector who goes home justified, the good Samaritan and the prodigal son.  The yes to receiving, hearing, seeing, and acting in the light of a new creation is salvation and the world’s hope.  As St Augustine is reported to have said, “Without God, I cannot.  Without me, God will not.”

Opposition to the kingdom from without and within is real, however.  The gospels are not a utopian vision of rainbows and puppy dogs.  I may have said a fundamental “yes” to God, but that does not relieve the struggle - actually intensifies it.  Even as we enter onto the way to Jerusalem, the way to death and resurrection with Jesus, we are ensnared in ways of thinking and acting that resemble the legalism of the Pharisees or the power agendas of the empire.  Just as the desire to say “yes” lives within us, so does resistance in the forms of power and control.  The impulsive grasping for the right answer at all costs keeps us inside our gated world and isolated in our own self-righteousness.

Jesus’ response to our inner conflict is to take us down the road of each choice, consumption and transformation, showing us their ends and then leaving it up to us to make a decision.  We are repeatedly hit with an either/or choice – the illusory and temporal which offers us a façade of reality and which is passing away OR the real and eternal which is breaking in and which is our real identity and eternal home.  Either/or is happening with the Good Samaritan are the priest and Levite passing by, the son who returns and celebrates is brother to the one who stays outside, one crucified thief asks Jesus to remember him, the other is mocks Jesus.  The question is “which fire do you want?”  Human life is the confrontation with this radical decision which we avoid at our peril.

This all brings us into the world of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  It illustrates the spiritual crisis of “yes” or “no”.  The rich man is an image of blindness, one whose comforts have dulled him to his deep desire, his humanity.  His soul is revealed in his treatment of the other - rather than being seen, welcomed, and fed (and table fellowship for Luke is the manifestation of new life), Lazarus is invisible, ignored, and waiting for crumbs.  Jesus is painting a picture for the religious leaders in his audience and for us of what happens when we say “no” to the other – we not only leave them to suffer but are choosing to harden our own souls as well.  Compassion received and compassion given reflect Jesus, reflect the kingdom among us.  This is why the parable extends beyond this life – to illustrate that our willingness to see, to care, defines the destiny of our very soul.  Breaking bread with the outsider is allowing my soul to be broken open and receptive to grace.  My own inclusion is ratified in my inclusion of my brother or sister.  I pass through the gate of protection and into the vulnerability of my humanity.  Dare I see, really see the person at my gate when I am conditioned to believe that not seeing that person is acceptable?  And in seeing the one in need, the one I can so easily ignore and right off as worthless, do I treat him or her as a precious and valuable child of God?

So there is both a social and spiritual dimension to the parable.  They are interconnected.  Compassion and generosity blesses both of us just as blindness and greed harms us both.  For Jesus, this is the spiritual revolution because if I allow myself to get stuck in a moral vision in which only some have worth, I am in danger of rejecting the kingdom which declares that all have worth.

We all have blind spots.  We all see ourselves and others selectively and partially.  We are all the rich man to some degree, which is why the intention in prayer and community to get an honest look inside my heart is so important.  My inner rich man takes the form of pointing out the blindness I recognize in other people and judging them accordingly.  My gate is that I want to hear voices that affirm what I believe and resist those that criticize what I believe.  I want to be in the “in” group, I want clean and easy answers to what is going on in the world, who is to blame for its problems, and assurance that the right people will fix things in the right way.  The problems of the world are those other people and the solutions are big and far away from my small life, so I build gates of rationalization, defensiveness, and blame.

What does it mean to be given sight and then move toward the person at my gate?  We must be aware of the danger of abstracted compassion and theoretical mercy. The call is to the particular and the tangible.  It is good to support causes and efforts that address the systemic injustices of our wider country and world, but that support is never a substitute for attending to the person at my gate.

The parable comes back to the person at my gate.  I notice in conversations around the monastery and in parishes a quickness to bewail and lament the positions and behavior of those we deem unenlightened.  The implication is that of course we would never believe or do anything so hateful as that.  When these realities arise in conversation and move you deeply, perhaps God is awakening your conscience to go and work for justice and reconciliation where it is lacking.  But maybe this kind of conversation is the snare of armchair compassion and passive mercy.  What if rather than talking about people we don’t know and don’t like, taking the focus conveniently off our responsibility, we shifted the conversation to the question of the person at the gate?  What is given me to do, to give, to care for those in need?  How can I dismantle my gate and instead build a bridge of understanding across a divide to those I label outsiders?  The great chasm of the parable is a cautionary tale – it need not be if we learn from the rich man how to recognize the hell of blindness for what it is and wake up and engage.  The problems of poverty and injustice are real and bigger than me, but my relatively small act is still important and valuable socially and spiritually.  Reconciliation, respect and caring are not popular and may never be at the big cultural level.  But at the level of my life I can begin with the person next to me.  The one I label outsider is a gift who shows me what is in my soul and where I am going if I am willing to look.          

May God give us the grace to see and the desire to act. Amen.                            


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