Two Funerals

The lead pastor of First Baptist Church rose to the pulpit to offer the eulogy. A cherished member of the congregation, a leading contributor to the recent education wing addition, had died. The preacher recalled the departed’s impact on the community: his service on the boards of several non profits; membership in the Chamber of Commerce and the Elk’s Club. He had been likable and dependable. Those closest to him, acquaintances more than friends-- the man had no family-- spoke of his generosity and sense of humor. A pillar of the community, he would be dearly missed. “Blessed are those who mourn,” the preacher said. We would be comforted in our grief.

Across town at the morgue in the hospital basement, the attendant signed out the body of a man to the local funeral home. A week earlier, a body was found in the ditch outside one of the stately homes near the country club. “Homes from $1 million+” proclaimed the giant billboard soaring above the security booth outside the city’s most exclusive gated housing development. The man, covered in sores, and emaciated for lack of food, was found by the security guard on his morning check up through the neighborhood. The dead man’s wallet was empty of everything but his state driver’s license, which had expired a decade ago. The man’s name was Lazarus. Upon arriving on the scene, the authorities knocked on the door of the McMansion. No answer. Upon entering the home, the authorities found the man, dead, in his bed. Turns out the owner of the house, a widower with no children or living relatives, also died on the same day as Lazarus.

This past week in our country, two more African American men were killed by police-- one in Tulsa, the other in Charlotte. Protests arose in cities across the US, and in Charlotte those protests became violent-- a protester was killed; it’s unclear by whom-- there was also looting and property damage. Many pastors were seen standing between police and protesters Wednesday night, trying to ensure some peace. Also this week President Obama announced at the United Nations that the US would increase the number of global refugees allowed to settle here by 60%-- to 110,000. Some of those would come to Texas. The Federal Government expects Texas to resettle 25% more refugees next year-- roughly 10,000 from the reported 7,633 we received in 2016.  In response, Governor Abbott threatened to withdraw Texas from the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program. The move is largely seen as symbolic and political-- the funding for resettlement would be transferred to non profits; Texas cannot stop refugees from moving here. The Texas Bishops of the United Methodist Church issued their own response:

As bishops of The United Methodist Church in Texas we join with other faith leaders in our state to encourage Governor Greg Abbott to seek a pathway that will affirm the worth of all humankind.  

As Christians and as Texans our values are grounded in respect and hospitality toward newcomers. Those values lead us to welcome refugees to our state. We recognize that these are difficult and complex times but as Christians, we rely on Jesus Christ to overcome our fear of those who may be different.

The United Methodist Church in our Social Principles states, “We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God…. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.”

We ask for God’s blessing on those who will step in to serve in the absence of our state’s participation in the resettlement effort, for they are truly being the hands and feet of Christ.

Justice requires a respect for the vulnerable. Justice requires an openness and vulnerability to those who are suffering. Justice acts out of faith and not fear, trusting that we worship a God of justice. The events of the past week, and the message of the parable, challenge us to see and hear the suffering of others-- and to act.

The rich man dressed in fine purple robes. Purple is a color of power and wealth-- the preferred color of royalty. The rich man, unnamed, is king of his own mansion. He feasts every night on the finest food and wine. In his loneliness, he lives a lifestyle of the rich and famous. But there is an emptiness in his life. Not materially-- anyone can see the the luxuries status and privilege can afford us by looking around the guy’s home. Outside, the same beggar, day after day, is silently expecting a handout. How he escapes the security guard outside the neighborhood gate is a constant frustration. This has been voiced more than once at the monthly homeowner’s association, and the rich man makes a mental note to bring it up again next Wednesday night. But he won’t make that meeting. It’ll be cancelled, because the association will need the meeting room for a neighborhood gathering to remember the man’s life.

Outside the house a poor hungry man, Lazarus, is dying. He is not an infrequent visitor to the man’s home. Several years ago he became ill, lost his job and health insurance, and became destitute. Despite his many requests for help, he has been ignored. His body is weak. He is unable to move. The neighborhood dogs come by every day to lick the man’s wounds. Every day he could hear the rich man shouting from his limo: “Get a job!” “Get off my lawn!” “Get a life!”

The other day I went to the eye doctor for the first time in my life. I can see distances clearly, but reading is a little fuzzy. A couple of years ago I snagged some reading glasses from the lost and found of my previous church and they helped, but I thought it was time to embrace reality. So I have these beautiful new readers that actually fit my face. It is amazing how clearly I can read the words of the Bible now. Let me show you:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
  because he has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
  and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
- Luke 4:18-19
Do you see clearly?

The wicked go down to the realm of the dead, all the nations that forget God. But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.
 — Psalm 9: 17-18
Do you see clearly?

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
"If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
 — Isaiah 58:6-11
Do you see clearly?

[Jesus] said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
 — Luke 6:20-21
Do you see clearly?

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
 — 1 John 3:17
Do you see clearly?

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need
 — Deuteronomy 15:7-8
Do you see clearly?

As a preacher I am always critical of pastors who quote Bible verses out of context, which I just did-- if you’d like to know the context take Disciple Bible study! I hope you see clearly now a consist message of the Bible is to be people of justice. Many of the challenges of our society come down to this: we are not seeing the needs of our neighbors clearly. Persons of color, persons of a different sexual orientation, people who look or speak differently, people from a different place. Every one of us is a child of God, and therefore worthy of respect. If no one else gets this, the church must.

The Jeremiah text is one of the silliest in all of scripture. As the army of a foreign power surround Jerusalem, Jeremiah finds himself in jail. For 32 chapters he has forecasted this, and now doom is imminent. Then a visitor comes to see him. His cousin, selling the family farm at Anathoth. The scene in the middle of the jail is hilarious: witnesses are called, silver is measured out, deeds are signed and filed. Why? The land is worthless! Except that it is not. The law of the Bible requires property, even worthless land occupied by a foreign power, remain in the family. It is a protection against generational poverty: there will always be a source of income. Jeremiah buys the property as an investment in God’s future: “Houses will be built, and vineyards will be grown, in this land again.” Jeremiah sees God’s future, and God’s vision of justice, clearly. And he acts.

The rich man in the parable did not. Every snide remark, every ignored plea for help, is a brick laid in a bigger and bigger wall between Lazarus and himself. The wall becomes so strong that it separates the two in death. It cannot be crossed over from either side-- that’s how strong it is. Every time we refuse hospitality to those in need, every time we dismiss the cries of another after a police shooting, every time we pretend problems do not exist, another brick is laid in the wall that separates us. The rich man realizes it’s too late for him-- but what about his brothers? Abraham says, “No, they have the law of Moses and the prophets. If they won’t listen to them, they won’t listen to anyone, even if someone rises from the dead.” It’s too late for him, but not for us. See the needs of others. See them as children of God worthy of respect. See them, hear them, and act. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.