Seeing Ourselves

Sermon, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church Easthampton, MA- September 25th, 2016
From the time that my English teacher showed my classmates and me the poem, I have been struck deeply by the refrain of Scottish poet, Robert Burns’ biting poem: To A Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet – in Church.  The impact of the poem’s words were so profound that this refrain has been a part of my memory bank ever since.  Although I cannot replicate the lyrical Highlands’s accent of Burns’ words, the refrain goes like this:…

O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as ithers see us!
This refrain’s theme corresponds to my favorite hymn, which set to the melodious Irish tune sears the prayerful heart:
 Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
all else be nought to me save that thou art –
thou my best thought, by day or by night,
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.[1]
There is seeing, and then there is the awareness, the insight, the perception and appreciation of what is seen.  This is the sense of discerning vision that the irony of Burns’ poem notes.  How do we see things from a perspective, a vantage point that is larger and more comprehensive than our own?  More pressing, to what extent do we dare to acknowledge seeing what would be more convenient for us to deny?To consider the response to these questions from a biblical faith obviously entails including God in the mix.  And so, over the years, I had Burns’ refrain echo in my head to say this:

Oh, what a gift it would be to us
To see ourselves as God sees us.Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart …

There is blindness, and then there is blindness.  There are those who do not have the physical capacity to see or to see clearly; and then there are the rest of us who choose to be blind to certain things and situations.  In a manner of speaking, we all have a partially detached retina.  All of us have a blind spot, when it comes to seeing what is real and how that reality touches us.  That blind spot almost always includes not wanting to see God and God’s life more fully in our lives.  Enter the prophets.It is a common misnomer to think of the prophets of God as fortunetellers, forecasting events before they happen.  Biblically speaking, this is wrong.  For God calls his prophets to speak to the Lord’s people about what the Holy One is doing at the present moment.  Their words and proclamations are not forecasts, like some religious meteorologist.  Rather, the prophets are forth-tellers.  They unwaveringly proclaim to the people what God is up to at that particular moment.  They offer assistance to seeing God and to seeing what God sees in us.

This prophetic vision most often challenges our eyes to see what we would otherwise rather deny – about ourselves and how we live.  Consequently, history is replete with acts of violence against God’s prophets (ancient and contemporary) in a fearful effort to eliminate the possibility of confronting what is too painful, too inconvenient, too threatening to see.  As a friend once preached, because of this propensity to make us see what God sees, prophets are only asked to dinner once.

Enter the prophet Amos.

Amos was a herdsman and a “dresser of sycamore trees.” [Amos 7:14]  He was not a member of the formal fraternity of prophets but came to speak to Israel as an outsider, with the clear, unadulterated vision of an outsider, which is the reason God called him to speak on the Lord’s behalf.  The words Amos spoke were God’s words to God’s people.  They were words of anger and judgment and even of doom over Israel’s self-satisfaction and self-indulgence.  Amos spoke words that held Israel accountable to the terms of the covenant, and judgment was rendered because the nation had reneged on its partnership with God.

But underneath the hard prophetic words that Amos spoke lay the broken heart of God.  Aggrieved at Israel’s blindness and hard-heartedness, God presented the judgments of a spurned lover.  As hard as these judgments are to hear and as threatening as their consequences are, God gave them from a perspective of steadfast love and in hopes of provoking life-saving reform and repentance.

This same, sharp prophetic vision and tone also lies at the heart of this morning’s gospel, where Jesus tells the parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”  The parable demonstrates what the God-life is and what God sees – and what God wants to see – in us.  As intriguing and full of many spiritual insight as the parable is, I believe that its essential point is for us to be able to see our own lives in its detail – for good or for ill.  The implicit question the gospel parable asks is: To what extent do we need to reform our lives and repent of our fearful blindnesess?

Let me mention a few of the intriguing aspects of the parable but then draw us to the point of our response to what we have seen in its story.

The first observation is that without a doubt Jesus sets up a dichotomy between a rich man and a devastatingly poor man.   It is a dichotomy in which our sympathies unavoidably rest with the downtrodden Lazarus.  The fact that Lazarus is named in the parable is unique in Jesus’ parables.  This “poor one” is not allowed to be anonymous to us, whereas the “rich man” is a generic figure, much like all the other characters in the gospel parables.  So, from the start, the trajectory of the parable is with Lazarus and against the rich man.

This trajectory of judgment is further emphasized by the fact that when both the rich man and Lazarus die and the narrative continues in the after-life, the rich man knows Lazarus’ name. Lazarus is not anonymous to the rich man either.  That the rich man ignored the poor man’s need so knowingly, stepping over him, in fact, all the while knowing who Lazarus was seals the impending indictment.

A third subtlety of the parable and its trajectory stems from the dramatic description of Lazarus’ broken situation and the dogs.  (I couldn’t ignore the dogs!)

Much can and has been made about the dogs licking Lazarus’ open wounds, and mostly we are repelled by these reflections: how helpless Lazarus was; how predatory the dogs seem to be.  But there is, as I say, a more subtle insight to this particular scene that adds to the parable’s overall trajectory and meaning.

We are told in the parable that Lazarus simply desires the scraps from the rich man’s table (16:21), which is (I think) an allusion to the parable of the “Prodigal Son” and the situation the young son faced.  The quiet irony within today’s scene is that in his destitution, Lazarus’ own body provides a licked meal for the dogs; and, in turn, the dogs are the only ones to provide Lazarus with any comfort.  This is to say that the instinctive dogs realize what the rich man does not: That people in pain need help.[2]

The parable’s trajectory begins to land on its mark, when Father Abraham confronts the rich man.  In the parable’s staging of the after-life, the roles of the rich man and Lazarus are seemingly reversed, where the reward for the way the rich man lives is now cashed out in torment and punishment.  Even in this state of possible insight, the rich man continues to view Lazarus’ value as a person only in terms of what the miserable one might do for the rich one: “ … send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” [Lk. 16:24b]

An added aspect of his blindness is that the rich man desires intercession for his brothers, that they may avoid the torment he is experiencing, when he could have asked that the millions in the world who are suffering unjustly and with no advocate might have intercession and relief.  But no: this is not what the rich man asks because this is not what the rich man is about.

And here we approach the salient and central point of the parable, which is the same point that the prophet Amos is called on to make to the nation of Israel.  Through the covenant made with Abraham, the Jews are called upon to love God and to love neighbor.  Baptism in Christ grafts Christians to the same tree and to the same partnership of what our life entails.  The rich man has failed God with his hedonistic behavior and his self-serving blindness.  The rich man has failed God and the partnership with God in neglecting to show hospitality to another.  He is blind to this “sin,” to this violation of promise; and he is, as a result, blind to his own responsibilities to reflect that holy and life-giving partnership in his own life and behavior.

 

Yet, there is more to this parable than the (albeit important) themes of after-life, economic and social justice, and living in the sight of God.  The trajectory of the parable does not reside in terms of being a morality tale with spiritual platitudes; and as such the parable will not let us off the hook.  For none of us identify with the rich man.  He is not us; nor do we identify with Lazarus.  His situation is as extreme in terms of poverty as the rich man’s is in terms of wealth.  So, the implicit question for those of us who choose to see and discern  the meaning of this parable is this: What should average folks like us do in response to this parable?  What should middle folks like you and me be seeing and doing, as we confront this Jesus’ story?  What do we do with the parable’s warnings?[3]  Or do we slough the story off, not seeing our own blindness?

 

The same could be asked of us as St. Philip’s.  We are not the rich man, to be sure; but there are Lazaruses aplenty around us, so much so that we are tempted to be overwhelmed by these needs, seeking relief in chosen blindness.

In all honesty, I am increasingly uncomfortable with our parish’s lack of awareness of the needs around us and how very little we do in response to those needs.  Our outreach ministries are inadequate and, as such, displeasing to God.  So much for the harsh tones of Amos.

We’ve been together for over a year now.  We have promised to be about the doing of ministry in Jesus’ name.  What will we do to respond to the Lazaruses in our midst?  Are we even willing to see the needs?  The time has come for us to take the next step together and be a faithful resource and to do at least as much as the dogs did.

Oh what a gift it would be to us
to see ourselves as others sees us.
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart …
Amen.

[1] Hymnal 1982: #288; Music: Slane
[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, p. 281.
[3] Levine, p. 295.
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