Ubuntu, the Rich Man and Lazarus

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What is the magic of seeing someone? What is the function of empathy? Recently I heard a TED talk by a psychologist named Dr. Goleman who wrote a pretty popular book on Emotional Intelligence. He reflected on our increasingly self-absorbed society and the lack of empathy. Over the course of his studies he came to learn that our rush, our busy-ness, keeps us from seeing those who are most in need. This surprised him because, as he put it, we are hardwired for empathy. Our brains are geared for empathy and compassion. It’s one of the reasons people slow down at traffic accidents. It’s why we feel so heartbroken over the news sometimes, powerless, hurt, and angry. We are hardwired to feel for each other.

 

The African philosophy of Ubuntu states that “I will not be well, if my brother, if my sister, is not well.” It reminds us that we belong to each other and while we might rush right by those who are hurting and hope that it won’t impact us, eventually, it always does. In our scripture today the rich man, who interestingly enough and counter-culturally enough, doesn’t have a name, he’s the one who rushes right by Lazarus who has been knocked down by life and left at his gates. We know that, on some level, the rich guy knew who Lazarus was, his plight did register at some level, after all he knew Lazarus’ name, but mostly he was busy with his schedule and his fancy parties and social climbing and there was always business to attend to, actually seeing Lazarus as a fellow human being who suffered, wasn’t on the agenda.

 

It’s as if he simply had no clue how Lazarus lived. Perhaps he was just too busy or preoccupied, but he missed seeing Lazarus, missed connecting with him. And this isn’t to say that he was an evil man. At least I hope not, because Princeton Seminary, a good Presbyterian seminary if ever there was one! Did a study where they challenged their seminary students to study a text, and then go to another building to preach on it. On the way from one building to another each student would encounter a man seemingly bent double in pain, moaning and clearly in need of help. Now half of these students had been given the text of the Good Samaritan and half had been given other texts. You might think, you might hope, that these good and kind students who are devoting themselves to scripture and hope to be of service to the world and who have just been studying the example of the Good Samaritan would stop and help this man, but many didn’t. What they discovered was that if the students felt rushed or anxious, they barely even noticed the man, even if they had just been reading the text of the Good Samaritan.

 

Isn’t that something? We can contemplate the good and righteous thing we most want to become and see in the world and still miss the opportunity to realize that-literally make it real- when it shows up. I gotta tell you that is not good news for a preacher! Because it suggests, or states, that no matter how good this sermon, or the text we share, no matter how deep our understanding of the scripture, it will not change our behavior. We can do all the intellectual processing and it will not necessarily change us.

 

So what will? Where is the good news?

 

Dr. Goleman didn’t just leave us at this low point, like a good lecturer or preacher even, he found the good news and he didn’t give up until he did so. He said that, as a psychologist he was brought into close contact with lots of people who suffered from mental illness and he began to notice as he walked the streets that many of the homeless people had a particular look on their face, in their features, that resembled the more fortunate patients he had worked with. Now the thing is, he knew his patients. He knew their stories and their pain, he had great empathy and compassion for them, so when he saw strangers who he did not know, who nonetheless resembled people he did know, some of that veil of indifference, of preoccupation, was pierced. He began to feel compassion for those he was passing on the street. It shifted his focus. His compassion for his patients drew him into compassion for those who now took on a familiar look.

 

One day, when he was headed home and went down to the subway. It was a Friday and there were lots of people headed home and headed into the city and he noticed that there was a man collapsed on the steps. People were stepping over him and around him and didn’t even seem to notice, but Dr. Goleman stopped and when he did, a small but kind and loving crowd stopped with him. He discovered that the man was Hispanic and didn’t speak English, that he was lost and alone and hadn’t eaten in days. He discovered that the man had actually fainted from hunger and as he learned these things, people began to move, one came back with orange juice, another had a hot dog, one had a clean shirt for the gentleman. All it took was for one person to see this man, to step forward and hold out a hand, and the humanity, the compassion, the empathy in everyone else was drawn out.

 

Amazing isn’t it?

 

But let’s look at another example. Two years ago the middle school football team of Olivet Michigan did something unusual. For weeks they planned an unusual play, well two plays if you listen to them talk about it. One member of their team was a young developmentally delayed boy with some boundary issues. He was always too quick to hug, too sensitive, too easily overwhelmed, but always loving, always had his heart on his sleeve. Now you might expect with the culture of middle school that he would be a target for teasing and ridicule. We’ve sort of come to expect that. He was one of the “least of these” but at that particular time the team decided to do something different. The quarterback took the ball, made the run, all the way to within a yard of touchdown…and then he took a knee, stopped, halted, planted that ball one yard from the finish line. The crowd was a little crazy over this! They must have wondered why he was throwing the game, or at least the touchdown, but the next move, the next move stunned everyone. The team gathered around the receiver, who was not the quarterback, but this developmentally challenged boy, and they surrounded him, and they escorted him in true mid-game, football fashion, right over the finish line.

 

But that’s not the end of the story. It might seem easy to focus on this boy and his parents and their shock and surprise at how this team cared for and loved on their most vulnerable member, but there’s more. In the telling of this story one of the young men was asked, “Was this your idea?”and he responded with genuine humility as he said “No sir. I was too self absorbed. I never would have thought of it. I didn’t even notice him.” And the tears began to trace their way down his face as he admitted this, an on-air, live confession. “But it changed you,” the reported said, and the boy smiled, “Yes, I never thought I could make such a difference to anyone.” His life was changed by the invitation to be a source of grace. Let that sink in, the invitation to BE a source of grace to another, is grace. We are blessed that we might be a blessing.

Olivet Michigan Eagles football team, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ejh_hb15Fc

 

So I titled this sermon Ubuntu, because it is one of my favorite philosophies and it comes from Africa and it was popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It speaks to what it means to be fully human and it is often summed up by the phrase, “I cannot be well if my brother, if my sister, is not well.” It points to our interconnected nature. That no matter how hard I might try to be an island and need no one, I am still connected to you, and you, and you. When I think of ubuntu I am reminded of a hermetic monk who resided at remote hermitage that Henri Nouwen visited. I am reminded of this nameless man because he ran up to Mr. Nouwen and said so very earnestly to him, “please, let them know we are out here, and that we are praying for them.” Even the hermit monk, who spends days and days in prayer, feels and responds to our interconnected nature.

 

In our scripture today the nameless rich man violates the spirit of ubuntu and goes about his daily life as if his actions and his being did not in fact impact others, others such as Lazarus sitting at his gate. You see, I believe that Lazarus was a blessing that this man needed very badly in his life, and he missed it. And our parable goes on to say that sometimes, sometimes these lost opportunities are just lost and we must mourn their loss and we can’t make it right. We have a tendency to go about our daily lives focused on the bright and beautiful, because that is where we are taught blessings come from, but that may not be where we will find the blessing we most desperately need.

 

If we are suffering, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other. The CEO of Energy Transfer, Kelcy Warren, lives in his 27,000 square foot mansion in Houston Texas, and like the unnamed rich man, he doesn’t seem to recognize the native people of North Dakota, even as they sit outside his pipeline project and beg for clean water. He has insulated himself from their demands, from their humanity, and he acts as if he is unaware that we all belong to one another, and when he acts as if he could possibly do well at the expense of others, he damages his own humanity.

 

This is what the philosophy of ubuntu recognizes. If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten, we belong to each other. We are all a part of the body of Christ and the hand cannot despise the foot, the head cannot despise the heart. If our country is in turmoil of late, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other. White folk and black folk-we belong to each other, police and the communities they serve-we belong to each other, those whose ground water and soil have been contaminated by chemicals and the manufacturers who spilled out those chemicals- we belong to each other, we will have no peace while we pretend we can do well or be well, at the expense of our brothers and sisters.

 

We have been blessed that we might be a blessing…and the astonishing thing about that is how very deeply we are blessed by the act of blessing others. Those who seek to do well at the expense of others, or even in defiance or ignorance of our interconnected nature, injure themselves. They deny themselves the incredible opportunity to bless others, and in so doing they diminish their own humanity.

 

For generations this parable has been seen as a warning. It has been read and reread to see if we can understand the afterlife and what hell might await us, but I am hopeful that we can read it as a signpost pointing us to a heaven on earth, that we might see how incredible and wonderful it might be if we loved each other as if we belonged to each other, because I believe this to be true.

Rock Bottom

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There can be beauty in getting lost—being lost strips us, pares us down to the bone, shows us what is and isn’t relevant. So often we get distracted by our day to day routine, being lost breaks that routine, wakes us up and reminds us of what is and isn’t important.

 

When I am lost, I know I can trust that I am not on my path, not on my own agenda, and I am invited to wonder if God is showing me something I would never find on my own. Getting lost is the interruption of habitual not seeing. Discovering that you are lost, is the art of noticing things are not quite what they ought to be. It is the beginning of searching, of seeking. It is to be so involved in the moment that everything comes alive, everything seems to speak to you, to draw you into conversation and has some special, particular meaning for you. It is to look closer at each thing, seeking recognition and being aware of the unknown. Every bent twig or clump of grass has a suggestion, the right way, the wrong way, you’ve been here before; just as every repeated argument or turn of phrase suggests a habitual way of being, and the startling words you never expected to hear come out of your mouth suggests something new is being born in you. We so habitually repeat the same patterns, if it doesn’t work the first time we generally try harder, shout louder as if we could make it work if we just put more force into it, but what if we were to try something new?

 

I am a great advocate of getting lost, of losing oneself and forgoing familiarity. I love to drive through strange and new areas, and see what might lie out there just waiting to be discovered. I love to wander through the woods, off the trail, across streams, and find quiet, untouched places to sit and watch the wind blow through the trees. Each place is so common to those who live there, those who habitually inhabit it, but always new to the stranger, the wanderer, the lost. If we can trust that we never wander alone, that we will make it home eventually, then we can bravely get lost and in getting lost we discover so much more about ourselves, and we find a quiet spaciousness in which we can rest. We discover strength to lean on, patience to wait for the next thing, and we develop a watchful eye.

 

The freedom to be lost is the freedom to make mistakes, to dare great and amazing things knowing that even if we fail God will be there for us. God has our back, like any loving parent. This is our sustaining faith that allows us to explore, to learn, to embrace doubt and big questions, knowing that we don’t have to hold everything together. We don’t have to be self-sufficient. We can embrace our path, our journey, without hesitation. Being lost, making mistakes, does not have to be a fearful thing anymore. Doubt becomes a friend. Questions become friends.

 

Better to be lost and seeking

Here in this big bright world

Than confirmed and closeted in certainty

 

Better to be wondering

And filled with awe

That marvelous beginning of wisdom

Than confined to prescribed answers

And an anxious attempt to ace the next test

 

Better to be broken and disturbed

With a heart that aches to reach out

To connect, to share, to laugh and love again,

Than whole and complete,

Sufficient unto one’s self

Needing no one,

 

Better to be lost and broken than that.

 

We get to live from a place of ruthless, outrageous trust, because God has promised us that if we ever get lost, he will hunt for us with single-minded devotion, until he finds us. It means we get to acknowledge our flaws. We get to say I am both sinner and saint, broken, messed up, and still a beloved child of God. It means we get to face our flaws and our mistakes with gentleness and compassion and that we don’t pretend they aren’t there. We don’t have to be afraid that if we were really known, known through and through, that we would not be loved. You know that phrase right, “if they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me,” that fearful doubt that causes us to pull away from love, from relationship, from any attempt to connect. We get to say that we are fully known, all our mistakes, all our flaws, and we are deeply, truly loved and we get to be utterly shattered by this discovery, broken open, everything made new.

 

We get to say with raw humility that I mess up sometimes, I get angry, I get scared and I say things I don’t mean, or even sometimes I say and do things that are just straight up hurtful, but we get to walk into this darkness, this painful place with our eyes wide open and really see what is there, because however bad it is, and sometimes it is bad. Consider King David as he faces up to his act of coercing sex from a strange woman, sending her husband off to be killed, his desperate attempts to cover up what he has just done. Sometimes it is really bad, but it is never so bad, so dark, so lost, so painful, that God will not come looking for us with relentless devotion and love.

 

Let me say that again, we can hold all our flaws and mistakes under the bright light of scrutiny and never have to be afraid that it is so bad, so dark, so painful, so lost, that God will not come looking for us right in the midst of our lostness. This is the ruthless trust, the bold faith, that we claim.

 

It is not that we must dig out every wretched thing we have ever done and dwell on them, like picking at old wounds or striving to feel the pang of shame as some sort of dues we must pay before we can be loved. It is not that. Long before we even realize we are lost, God is looking for us. Long before we acknowledge our wrongdoing, our mistakes and slips, God is working to restore us to right relationship. We begin our worship service with confession not so that God can know we are sorry. God knows we are sorry and we suffer when we act hurtfully. It is that we can experience again and again that God’s love shines in every corner of our soul, even those places where we don’t really want to be seen, where it is hard to trust that anyone can look on us and still love us. We need to be reminded of that! Because it is not the way of the world, it is not our way. We draw lines and say this far and no further. We say he or she crossed a line and I’m just done. We say I just can’t bear it anymore. But God doesn’t.

 

We cannot heal what we will not acknowledge; old wounds denied and left to fester do not sit idle but spread their infection. They grow inside us and it’s painful. Pain that is not transformed, is transmitted. So much of the pain of this election season comes from the fragility we feel around our mistakes. We deny, deny, deny that we could have ever done anything wrong, because mistakes are deadly and the electorate does not forgive! So we have all these sound bites of people insisting they’ve never made any mistakes, but let me tell you about the other person. And the pain of their mistakes spreads,

 

The crowd to whom Jesus spoke was no different. They had to be perfect. They were the Pharisees and the scribes, those who had made it, who rested in certainties and who could not bear the thought of losing their security. Like a child learning to swim, they clung to what seemed firm and solid, clinging to each other, staying out of the deep water, but we were never meant to live that way. We were meant to swim into the deep waters, into the depths, into the wide open rivers, lakes and streams. We were meant to live not for security’s sake or certainty’s sake but for love, for connection with each other and with God, and that requires vulnerability and courage. So we can let go of the edge of the pool, or whatever image of security and certainty feels right to you, and risk being swept away.

 

I suspect that God loves us most dearly when we allow ourselves to fall back into God’s loving arms, trusting we will be caught. We tend to resist this. We hate our rock bottom places, those places which force us to acknowledge we don’t have it all together and we can’t control everything, as much as we would like to. Rock bottom is when we must accept that on our own, we can’t make it better and we have exhausted our resources and made our family crazy trying to do so.

We so habitually armor ourselves with projects, busyness, concrete certainties and I suspect that God loves us most dearly when all of these artificial constructs fall away, leaving our tender, vulnerable heart exposed, frightened, but exposed.

 

The Pharisees and scribes, those who had made it, had armored themselves against any potential loss or deficit, who had large bank accounts and silos full of grain, rock solid reputations and who appeared so invulnerable, find themselves outside the party, and there is always a party! How wonderful is that? When God finds us, there is a party! But like the prodigal’s brother in the pericope that follows on the heels of this one. In the courtyard, still armored and defended, because it’s just not right that the broken one, the rock bottom one, is met with such joyous, tender love, when it should be us! We should be the ones who are lauded and celebrated! We did everything right! How can you possibly wrap your arms around that loser? But God loves a loser and God loves the lost, the broken, those who are enduring the sifting and winnowing of the rock bottom places. God loves us and seeks us and will never let us go.

 

We can take courage and face our rock bottom places, our lost places, our inadequacies, letting our useless armor fall, rattling down in a heap, knowing that God is always seeking us. We can enter our rock bottom places, tears, frustration, despair, all of it, knowing that we are not alone.

 

No matter how hard we try, and generally we do, we can’t handle it all on our own and we aren’t above being lost, but knowing that God is seeking us the whole time, perhaps we can endure looking at our shadow, acknowledging that we aren’t without flaw, that we have said and done things that are hurtful, and let the Holy Wind of God, that Spirit which blows where it will, sift our being, winnow out the chaff and trust that what remains at the end of the day, is both holy and good, is dearly, dearly loved, and is so very precious in God’s sight.

 

We cannot heal what we will not acknowledge, pain that isn’t transformed is transmitted, and looking into the depths, letting go of our certainties can be terrifying, but Jesus tells us it’s okay. We can dare to be lost and we can be compassionate with ourselves and with others in the midst of that lostness and brokenness, because God is always seeking us.

 

 

 

 

 

Totally Convicted

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So a few years ago a young man, completely unchurched, asked me if he would have to confess all his sins to the pastor, who clearly would be an old man in robes seated in a wooden box behind a screen, if he went to church. Apparently in our tradition it’s the pastor who must confess though, because here I am confessing again.

 

You see I wrestled with this scripture and wrestled in the good exegetical fashion I’d been taught. Like Jacob in the dark of night, don’t let go of that scripture until it blesses you! I read the commentaries and I listened to the podcasts of great preachers talking about how they understand this scripture and I knew, I really knew, that they were struggling too because a lot of them were saying, “well look at the scripture around this one, look at what else was said,” but they didn’t say, “here’s the blessing I found in this scripture.”

 

So I got to thinking about how this text calls me out, convicts me. There are lots of questions to be asked of this text, such as, “How did this group of people hear Jesus when he said, “take up your cross” because, while we might hear something about Jesus’ death, they didn’t know! They had no idea, at that time, that Jesus was headed toward a crucifixion. It would have been the weirdest thing to hear a preacher say! If you would follow me, be willing to take on a death curse! Be willing to take on a death that will shame your entire family! We hear it in the context of Jesus’ self sacrifice but that hadn’t happened yet and we can wonder just how they might have heard it and how many shook their heads and walked off. And this points us to an understanding of scripture as well, because we notice that this story, this text was written after Jesus death and how could the author not have been thinking of Jesus’ death and resurrection even as he wrote these words?

 

And the scandal of being told to hate your mother and father? Outrageous! What ever happened to “honor your father and mother”? Sell off all of your possessions? What happened to the idea that if God loved you, he would bless you with abundance?

 

We are pretty used to Jesus being countercultural, shaking us up, asking us to flip our thinking inside out and upside down. As I wrestled with this scripture it was just really hard to find the blessing and I began to feel more and more convicted.

 

So let me begin by confessing that a whole lot of times I say I want things I don’t really want. I mean, if there were a fairy godmother who could wave her wand and just grant me things, I’d be happy to have them, but if really wanting these things means digging deep and doing the work necessary to get them, well then I really don’t want them and I know I’m supposed to. I know I’m supposed to want to be a physical dynamo of good health. But…a few weeks ago after a church service, I ate all the cream puffs. If you went back to the table to get one and found them all gone, well that was me. I ate them all. It’s pretty easy to imagine a physical trainer telling me, “If you want to achieve your goals you must hate cream puffs!” but I don’t hate them. I think they’re awesome! And truth be told, I really don’t like doing cardio! I know I should be all pumped up and rawr! I’m going to get fit! But I don’t like cardio!

 

Can I get an amen there? Because I know I’m not alone. But it’s not just physical fitness and it’s not just that I really do believe I have a mandate to care for my body, to practice good stewardship for all the gifts I’ve been given, one of which is really great health. I’ve tried and tried to learn to play guitar and I just can’t. I can’t because when the pain in my fingers gets too strong I give up. I want to learn a second language, have spent some time playing on duolingo a free, internet based application, but I get bored and move on to other things. So, yes, I can be pretty faithless in my attempts to achieve goals that I loudly proclaim I want.

 

I can hear myself shouting out, with all of Jesus’ followers, “I’ll follow you anywhere, even into the gates of death!” but would I really mean it? After all I’ve given up on so many other things that are simpler, easier, that don’t challenge me nearly so much. So it’s easy for me to imagine Jesus getting frustrated with these half-hearted, uncommitted responses and challenging the crowd, “Oh, you think you want what I have to offer? Really? Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” and I cringe a little inside because I know that I can be a little lazy in following through on my commitments.

 

I even wondered, as I drove over here one morning, what if the initial interviews for olympic hopefuls sounded like this, “are you willing to hate your mother and father, to leave your best friends, to despise proms and parties, are you willing to give up all your free time and spend everything you have in pursuit of this dream?” When I think of these stunning athletes and what they accomplish, it’s easier to accept this sort of demand for their loyalty, because, without their commitment, their incredible dedication, they would be just ordinary people, unexceptional, and maybe that’s the thing I needed to look for in this text, not a blessing exactly, but a challenge.

 

Nadia Comaneci was famously asked as a very young girl if she believe little girls could fly and she responded yes! And this convinced them she could be ‘the one’. She believed in her heart of hearts that she could fly! She could do great, wonderful and amazing things! Her path is so different from my path that I can only imagine how her heart must have been singing inside of her, just overflowing with joy when she really did fly.

 

Jesus tells us to count the cost of our decision to follow him. He asks us what we are willing to lose and if we can really, truly drink the cup, but perhaps he is also asking us if we can fly. Can we dare to believe that we can fly? That we can live lives so rich in faith and love and grace that our very being is transformed?

 

Our Deuteronomy text is a little clearer on the blessing. We have choice. We do not follow a god who forces himself upon us. This is no Greek god who chases you through the woods and fields and forces us, demands our allegiance at the pain of death, from whom we would escape if we only could. This particular heresy is known as nominalism and it is still preached in many places. God will have you, you have no choice, so just get used to it. But this is not the Christian God. Yes, we have a powerful and almighty God, but we also understand that God, very God, loves us so much that we will never be forced into relationship, never forced to be or do something that we do not choose, so Jesus challenges us, calls us out, asks us to commit ourselves wholly and completely, to choose God before family, nation, prosperity, even before ourselves, and the blessing is this, that in choosing God first and foremost we are choosing life, a life so rich and abundant that our hearts will sing, we will really, really fly!

 

We have been called into relationship with God, and yet choice still remains with us. We are called to choose life, not death; and this is the blessing. Today we are challenged to choose life. To wrestle with God, with our community, with ourselves, until we find the blessing and not give up until we do. We are called to choose life. To life vibrant full and rich lives that reflect the gospel truth, we are God’s beloved children and we have this privilege, this freedom, to choose, and it can feel like a whole lot of weight, of responsibility. How will we commit ourselves anew today? How will we choose life today? This text is asking us to consider how we are committing ourselves to God and how we are living into this commitment.

 

And the promise is this; that if we choose to follow God, and struggle to keep that commitment, we will have life and have it abundantly. It is not that God will punish us for failing, only that God, like a loving parent, wants us to be as happy and fulfilled as we can be, that we might be filled with light and love and know we can really fly!