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Taylor Ruggieri – Sermon 9/25/2016
We look at puppies left behind by owners and wonder how someone could ever abandon something so cute. We look at young children and see innocence. When you walk down the street and see a homeless person, what do you do? Do you walk by, pretending not to see that person? Do you look at them with pity? Do you blame them for some alleged drug problem that probably landed them there? Do you see them?
Working in the clinics in South Africa was unlike anything I have ever done. One clinic, called Lavender Hill, had dirt floors and it was located in the garage of the house of a woman who donated her home to the volunteer organizations in the area. When our van pulled up, you could see through the metal fence ALL the people already sitting in the plastic white lawn chairs, all lined up in order of “first come first serve.” No one was there to tell them what to do or to stay in line, but they did it, every week. We parked the van, grabbed our 12 inch high piles of files… each… We would walk through the gate, then through the grass and dirt around the house to the back entrance of the garage. We then took the names of everyone waitingand figured out who had which client and which clients were brand new. Then, we would call them up to the garage and sit with them in our white plastic lawn chairs. There were no tables to write on so we had to rely on a steady hand and sturdy knees.
My FIRST client was an older woman who was currently homeless. Originally, she owned her own home, but as she got older, she was incapable ofrunning a home and paying for that home. She decided to sell her house and sold it to a couple who agreed to allow her to live on the property in a house called a “wendy” and they also agreed that if they were to move and sell the home, they would help her with her living situation.
To understand this, I have to explain what a wendy home is, because they are so incredibly common in South Africa. A wendy home is a small house built of four walls and a roof.
They can be built, taken down, moved, and rebuilt anywhere there is enough earth to fit them. Some have plumbing and are bigger than others, and some are very basic.
So this woman in front of me tells me about the couple she sold the home to. They had a divorce, the wife moved out, and subsequently, the husband sold the home and left. Before leaving, he gave my client 4,000 R. (Which is roughly 320 US dollars). 1000R went to the woman who allowed my client to come stay with her, for groceries and the like. The other 3000R was used to take the wendy home down and move it to the woman’s property. However, the money he gave only covered the take down and relocation. There was not enough to rebuild the wendy.
So my client, was sleeping on the floor of this woman’s home. She could barely walk up to the garage to meet with me, so sleeping on the floor was undoubtedly painful and debilitating for her. Her personal items were scattered and housed at the homes of numerous church friends who agreed to hold them for her in “storage” until her home was ready. All she wanted was for me to find this man and his ex wife and explain to them that they are legally bound to honor their agreement.
Sounds easy enough. But no. When I asked if she had the contract with her, she told me that it was just a conversation. I asked her if she new where this man and his ex wife lived or if she had phone numbers. She said no.
I looked into her eyes and said “I have to be honest with you, verbal contracts are difficult to enforce even when you know where the other people are, but here, we don’t know where they are and we have no documentation to enforce… I want you to understand that I will do EVERYTHING that I can, but I also wantyou to understand the realities of this situation. Again, I promise to do everything I can.”
I was terrified her reaction would be anger, sadness, or hopelessness. But… she looked at me with tears in her eyes and grabbed both my hands with both of her frail fragile, delicate hands. She squeezed my hands and looked into my eyes, barely able to speak and she began to cry. I let go of her hands and hugged her. And as I did, I could hear her thanking me between sobs. She thanked me and hugged me for about thirty seconds. And then we let go and she grabbed my hands again, she thanked me again. The smile on her face revealing hope and strength. I watched her limp from the garage out into the open air where she had been seated, waiting for legal help just moments ago. I could still feel the presence of her hands holding mine and her arms surrounding me.
I told her the truth about her case, I told her that even if we find these people, the contract was verbal and would be so difficult to enforce. What I said basically meant she would have to look at her home in a pile of debris in her friend’s backyard. What I said meant that her personal items would remain scattered indefinitely. What I said meant that she would have to bring herself to the ground and pick herself up off the ground for the unknown future. What I said could have broke her. But she said “thank you.”
I do not think people with easy lives and a multitude of expensive items will end up in an eternity of torment, and I do not think that is what the Gospel means. The majority of us in this room identify uncomfortably with the Rich Man in the story. I have more than I need and I want for nothing. I AM the Rich Man. And that IS uncomfortable, and unsettling. I don’t want to be a person who lives in a torment created by my own arrogance or ignorance. But this Gospel is given to us an invitation and a warning. An invitation to see those less fortunate than us, and help them.
In my story, I am the Rich Man. But, I didn’t walk past the homeless person at my gate. The issue that Jesus has with wealth is that it has the ability to insulate us from the needs of others. The Rich Man walked past Lazarus EVERY day, refusing to see him or acknowledge him, let alone help him. My clients were grateful to me because I not only saw them, but because I was someone who wanted to travel to South Africa for the sole purpose of working there to help them.
I had a client in a wheelchair who was unable to make it up to the garage because of the incline, dirt, and stones. I brought my chair out to her to hear her story. Her ex boyfriend had been drinking one night, like usual, and when she got home from work, he beat her, kicked her, and cracked her body in half with his own sheer strength. He left her on the floor, unable to move, finished his drink and went to bed. She only made it to the hospital because her neighbors happened to be close by the NEXT day. She laid on the floor for hours, paralyzed, while the man she had loved slept off his intoxicating evil.
The issue she came to me with was that the police and the court were giving her extra hoops to jump through. She had five witnesses in her case that needed to have depositions taken at the court. The court and police were requiring her to get all her witnesses together, and bring them on the same day for the depositions. And if they didn’t finish, she would have to bring them all back.
If that sounds completely messed up to you, then you are right. Now many cops in South Africa do their jobs with everything they have and the best intentions with the highest respect. But the majority of officers in South Africa are corrupt. In her case, our office would need to reach out to those officers and that court to explain to them that what they were requiring of my client is illegal and they must arrange the depositions.
My client could not hold a pencil; she is officially paralyzed from the waist down with extremely limited movement in her arms and hands. Her ex boyfriend still harasses her and she is incapable of defending herself. When he kicks her out of her wheelchair andwhen he punches her in the face, she cannot do a thing.
I felt angry for her, to have been put in this chair by someone she loved, to have officers who are supposed to protect her … placing impossible requirements on her in her case against the man who ruined her life. I felt betrayed for her, I felt sad for her, I mourned for her past life where she had control and didn’t need someone with her at all times to take care of the things she once used to do with such ease. I was angry.
I was angry.
Before I could tell her what our options were, she thanked me. She thanked me for listening, she thanked me for seeing her, and she thanked me for being there. She reached out her arms to me, which was probably utterly exhausting for her, she held my hands, and said “I feel better knowing you’re here, and I thank you for being here to help me.”
WHAT!? My eyes teared, my cheeks flushed, my chest fluttered, and I felt that big ball of cries starting to form in my throat. This woman has hope, this woman has faith. She has had her life completely turned upside down and she is haunted by a man who treated her like she was meant to be thrown away. She will never be the same, but she put her faith into God and into me.
She thanked me for seeing her, and by being there with her and my other clients, I rid myself of the torment that the Gospel talks about. I was there for her, but being there was clarifying for me. This Gospel gives hope to people like Lazarus, and sends a message to people who live like the Rich Man. People like me, and people like you.
It would be so easy and effortless to just ignore the misfortune, the poverty, and the struggle for people who have less than us. That would be easy. But there is never anything to gain for the path that is easiest.
The good news is that God gives us this story, and invites us to DO something.
That something isn’t easy, and it can fee awkward. But that uncomfort, and that complete awareness is what God wants us to embrace.
It is easy to want to rescue the cute puppy. It is even easier to see the innocence of a young child who just needs the means to survive. But the real struggle is putting yourself out there. Putting yourself amidst those who need you. God calls us to not only see that person who is less fortunate, but to help them with the resources we already indulge in during our daily lives.
The torment that comes from living a life of surplus and privilege is not created by the need for more or the guilt of having more, it is the torment created by the feeling of ignoring someone who needs your help. My clients were grateful to me before I even addressed their issues because I saw them. God calls us to see our people, to recognize our people, and to HELP our people.
Do not feel intimidated or anxious because you identify with the Rich Man. Consider yourself lucky to have the means to relate to the Rich Man of the story. And consider yourself fortunate that God has given us this message as a call for action and a call to be the source of truth and reconciliation in another’s life.
I wouldn’t know what torment feels like, anymore, and I do not feel bad about identifying with the Rich Man in the Gospel, anymore because unlike him I have abandoned myself to the needs of the less fortunate.
I had never really paid attention to this story before, it can be unsettling. But it is good. We can be so good.
Vicar Serena Rice - Sunday, August 21, 2016
Worth Vs. Status
The second to last verse of our gospel today reads like this: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
I promise I did not ask to preach this Sunday just because of this verse (I promise, Pastor Lee, I really didn’t), but, this is seriously my kind of verse, right?. Anti-poverty advocacy has been my life’s work for the last decade and a half, which puts this passage right in the middle of my ethical sweet spot.
Much as I would love to preach a sermon that focuses on the call to “help the poor,” however, I can’t.
For one thing, I don’t think that’s the sermon this congregation really needs. This church is a community that already takes seriously God’s call to respond to the needs of the poor and outcast, and while that is something to be celebrated, if all this text does is congratulate us for our good deeds, then it’s not really the gospel. The gospel is meant to transform us – to challenge our formulas for living a good life and to pull us instead into the amazing grace that God offers us through Christ Jesus.
plus when I started looking for that transformation in this text, I realized that the story it tells is much deeper and more fundamental than instructions on how we should act. The gospel in this story - both the challenge and the grace - lies in the contrast between status and worth.
You see the context of this story is ALL about status.
Jesus is a guest at a party in the home of a Pharisee (otherwise known as a rule-abiding member of the religious upper class).
Jesus and a number of other guests are all gathered together for a meal, which, brings in a whole bunch of rules related to status.
The place you sit at the table tells how important you are,
and the fact that the guests were invited in the first place is a sign that they were considered to be in the same social strata as the host,
and it also creates an obligation on the guests to reaffirm the host’s status by inviting him to one of their parties.
Except Jesus, of course.
He was an itinerant preacher, so he clearly couldn’t return the host’s invitation.
He was there for another reason – but that reason was still all about status. The story tells us that the Pharisees were all watching Jesus closely, and we can be pretty sure that wasn’t because thought he was so cool.
Rather, in this high stakes context with so many rules, they were trying to catch Jesus breaking the rules. By doing so, they could knock down some of the authority (some of the status) that the unruly masses have been giving this upstart and reassert their own.
This is the context where Jesus tells his two parables.
The first one is frankly confusing because it doesn’t seem to challenge the whole status system at all. It’s just a bit of cagey advice about not risking your honor by claiming importance, but instead putting on a show of false humility so as to maybe coerce a nice dose of public recognition.
This seems quite out of character for Jesus, unless we consider that what Jesus is really doing is drawing a contrast – A contrast between the world of rules, and strategies, and scrambling after status, and the way God operates.
You see, parables always tell us something about “The Kingdom”, which is a theological way of saying “the way God interacts with God’s people.”
And when we read these two parables together we see that they form a contrast between the Pharisee’s way, and God’s way.
In the second parable, Jesus tells the host that he should have abandoned the rules of scheming, status-seeking society and instead should have invited guests to his banquet who could never repay the favor,
because the repayment will then come not from the guests, but from God …at the resurrection.
That reference to the resurrection is a clue that this parable is the one that teaches us about the Kingdom of God, in contrast to the first parable.
The first parable painted a picture of competitiveness –
of scheming to come out on top and to be set apart as special
The second parable, in contrast, paints a picture of equality –
Of everyone sitting down at the same table, regardless of social position, and enjoying the same meal as an expression of God’s resurrection kingdom.
The details of these stories are not familiar to our 21st century American context – but the contrast between status and worth could not be more relevant.
Every day we are bombarded by messages about status.
For us it is at work that status is determined by where we sit - whether our office has a window, or is even an office at all;
Or we go to school and we can’t just sit at any cafeteria table, because there are unwritten rules about who can sit where, and there are consequences for our reputations if we break those rules;
Or we turn on the TV and we see commercials that tell us people will judge us by the cars we drive, or the clothes we wear, or the color or our American Express card;
Or even when we fast-forward through the commercials we have endless shows where the focus is on out-surviving, or out-performing, or out-scheming, or out-talenting everyone else to win the big prize.
Or we look in the mirror, and we can’t help but compare ourselves to every impossibly beautiful or sleek-muscled air-brushed magazine picture that has ever told us we are less-than.
The markers of status may be very different for us, but the world of the Pharisees is not really that different than ours, is it?
It’s still about ranking and competition – judging better and worse, higher and lower- and any middle schooler, or pinterest addict can tell you how hard we all try to win that game.
And because of that our world still incredibly insecure. When everywhere we look we are surrounded by reminders that we are being judged, that we have to win or we will be losers, that we have to be better than others to prove that we matter… Even being at the top can be terrifying – because what if we fall?
Our standard of living is unparalleled in history, and yet we are plagued by depression, and anxiety, and self-injuring behavior whether that be cutting, or substance-abuse, or workaholism.
It’s exhausting to be constantly playing the status game, because underneath all the ways the game shows up in our individual lives, they are all based on the same lie.
The lie that our status defines our worth.
And that’s why our text today is the desperately needed gospel – for Living Waters, and for every child, woman, and man who is bombarded every day with the rules of the status game.
Because Jesus describes the insecurity, and dishonesty, and shallowness of that game, and then he describes the opposite.
He describes a table where all are welcome NOT because of who they are and what they bring to the table, but because God calls them worthy. God calls us worthy.
By invoking the resurrection, Jesus is talking about worth. A worth that is absolute. There is no more or less worthy in the kingdom. The same perfect gift of self-sacrificial love on the cross is what Jesus offers to each one of us. And that source of worth – the worth proclaimed in our baptism which echoes the resurrection – invalidates the status game.
Jesus was showing the Pharisees, and US, that the entire framework of better and worse, higher and lower is absolutely irrelevant to God’s way of acting.
And so, it should be to ours, as God’s resurrection people.
Worth – not status.
- Worth that sees all bodies as valuable, regardless of their weight, or disability, or age, or color.
- Worth that sees all workers as valuable, regardless of their level of responsibility, or education, or remuneration.
- Worth that sees all lives as valuable, regardless of their country of origin, or religious practices, or past crimes.
- Worth that does not ever allow us to see ourselves (or others) as better than, or worse than.
It is a serious challenge because it calls us to genuinely let go of our desire to prove ourselves – whether that be proving we are better than those with lower status, or just proving our own value to ourselves by reaching some idealized goal.
We share what we have and we invite everyone to the table because the worth that ALL of us have flows equally from the God who made the table for us, without reservation and without limit.
And this is where we get back to the children’s sermon and that beautiful image from Hebrews of being “held together by love.”
God’s table is about rejecting status, and competition, and fear, and instead sharing in the community of love. The community that is generated within the love of the Triune God and into which we are all invited to enter, not because we have earned it but because God has called us worthy. God has called you worthy.
When we gather at the table in a few minutes, we are all there by God’s grace. We did not earn it and we are welcome there whether or not we are coveting after status in our hearts. And I, for one, am thankful for that, because I am preaching this sermon today to myself.
But when we are there, I encourage us each to take that bread and wine as an invitation to know our own worth, and the worth of every other person whom God calls worthy – no matter what you or I might think of them - We are welcome at God’s table because God has called us worthy.