Good Neighbors

On September 30, 2019, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

Good Neighbors Lk 16.19-31 Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Let us dwell together in peace, let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression; and now, may God’s word be spoken, may only God’s word be heard. Amen. Once upon a time… That’s basically how the gospel lesson begins today, clearly indicating that it […]

Good Neighbors
Lk 16.19-31
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins

Let us dwell together in peace, let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression; and now, may God’s word be spoken, may only God’s word be heard. Amen.

Once upon a time…
That’s basically how the gospel lesson begins today, clearly indicating that it is a parable.

And in today’s parable, we see Lazarus winding up in the arms of Sarah and Abraham. Even when the world has no place for him, Lazarus still has a place in divine love. Being in the arms, the bosom, the embrace of the ancestors is an intimate image of love and acceptance.

If you feel lost, abandoned, discouraged, wounded, or afraid, the gospel message is that God’s love enfolds you and will never let you go.

Lazarus will never be rejected by God, but Lazarus should have never been abandoned by us, either.

Lazarus is the queer teen on the streets who was rejected by her family.
Lazarus is the trans woman of color brutally murdered for being who she is.

Lazarus is the refugee.
Lazarus is the planet whose environment is attacked in the name of profit.

Lazarus is the person who cannot find affordable, permanent housing.
Lazarus is the abused child, the neglected elder, the person working 2 jobs and still can’t afford medical care.

Lazarus is loved by God and shouldn’t have to wait until the next experience of life for that love to be shown to him.
Any of us could be Lazarus under certain circumstances, and all of us can be a better neighbor to Lazarus.

Suffering Lazarus winds up in the loving arms of the ancestors, while the greedy, cruel, selfish rich guy winds up alone and joyless in Hades. It is a parable, a fictional story meant to show us the difference in a life of love and a life of avarice, the difference between compassion and cruel indifference.

Don’t be thrown by the word “Hades” in the story. Hades has a complex history and we’d have to go back to multiple ancient cultures and mythologies to see how each contributed to the evolving Hell/Hades/Gehenna narrative, and even then, the afterlife pictures we usually conjure in our minds are more from the art and poetry of the middle ages than from scripture.

But in this case the rich man’s hell is his legacy, the mark he left on the world, how he’ll be remembered, how lives were impacted because he lived. He’s not in after life prison; he’s simply being remembered for being a jerk in life. That’s hell enough.

There is no literal hell, but people do have hellish experiences in life.
Have we responded to their hells with heavenly, healing love? That’s the question of today’s parable.

The rich man isn’t being shamed for his beliefs, religious affiliation, gender identity, sexual orientation, or even for being successful.
He’s being remembered poorly because he was greedy, selfish, and unconcerned about the suffering of others.

The author isn’t manipulating us with threats of afterlife hell; he’s challenging us to be kinder, more empathetic, and more generous here and now.

Neither the rich man character nor his experience of comeuppance are factual, but they do communicate a profound truth. If we don’t care about the person who has less privilege or more peril than we have, then we are not demonstrating the love that God is.

The founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, said, “I only really love God as much as I love the person I love least.”

God is love. We can only be truly conscious of God’s presence when we are loving. The rich man didn’t let himself love. And so, he didn’t have a full experience of God which is love.

Heaven is the experience of God, and God is love. We experience God to the degree that we love.

I believe that the rich man could have been freed from his nightmare in an instant if he had simply let himself love, if he had said to himself, “I didn’t treat Lazarus, and all the Lazaruses fairly. I wish I had been kinder.” That alone, that affirmation of love and compassion would have freed him to experience the love that God is.

But instead, he clung to his privilege. He wants his family protected, no one else’s. He wants to treat Lazarus like a slave, demanding Lazarus to comfort him, though he never offered comfort to Lazarus. To the end and even beyond, the rich man cares only about himself and a few close to him. The story shows us how ugly that kind of life can be, and how isolating, and how tragic.

No one in the story even asks the rich man what he believes or what religious sect he belongs to; the only question is, why didn’t you care for the starving, homeless, sick person at your gate? Why didn’t the plight of others move you?

The only person ever in scripture said to be in a state of hell is this nameless character in a fictional story.
One nameless, fictional person mentioned exactly one time is the only person said to be in such a hell. That tells me it was never meant to be taken literally, and that religion really isn’t meant to be fire insurance.

The imaginary nameless character in the imaginary hell isn’t meant to scare the hell out of us.
It is meant to show us that a lack of love is hell.
When we don’t love, we don’t let ourselves experience God, and that is hell. But that is corrected the minute we do love.

Be good neighbors. Love your neighbor. Remember everyone is our neighbor. Care and share. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. We only really love God as much as we love the person we love least.

Let us show love to the housing insecure.
Let us show love to the food insecure.
Let us show love to the depressed.
Let us show love to the LGBTQ+ children of God.
Let us show love to the closeted and to those fearfully coming out.
Let us show love to the wounded planet.
Let us show love to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, Agnostics, Mambos, and Santeros.
Let us show love to refugees, to children, to the lonely, and to those seeking lifesaving medical care.

Today’s gospel isn’t about afterlife suffering; it’s a call to reduce suffering in this life. And we can. And I declare in Jesus’ name, we will. This is the good news. Amen.

Dear God.
We experience and express you…
When we show and share love.
Love the world through us.

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