Sermon Sept 29, 2019 Luke 16:19ff Why Jesus Matters: Responsibility Rev. Betsy Hogan
Did you ever watch Mr. Rogers? Some of us won’t be familiar with Mr. Rogers… He had a children’s program on American public television that started in the 1970s – which is when I grew up seeing it – but it continued for several decades in reruns to be part of the growing-up of at least a couple of generations of American and Canadian children. A very quiet show, just about living in a neighbourhood, and also in the puppet-show neighbourhood of Make Believe.
It was always on right after Sesame Street. After school. When yes, even in the 1970s, parents were smart enough to recognize the gift that plopping the kids down in front of the television could sometimes be.
It was only as a parent myself, though, that I heard Mr. Rogers deliver the line that will always be my favourite Mr. Rogers line. Even more so than “when something bad happens, look for the helpers, because there are always helpers”. Which is itself spectacular.
But my favourite was this. Mr. Rogers, playing with blocks, building some towers, knocking them down, and then it was time to go do something else. And so the blocks had to be cleaned up. And Mr. Rogers looked right through the camera to the children who were watching and asked “Do you always remember to clean up your toys when you’re finished playing?”
And then he said “Sometimes I remember”. It was just breath-taking. The beautiful perfect honesty of it. Do I remember to clean up? Somertimes I remember. But heightened even more so because of its careful and deliberate departure from SURELY what every parent and every child who ever watched children’s television or read a great majority of children’s books would have been expecting. Which is this: Do you always remember to clean up? Of COURSE you do!
It’s that faintly threatening forced-jollity of so much kids’ programming: Do you eat your vegetables like a good girl? Of COURSE you do. Do you hold Daddy’s hand when you cross the street? Of COURSE you do. Do we ALL remember to do what’s right all the time. Of COURSE we do.
And then instead, dropped like a tiny little pebble of anarchy but also love – Sometimes I remember. Beautiful in itself, but even more so because it takes that narrative we all know… to the point we might even ignore it… and gives it just a bit of surprise. Just enough to make us stop -- and listen more closely.
On the face of it, we might not realize that that’s exactly what Jesus has done with this parable in the passage from Luke that Brenda read for us earlier. Because for us it’s just that parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Jesus told it, we assume he made it up, it is what it is.
But in fact it isn’t. It’s actually a REtelling of what would have been a very familiar and popular rabbinical folk tale for Jesus, and his disciples, and anyone else who heard it that day. About Abraham and his servant Eliezar – in Greek, Lazarus. A rabbinical midrash – an embroidering of a bible story to build out of it more layers of meaning – that in this case arose out of Genesis chapter 15.
And that’s not unimportant. Because in the rabbinic story about Abraham and his servant Eliezar – Lazarus – one of the things that happens is that it’s Eliezar who after both he and Abraham have died, it’s Eliezar whom Abraham sends back to earth periodically to report to him how well Abraham’s descendents are doing with living the faithful life. And in particular, how well they’re doing with the Torah’s commandments to take care of the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned.
That’s the story that Jesus’ listeners that day on the road would already know, when he tells them this parable. That story of Lazarus, Eliezar, the poor servant who’s sent back to earth by Abraham to check up on how humanity’s doing with how God wants them to treat those in need.
Which there’s no way they don’t have that in the back of their minds as Jesus starts up HIS version – in the passage we just heard. Where Lazarus the poor servant sent back to earth by Father Abraham to check up on how we’re doing taking care of those in need…
…is suddenly Lazarus the poor man, starving and suffering at the gate. Not what they expected. And also kind of disconcerting. Because is he saying that that’s how Lazarus “checks up on us”? Like, he doesn’t just get sent down by Father Abraham to sort of observe and take notes or something, but he actually comes as a poor and starving man lying in a gutter to see, like, whether we step over him or not?
It’s not what Jesus’ disciples would have expected from this very familiar story. And that would have been jarring in a way we kind of need to grasp as well if we’re going to get its full import.
Because there is a difference – there’s a gut level emotional difference – between feeling challenged by a kind of abstract understanding that a loving God wants us to care especially for those who are most in need –
And being challenged by the direct, visceral, physical experience of an actual person. Who’s manifesting that need. And ya, THAT, Jesus is saying, THAT is where your commitment to responsibility for others is being tested.
It’s a very jarring message. His level of urgency here, his level of passionate pleading with people to pay attention, to take this seriously, it’s not about being kind and being understanding and being pastoral.
In this teaching, with this parable, he’s razor-sharp. Because you’ve been told how to live, Father Abraham says in the parable – to care for the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the desperate, the stranger, the rejected. You’ve been told, you’ve had the commandments of Moses, you’ve had the haranguings of the prophets – you’ve been told, you knew what you were supposed to do, and so if you didn’t do it yet?
Well, you should have. Send someone back from the dead to warn you? You already HAD someone “back from the dead”, Father Abraham says to the Rich Man in the parable – you had Lazarus himself, embodied in every starving begger you stepped over and ignored. So ENOUGH with the excuses.
This is a hard-edged parable, there is nothing gentle about this Jesus. We’ve been told. We’re meant to be responsible for others’ well-being, especially when they’re in great need. And we know that. There are no excuses.
So… Why Jesus Matters. That’s the premise of this whole sermon series – that there IS something distinct and specifically meaningful about the fact that in the church we hold not JUST the collected spiritual wisdom of all the ages about what Godness is like and what the Godness who created and embraces and surrounds us is passionate about –
But quite specifically that in the church we hold the teachings and actions of Jesus. As all of Godness squished up into a person: what American theologian Marcus Borg calls the decisive disclosure for Christians of what God is like and what God is passionate about. So what is it, in relation to responsibility for one another, that’s “why Jesus matters?” When every faith expression, never mind secular humanism, emphatically ALSO speaks to that very same sense of responsibility with some form of “love your neighbour” or “do unto others as you would have them do to you”?
It’s actually easy to imagine that in this regard, at least, he doesn’t particularly. He’s simply consistent with and aligned with ALL the different insights into Godness or Goodness that have challenged us as a human family from time immemorial to be responsible for others’ well-being. To care for others as something objectively good.
Because we know it quite well: one certainly doesn’t have to be Christian, or any faith at all, to actively and with a generous and loving spirit feel moved to reach out to care about other people with great commitment, and especially those in need.
But I don’t think that means Jesus doesn’t matter. As a very specific embodiment for us of this passion that God has for us caring for each other.
Because there are two very distinct and expansive insights into the character and the breadth of this caring that Jesus does reveal, if not uniquely then definitely specifically. That we’re invited, in paying attention to his story that we hold in the church, to take on board.
The first is his very specific stretching of the notion of “who is my neighbour” beyond the limits of “people who are like me”. That’s completely the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Because for Jesus’ own people, a Samaritan – someone not from Israel but from Samaria – is an outsider. And not just an unknown outsider, like a stranger, but an on-purposed despised and avoided and rejected outsider.
But for Jesus? A neighbour. A fellow child of God – straight-up. No lines, no borders, no difference. For whom, in need, we’re then called – expected – to care. Which may not be unique in Jesus but it IS specific in what he reveals. And so where it specifically drags us, as Christians, in our own context, and possibly in a way we might occasionally find deeply challenging – is beyond any lines we might think we get to draw. To limit our jurisdiction of responsibility, as it were.
Because who do we have to care about, Jesus is telling us? Who are we responsible for their well-being? Not just those on OUR side of a line -- of a national border or a regional border or the border of a First Nations reserve – but everyone. Everyone. No limits, no lines, no difference. Which is HARD. But that’s why Jesus matters, reason one. Because of that very specific push we get -- from holding his words and his life as meaningful – to feel and act out of a sense of responsibility that doesn’t stop at a line, that transcends identity or region or border. That understands ‘child of God who is my neighbour’ as absolutely universal.
And the second reason why Jesus matters is no less challenging. Because what we see throughout Jesus’ ministry, in his very deliberate and physical embrace and caring for lepers and outcasts and the disabled and the mentally ill (“possessed by demons” in biblical language) …
…is him specifically manifesting responsibility for the well-being of people who – at the time – would have been considered entirely to blame for their own suffering. Not about bad luck but about bad choices and bad behaviour – that’s how pervasive illnesses and infirmities of mind and body were understood at that time, and so the desperation and poverty that resulted were considered entirely deserved. And so no sense of feeling responsible for helping them necessary for those who saw them begging or languishing on roadsides. Because they ‘made their own bed’, as it were.
But for Jesus? None of that. For Jesus, need is need. Pain is pain. Suffering is suffering. And help doesn’t have to be ‘deserved’. When a broken beggar is lying on the street, Jesus doesn’t care WHY he’s there – he only sees THAT he’s there. And he responds with caring. So what he models for us is a sense of responsibility for others’ well-being that is absolutely pure. It’s not measured, it’s not mitigated, it doesn’t need to be earned or deserved -- it’s just love. Big generous uninterested-in-the-details love.
It’s really hard. But again, it’s that pushing us past what’s just comfortable, past what we might reasonably do by human instinct, that’s exactly why Jesus matters. As the decisive disclosure for Christians that reveals to us what God is like and what God is passionate about.
Because what we’re invited into, in holding the story of Jesus as specifically meaningful to us, is a sense of responsibility for others that literally begins and ends with everyone being a child of God. Demanding that we care about their well-being, take them into consideration, make them matter in our decisions, and especially beyond “our side” of a line, and deliberately without reference to how any struggles they’re in happened.
Because all these are our neighbours. And Jesus matters because he pushes us past what’s far more comfortable, to remember that. And do we remember that?
Sometimes we remember that. May God strengthen us to follow this way. Amen.