Year C, Proper 21 September 25, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“There was a rich man… And at his gate lay a poor man…”
So this is a cautionary tale, the rich man and Lazarus. It is saying, from the mouth of Jesus Christ Himself, that you should not live like that; we should not hold great wealth while others starve and with it a more universal lesson, that our actions in this life have real and enduring consequences. It is most definitely saying that. It is not, though, a cosmological teaching. Jesus is not teaching us about the reality of heavenly heights and hellish torments. It is not saying that if you are naughty, like if you are rich whilst your homeless neighbors languish in poverty on your doorstep, that you’ll be tormented in the fires of hell forever. That is not what Jesus is teaching us with this story. Well, I’m pretty sure it’s not. (That’s the small print of this sermon). We’re all rolling Pascal’s dice when it comes to the great hereafter, so weigh out the delights of riches in this life with the even slightest chance of the fiery fate of that rich man… Indeed, “…the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.” Thank you father Amos.
But that’s not what I am going to talk about today. What I am going to talk about is why there are rich men and why there are poor men to begin with. This is a sermon in the “Questions from Lulu” series, whereby I am trying to answer questions posed by folks in the congregation, an ecclesiastical Stump the Chump challenge like on Car Talk. One question I received is “How can our so-called civilized society allow people who need help to be without shelter and food? How can God allow this and other atrocities such as war and genocide to take place?” Now ain’t those the questions of the ages? If God is so, what, loving, omnipotent, perfect, or in the words of our collect of the day today, that God’s almighty power is declared “chiefly in showing mercy and pity,” why does the world seem so merciless and pitiless? Why are there so many terrible things going on?
The purpose of religion is this very question: making meaning of the world, understanding the hows and whys of all of this and all we experience, and then how to react to it, how to be, what to do in reaction to what truly is. So these questions, “Why is the world like this, why are we so awful to each other and why does God allow it?” gets right to the heart of the religious impulse, right to the beginnings of our common faith story, right to its genesis. Right to Genesis, actually.
We have our two creation stories. Genesis Chapter 1 – 2:3, “In the beginning when God created…” That one. That story is a descendant of Gilgamesh epic, the Babylonian creation story that the scribes of Israel learned and assimilated in YHWH-ian terms during the Babylonian Exile. In truth it is a mythic rendering of the idea of evolution. It all started simple, formless, then bang, there is light. And it was good. It is a story that helps explain why it all is as it is, and in this case, the story is that there is a creative force or generative impulse behind existence, and it progressively increases the complexity and beauty of the creation, and all that is created is good, and that impulse, that Creator, is also good, very good, and we call that God. I’m in. I’ll say a Creed that affirms that, that I trust in the “creator of heaven and earth, all that is, seen and unseen.” Is there anything else that we should bow down before than God understood and experienced like this?
But if all of this is that good, why aren’t we greeted with heavenly hosts and choirs of angles down in Kesey Square rather than the legions of the dispossessed, the unaccounted for remainder of the late-stage free market capitalist equation? If it is all very good how does Aleppo happen? Or Biafra, or the purges of the Cultural Revolution or Auschwitz? Or the Plague that killed half of Europe? Or why did your mom get cancer? Or why did he do that to me? From the collapse of civilizations to the horrendous traumas that people in this room have suffered, do suffer, evil is abroad in this world. For some reason, what was good, what was very good, has a stain, a flaw, the warp and weft of the fabric of creation is rent, and as Christians, we call that rent evil. Call it what you will, the Christian word for it is evil, it exists, and we have a story for that, too.
Some of it is right there in the first Genesis story. “…darkness covered the face of the deep.” Then there are the deep waters that God set a dome in the midst of. Throughout the Biblical narrative, Old and New, darkness and the depths of the sea, the abyss, are symbols of evil. “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not over come it.” So there are those that would say that evil is not a rent in the fabric but is just part of it, even that God carved(s) out a pocket of light and good in the primordial chaos of darkness. (As opposed to the Gnostics who see the creation as a cosmic mistake, a stain on the pristine pallet of that primordial existence). So our story accounts for evil as just a given, or it is where God is not.
Even the Hebrew word for evil is ambiguous, as it means at the same time evil as we know it, and calamity, which can be sourced in human effort or natural occurrence. For example, hurricane Katrina, climate change aside, was a natural evil, it was naturally occurring and was a calamity, an evil; the predation of contractors and criminals and the negligence of the government, well that was human evil. So the innate presence of evil in the fabric of the universe is part of our story. Why? Great is the mystery of faith. (Which is a lot better answer than: because).
Then there is the second question: why do we do the evil things that we do? For that, we have the second part of the story, Genesis 2 & 3; Eden and the creation and fall of humankind. In that story, God creates man (in Hebrew adam) by breathing life into the adamah (the dust of the ground). Evolution again, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” So the first story might account for natural evil, or natural calamities such as hurricanes, disease, why some animals live on the flesh of others, all the brutal facts of life stuff, but it doesn’t explain us, and why, when given a choice between what we know to be right and what we know to be wrong, that it can be so easy to choose the wrong and why we so often do. Or why essential, life giving needs and desires get all disordered for us. Like the desire and need for physical intimacy, human sexuality is a gift from God; and we all hunger for food, and enjoy relaxation. But why can these good desires, necessary to life needs so easily be perverted and degrade into creeping, predatory lust and grasping, clinging gluttony and greed and the do-nothing laziness of sloth? Why when given choices, is it so easy for us to choose the wrong? Why do these gifts, in our hands, become curses? Or very close to home, why can some of us be content to live with so much with the full and complete knowledge of the suffering of our brothers living on the back porch of our church? Or benefit from of the horrors our government commits on our behalf all over the world? Or tolerate the self-interested jokers vying to lead us? The lesser of two evils is still evil.
Our story for that is found in Eden, a places whose name may be related to a word for “wilderness” (think pristine or untouched) or may be related to a word for “delight” or “paradise.” In that mythical place, even the source of life giving water in a desert world (paradise indeed), we find Adam and Eve, our primeval parents, who became one flesh and were co-equal partners. They were naked and were not ashamed, near universality accepted as symbolic of an innocent and trusting relationship with God and each other. But also in Eden were those twin trees of Life and the Knowledge of Good and Evil, bearers of the original Forbidden Fruit, and of course there was also the Serpent, the Tempter.
Now why was that part of it? Why were such dangerous things left in Paradise? Excellent question. Again, it points to the presence of evil as a given. And why were we given the ability, let alone the opportunity to choose between following God’s instruction to leave the fruit be? The thing is that our stories, our ancient, mythological stories of our Genesis are not there to explain why these things happened, there is no answer to that question, but rather they are there as descriptors, to explain that they did happen. (Which later sets us up with what to do about it).
Our story is that for some reason, they chose (and we continue to choose) the wrong sometimes. Maybe it is just written into our source code. Maybe something active pulled us from our primordial innocence. Maybe this is how we mythologically account for the dawning of consciousness, of humans becoming self-aware, and in the awareness coming to the fatal conclusion that we are separate, that we are not all of the same dust of the earth, that we are not all spawned from the same life giving breath of God. And that is the definition of Sin, separation, or more accurately, perceived separation from God. Sin is our reaction to feeling separated from God and sin is all the things we do that perpetuates that feeling of separation from God. We feel distant from God so we hurt people, and the more we hurt people the more distant we feel from God: a vicious cycle.
This truth is related to us through the story of the Fall. St. Paul teaches that Adam, the man of flesh, brought sin and death to the world and that Jesus Christ is the Second Adam, a man of Spirit, not flesh, who brought life through His redeeming sacrifice, sanctifying the world forever. In the 5th century, St. Augustine spawned the idea of Original Sin, teaching that that first sin clove our perfectly innocent relationship with God and it persists in humanity, hereditarily passed on generation to generation all they way back from Adam. Again, these stories are not history, they are, in the words of one scholar, “…an index of humanity’s yearning for a better world and an attempt to account for the problems of evil and human suffering.”
So how can God let so much horrendous evil exist in the world and how can we do so many horrendously evil thing to our fellow human beings and our planet? In our earliest tradition the presence of evil was just taken for granted, it is just part of it all. And how we treat each other, how we make bad decisions, too often choosing the wrong over what we know to be right, well that we ascribe to a broken relationship; we are not in right relationship with that in which we live and move and have our being, with the Creator and the Creation. In feeling alienated and alone, outcast, vulnerable and scared, we behave as such. That is the Christian explanation of these problems.
We also have a Christian solution: Jesus Christ. God’s first solution was the Flood. It didn’t work. So then Jesus came, the anointed of God, an only Son, born of a woman, who lived and taught and healed and led and suffered the very worst that we have to offer, the mindless cruelty and violence of human empire, horrendous evil. And He died… but that is not the end of the story. Truly, that is only the beginning because Resurrection happened. Hope beyond hope what we know here is not the only story. And through this story, everything changed for those who trust in God in Christ with the Holy Spirit, mostly through giving us a way to forge right relationship with God and each other in a way that we as finite, mortal creatures can do, that is with one who was (in part) as finite and mortal as us, Jesus Christ.
Evil exists and we can be terrible to each other. That is just how it is. In Jesus Christ we don’t avoid evil or the suffering that always follows in evil’s wake, no, that is not the covenant, but we are offered a way to bear it, to bear the suffering of this life and to transform our lives so that we do not continue in our own sins, or be content with the sins committed on our behalf; and that we begin to heal ourselves, and as we are healed, that we are able to heal others, and shine the light of Christ in the darkest corners of our own hearts and of this world, as beautiful and broken as it is.
That there are rich men and poor men is on us. But with God in Christ, there is hope that it need not always be that way. AMEN.