A Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who lifts up the lowly. Amen.
I remember the first time I wore a clerical collar.
Having grown up a Methodist and in the “General Protestant” environs of military chapels, the black and white shirts always had an air of mystery about them. They seemed a bit foreign, of unknown origin. But, at the same time, when I saw one of my dad’s Catholic or Lutheran colleagues in the distinctive black shirt with the flimsy white plastic tab, I knew exactly who I was looking at.
My second year of seminary, after a rough first year of hospital chaplaincy, as I considered dropping out of grad school and the ordination process, I started field ed at a Lutheran church in Decatur and donned the collar. There was something very “official” about it. As though shirt itself granted me authority and confidence. It let the world know WHO I WAS.
I went out on my first home visit newly clad in my black-and-white armor, feeling like the pope. I drove home, and as I pulled off the interstate, there he was: a man in torn and dirty clothing – the type of clothing that lets you know WHO HE IS. I saw him, holding his sign asking for spare change. The light turns red, and I stop. Within a few feet of this stranger.
My arm goes up, my elbow pushing down the lock on my door. And I stare. Straight. Ahead.
Because if I don’t make eye contact, I won’t see him, and he won’t see me.
But I do see him. And he sees me, and he knows who I am. And I stare. Straight. Ahead.
He waves and walks towards my car. And I stare. Straight. Ahead.
And I hear him speaking. But I don’t budge. He moves away, calling out, “Have a good day, Father. God bless.” And I stare. Straight. Ahead.
The light turns green, and I start to drive. Wishing the cars ahead of me would go faster so that I can make my turn and leave this scene behind me, afraid that I’ll get caught at the light again and have to relive the same scene.
Because I see him, and he sees me, and he sees what shirt I’m wearing. He sees the black cloth with the white stripe that lets whim know who I was pretending to be.
And I saw his rags. But the truth is, I didn’t see him. I didn’t see a human being. I saw a beggar.
I don’t know who this man was. To the best of my knowledge, I never saw him again. But I know that he is Lazarus. And I know that on that day, I failed to love my neighbor as myself.
There was a wealthy man, and he was very rich. He wore the best, most luxurious clothing. The type of clothing that let you know who he is: a well-to-do, important person. His estate was huge. He wanted for nothing. In an age of scarcity and hunger, this wealthy man feast every day.
But by the entrance to his property, there was a beggar named Lazarus, wearing dirty clothes and covered in sores, the type of person who longed for garbage day so that he could rifle through the wealthy man’s trash and eat the scraps. And his clothing also let you know who he is.
Lazarus lay by the gate, keeping watch in hopes that maybe someone from the estate would take pity on him. When the wealthy man would leave or return home, he would have to pass by Lazarus. And the wealthy man would stare. Straight. Ahead.
Lazarus is so easily ignored. Keep your neck rigid, your eyes forward, and look past him.
This is what a broken relationship looks like. This is what it means when we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. We see those around us as a thing to be avoided rather than a person to be loved. We see them as obstacles and threats. Or worse, we pretend like we don’t see them.
We stare. Straight. Ahead.
Even after the rich man and Lazarus meet their common fate, after death, the wealthy man treats Lazarus as a subordinate, as a servant. Someone to be ignored until he becomes useful. “Abraham,” the wealthy man says, “Send Lazarus with some cool water for me. Or send him to my brothers to warn them to repent.”
This is not the way we are called to see the world, viewing the suffering and the marginalized as either obstacles or servants. Instead, we are called to mend these fractures. We are called to build and foster deep relationships which shine forth with God’s great mercy. The Church is sent to build these relationships by serving others in their joy and in their grief.
Sisters and brothers, in our Baptism, we are clothed – not in clerical collars or fine garb, but in Christ.
Newly clad, we are sent forth into the world to serve the Lord not so that people know who we are but so that they know the God who sends us. This is the common vocation of all Christians, not the work of a few called to wear funny clothes or a small handful of volunteers. Having donned our baptismal garment, we are ALL set free– free from the ways of this world which reduce our neighbors to “means to an end.”
Instead, we are free to see them for who they are: our kindred made in the image of God.
As people clothed in the fine garment of our Lord Christ, we come to this resplendent Banquet, this sumptuous Feast, and receive our Lord in, with, and under bread and wine. Here, at this Table, we encounter the same Christ who identifies with the hungry, the sick, the naked, and the imprisoned.
In receiving the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ that we might be strengthened to go out and serve those in need – not for our own benefit but for the sake of others. We, as the Body of Christ, are called to serve the poor and marginalized that the world may see our actions and know WHO GOD IS – a loving, compassionate Lord who has mercy, who casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. God is putting the last first, and has called us to be a part of this glorious new kingdom.
Writing to the powerful and wealthy in Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom’s words still ring true today as he challenges Christians everywhere with these words:
Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. He who said, “This is my body,” and made it so by his word, is the same that said, “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.” Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.
Bishop Guy Erwin, who serves the Southwest California synod, echoes Chrysostom’s words when he reminds us today that “There is no difference between serving God and serving others.”
When we serve the poor or those in need, we are serving Christ.
When we look Lazarus in the eye, seeing him not as an obstacle or a means to an end but as someone made in the image of God and worthy of love, and when we offer him food or clothing or a hotel room for the night, we are serving God.
When we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are serving God.
When we pray for those who suffer, we are serving God.
When we open our doors on Monday to feed and clothe our hungry neighbors, we are serving God.
It is easy to stare straight ahead, to ignore those around us, but God has set us free for something so much better. Clothed in the glory of Christ, fed with the Bread of Life, and quenched by the Cup of Salvation, we are sent out to see the image of God in all people, to serve others, and to serve our Lord.