A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 25, 2022

By: David May, Rector

There is a phrase I remember hearing a lot when I was growing up. I heard it from parents in the neighborhood. And I heard it a lot from my mother. Maybe you’ve heard it too. Maybe you’ve even used it yourself. It goes like this: “If you don’t stop [fill in the blank], you’ll put your eye out!” That fill in the blank could be almost anything, sword fighting with sticks, bombing each other with acorns, flinging Matchbox cars over homemade ramps. My mother was a thoroughly reasonable person and was rarely stampeded by emotion, but the number of things that she thought might result in dire consequences to one’s eye was immeasurable.

I think I understand her perspective a little better now after having raised kids of my own. And I’ve also learned that my mother’s use of exaggeration is actually grounded in a very old method of teaching. Hyperbole or exaggeration to make a point, is a perfectly acceptable method of instruction with a long and proud history. The rabbis of Jesus’ own day used it. In this style of teaching – often using stories or examples – one draws clear distinctions between good and evil, righteousness and injustice, darkness and light. These rabbis, and subsequent teachers through the ages, were smart, sophisticated thinkers. They knew as well as anyone that there is infinite complexity and nuances of gray that we deal with in this world. But we can get swamped by all that gray sometimes. Exaggerated storytelling can clarify what’s at stake and get us back on track.

So with my mother, her “put that stick down or it’ll put out your eye” was in a proud tradition. Even though I still might want to counter with an appeal to my general past record of trustworthiness in not having put my eye out to date or my growing desire for more freedom. She knew that I needed to be disarmed first. Complexities could be dealt with later.

The story of Lazarus the poor beggar and the Rich Man is a similar use of exaggeration. The Rich Man wore costly apparel and dined sumptuously every single day. Every single day was a banquet fit for a king, with all the trimmings – no days off for a dinner of leftovers. Lazarus was the exact opposite, a beggar whose body was covered in sores. We aren’t given any other details about him other than the only care he received was from dogs bathing his wounds. But, maybe the Rich Man wasn’t as bad as all that. Maybe he had a story that explained his behavior. Maybe his wealth and the way he used it were some kind of compensation. Maybe Lazarus was in such pathetic shape because of his own bad choices and actions.

As Jesus tells the story, none of that is relevant. The story shows us simply that there are real consequences for the lives both men lived. One sowed a self-centered and extravagant love of wealth and what it can do for him personally and reaped agony. The other had nothing in this world and could only hope for mercy from somewhere or from someone and in the end did receive that mercy and knew homecoming and blessing. And I’m left wondering what I’m sowing in my life.

Years and years after I first heard the phrase “you’ll put your eye out”, I learned that my mother was not just using hyperbole to make a point. As a little girl, she was playing with a kitchen knife which one of her older brothers tried to take from her. Well, without going into the details, my mother ended up with a small stick of that knife to her eye. It didn’t put her eye out, but it did put out most of the light in that eye.

Exaggerated story telling does come from somewhere—it does point towards something true, even if the possibilities seem remote. Lazarus’ life of abject poverty ended in blessedness. The Rich Man’s life ended in hell.

I don’t know anyone here who is the Rich Man or Lazarus. We all fall somewhere in between. But with ears to hear, there is something vital to be heard.

This story is a warning of real danger, I think. A life lived with only concern for one’s own life, with no regard for our neighbor is a dangerous road to walk down. I wonder is there a line you can cross towards this exaggerated example of the Rich Man and still keep your humanity intact. Is there a line you can cross and like him have crossed too far and not be able to make it back? The Rich Man in the story apparently has no ‘fellow-feeling’ at all. Lazarus lived and died at this man’s doorstep, and he never raised a finger to help. Even in the world past this life, the Rich Man still wanted someone to wait on him. He wanted Lazarus to dip his finger into cool water and bring it to him to wet his lips. In life and in death, he never got it. C.S. Lewis has famously said that if we insist on our own way and our own will—centered on ‘my will be done’—finally in great sadness, God will give us that. And we will be left with only ourselves and our own self-centeredness forever. And that is hell.

That is the danger this story points towards. But we are not just moved to action by fear. In fact, I think we are mostly moved by aspiration for a greater good and a deeper joy and a truer life.

In insisting that his own will be done, the Rich Man missed the chance to experience what is redeeming of our humanity in this world: the places and times where heaven and earth join and eternity streams into this very moment. He missed the chance to be remade by grace. He missed losing his life, only to be given it back and given it back again whole.

If he had peeped out of the window of his own ragged selfish heart and seen Lazarus and felt himself warmed just a smidgeon, just the size of a mustard seed Jesus might’ve said, and consented to let this poor man’s life have something to do with him, how might it have been different?

Here is a taste of how it might’ve been different. Several years ago, I was passing through the foyer of the school where I served as the chaplain. Luyani Wilson, the school’s third grade teacher, had her class lined up in the foyer to head upstairs. They had just come in from recess and they were a little too talky. So, Mrs. Wilson raised a hand with the two finger Cub Scout sign which each of the children as they saw it did themselves, til every one of them had their hand in their air, and they were quiet.

A little later in the day I saw Mrs. Wilson and said, “Hey, wasn’t that the Cub Scout sign you used as a signal for the class to come to order.” She said that it was, but that’s not where she had gotten it.

It seems that some 8 or 10 years previous to that day, Mrs. Wilson was teaching a kindergarten class. The sign for the class to stop talking and come to order was for her to raise her hand which each of the students was supposed to do as well. But there was a child in the class who had been born without a ring finger or a pinky. Can you see what happened? Well, without any instruction from Mrs. Wilson, (where did it come from and how did they do it?!) the class had made a pact that when their teacher raised her hand for quiet, they would only raise two fingers. They didn’t want the child who was missing her ring and pinky finger to feel as if she were on the outside looking in.

It’s not the fear of hell, but the hope of glory in this world that Jesus’ story asks us to consider.

This story is a stark exaggerated sort of story, a sort of “you’ll put your eye out” kind of story. But sometimes eyes really do get put out and we lose our vision and cannot see the beggar at our door. But you know, sometimes in addition to avoiding the injury, the Rich Man’s hell, sometimes we see and see clearly. The beggar at our gate, a heart warmed to make another’s cares our cares. And we see with glory streaming. Amen.