Sermon for Sunday September 25th, 2016, 18 after Trinity, OT26
‘when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
‘Hell’, said John Paul Sartre, ‘is other people . . .’ Now I must admit that I am a little confused trying to figure what Sartre meant by this saying. French existentialist philosophers are not always the easiest to understand, but part of what he was pointing at was in a sense something quite Christian – that the mere existence of other people places responsibilities upon us, responsibilities which are inconvenient to our lives and which we are very good at avoiding . . . even in ways to which we have become oblivious.
Like it or not, there is something deep within our fallen human psyche which leads to us avoiding those who are ‘not like us’ – even down to those beside whom we will sit on a Sunday morning 🙂 And this has deep, genuinely tragic consequences for society, community, and most sadly, even the Church.
By way of example, just this last week I was reading a most disturbing article from the UK written in the wake of the success of the Paralympics. It said, ‘don’t forget in the midst of all this hype, the plight of the profoundly disabled in this country’. It was a very distressing read.
In short, government policies have led to huge reductions in the amount of care the profoundly disabled are entitled to. The article told the story of a paraplegic woman with significant needs – who had had her care hours cut from 64 hours a week, to 7 as part of the reduction to local authority budgets. She had no continence problems, yet was now required to wear incontinence pads, for under the new system she was no longer entitled to the help which would mean that she could get to the toilet when required . . . Shocking, no?
Yet, here is the rub. The council in response to her protests suggested she asked her neighbours for help . . . I wonder how many of her neighbours even know her, let alone think that somehow THEY have a responsibility towards her?
One of the reasons I am very wary of those who argue long and hard for Christian’s involvement in politics is that for the Christian, the neighbour is not an abstract or a statistic, they are our neighbour, the person in the gutter in front of us, the homeless person we encounter on the street, the families in our community who often go to bed hungry. Not a problem to be solved, but a person to be loved. Jesus, in fulfilment of the Law and the prophets sums up Torah in the Greatest and second commandment – Love the Lord your God, with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, Love your neighbour as yourself. Neighbour love can in effect be summed up in the golden rule, do to others as you would have them do to you.
If we were in need, would we want someone to be engaged in politics so people like us weren’t in need or would we want someone to come and care for you. And before we answer, well its both / and – just remember, you are the person left to sit in incontinence pads day and night whilst people fume about poor government policies – the person who has to wear incontinence pads all day, the person whose children are going to bed hungry in our city – in their place what do we want? Yes, it may well be wonderful to think that there are people out their ‘fighting for your rights’, but how long do I have to sit in my filth before the ‘unjust structures of society are fixed . . .’ Surely we want to see another human being, come to us . . . from the other side of what must seem like a gulf, fixed.
And perhaps, just perhaps, if we heard the gospel and believed it in obedience to Jesus with his command of radical neighbour love, we might find we didn’t actually need such structures, which will always be unjust . . . Whilst some criticise those Christians who speak of heaven in terms of pie in the sky when you die – a society in which each is cared for according to their need must seem a similarly, perhaps more abstract version of heaven to those who are hungry and lonely and cold, and sat in incontinence pads . . .
Political structures. Systems of ‘making sure these things don’t happen, are profoundly deceptive substitutes for human relating. Worse they contribute to our gradual distancing from our neighbour. Imagine for a moment if we lived in that perfect state, where our neighbours had no needs that we might meet. We might be able to live our own lives as we wish. It would be Sartre’s vision of Heaven – but in truth this is the Christian vision of Hell.
The irony is – we aim at abstract versions of heaven, blind to our own biases which keep us avoiding our neighbour, and perhaps like the rich man in the parable – we may be surprised to wake up in the other place.
And this is true of the church also.
Last week at Synod I perceived an example of just how the system separates us out, and how we don’t see it. Of course it had been staring me in the face for years, and I had been captured by the same blindness to the narrative as everyone else – I have been to so very many Synods – about 75? And many associated with budgets and fair share formulas, and over and again I imagined that this was somehow a Christian conversation – rather than an example of how we have been taken captive by what our own St John calls, ‘The World’. So year in year out, we try to get a fairer formula for how parishes contribute to the financial aspects of our life together . . . and then last week, after all those years, I saw what was happening
There we were and discussing the budget and the ‘fair share’ – and in a line of similar comments, someone from parish X got up and said that they couldn’t possibly pay the extra $2500 share requested as it pushed them into even more unviability. A few moments an another speaker later, the Archdeacon of Parish X stood up and said how as Archdeacon they Could be very happy with the proposals, as overall the Archdeaconry was being asked for $9000 less overall . . . yet they couldn’t support the new formula for Parish X was suffering so . . .
You see? The system, the political structure had separated us out, for management convenience and then we had not only acquiesced in that, but it had become our way of understanding the world. The idea that all the parishes in the Archdeaconry might get together and SHARE what they had with one another, to either take the pain or the gain together had not crossed their minds, and to be fair I have been in that same conversation so many times, and not seen it myself. It had taken me more Synods than even Bishop K had been at for this penny finally to drop . . . And as I have pondered this, it has become clear that in other ways, the political organisation of the diocese has actively kept us from the difficult, messy business of trying to have a genuine common life
Of course . . . it would mean sitting down together, Face to face. Could we do this without judgement? Parishes which had had their bills cut, their debts forgiven, might need to help pay the debts of others . . . I thought of our own archdeaconry and what it might be like to sit down together to begin that conversation . . . and then I thought, ‘oh, maybe the formula is a better way after all . . .’ after all, Hell is other people . . .
Love of the real neighbour is HARD, because we are sinners, and in part that means we unconsciously avoid the other – we sin in ignorance – a gulf we don’t see exists between us. In an odd sort of way, our difficulties over life together make The Kingdom of Heaven seem like the other place. Much of that gulf is found in things we don’t even see or realise. In socio political structures, in the power of money to separate us one from another. As I said, no one seemed to see that we might possibly sit down together and share out the share – it was as if it had been cast in stone that each parish must pay in separation from the others, we just need to make the share fair, but the formula will never in truth be ‘FAIR’ Such a concept is an abstract and The World delights in such abstract concepts as ‘social justice’, and ‘challenging the unjust structures of society’ – because it keeps us from the plain commands of God, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Structures, mechanisms, organisations become our way of at once seeking at once to obey the command, and avoiding it.
Our parable today shows what happens in the end when we do not cross the Actual Neighbour gulf – it gets deeper and wider and deeper and wider until in the final judgement it is fixed and we cannot pass from one side to the other. What happened at Synod made me wonder if we had reached that point, where the Judgement that Christ comes to announce is fully enacted – although there were also signs that we might not have got there quite yet.
Imagine the plight of that poor disabled woman in the North of England – she knows that fixed gulf which no one may pass over in that remark from her local authority ‘perhaps a neighbour could come and help you . . .’ Like Lazarus being told, ‘you hungry? Perhaps the rich guy next door might feed you?’ How devastating to hear this in a modern urban liberal democratic state, where we are all Individuals and community has all but disappeared . . . Yet does the rich man who might help, feel the gulf as sharply? I know that increasingly over the last couple of years, the reality of that gulf for me has become more and more apparent as my life has got tangled up in the often chaotic and dangerous lives of those who have nothing.
Jesus parable is stark. The curtain is drawn back on ‘The World’ and its ways and everything is revealed for what it is. “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.”
If we have been paying any attention at all to Luke’s gospel these past weeks we should have seen this coming. The gospel is the announcement of the Mighty River of the Justice of God, Israel’s God, ‘coming with judgement to save us!’ Announced by Mary ‘The hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. We should have seen this coming. Following that song of vindication for the poor and the weak, along comes John the Baptist – calling people to a baptism of repentance. When the crowds ask ‘what should we do in the light of this gospel announcement’, the answer is simple. If you have two coats, share with the one who has none. If you have food, share with the one who has none. Simple – but The World has changed this. Someone who has no coat or no food becomes an abstract symbol of a failed abstract society – a gulf is coming into being, not fixed but it is there, but slowly one thing after another conspires to make the gulf deeper and deeper, We should have seen this coming. As Jesus said ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven. Woe to you who are rich for you have receive your reward’ ‘Use wicked mammon to make friends for yourself so that when it fails you, they will welcome you into eternal homes . . . Live this way, because surely you can see what is coming??
We know nothing about the Rich man, he is so disconnected from his neighbour, he himself has no identity, no name. He has ceased to exist in the world. we do not even know his name. Who knows, he may have been a political figure working day in day out to ‘fight for a more just and equitable society’, then driving home past the line of the hungry and the homeless, comforting himself with the thought that, ‘one day even that guy at my gate will have something to eat
The parable says, you should have seen this coming – this was what the LORD has always said would happen. The Rich man, finds his ‘social superiority’ the thing that had perhaps kept him from going to Lazarus, was now ineffective in getting Lazarus to come to him. So he calls to Father Abraham – ‘send him to my brothers and warn them!’ And Abraham says, they have the Moses and the prophets . . . they should be able to see this coming. Jesus remember comes only to fulfil the Law and the prophets – in a sense there is nothing new, except for this one thing – God’s final Victory is revealed in that he raises Jesus from the dead, and of course the gospel is addressed to those who know this – what difference does it make to us? If death itself is overcome, then what is there to fear from crossing the gulf now?
The Christian way of making the world a better place is living as if heaven is already here, breaking in amongst us and sharing that news with those around us, that in Christ God is breaking down every barrier between us – reconciling that greatest gulf between God and the human and thus making the bridge across we might walk to the neighbour, sharing in what we have with one another. Revealing the Life of the Risen one amongst us – amongst us . . .
And this is where it starts . . . As I said, at Synod we were challenged to talk together about the simple matter of our parish shares and how together we might help one another as parishes. For if we cannot do this simple thing, do we truly believe the LORD will entrust us with the treasure of The Holy Spirit, the Life of the Kingdom? Again – it may come as news to folk that Diocesan Council has decided that ten out of 14 church buildings will close in Dunedin by 2020 . . . a political answer to a problem of our common life. Surely if the gospel is true we might as the Anglicans in the city come together to think, pray and share with one another what wisdom we might have. It is not as though there are all that many of us! What vision is there that the LORD grants us? Or do we in truth believe Sartre? Hell is other people, we’ll allow the politicians to fix things between us, to fix the gulf in place.
Are we unable to do even this little thing, this small act of crossing the gulf set up between us in our separated parishes? Do we really have a gospel to proclaim?
God is coming with judgement . . . coming with judgement to Save his people – we of all people should be able to see this coming.