Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost 25 September 2016
(Amos 6:1, 4-7 Psalm 146 1 Timothy 6:6-19 Luke 16:19-31)
“Noticing the Invisible!”
At our Church Council meeting in August, as it was winding down we were finishing a conversation about ministry here at St. James, and the question was asked: “Is it difficult being a pastor in this congregation?” The room became quiet. I could feel eyes slowly turning toward me. And the next 20 seconds felt like that moment in 5th grade when the teacher asks you to come up in front of the class to explain how you solved that math problem, and inside you have no idea because the night before it was your older sister who gave you the answer.
And then I thought—now is the time for me to jump up on the table and do my “I’ve been waiting for 10 years for someone to ask me this question!” dance! Then realized that our Council president was planning to end the meeting by 9pm, only 10 minutes away. So I rethought my initial moment of impulse.
This morning I want to respond to a slightly different question, which is: “Is it difficult being a Christian in today’s world?”
Much of the answer came the very next morning after that Council meeting when I met with a group of guys I get together with once a month. We read something and then gather to talk about whatever we read the past month. That morning we were discussing Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is a short read. It is a powerful read. Martin Luther King is writing in response to criticism he was receiving about the lack of voice from the church at that time about civil rights.
Here are just a few paragraphs from that Letter. He writes:
In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. I see the church as the Body of Christ.
There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffective voice with an uncertain sound.
If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into downright disgust. I hope the church as a whole will meet this challenge in this decisive hour….” 1
My answer to the question: I hope it is never easy to be pastor of this or any congregation. I hope it is never easy to be a Christian. I hope the church never becomes an irrelevant social club.
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus drives home the Gospel writer Luke’s relentless concern for the faithful stewardship of goods. This may be one of the most difficult parables in Luke because it powerfully calls into question how we handle our money today and raise the question of whether we really do “see” the poor at our gates.
But this parable is more than just a lesson on generosity. I think we are presented with the challenge of seeing, and then making visible, the invisible suffering of the world, which may be our most important moral challenge today.
I really like the theology of Johann Baptist Metz, a German theologian, who calls us to a deeper attentiveness in order to become aware of “invisible suffering.” For him, Christian spirituality is rooted is such “attentiveness.” Metz invites us into what he calls “God mysticism.” This is a way of deeper noticing that especially makes visible all invisible and inconvenient suffering.2
So I think of the invisible suffering in our world: the suffering of women and children in sweatshops, who are invisible behind our labels we buy; the suffering employees, who are invisible behind our fast food counters; the suffering of the suspect who is tortured behind locked doors to calm cancerous fears; the suffering of the homeless who now live in an underpass-turned-dormitory; the suffering of the 13-year-old girls walking through their inner-city neighborhood, a segregated urban subdivision peppered by broken windows and abandoned houses, trash and bullet-littered parks, and burned-out street lights.
We live within political and economic systems that feed upon the suffering of others, all the while keeping those suffering invisible. The call of Christ and Christ’s church in today’s parable is to refuse to live any longer by these fabrications.
This parable challenges us, not simply to share our wealth, but to become attentive to the poor and suffering persons who are invisible to us, who dwell at our doorsteps or, more likely, in another part of town where we do not see them if we do not want to, and the result is the same yesterday and today: Lazarus remains invisible.
In Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Walls,” he wrestles with the irony of neighbors who long to have clear boundaries on their neighborliness. Frost wonders aloud why it is that we divide ourselves. He writes, “on a day we meet to walk the line and set the wall between us once again, we keep the wall between us as we go.”3
Frost winds down his poem with these thoughts, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out and to whom I was like to give offense.”4
Over and over again, the Gospel reminds us that it is God’s Christ who we are walling out, who is lying at our door hungry and thirsty, too often invisible. It is the God who may not look like us, or speak our language, but God, none the less. The Gospel also calls us to a “God mysticism” a deeper attentiveness of our sisters and brothers, who too often remain invisible.
I believe the primary reason for the church is to be bearers of hope. And if we have to turn the world upside down to give such hope, such is our calling. We are not a social club. We are the Church, and it can be really difficult being a Christian in today’s world. We are called to a radical and redemptive change of heart, beginning with our own. Amen.
- “Letter from Birmingham Jail” from WHY WE CAN’T WAIT by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963). Harper & Row.
- “A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity.” Johann Baptist Metz. (1998). p.163.
- The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Mending Wall, by Robert Frost. 1970. p. 940-41.