Dying to live

A man visited the local Episcopal church during stewardship season, and after the Eucharist he waited in line to speak to the priest.  “Father,” the man said in a halting voice as tears welled in his eyes, “I wish to draw your attention to the terrible plight of a poor family in my neighborhood. The father has died, the mother is too ill to work, and the nine children are starving. They are all about to be turned out into the cold, empty streets unless someone pays their rent, which amounts to $900.”  With that, the stranger broke down and buried his head in the priest’s shoulder.

“How terrible!” exclaimed the priest, saddened by the story but heartened by the concern of this stranger. “And you?” the priest asked the visitor, “Are you a relative or a neighbor?”  The man dabbed his handkerchief to his eyes. “Oh no,” he sobbed, “I’m the landlord.”[i]

Perhaps he should have read the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

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At first glance, today’s parable (“Lazarus and the Rich Man,” Luke 16:19-31) suggests some things about God that are disturbing to us.  The story seems to portray a God whose mercy has distressing limits, who sees suffering in front of him and yet does nothing to alleviate it, who disregards a man begging for relief.  In other words, in the latter half of today’s parable God looks an awful lot like the rich man does in the first half.

But let’s back up and study this parable carefully. There is an affluent man who lives in a gated community.  He buys his clothing at the Galleria, and he purchases his groceries at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.  At his gate each day there is a man named Lazarus, whose life circumstances haven’t turned out materially so well as the affluent man’s.  But the wealthy man is busy and active and involved, and though he isn’t antagonistic toward Lazarus, he gives Larazus no notice, either.Lazarus and the Rich Man 2

Well, as life will have it sooner or later, they both die.  Lazarus is lifted to heaven by angels, but whatever ethereal car service arrives to pick up the affluent man takes him—much to his surprise—to a place that looks very much like hell.  So far, while may not like this parable, and it may make us squirm, we can nevertheless recognize its logic.

But then there’s a twist.  Our affluent man, who is, scripture tells us, “being tormented,” looks up to Father Abraham (who represents God in this tale) and begs, “Have mercy on me!”

Abraham replies, in what I imagine to be a voice dripping with false concern, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”

It’s like God is saying, “Sorry, Bud.  Be sure to put on sunscreen.  Those flames are hot.”

But wait…I left out a line in the retelling, didn’t I?  Look again at the Gospel passage in your leaflet.  What does the affluent man say after he asks for mercy?  What is his immediate go-to source of ease?  The man says to Abraham, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”  And the entire parable turns on that request.

Let me digress for just a moment.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches—confusingly to most of the people around him—that we must die in order to live.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that a seed must fall to the ground and die in order to emerge in new life and bear fruit.[ii]  In Mark, Jesus tells his followers that those who attempt to save their lives will lose them, while those who lose their lives for the Gospel will receive their lives back again.[iii]  And again in John—in a passage our Baptist brothers and sisters love but from which we tend to shy away—Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again of water and Spirit.”[iv]  Presumably, one cannot be born a second time unless one first dies.

A seed must fall to the ground and die...

A seed must fall to the ground and die…

But what does all this mean?  What does it mean to die and to be reborn?  It doesn’t require an old-fashioned Southern altar call (though in truth, there’s nothing wrong with that).  Rather, it requires a letting go, a shedding of the world and its assumptions, and its priorities, and its prejudices.  It requires that kind of dying—which can be just as excruciating and painful as the physical kind—if we are to rise in new life with God’s assumptions, and God’s priorities, and God’s grace.

Now we can see the conundrum of the affluent man in today’s parable.  Even in the depths of hell, the affluent man says to—no, demands of—Abraham, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”

In the words of Rob Bell, “[The rich man is] dead, but he hasn’t died.”[v]  Even with flames licking around him, he operates within the very same set of assumptions that dictated his mortal life.  Who is he, in his own mind?  He is still one who is to be served.  He is one to whom others should bring relief from his discomfort.  To quote Rob Bell again, the affluent man is “still clinging to his ego, his status, his pride—he’s unable to let go of the world he’s constructed, which puts him on the top and Lazarus on the bottom, the world in which Lazarus [should be] serving him…[Even in death, he’s] in profound torment, because he’s living with the realities of not properly dying the kind of death that actually leads a person into the only kind of life that’s worth living.”[vi]  God has not consigned the affluent man to hell, and God doesn’t keep him there.  The man finds himself stuck in hell because he has refused—and he continues to refuse—to die to the world.

One startling part of this story is that nowhere is the affluent man characterized as brazenly malicious and mean-spirited.  He steps over Lazarus at his gate every day, but he doesn’t kick Lazarus.  Even so, on some level that apathy is even worse.  At least malice would require that the affluent man acknowledge Lazarus as a fellow human being worthy of some strong emotional reaction.  As it stands, the affluent man simply ignores and disregards Lazarus’ personhood altogether.  That is, until he finds himself in hell and demands that Lazarus leave the bosom of the angels to fetch him a drink of water.

"At least malice would require that the affluent man acknowledge Lazarus as a fellow human being worthy of some strong emotional reaction."

“At least malice would require that the affluent man acknowledge Lazarus as a fellow human being worthy of some strong emotional reaction.”

What does this story mean for us, especially on this Sunday that we launch our Every Member Canvass stewardship campaign for 2014?  Well, as all good Episcopal priests should, the best I can offer is a quote about this parable from our bishop.  Bishop Doyle says this:

“[Like Lazarus], there is someone standing at the gate of our lives.  And that person, that community, is waiting for us to stand with them as extensions of God’s mercy, grace, and abundant love.”[vii]

There is someone standing at the gate of our lives.  There are hungry bodies at our door, awaiting a nourishing meal.  There are hungry souls in these pews, awaiting a nourishing Word and the bread and wine of the sacrament.  Everything we strive to do at Christ Church Cathedral intends to recognize, honor, and embrace the person at the gate.  Everything we strive to do is about dying: about shedding the assumptions, the priorities, and the prejudices of the world so we can live in the beauty and grace of God.

And our work will not—cannot—continue without the support of each and every person who enters this place.  Today is indeed the launch of the Every Member Canvass.  We’ve just studied a parable that speaks hard sayings and ends in grace, and in that spirit I must do the same.  The hard saying is this: In 2013, due to crucial deferred maintenance on our campus and a shortage of financial pledges, we have operated with a $700,000 deficit budget.  A parish as large and vibrant as Christ Church can do that for one year, but we simply cannot absorb this kind of deficit again.

That is the hard saying, but it pales in comparison to the grace!  And here that is: As of this morning, every member of your Vestry and every member of your Stewardship Council have committed to increase their pledges for 2014.  And I, as your dean, commit to pledge to the instruments of the Church a tithe, a full ten percent of my income in 2014.  We have each made this decision as our sacramental commitment to die to the world and rise with Christ, to see and lift up the person at the gate.  We invite you to join us, to pledge if you’ve not done so before, and to increase your pledge if you’ve pledged in years past.

There’s even more grace than that!  Our attendance at Holy Eucharist is up, our work through the Beacon is becoming a model for the entire city, we are becoming a parish that embraces the pastoral care of all our people, and our commitment to Christian discipleship, outreach, and—let’s never forget—worship is taking on new life.

New life.  Dying not to the grave, but to the world.  The Stewardship Council chose as this year’s Every Member Canvass theme a quote from Jeremiah, in which God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, for a future filled with hope!”[viii]  That is all about the new life in which we live each day by the grace of God, by which we live each day seeking out the person at the gate, feeding him body and soul, quenching the thirst of his parched spirit.

The Every Member Canvass is not merely an annual fundraiser.  It is our opportunity to say again, concretely and with commitment, that we wish to die so that we may live.


[i] Adapted from an even worse joke found on the internet.

[ii] John 12:24.

[iii] Mark 8:34-35.

[iv] John 3:5.

[v] Bell, Rob.  Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, pg. 76.

[vi] Ibid., pp. 76-77.

[vii] Doyle, Andrew.  Unabashedly Episcopalian: Proclaiming the Good News of The Episcopal Church, pg. 85.

[viii] Jeremiah 29:11.

A tornado, a dog, and what’s gone missing

I grew up in tornado alley.  Weather systems that coalesce over Dallas move in a northeasterly direction, and by the time they reach Texarkana they’ve often become unstable and pack a mighty punch.  Moving northeast of Little Rock, tornadoes become common—very common.  My mother’s high school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, was destroyed by a tornado over thirty years ago.  St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tennessee, just two hours from my hometown and the parish that sent me to seminary, was leveled by a tornado less than a decade ago.  The schools I attended growing up had tornado drills as frequently as fire drills.  On a regular basis as a youth, we’d look outside my parents’ house to see the sky turn a heavy and still, eerie shade of green.  Without pausing to turn on the television and check the weather report, we’d head to the basement to wait out the coming storm.  Once, early in our marriage, Jill and I were driving across the boot heel of Missouri (that little portion that dips into the notch of Arkansas) and looked to the north of us only to see an ugly twister.  “What should we do?” Jill asked.  “Just keep driving,” I replied, “and hope it moves in the other direction.”  It did.  Tornadoes are so ubiquitous in northeast Arkansas that a one-hit-wonder country music band from Jonesboro actually assumed the name “Twister Alley.”  You can still see their video on YouTube:

Even so, the tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma on May 20 of this year made my jaw drop.  It was an EF5.  Tornadoes don’t get any stronger.  The Moore Tornado had sustained winds of over two hundred miles per hour.  By comparison, Hurricane Ike’s strongest winds were a mere one hundred forty-five miles per hour.  The tornado was more than a mile wide, and it stayed on the ground for forty minutes.  The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management struggled to come up with an adjective that adequately described the tornado’s destruction.  The best they could do was “catastrophic,” and somehow even that wasn’t enough.  Entire neighborhoods were obliterated.  Witnesses said the tornado looked like “a giant black wall of destruction.”[i]  Can you imagine?  I can’t, and I grew up in tornado alley.

"A black wall of destruction"

“A giant black wall of destruction”

The day after the storm, a CBS news crew toured Moore, Oklahoma to survey the damage.  They came upon an elderly woman named Barbara Garcia standing next to a jagged, flattened pile of lumber.  Upon speaking to her, they realized that the pile had been her house, and she had been in it during the tornado.  Mrs. Garcia explained that she and her small dog, Bowsie, had taken refuge in an interior bathroom of the house.  But no space is safe from an EF5 tornado.  The storm ripped the house from its foundation.  It wrenched the little dog from Mrs. Garcia’s arms and threw Mrs. Garcia herself to the ground, where she stayed pinned under rubble until the storm passed.  With teary eyes, Mrs. Garcia relayed to the reporter that Bowsie’s body was lost somewhere in the wreckage.

As the interview goes on, the news camera shifts from Mrs. Garcia to the pile behind her, as the cameraman spots something moving under the rubble.  It is the same color as the rest of the wreckage, and even as the video camera zooms in it’s difficult to see.  But then Mrs. Garcia turns to look, and she realizes in an expression of utter and complete surprise and thanksgiving that the movement is coming from Bowsie, her little dog, as the pup struggles to push through the wreckage to freedom.  Mrs. Garcia (with reluctant help from the news crew) lifts heavy debris off of the dog.  She and Bowsie are reunited under the most devastating circumstances, and for those few moments, Mrs. Garcia forgets everything else: her destroyed home, the lacerations on her own arms, the uncertainty of where she will sleep that night and what she will eat for her next meal.  None of it matters, because what was lost is found. The video is linked here:

The CBS video of this reunion immediately went viral.  Hundreds of thousands of people have viewed it online.  It could be taken as just a maudlin feature story about a sweet old woman and her dog, and undoubtedly many have viewed it as such.  But that’s a mistake.  The video is a real-life parable that reminds us of God’s very truth.  There is something distilled about it, something clarifying.  Just as Jesus says of the lost sheep and the lost coin today, in our real world one truly will leave all else behind to recover that which is most precious.  Those things of false value, in which in our calm and stable moments we place so much stock, fade into the background when faced with the loss of the truly valuable.  We view the footage of Mrs. Garcia and this companion animal that is her whole life, and we know that the love she has for that little dog is awesomely greater than the black wall of destruction that sought to take from her everything.

But until the storms hit, how those things of false value can lead us to forget this truth.  In the Exodus lesson today, the Israelites have forgotten once again.  They’ve fashioned for themselves an idol of gold—literal gold in their case—a glittering calf to which they can bow.  And with gold reflected in their eyes, they have forgotten that which is truly precious.  It is lost to them.

This truth is archetypal.  It populates universally-experienced dreams in which the dreamer is intently and pensively searching through a morass for something incredibly precious, the identity of which remains mysterious, but with the felt assurance that it will be known the moment it is found.

And so I’ll ask: What have you forgotten?  What is the coin that is lost in your life?  What is the sheep that has strayed?  What do you dimly remember used to live in the very center of your soul, that made your heart sing, but seems somehow to have gone missing?  And what in your life, by contrast, has stolen your attention by pretending to be valuable and important and allowed the loss?

The Lost Coin: What do you dimly remember used to live in the very center of your soul, that made your heart sing, but seems somehow to have gone missing?

The Lost Coin: What do you dimly remember used to live in the very center of your soul–that made your heart sing–but seems somehow to have gone missing?

A warning: If we wait for the inevitable storms of life to hit, we will surely then be reminded of what is truly most important to us, but that doesn’t mean what is truly important will be returned unhurt and whole.  For every story like that of Mrs. Garcia, there are a dozen in which the dog lies dead in the rubble.  For every coin that is found, there are fortunes forever lost.  If we wait for the storms to hit to clarify for us what we truly value and love, we are liable to end our lives in regret and sorrow.

A counsel: Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin are not self-help stories.  They are not about “finding yourself” in a Barnes & Noble, pop psychology sense.  Because for Jesus, that which is lost, that which is rightly at the heart of us, that which is most central to who we are called to be, is God.  The sheep that is found returns to God’s flock.  The woman who finds the coin has recovered the treasure of God’s love.  Indeed, the Israelites have opted for an idol of gold in place of God whose love has sustained them in their very wilderness.  Jesus is saying to us that however else we respond to these parables in our own lives, that which has gone missing and which we seek to recover must include the embrace of the divinity that is all around us, that holds us and sustains us and, indeed, loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

And a hope: We don’t have to wait for the black wall of destruction to hit to seek what we’ve lost.  Jesus tells us parables that occur in mundane, everyday settings on purpose.  Even today, we can light a lamp, we can sweep the floor of our souls, and we can recover what is lost.  But this requires that we be willing to walk away from the ninety-nine sheep that have preoccupied us.  It requires that we be willing to melt down the golden calf, whatever it is for each of us.  It requires that we sift through the accumulated rubble and give our lives back to what is truly valuable.  What is that for you?

There is a final point worth making.  Mrs. Garcia’s little dog wanted to be found.  It struggled through that wreckage in Moore, Oklahoma, desperately seeking Mrs. Garcia even as she sought it.  Just so, the God who is the air surrounding us and the air we breathe also desires to be at the heart of us.  That God wants us to find—to recover—whatever it is that gives our souls life.  Even as we seek, we are being sought.  And that is grace greater than any storm.  It brings joy in the presence of the angels.  Amen.