Sunday, September 25, 2022

Making the invisible, visible

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Katy, TX 77493

(click here to watch the sermon)

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the last of this section which have been directed at the Pharisees and their love of money and power. Luke is blunt and brutal in his condemnation of them especially in this parable where the only hope was to listen to the law and the prophets, which is something where the pharisees are supposed to lead by example. . One of the very basic tenants of the law and prophets is care for the poor and needy.

A central theme of Luke is what is called the great reversal. This is the last shall be first idea. We hear it at the very beginning in the Magnificat when Mary proclaims that God will bring down the powerful from their thrones, but the lowly he will lift up. The hungry will be fed but the rich will be sent away empty. We hear it again when Jesus is presented at the temple when Simeone sees him and says that he is destined for the rising and falling of many. Luke makes this a feature of his Sermon on the Plain where he warns those who have to be careful. We see this throughout Luke’s depiction of Jesus interacting with outcasts, sinners and the unfortunate of society. We need to keep this in mind as we unpack this parable.

Let us take a moment and look at the characters of the parable. First the rich man. He is obviously very well off since he is dressed in purple and fine linen. Rome controlled how much purple a person could wear depending on their rank and status. However, notice that he is not given a name. None of the characters in Jesus’ parables is named except for one, Lazarus. The rich man is not described as evil, but inattentive and to my mind rather oblivious and indifferent. I wonder if he ever spoke to or noticed Lazarus? Even in Hades he treats Lazarus like a servant.

Lazarus is derived from the Hebrew name El-azar which means God has helped. We do not know anything about Lazarus other than he is destitute, probably begging at the gate and is covered with sores that the dogs lick. Now dogs did not have the status in homes then or now in the Middle East that they do here in the states. They were scavengers and in a couple of Old Testament stories the final disgrace of the evil character in some legends is that the dogs eat them.

The other character is Father Abraham and we see him enter in Hades. Now this is a really interesting part of this parable. Remember there is a dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees about whether there will be a resurrection. The Pharisees believed there will be a resurrection so they would believe in some from of Hades as a place where the dead wait for the end times and the resurrection of the dead. Some believed (influenced by Greek teaching) that there are good and not so good places in Hades. On legend had it that there was a chasm between the side of punishment and the place of rest and comfort. We see this in the telling of this parable.

One thing that came to my mind in this parable is I wonder about whether anybody really noticed poor Lazarus, laying at the gate. Did people see him or did the just ignore him, treating him as if he was invisible. This is a point where we can take a lesson for today.

Martha’s vineyard and Cape Cod have been in the news with the arrival of immigrants that were flown up there. This reminded me of my time up there in the mid 2000s. I was serving a parish in Orleans which is the inside of the elbow if you look at Cape Cod as an arm. It is primarily a vacation destination but also the home to a large number of retired people mostly from the Northeast. These are people who had vacation homes while they were working and often turned them into year-round residences when they retired. It was then and is now a very expensive place to live so as you can imagine there was a homeless issue especially in the summer.

In the summer, rents for homes jumped from $1000 a month in off season to $2,000-3000 a week during the summer. Those working minimum wage jobs and even police, fire, nurses and teachers have trouble affording places to live. My parish built a habitat for humanity home for a family in this group while I was there.

The church was part of a network of churches that took part in the Overnights of Hospitality. We housed in our parish hall one Tuesday a month a group of homeless men. They slept in cots in the classrooms, used the showers we had in our parish hall (we were a very popular place since few churches had showers) and we gave them breakfast and dinner and packed them a lunch for the next day.

One year our night fell on Shrove Tuesday and the annual pancake supper was a big deal. The people in charge of both the pancake dinner and the overnights came to me a couple weeks ahead of time and said, “Mark we have a problem. What are we going to do to feed the men that night? What do you think should we feed them downstairs or give them dinner early before the parish eats?” I think the look on my face must have got them off guard, at least they knew that they had really asked the wrong question. I said, “I think there is a better solution.” Why don’t we just have them eat with us.” With a little skepticism, the agreed that’s a much better solution.” So we did and it was a memorable night. The members of the parish learned what those of us who worked with the people already knew. Most of the men were employed but couldn’t afford housing. They became people with names not nameless homeless men.

But I learned a lesson that night. I was sitting with one of them and he said, “Fr. Mark do you know what is the hardest thing about being in my situation? It’s being invisible. I sit on a bench in Hyannis Port with all my stuff waiting to be picked up and people walk by me and nobody sees me. I acknowledge them with a smile and they look away. I really don’t know when I became invisible. Thank you for seeing me, for seeing us and making us seen tonight.”

I wonder if the great sin here is that Lazarus was invisible to the rich man, his family and his friends? Even after death, when the rich man gazes across the abyss to see Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, he speaks of the poor man in the third person—as if he were not there.[1]

So what does this have to do with us here in Katy Texas today? I believe we have a large number of invisible people. I was over at Emmanuel for clericus on Thursday and was taking with their rector. On one side of the church are gated communities around a country club. On the other side is the third poorest elementary school in Katy ISD, Rhodes elementary who we also support. He is trying to bridge the chasm between those two parts of the community and is entering into a partnership with them with help from the diocese.

We have the same opportunity to bridge a chasm.  We have lots of invisible people in Katy. If you doubt me, talk to the folks at Katy Christian Ministries or Katy Cares who presented to us earlier this fall that care for single parents or guardians with children who are on the brink of homelessness. I just connected a family of a woman and her younger special needs sister with them last week and they jumped right in using some of the donations we had given them.

Did you know there are still people in Katy who have not finished rebuilding from Harvey or more recently from the freeze in 2021? Did you know there is an organization who provides supplies and helps repair the homes. They are now branching out to help people rehab homes that simply can’t afford to do the work. Many are in poverty out of no fault of their own, their lives are just that hard. Did you know there is an organization who provide showers for the homeless in Katy at an area church with a trailer that they put in the parking lot once a week so the homeless can get cleaned up?

We have made a start in “seeing” these people here at St. Paul’s but there is much work to do. Our garden effort and partnering with Katy Cars, KCM and Hutsell are a good start. There are so many opportunities for us to make a difference.

One thing I’m putting on our list for next year’s Fall Fair is to expand it into a new area. Let me explain. Earlier this week a community outreach person from Harris County Health stopped by the church. He was looking for a place for a pop-up health clinic for things like flu shots, blood pressure checks, diabetes screening and other things like this. Just think what a service to the community we could provide if we gave the county some space at the Fall Fair to do this type of community service, right along with the garden. Harlen at vestry said, well maybe we could get the blood donation van. Now I’ve seen the effects this can have on a community. Wendy’s church in Virginia Beach did this type of work and changed the neighborhood the church was in.

As we move into stewardship season I am asking us to dream big and respond in a big way. I close the 10:30 every week with the Franciscan blessing and the last line is ‘and may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.” We have the opportunity to believe and to do so that we can make a difference, right here this next year in our neighborhood.

[1] Bader-Saye, S. (2010). Theological Perspective. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C (Vol. 4, p. 116). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.