Saturday, September 29, 2007

At Our Doorstep: Reflections on Luke 16:19-31

Have you ever known anybody rich? I mean, really rich? I’ve known a few. For all our demurring about those stereotypes of the Episcopal Church, you can’t spend time in more than a few Episcopal congregations without meeting someone. And between the number of dioceses in which I’ve served, and the number of supply services I’ve done over the years, I’ve met a few – maybe more than a few.

At the same time, I’ve never met anyone that rich, at least if you talk to them. That’s because almost every rich person I’ve ever known has known or known of someone who was richer – to hear them tell it, much richer – than them. Every local real estate magnate can compare himself with the regional banking family; who can compare themselves with Hearsts or Annenbergs; who can compare themselves with Buffets or Gates. I don’t know where Warren Buffets or Bill Gates go from there; but for almost anyone below them, there’s someone to compare to, someone who has more.

Jesus told a story of a rich man. In one sense, it doesn’t really matter how rich he was. The point was that he had enough and more – everything he needed, and perhaps all he could want. On his doorstep was a poor beggar, one Lazarus. He was poor and sick and suffering, unable to protect himself from even the petty assaults of stray dogs. And, as will we all unless the Kingdom comes first – as will we all, they died. The rich man, said Jesus, found himself in the fires of Hell. And yet somehow in the midst of his torment he was able to see into Paradise, and to see there Lazarus resting in peace in the bosom of Abraham. And when he called to Abraham for mercy, he learned that it was too late. And he learned that for all his concern for his brothers, they were responsible for themselves. They had their consciences, if they would pay attention; and they had the demands of Torah, if they would pay attention. And, said Abraham, if they wouldn’t pay attention to those, they weren’t terribly likely to pay attention, even if to someone who came back from the dead.

Now, we could talk about just how rich we are – but you’ve heard that sermon before. We know we’re rich, by the world standards. As Finion said to his daughter in the musical, “Finion’s Rainbow,” America has “the best ill-fed and the best ill-clad and the best ill-housed in all the world.” And yet we all know someone who’s richer.

So, I don’t think that’s the point, really. Rather, I think we need to pay attention to the fact that Lazarus was literally on the rich man’s doorstep. He longed for the scraps from the rich man’s sumptuous table – scraps he apparently didn’t get. The rich man could hardly have left his house without stepping over him, and yet it seems he never saw him. Right there on his doorstep; and he never showed mercy, never showed generosity, never showed kindness. Right there on his doorstep, and he never even saw him.

And so the question for me is, who’s on my doorstep? Now, I have to be careful before I answer. I have to stop and think where my doorstep ends. I have a blog – a web site where I post opinions and reflections literally for all the world to see. I also subscribe to an internet service that allows me to see where people are when they’re reading my blog. I find that an interesting service to use. It’s fun to see where my readers are. I can even pull up a map that shows where the last 10 or 20 readers read from. I can’t see who they are, but I can see the names of their internet services, and the cities they’re in.

Doing that, I’ve discovered I have some regular readers. I have couple, for example, in Berkeley, California. I have a couple in various places in Canada. But the ones that I find really intriguing are farther afield. I have a couple of readers in Australia. I even have a halfway regular reader in Yemen.

Now, that’s lots of fun; but it also brings me back to my question: where does my doorstep in? I have folks who read what I write, and sometimes answer back, around the world. Where does my doorstep end? And if, as it seems, my doorstep goes that far, it really expands who may be there, waiting for me to notice, waiting for me to care.

And if that’s true of me, let me ask that question of all of us, in terms of our daily lives.

  • Politicians in Washington are arguing about health insurance for kids whose parents earn too much for Medicaid, but not enough to afford health insurance. Some of those kids are right here in Missouri. Where does our doorstep end?
  • Our supermarkets have spinach from California, and strawberries from Mexico, and plums and grapes from Chile. Where does our doorstep end?
  • The clothes we wear and the toys we give our children are made in China. Where does our doorstep end?
  • American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and a host of other places. Where does our doorstep end?

It seems our doorstep stretches pretty far. And if it stretches that far, how many are there on our doorstep, waiting of us to notice and to respond?

Now, my guess is all of us are already responding in some way; and my point is not to disregard or discredit that. On the other hand, we can get complacent. Indeed, we can make our responses and still not see the people we might help. We can give in an abstract understanding that it’s better to give than to receive, and still not really notice the people we might give to. It’s not just about generosity for its own sake: it’s also about looking at our doorstep and actually paying attention to who’s there.

That’s the reason, really, that the General Convention on our behalf has embraced the Millennium Development Goals. It’s a recognition for our doorstep stretches literally around the world, and a way for us to show that we notice and we care. And if someone wants to complain that the Millennium Development Goals aren’t Biblical, aren’t Christian, remind him of this story, and ask where his doorstep ends.

Now, I don’t want to sell short generosity for its own sake, as it were. I don’t even want to sell short generosity just for the sake of avoiding hell. If that’s what moves you, and it actually moves you to action, well and good. I think God will bless our moral performance, even though he would prefer we do things for the right reason.

But it is important to know the right reason: concern and love for the person at our doorstep. We are those who know that God saw us on the doorstep, as it were, and came to show care – came to us in Christ, in a person we could hear and touch and love. So we are called to come in love to those at our doorstep, to show mercy and generosity certainly, but first of all to care.

The rich man had Lazarus at his doorstep, and as near as we can tell he never noticed. We are called to notice, to notice and to care as God in Christ has cared for us. We’re called to see those at our doorstep, to see their need, and to respond in love. So, where does your doorstep end?

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