This is a little poem that I learned about twenty years ago, which I
share often in confirmation classes. It doesn't represent great literature
or style, and I have no idea who wrote it. But it is easy to memorize,
which helps someone like me. It is about how to find your way in a life of
I sought my God but my God I could not see.
I sought my faith, but my faith eluded me.
I sought my neighbor, and I found all three.
Now, part of me worries about reciting something like that in such a
learned company. It's a little simple, if you will. The Bard would be
bored. But I like the fact that in three lines you have a spiritual quest,
an intellectual journey, and a discovery of purpose in life. Which is not
bad. Plus, it rhymes. Maybe it is great literature…
Yesterday, twenty-two of us spent about six hours in conversation about
the call of God for the ministry of this parish. We talked about worship,
education, celebration, and mission. And this is how decisions and choices
get made in the United Church of Christ. We gather together, pray about
them, talk about them, and discern God's will together to determine what to
do. We don't have a bishop or a creed to follow. We have the Holy Spirit
heard in the voice of our members, which, to my mind, is the way it should
be. Yesterday we did that.
For me, yesterday was an inspiring time. I received a glimpse into the
next several years together and how we will evolve and focus our faith
and grow. I heard a unity of purpose and value and an energy to evolve. I
heard people unite behind the Biblical theme Feed my Sheep in all that
we do. Which is good.
At the bottom, what we were trying to do yesterday was ask how to
unite God, faith, and neighbor not in poetry but in one ministry. We were
trying to see into an invisible place -- the future -- from the perspective of
a diverse group -- us -- using an inscrutable process -- community discernment.
And it really came out quite well. Indeed, we are on the cusp of some
meaningful adaptations, adjustments, and depth in life and mission.
Which is really the same thing our scriptures ask of us today. In
fact, it is a consistent theme in Luke. The theme is seeing and embracing
our neighbors and changing, although Luke starts it from a different
angle. Actually it can be quite an uncomfortable angle, and the discomfort
grows from story to story, or at least I feel this discomfort myself. Back
in Luke 10, a lawyer's question begins this whole progression. That is, in
chapter 10, Jesus says, "Love your neighbor as yourself." So the
lawyer asks him, "Who is my neighbor?" That's our question, too.
Back there in Luke, before our scripture for today, Jesus tells the
story of the Good Samaritan to answer the question. And it's easy to get
the point. Then today, Luke talks about neighbors again. And this story of
heaven and hell and reversals of fortune and resurrections from the dead
is action packed and urgent. Yet it is worrisome, too, and maybe we can
help each other to find its silver lining, since I believe that there is
one. Maybe we can see what it says about who is our neighbor.
Here's my worry. The scripture comes in two parts, the part where the
two characters are alive and the part where they are in the after-life.
Each part has two parts: the life style of the rich or comfortable and the
experience of the poor or damned. Each character gets to experience each
situation, like Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places. But unlike
three thousand years of funny stories about fortune's reversal, this one
has one person end up in eternal hell. This story has enormous symmetry
and balance, which I don't like in the end, and for this reason.
As you know, Lazarus, the only named character in any of Jesus'
parables, starts out poor and injured and ends up in the bosom of Abraham,
from whence we get the song. The rich man, not named, starts out very
comfortable and ends up in hell begging for someone to get resurrected to
help those living who haven't yet gotten the point, although here even
Jesus says it may well be that people who don't listen to prophetic
prophets aren't going to care about resurrected peasants. While they are
in their respective sites of the afterlife, not to be taken literally,
there is a great chasm between the two. Which seems like good news. In
fact it seems quite fair and just. Who wants heaven to get stained by
hell, or what good is hell if you can touch some heaven? So there is this
chasm. Abraham says, and Jesus conveys, that no one can get across the
chasm. Which brings me back to the symmetry and the problem of the story.
Since everything here comes in two unchanging, balanced parts, and since
the rich and the poor are eternally separated in the beyond, are we
supposed to think that there is such an impassable chasm here on this side
of the story, too? Are we unchangeably separated here and now?
No, you retort. The scripture's point is to change us on this side of
the story. Silly, you say, there isn't that much symmetry. OK then: so
there isn't a chasm between rich and poor. How do we understand the
statistics about the distribution of wealth in the United States, where
the bottom 40 % hold only 1% of assets, and the top 1% hold thirty times
that much? Or this morning's report in the Globe that almost one quarter
of the children in Boston live in homes without a single adult member in
the work force, ahead of Philadelphia and L.A. and twice the national
average? Or, I confess, other than students, I can count on one hand the
number of my regular social contacts who earn minimum wage or are on
public assistance. Sure, I meet them on service projects but not in my
home. Maybe it is me alone who is out of touch, but I fear that the
Godless chasm bordering hell is pervading our side. Now there's a line you
don't hear too often from a liberal Protestant pulpit.
Yet maybe the symmetry of this story that worries me is also my
salvation. Jesus believes deeply in reversals of fortune. Samaritans
become good, Gentiles lead, women speak, and lepers come to the common
table. If the chasm is creeping, maybe we can reverse it.
I think that is why we have a mission program and a mission committee in our
church and why they must grow. I think that is why Christians engage
community or city or state-wide decisions and referenda. That is why we
have elections in this country and why Christians are called to vote even
with that chasm in mind. For we must see the conditions, speak them, and
solve them. The Bible, this nation, and this parish do not indict wealth
nor idolize poverty. But our faith does call us all to be neighbors, to
love our neighbors as ourselves, and to help them manifestly, even if a
chasm tries to obscure the call.
Our retreat yesterday tried to tie together our values, our worship,
our learning together, and our community outreach in a practice that
reflects the love of God. It served to push us a bit beyond ourselves, not
necessarily as individuals but in the strength of our lives together. At least
for me, it tried to offer the chance to face even scary challenges -- which
the future always holds -- without being anxious, because of the faith that
God sustains us.
In part, the scripture today invites us to fight back any chasm that
divides us. The real one of wealth and poverty as well as many others
that touch our lives. This is a divine and noble call. A call that itself
unifies our way in a life of faith.
I sought my God but my God I could not see,
I sought my faith but my faith eluded me,
I sought my neighbor and I found all three.
Welcome to the years ahead. Amen.
Copyright © 2004 Kenneth F.
Baily. Used by