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Based on the Scripture readings:
Psalm 146
Luke 16:19-31

2004 September 26
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Noticing Neighbors

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 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.

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

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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.

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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 permission.

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