Note: The following is the sermon I delivered this past Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Raleigh NC. It is also a pretty good example of applying a Christian humanist view to Christian Scripture.
I bring greetings of Grace and Peace to you from the worshiping community at Love Wins Ministries. I am glad to be here this morning, and glad I was able to do it and allow Sasha some time away.
This is my fourth time to be allowed to speak in this beautiful sanctuary, and I am always honored (and a little amazed) that you keep having me back.
A friend of mine is a UU minister in another state, and she heard I was preaching here again.
She asked me what my text was. I told her I was preaching on the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The phone got quiet.
“What?,” I asked.
“Hugh. That story revolves around a guy being tormented in Hell. Why on earth are you going to preach on that text in a UU congregation?”
I told her that the last time I was here I preached on Noah’s Ark, a story where God throws a fit and destroys all of humanity except one family, and y’all handled that OK, so I figured y’all could handle this one.
But seriously, I do want to acknowledge that texts like this one have been used to perpetuate some pretty horrible ideas about the Divine – about who God is and what God is like, and it has been a tool used to harm people who were on the wrong side of power.
But I keep coming back to these hard stories, because I believe there is something there for us. After all, the impoverished colonized people who originally heard these stories did not think them hard, but instead heard them and said that it was good news, which is what the word Gospel really means.
What I love about this story is that it is really two stories: a story about the world as it is, and a story about the world as it should be. This is not a story about a literal heaven and hell, as if it is some sort of Lonely Planet guide to the afterlife. No, this is a story about power and privilege and how we use it. Or, how we don’t.
Jesus tells us the story of a rich man who lives in a gated community, who is insulated by his privilege from the poverty literally at his gates. The poor man dies and is carried off by angels, and the rich man dies and is tortured in Hades.
When they were alive, in the part of the story that concerns itself with the world as it is, the rich man was doing OK. He was rich and powerful, and wore fine imported clothes and ate sumptuous foods. We should probably point out that the story is not a condemnation of his wealth. There is no evidence that he got his money unethically. And that Lazarus went to the gates probably meant that he had been fed there before – in other words, the rich man had handed out charity in the past. He probably gave money to the PTA fundraiser at the school, and was probably a member of the Rotary club. According to the standards of the day, the rich man was a “good” man.
But the world as it is wasn’t good for Lazarus, however. He was poor. Desperately poor. And not just poor, but sick – so sick he could not keep the unclean dogs from licking his sores. And hungry. So hungry that he longed for the scraps from the rich man’s table.
Here is the truest thing I know:
When you have two groups of people – let’s call them groups A and group B – and there is a disparity between those groups, when one of those groups has more than the other, the moral and ethical responsibility for changing that disparity lies on the group with more.
Which we all agree with, right? I mean, when we look at the history of woman’s rights in the US, we don’t think that if women wanted to vote, they should have demanded it sooner. We think that it should have been put in the Constitution in the first place. The people who already had that right should have demanded that women have it too.
Likewise, we don’t think that Lazarus should have just begged harder. No, we think the rich man should have voluntarily lifted Lazarus up. In the world as it is, the rich man had more, and should have used that excess to advocate for Lazarus in their lifetime.
But he didn’t. In the story, he isn’t in hell because he was a rich man, but because he chose to not use his excess to change that disparity.
That disparity between two groups of people – it isn’t just money we are talking about here.
Like at Love Wins Ministries, where I pastor – some six years ago, we were given the use of a building. We used it for offices and to worship in on Sunday, but most of the space sat empty during the week. And we looked around and realized that the people we knew who were homeless had no space to be during the day.
So there were two groups of people: One group had space no one was using, and the other had no space they were allowed to use. So we opened our doors and shared it with them, planting the seeds of what would become the Love Wins Community Engagement Center, a place where some 70 to 100 people who have nowhere else to go come to rest, get out of the weather and build unlikely friendships.
We don’t read this story and think that the reason Lazarus was starving was because he did not beg hard enough, or that he did not protest the injustice enough. Lazarus is not the victim of injustice because he did not speak up. No, when we hear this story, we immediately assume the rich man should have taken the initiative.
The rich man in this story is condemned because he had the power to change things, and chose not to.
So we go now in the story to the world as it should be.
The poor man is taken on the wings of angels to be with Abraham in paradise, and the rich man is tortured in hell.
The rich man is burning in hell and sees Lazarus with Abraham – apparently part of the torture is being able to see the people who are not being tortured, which is just mean, y’all – and asks Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand. Not just once, but twice.
Do you hear that? This man, this rich, privileged man is so used to being in control that when he is being tortured in hell, when he is literally on fire, he still feels that he has the right to dictate the movements of the poor man who died of starvation at his gate while he feasted.
And in the midst of that hubris, that privilege, that power, the rich man makes demands of Lazarus, attempting to perpetuate the power dynamic. Lazarus says nothing in response to this, but Abraham does.
Abraham says “No. No, that isn’t going to happen.”
Here we again have two groups of people, and one has more than the other – in this case, more power.
And the person with more power – Abraham – sees the rich man try to use the historical systems of power and oppression against Lazarus, and he speaks out. He is a bystander who speaks out, who inserts his privilege in the gap between the rich man and Lazarus, and who, when sees an injustice be attempted, says, “No, that will not happen on my watch”.
Notice what doesn’t happen: Lazarus does not have to speak out to defend himself. It is never the responsibility of the oppressed to ask the oppressor to stop oppressing them. And in the world as it should be, they don’t have to.
No, in the world as it should be, those of us with power speak out when we see injustice happen.
In the world as it should be, those of us with excess use our excess – whether it is power or money or space or food – to make things right.
In the world as it should be, the only people punished are those who had the chance to help, but chose not to.
In the world as it should be, those who are on the side with less do not have to beg for the things they need, whether that is food or shelter or advocacy or rights, but they are given by those who have more of those things than they need.
This story presents us with two worlds: The world as it is, and the world as it could be.
And the only thing that prevents the world as it is from becoming the world as it could be is those of us with more – more money, yes, but also more power, more privilege, more time – not taking the initiative in making things right. In our not leveling the disparity.
In the world as it is right now, Lazarus is at our gates, dying of hunger while we feast. Don’t make him have to ask us. May we have the moral courage to stand up and say, “Lazarus! Come inside! Sit down and eat. We have plenty.”