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Death Teaching Theology

Lord we seek to be in your presence, to be your friend.

Guide us by your Spirit and keep us in your Kingdom. Amen.

Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.-- Luke 16. 24

New York philosophers are often cab drivers. On Wednesday as I was getting into a taxi I wondered how business was going, so I asked the driver: “How are you doing?” When he replied, “I’m fine”, I realized that I had to sharpen the question a bit. So I asked, “How have things changed since September 11th?” He answered immediately: “People now don’t have a ‘tude.” He explained: “before (the attack) people had an attitude about themselves and saw others only in terms of their jobs or roles – like a cab driver or a porter – people they saw as inferior to themselves because of their important positions: “they didn’t care about you as a person and only gave directions”. Now, he noted, each passenger spoke with him and related to him as a person. Upon arriving at my destination I realized that he had prepared me well for a generous tip!

We know how life has changed, especially in Lower Manhattan. All of us are participants in the loss. None of us can look at the void in the skyline or think about what has happened without our hearts aching. Some of our number have lost colleagues, and loved ones. Many were displaced from their homes and workplaces. Psychologists tell us that as we have come upon the second week after, the likelihood of nightmares has increased. The effects are not limited to New Yorkers, of course.

National Public Radio this last week had a segment on How a Small Town Copes from Oneota, Alabama, a town with a population of five thousand, about forty miles north of Birmingham. Lisa Ryan, the editor of the Blount County Connection was asked, “What has changed in your community?”

She replied: “From my personal perspective, for several days after the attack Oneota was subdued. It was like Oneota was when I was a child: there was a warmth, a reaching out, a touching; traffic was slower, shopping was slower. I visited one of our local grocery stores and had an older gentleman tip his hat. There was more eye contact. This was phenomenal: we were reaching out to each other.”

Isn’t it amazing how a crisis can bring us back to basics, the things that really matter? I expect that every one of us has been enmeshed in reaching out experiences after the crisis. I have been overwhelmed by just the phone calls, with so many voices from the past, who want to make a connection to be sure you are alright. Yes, people are drawn closer to each other. Eye contact is a means of openness to another person. That is the reason we avoid eye contact when we want to keep a safe distance, such as on the subway or a crowded street.

In this afternoon’s parable from Luke, the Rich Man must have avoided eye contact with Lazarus. Lazarus was outside his gate in his pathetic state, but the Rich Man must not have seen him. The word compassion comes from the Latin “pari”, to experience, and “com”, with. Seeing someone opens us to compassion, that is, experiencing with them, which can lead us to helping them. But if we don’t see we can spare ourselves the vulnerability of compassion.

Even though the Rich Man did not make eye contact with poor Lazarus, it is clear from the parable that he was aware who he was, because he recognizes him at Abraham’s side and calls for him by name. In fact, his request shows that even in his experience of suffering in the flames his perception has not changed. His cry to Abraham is not regret. He doesn’t recognize that he overlooked Lazarus all those years. Rather, he still sees Lazarus in a subservient role, as a person who can be spared to run an errand on his behalf. The Rich Man’s wealth was not his inherent problem, but contributed to his self-occupation and indifference to those around him. Wealth is complex in scripture, as in life. It is morally neutral, but is misused when it becomes an end rather than a means.

To understand the parable’s message, we need to look at the context in which Jesus tells it in Luke. It concludes a section of teachings on the proper attitude toward material possessions and is preceded by last Sunday’s section on the dishonest manager. In all his teaching Jesus lays down the stark contrast between possessions and trusting in God: “Lay not up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt and thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus paints the picture of the eternal consequences of the daily decisions people make. It is clear that after death, it is too late for the Rich Man to change. Even his requests to Abraham reflect the finality of his torment: he simply asks for drops of refreshment and a word of warning to his five brothers. We who know so well indifference to the Gospel message cannot escape the irony of Abraham’s reply, that the brothers would not listen, even if one were to return from the grave.

Jesus challenges us with the choice between trusting possessions and trusting God.

On September 11th the Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams, a friend from having spoken at Trinity Institute several years ago, came to our Parish building at 74 Trinity Place for a taping in the television studio and ended up in 74 Below with the Preschool kids and other adults. He was with us when we evacuated down Greenwich Street to the Battery, surrounded by the dust and debris. The next day, when he spoke at the Cathedral he reflected on his experience of being with a group that were wondering if they were actually going to die in the next half hour. He reflected on “theology as learning about death and death as a teacher of theology:

It seems to me that when we are faced with a real, concrete possibility that death is going to happen to us, we immediately have one of the deepest possible challenges posed to the way in which we think about ourselves. We’re brought up against a place in which we have no part at all to change the future. What happens when we cannot? When you and I are frustrated, the temptation is to try to do something, which, while it won’t or might not let us change the circumstances, at least makes us feel better. A great deal of the life of the church, not to mention international relations, is based on this principle, as you may have noticed. But if the powerlessness is real, and if you’re prepared to look it in the face, what happens?

Our Buddhist friends tell us that when we’ve learned to let go of the craving to leave our thumbprint on the wall, what is left is compassion. Because when we are released from the urge to leave that thumbprint, to scribble that signature on the wall, the urge to act so as to seem to be making a difference, when we’re released from that… a space is created. A space that is otherwise occupied by anxiety becomes vacant space into which someone else’s reality may come.”

Yes life will never be the same again, but our lives can be transformed. The space that death seared into our consciousness can become the Lord’s abode, the place where the Lord dwells. Our fear should be less that the dreams will not go away and more that the feelings will go away and leave us unmoved.

Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus makes clear that for him it was too late. For you and me and our world, thank God, there still is time. The brokenness of our hearts opens our lives to God and to each other. To be drawn near to God is always to be drawn closer to each other.

In turning to the Lord we shift our focus from striving to gratitude. Start with gratitude for what you have been given, beginning with life itself. That is sufficient. Remember, that suffering does not isolate us, but brings us closer to all who suffer and to Jesus who embraced the hard wood of the cross to bring the world to God.

As death poses life’s deepest questions, turn to Jesus who shows us the way.


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