Monday, September 27, 2010

Pentecost 18: Keith on Trial

Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said,

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘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.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Tuesday morning and from my office window I can see a clunky pick-up truck pull into the church’s parking lot. A man gets out who bears the unmistakable signs of a person coming here for financial help. The doorbell rings and a voice asks, “Is the pastor in?” I tell Christa that I am busy and don’t want to be bothered. But the man insists, so she lets him in and I emerge from my work to speak with him. His story bears many of the usual themes:

• he needs money for medication for his sick wife.

• he is a painter whose job for the week fell through, but will have plenty of work next month.

• his truck is about to be repossessed, but his sister has lent him some money for that.

• he is behind on the rent and is about to be evicted.

I tell him that I don’t have any financial resources to help him, which is at best a white lie. I offer him a bag of groceries from our food pantry, but he declines. I ask if he has gone to social services, the Salvation Army, or the Red Cross. He has, but they couldn’t help him. I ask him if he attends a church. He says he does. I ask if they can help him. He says he left a message for his pastor, but hasn’t heard back. I ask if he has family or friends he can contact. He doesn’t.
I try to listen patiently, using my professional empathy skills,

• “It sounds like you are in a tight spot”

• “That must be frustrating”

• “I am sorry that there isn’t anything I can do for you.”
After a conversation of around ten minutes, he leaves in his vehicle… for where I do not know.

It is an episode that happens once or twice a week here. Sometimes I can and do help a person a little, other times I don’t – either because I can’t, or because their story doesn’t add up, or because I simply am not in the mood.

Well, whether or not I am in the mood for it, I – like you – have to listen to and wrestle with the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Will there be an age where the down-on-his luck painter is provided for handsomely while I am the one in dire need? What are the consequences of my present indifference? How big might the chasm be in a world to come?

In the courtroom trial unfolding within my soul, my spiritual defense attorney has no shortage of arguments:

• Keith gives to his church and supports other charities on a regular basis.

• From time to time Keith gives to the poor money from his own wallet.

• Keith’s society is completely different than it was in Jesus’ day. At that time there was no social safety system. In Keith’s, a significant portion of his wealth is taken from him and shared with the poor, the unemployed, and the elderly. Is he not doing his part for those in need by working and paying his taxes?

• Keith admits as true that most of the folks who come to the church looking for help are in real need, but wonders how many of them got themselves into that position through their own fault and need to experience the consequences of their bad decisions?

Bravo, I whisper in my attorney’s ear as he rests my case. Then the prosecutor stands up and says, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine line and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered in sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger from what fell from the rich man’s table.” I scribble a note to my attorney: ‘Does it make a difference that I don’t own any purple clothes made of linen?’ He shoots back a glance that lets me know the color and fabric of my wardrobe is not the issue.

I followed two interesting articles this week on a blogsite I read. In the first, a Texas reporter became intrigued with this quote from the Rev. William Sloan Coffin’s newest book:

“Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to eliminate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.”

The reporter got responses from area religious leaders, the consensus being that Christians are called to acts of charity while working to create a more just society. There was a split opinion as to whether this meant that in their sermons ministers should advocate for or against specific issues. Should I, for example, preach on the moral implications of a new $37.5 million dollar city hall? Some say yes, others say no. Most held that preachers avoiding such subjects for the sake of being liked is wrong. Perfect, I thought to myself. Not only am I not charitable enough, but now I am also shirking my call to work for justice.

But this, I learned from the second article is not entirely my fault. It described the ministry of the Rev. Ben Campbell, an Episcopal priest in Richmond who, for the last 40 years, has prayed for that city three times a day every day. Far from being removed from political realities, Ben has used his prayers to fuel his advocacy for policy and social change. He believes that the mobility of clergy has diminished their desire to get involved in the nitty, gritty mess of local issues. Because clergy tend to live in a place only for 5-10 years, they come to be more interested in the health and well-being of the congregation they serve than the community in which they live. So I can dump some of the blame on the mobile and transient nature of our society.

All this runs through my mind as the judge prepares to pronounce sentence on me. But before He does, He asks if I would like to make a statement. “Well, your Honor, all I can say in my own defense is that I am not sure what to do, I am not sure if am doing the right thing all the time, but I am sure that I am not at peace with what I am doing. I think that as long as there are people in need I should wrestle with how I am responding, or not responding, and I should struggle with what my duty to those in need is.” And with that, the Judge postpones sentencing for the time being, contingent upon my continuing to engage prayerfully the issue while acting always in a manner I believe to be consistent with Jesus’ own life, words, and witness.