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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 26, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 29, 2013

Jeremiah 32:1-3a,6-15; Psalm 91; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

‘Not more guilt, but real conversion’

Our Gospel paints a provocative picture. A rich person in a first-century McMansion is shown in fine attire, enjoying fine cuisine. And then there is Lazarus, the beggar, covered with sores. Lazarus begs at the rich person’s gate, to no avail. The parable relates a split-screen in the afterlife: poor Lazarus rests in the company of Abraham and Sarah; the rich person is in Hades, in flames. Despite the rich person’s pleas to have Lazarus come down and quench his thirst, to have Lazarus warn the siblings in the McMansion of the need for compassion in life, a chasm is fixed between Hades and the Bosom of Abraham. The Good News is the parable’s invitation for us to acknowledge the chasm, to become more accountable, and to help rewrite the ending. God be with you …

I put it this way because a parable is a parable – it is provocative by nature. It is not a prediction or a piece of inside information so much as a call to response, a call to responsibility.

Scenes of the afterlife were popular means of inducing accountability. They remain so. Think how many times we still share jokes about the dearly departed at the Pearly Gates. There is something enduring about these personal parables, folktales and jokes – they focus existential questions of identity, meaning and purpose by way of figures brought to account, usually at a point of crisis or death. Who am I? Who am I in relation to others and in relation to justice, truth, reality, God?

What’s interesting about this particular parable is that it’s the only example of a parable of Jesus whose central figure is named. It is the only one of the parables to feature an appearance by Abraham (and Sarah) along with reference to Moses and the prophets. It is saying something important about the scriptures, how to read the Bible.

The Bible contains many blessings and curses (e.g., Deut. 28:35: “The Most High will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head …”), and Lazarus – like Job – looks very much like one who is cursed by God. But Jesus (a cursed/blessed Saviour) argues against this interpretation, for he knows there are other words in scripture. Deuteronomy 15, in part, reads: “You shall open wide your hand to your brothers and sisters, to the needy and to the poor.” Isaiah 58:6 reads: “What does true fasting mean? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house …”

Poverty is not a sign of disobedience and wealth is not a sign of faithfulness. The accent, Jesus says – Jesus shows – falls on compassion for the poor, the one at the gates, the outsider – the one whose name so often is neither known nor respected. Lazarus means “God has helped”. We might note that nothing is said of Lazarus’ good character. God helps because God has compassion, because God is compassion …

We might also note the punch line, which sets the parable in the time of the early church. Luke is directing his provocation towards the wealthy of his community for whom news of a risen Christ still fails to convince with regard to compassion for the poor.

The rich person (tradition calls him Dives) and Lazarus represent multitudes. Those with power and self-determination and those without. Free citizens and refugees. Comfortable (sub)urbanites and lonely fringe-dwellers, outliers. Those at the centre of society and opportunity, and those who struggle to speak the language or face the day, or shake the feeling of worthlessness. Those who enjoy the rewards of education and meaningful work in the community, and those for whom the system offers only confusion, ridicule, a sense of not belonging. We are all Dives and Lazarus in different ways. That’s not meant to be evasion of accountability …

Dives understands something and has compassion for his siblings. The parable wants to enlarge this familial compassion to compassion for every forsaken and forgotten soul. Not in service of moralism, but towards a bigger picture, a Eucharistic vision that finds a place for all and turns no one away.

Another Sarah, Sara Miles of St Gregory’s in San Francisco, writes: “One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything … The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food – indeed, the bread of life … I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going …”

“I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome … And so I became a Christian …”

What changes us? What could move us or awaken us to believe that communion with Jesus means feeding souls who are hungry? What makes for real conversion, lasting, questing, deep conversion? I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going …

Every four seconds somebody dies of starvation. That’s an overwhelming reality. Ten years ago, the United Nations approved the Millennium Development Goals. Australia, along with 188 other countries, signed on to these goals to eradicate extreme poverty by 2015. The first goal is to reduce by half the number of people living in poverty and with hunger. This goal means not only distributing food, but providing agricultural support and fairer trade practices so that people can someday feed themselves. We can do better as a country. We can ask our local politicians about our aid dollars, about commitments to affordable housing, support for those living with physical and mental illness – and we, uniquely among the congregations of our presbytery, can publish their responses. What else might we do? By the grace of God, what else might we become?

We have everything we need to end world hunger. Right here at this altar-table. Together. Right here at this altar-table that doubles as a supper table, a table of acceptance and hospitality. The Good News is the parable’s invitation for us to acknowledge the chasm between Hades and the Bosom of Abraham, to become more accountable, and to help rewrite the ending.

How do we hear the voice of Lazarus and all those he represents? Whom do we hear today? Amen.