Exodus 3: 1-7
Chilmark Community Church
October 4, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
One of the more memorable courses that I took in seminary was titled “Church and Community”. It was taught by an equally memorable professor named David Graybeal. Dave was “mensch”. He was wise and he definitely practiced what he taught. He served as pastor, mentor and, often, confidant, for us struggling seminarians and fledgling pastors. He kept an eye on us.
He gave us an acronym that he said he hoped we would remember because it could help to shape our ministries in meaningful ways. That acronym is “OPATCO” – – and it stands for “On Paying Attention To The Community.” By the end of the semester, he had pretty passionately and effectively convinced many of us that our future ministries would be well served by doing just that – -paying attention to the communities in which we were called to serve.
I think, in the images and metaphors suited to his own time, this thing of paying attention was on the mind of Jesus too.
There are a lot of possible directions to follow in today’s story. It might lead us into thinking about life after death. It might take us to a discussion of income inequality and economics. It might lead us to thinking about the “evils of wealth”. It might even take us in the direction of good news for the poor. It all depends on where we put our focus.
We know from a lot of biblical analysis that when a story begins with the words “There was a rich man……” that this phrase is a literary convention – – and it lets us know that that the rich person in the story will serve as a poor example. When a poor person appears in contrast, we know that the story is headed toward teaching us something about the moral and ethical relationship between the rich and the poor.
The contrast is stark in this story. The rich man dresses opulently – he wears purple garments colored with the most expensive dyes. He wears linen – – the most expensive fabric. By contrast, the poor man reclines in the dust at the city gates, too poor and too weak to even beg – he waits for crumbs. The rich man ends up in the eternal fires and the poor man is welcomed into the peaceful, nurturing comfort of the bosom of Father Abraham.
The story might lead us to “rich is bad and gets punished – – poor is good and is rewarded” and it all balances out in the end. But, as Amy Jill Levine points out, we need to think carefully about that. If we are not affected, do not feel any sense of compassion for the rich man’s suffering in the story, then we are not much better off than he is. If we identify with Lazarus’ reward in heaven, then we also have to be able to imagine ourselves enduring his abject poverty in this life. So we have to proceed cautiously with this story.
As I kept wrestling with the details, and with David Graybeal’s acronym rattling around in my brain, I began to wonder if the rich man’s sin wasn’t so much that he was rich as it was that he wasn’t paying attention – – he was able to walk by Lazarus without even seeing him. Lazarus received more comfort and attention from the dogs who licked his sores than he did from another human being.
What was Jesus saying to his audience when he told this story?
Both Roman and Jewish cultures had imbedded in them the expectation that people of means had a responsibility to care for people without means. Justice was enacted when those could afford to attend to the needs of the poor did just that. It was a cultural and also a religious expectation. So, the rich man was going against the norm. He did not pay attention and therefore he did not act.
Paying attention is an attribute of God. When God called Moses from the flaming bush, this attribute of paying attention was the first thing that God revealed to Moses: “I have seen (witnessed, observed) the misery of my people….I have heard their cry…..I know of their suffering……God was paying attention to the suffering of God’s people.
God really had to prod Moses to pay attention, to witness the suffering of his people, to hear their cries, to know and understand their suffering –to act in their behalf. Moses was being called to reveal God’s face to the Hebrews in the midst of their captivity and suffering. Jesus’ story is a way of prodding us too. Because we too are responsible for revealing God’s face in the world. When we neglect this business of paying attention, in a sense, we hide the face of God. We neglect our responsibility to reveal God’s face when we fail to pay attention to what is going on around us. Not paying attention has consequences. God doesn’t speak from burning bushes so much anymore. But I think the Holy One fairly screams at us from the headlines – – vulnerable children suffering abuse, young black men being persecuted and killed because the are black, elders suffering from neglect at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them.
The great chasm that divided the rich man in the fire and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham was not put in place by God. It occurred through human frailty and neglect – through a failure to pay attention to what was happening at the city gates.
So –what does the story demand of us as we encounter the human family around the communion table this morning?
I wonder if there is a clue in the name of the poor man. Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Eliezer”. Eliezer is made up of two Hebrew words: Eli – meaning God and Ezer – meaning help.
Lazarus’ name means “God helps”. So I wonder if Lazarus – the epitome of human suffering – is our teacher – our helper. Does his name imply that through his suffering presence at the city gates, God is helping us, calling us to awaken? To pay more attention? To Respond? Does God work through the constant reminders of poverty and economic inequity and human suffering to prod us into action that will help to bring the kingdom closer?
Maybe it doesn’t have to be very complicated. The acronym might just work. OPATCO – paying attention to the community – – whether it is the community within these walls, or within the boundaries of Chilmark, or the world community bounded by the ever moving sea –paying attention is the first step in building a more just and humane world. When we pay attention we begin to reveal the face of God – we make real the attributes of a God who pays attention, who listens, who hears and knows – – A God who responds. Paying attention is the first step. May our time around the table strengthen us in the work of attending to the community around us.