Tonight’s Gospel is a study in contrasts:
One man is rich; the other, decidedly not.
The rich man is clothed in fine linen, with purple robes that signify his wealth, his power, and his privilege. The poor man’s body is covered with sores, his anguish amplified by the dogs who lick his sores, perhaps because he’s too feeble to chase them away.
The rich man feasts every day, his table loaded with sumptuous foods and fine wines, while the poor man languishes at the gate, famished, longing for even the smallest scrap of leftovers.
Curiously, in this story the poor man has a name – Lazarus. The rich man does not.
Their fortunes are dramatically reversed when they die. Lazarus’s suffering is finally relieved, as he is carried up to heaven to rest in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man ends up in Hades, a place of torment where even a drop of water to cool his tongue would be a blessed relief. But the rich man who feasted so extravagantly in life can receive nothing.
In death, the rich man and Lazarus are divided by a vast chasm that cannot be crossed, just as in life, a wall protected the rich man, and Lazarus could go no further than the gate.
Who do you identify with? For this congregation, it would not be Lazarus, would it? Are there ways in which we are like the rich man, well fed and well dressed, walled off from the neediest members of society?
As the scriptures appointed for Lent so often do, this story challenges us to look deep within and face honestly the ways that we fall short, the ways that we fail to see and respond to the needs of others. We began our worship tonight with a short passage from the First Letter of John: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
I wonder how this parable might help us open our eyes not only to the privilege that comes with wealth, but to other forms of privilege.
Many years ago, I was invited to design liturgy for a meeting of the Episcopal Church’s Council for Women’s Ministries. The group had been organized in 1983 as an umbrella organization for women’s groups throughout the Episcopal Church, enabling them to collaborate and support one another in their particular ministries. The Council was celebrating its tenth anniversary, and its leaders wanted a big celebration, one that gathered more women than just the leaders of each constituent group.
A core value of this group was a commitment to racial and ethnic diversity. That week, my experiences taught me just a little about my ways of leadership as a white woman. I needed liturgical ministers, so I created a sign-up sheet, and at one of the first sessions, I made an announcement and invited people to sign up. Soon after the session ended, one of the leaders pulled me aside. “You can’t just do a sign-up sheet,” she said very gently. “In some cultures, people don’t put themselves forward. They need to be invited. If you leave it for people to volunteer themselves, the only people you’ll have as liturgical ministers will be white.”
As is common for such events, there was a conference T-shirt. Five women’s faces are depicted, different skin tones and hair colors suggesting different races and ethnicities. The women’s hair is braided together, long, beautiful braids pointing to the group’s efforts to weave together women from many different cultural backgrounds.
Toward the end of the conference, representatives of the different women’s organizations made presentations about their work. Several women, all women of color, stood up and began to speak together, “You put us in your braid, now listen to our needs. You put us in your braid, now give us staff support from the Church Center. You put us in your braid, now put us in your budget.”
In the Episcopal Church, a predominantly white institution then as now, white privilege is everywhere, a cultural norm that can be difficult to see and even more difficult to subvert. The privilege of the majority creates a vast chasm, one that is not easily bridged despite good intentions, however many beautiful braids we might weave.
A few months after the Council for Women’s Ministries met, the House of Bishops issued a pastoral letter on the sin of racism, a letter they understood as the beginning of a series of teachings. “In this introductory message,” they wrote, “we evoke words and images sacred to our tradition. We share with you an analysis of the current dynamics of racism, confess our complicity with that evil, declare a covenant with each other to work to eliminate racism wherever we find it in church and society, and invite all Episcopalians to join us in a mission of justice, reconciliation and unity.”
Today in the Episcopal Church, we are still enmeshed in the sin of racism, this evil that enslaves us, this evil that we do and that is done on our behalf.
At the spring meeting of the House of Bishops that just concluded, the bishops spent three days working on questions of race, diversity, and inclusion. Episcopal News Service reported that this effort was conceived “in the aftermath of the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.”[i] At the March 2015 meeting of the House of Bishops, they decided it was time to write a new letter to the Episcopal Church about racism.
But a few months later, meeting at General Convention, the writing team decided they needed to do something different. They needed to address the issues of power, privilege, and race directly, deepening their commitment to the difficult work of racial justice, developing their capacities for leading their dioceses in this vital task.
The bishops’ work is a step in breaking down the wall of privilege, chipping away at a barrier that divides us within the Episcopal Church and in our world. It is Gospel work, rooted in Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” rooted in a baptismal vision that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female.
At the conclusion of the House of Bishops meeting, Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation, and creation, acknowledged that the work continues. “For Episcopalians, the work will always be inner work and outer work,” she said. “It’s figuring out what are my biases, what are my fears, what line of difference am I most terrified of crossing and how is God growing my heart. I have to be doing that even as I look around at systems and ask the questions about structure or racism, structural discrimination.”
Last fall, a call went out to the Episcopal Church from North Dakota, where water protectors had been camped for months, protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline because it would disturb land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and threaten their drinking water. Over 500 people responded to that call. They gathered around a sacred fire one evening to prepare for public protest the next day. Elder Regina Brave addressed the crowd, “We knew you were coming; that one day you would come here and start asking questions about your government,” she said, “We are all children of God. Black, red, yellow, white, are all represented.”[ii]
In that moment, people reached across the chasm, those with privilege and those without standing together in solidarity to hold the United States government accountable to fulfill its treaty obligations.
The work continues, at Standing Rock, in our churches, in our nation and in our world. Breaking down dividing walls, bridging the chasms that separate us, is Gospel work. It requires transformation of our hearts and concrete action in our lives.
A few minutes ago, I asked who you identify with in tonight’s parable. Perhaps we are neither Lazarus nor the rich man, but the siblings of the rich man, still on earth, still able to change our ways. We, too, have Moses and the prophets, calling us to do justice and love mercy. We also follow Jesus, the crucified and risen One, who invites us into new life, turning our hearts to our neighbors who are in need and empowering us for the Gospel work of reconciliation.
[i] Mary Frances Schjonberg, “Episcopal bishops make three-day journey into diversity and inclusion,” Episcopal News Service, March 15, 2017, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2017/03/15/episcopal-bishops-make-three-day-journey-into-diversity-and-inclusion/.
[ii] Lynette Wilson, “Peaceful, prayerful, nonviolent stand of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux,” Episcopal News Service, November 4, 2016, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/11/04/peaceful-prayerful-nonviolent-stand-of-solidarity-with-the-standing-rock-sioux/.