Pentecost 16 Proper 21 September 29, 2019
I'll pray for each of you tonight. Blessings! Be bold! Be alive! Be honest - would you want to be doing anything else.
When I found out I’d be leading today’s service, I looked at the lectionary calendar and noticed there was a feast day that had been moved from today to tomorrow – the feast of Michael and All Angels. There are only a few feast days celebrated on the assigned date if that date happens to fall on a Sunday, and this was not one of them. The readings for both days intrigued me, but I focused on today’s readings.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to shred the junk mail atop my shredder. I glanced through the return addresses and checked the thickness of the envelopes, then began to feed the mail into the machine – until I came to the last envelope, upside down in my hand. I paused, turned it over and looked at the return address again – Catholic Relief Services. Hmmm, how did they get my address? I wondered, as I bent over to place the envelope into the slot. Something made me pause again; I turned it over and in the lower right corner saw: Angel Medallion Inside – DO NOT SHRED. Sure enough, there was a medallion glued to a card inside. I remembered the upcoming feast day and saved the envelope and medallion.
Whether you believe angels move among us or are the things of myth, most of us have our own ideas about them. What do you think of when you hear the word ‘angel?’ Beautiful beings with shimmering wings and flowing tunics hovering overhead? Halfcovered cherubs with tiny wings? Adoring creatures gathered singing around heavenly beings? Maybe you think of your children or grandchildren in the Christmas pageant, or as tiny babies, sound asleep. Do you imagine little beings perched on your shoulders advising you to do one thing or another? Are angels generous patrons here on earth? Helpers? Loved ones? Guardians? Do you think of Roma Downey in Touched by an Angel - or John Travolta in Michael?
Scriptures speak of angels as created intelligences who worship God in heaven and act as God’s messengers and agents on earth. There are references to angels protecting and guiding humans, as well as carrying out tasks on God’s behalf. In today’s gospel, we heard a hint of that as we read that the angels carried the poor man away to be with Abraham after he died.
The parable in today’s gospel tells of a poor man lying hungry and dying at the gates of a rich man’s house, a man who ignored the poverty right outside his front door. When both men die, one was taken to be with Abraham while the other was buried and went to Hades where he suffered greatly, begging for mercy for himself and his family.
Today’s parable stands out among all the parables for one reason. When we read it, we heard the rich man described simply as ‘the rich man.’ Sometimes he is given the name ‘Dives,’ pronounced ‘dee-ways’ in Latin. This isn’t a name – it only means ‘very rich man’ in Latin. But there is a name in this parable - the only name I could find in all the parables. Jesus names the poor man ‘Lazarus,’ which means ‘God Has Helped.’ Naming is important – the act of naming creates an intimate relationship between the ‘namer’ and the named one. In giving the poor man a name, Jesus was letting his listeners know there was a deep connection between Jesus and Lazarus, a bond that demonstrated how people should relate to and treat others, no matter their social standing. Lazarus was not simply a beggar; he was a child of God, important and beloved.
As I thought about the words of the parable, I realized that even before he died, the rich man was, in effect, dead to the world around him. All that mattered was his wealth and feeding his hunger for more. He couldn’t see the need outside his gates because he was blind to all but his own needs. Not even the sight of starving Lazarus covered with sores could move him. As humans, we are hardwired to feel love and compassion; when we see others in need or suffering, it’s normal and natural for us to respond with emotion, with empathy, with a sense of sadness or a desire to make right whatever is wrong. It’s also part of our nature to share happiness and joy. When we deny ourselves those feelings and emotions, we are denying our own humanity - and dying to the world.
In this parable, Jesus reminds us there is so much more to life in this world than wealth. The world we inhabit has many similarities with the world of Jesus’ time. We, too, have war, hunger and disease. Many need shelter, clothing, medical care, help with addiction and mental illness. This parable reminds us that those who suffer have names. They are real. They exist in very real and horrifying conditions. Unless we open ourselves to see and feel the world outside our own existences, it will be as if we are dead to that world - and to our own humanness. With all the means we have at our hands to feed, clothe, shelter, protect and care for all who are named and loved by Jesus, there is no reason whatsoever for these conditions to exist. There is no reason for children to die of curable diseases, or for wars to rage on. We could fix these problems and right these wrongs.
So where do angels fit into the picture? If angels are God’s messengers and agents, is it possible for us to be those messengers of hope and agents of change? When our words and actions align with the words and actions we embrace in our baptismal vows, the answer is ‘absolutely yes!’ Ask yourself: When was the last time my words or actions changed the life of another for the better? When did I go out of my way to help someone in distress or need? Do my words build others up and offer hope? Have I smiled at a stranger or shared a giggle with a person standing near? What about the time I paid it forward at the coffee shop or restaurant?
When you were serving Christ in others and working for justice and peace, was there an angel guiding you? Were you an angel for someone else? How did you feel? Maybe a little more alive?
Let’s not forget that medallion. I wonder if an angel stopped me from shredding that envelope. Hmmm.
Thanks be to God.
Written by Kit Allgood-Mellema