Trinitarian Congregational Church World Communion Sunday
Anthony S. Kill October 2, 2016
Many congregations celebrate the first Sunday of October as World Communion Sunday, as a reminder that Christians around the world gather at the “common table” of Christ, to break bread and pass the cup and share in the Lord’s Supper with Christ, with one another and with us. So, welcome to the world’s largest supper party. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this as a progressive dinner, with every participant ethnic group hosting one course? World Communion Sunday is a witness to and affirmation of our Christian belief that the world truly is one in Christ.
But what does it mean to “be in communion with” other Christians around the world?’ If we look at the range and diversity of Christianity around the world, we would find some radically different religious customs and spiritual practices and styles of worship,and even more so, we might find some radically different understandings of Biblical interpretations and Christian morality. Clearly, any encounter with Christians from different cultures or languages or customs would quickly burst any delusions we might have that all Christians believe like us, think like us, or make the same choices and preferences we do. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus tells a story of one person’s encounter with someone who is radically other or radically different from them. In the Christian tradition, the “rich man” is given a name, “Dives”, from the Latin word for “rich”. I will follow that ancient usage this morning to talk about these two men. (And they wouldn’t need to be men. This could just as well be the story of a well-to-do woman and a bag lady.)
Notice first of all that this is not a story of moral dissipation, or abusive cruelty, or even blatant greed. Nothing is said about the Dives’s moral life, Nor for that matter is anything said about Lazarus’ moral life. Jesus doesn’t say that Lazarus was a faithful Jew, or a pious person, or even morally good. In this particular story, that doesn’t even enter the picture. However, it is worth noting that in the context of the religion of the day, popular wisdom would have considered Dives as clearly favored by God. His purple and fine linen and sumptuous table were sure signs of divine favor. Conversely, Lazarus was just as clearly being visited by God’s disfavor: He was poor, crippled, afflicted with skin disease, so abjectly cut off from human community that it was only the roaming wild dogs who tended his wounds by licking his sores. Lazarus whole life would have been seen as a punishment, so obviously no God was on his side. The contrast set between these two persons in the parable is total: The one has all the best that this world has to offer; he is the very epitome of wealth and status.And the other is the very epitome of filth and disease and misery.
Can you get more “opposite” than that? For each of them, his counterpart represents the “radically other” The street beggar lived at the wealthy person’s gate to the end of their lives. Then both died. And what happened? Their roles are completely reversed. Lazarus, the homeless crippled wretch, takes the place of highest honor in paradise: not just in Abraham’s household or under Abraham’s care, but “carried by the angels to lie on Abraham’s bosom.” And the rich person is condemned to the fate that had been the street beggar’s in life: the torment of want and exclusion and pain. Remember, though, this isn’t a story about how the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. Nothing is said about Lazarus being particularly good, or about Dives being particularly evil. Dives’ tragic fault was not greed, or even selfishness, but callousness. Lazarus lived at his doorway, but he never even bothered to notice him, much less share from his bounty. The two existed in different worlds, and from Dives’ perspective, they might as well have been on different continents, or even in different galaxies. Dives felt no compassion, no empathy, no common humanity with Lazarus.
There was no identification between them whatsoever.
The “great chasm” that Abraham pointed out as separating them in the afterlife existed in effect in their life on earth as well. Lazarus was so “other” to Dives that he really hardly existed at all. Dives’ attitude might have been, “This Lazarus is so totally outside my world that I have no obligations to him, no connection with him. In fact I have no need to notice or care; he can do nothing for me.” (I’ll let you decide whose attitudes might fit that description in Washington DC these days!)
Abraham, obviously, thought otherwise, and so did Jesus. The parable makes it clear that the great chasm was to be a source of torment for Dives in the afterlife because he would ultimately be held accountable for that chasm. Dives and all his brothers had had all the resources they needed while on earth to realize that their treatment of the Lazaruses of the world would determine their eternal fate. And what were the resources they had, to tell them that? The revelation of the Word of God: “They have Moses and the prophets”, Father Abraham says. “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.” Callousness. The dictionary defines it as “emotionally hardened, unfeeling”. It’s a form of the same word that refers to hardened layers of skin on one’s hands or feet.
When I was in high school in Minnesota, I lived at a seminary boarding school during the academic year. Then come summer, I’d go home to work on the family farm. I remember how painful it was not to have calluses. I’d get to the farm in early June, just on time for haying – mowing and baling and hauling in the first crop of alfalfa bales. I needed to wear thick gloves to lift and throw those heavy bales, and even through the gloves I got blisters on my soft hands. Then calluses would gradually replace the blisters, and by midsummer I had had such thick, horny calluses that I wouldn’t even need gloves for most jobs. Nothing got through my calluses; Nothing broke through the skin to give me burns or blisters or pain. My hands felt virtually armored and impenetrable. (Then, of course, I’d go back to seminary after Labor Day, and lose all the calluses in a life of books and papers, and washing dishes on kitchen duty!) So calluses on our hands can be a good thing. But when the calluses are on our hearts, making us impenetrable to the humanity or fellow-feeling of another human being, armored against each other’s suffering or want, untouched or unaffected by the common bond that unites us, then we are experiencing the “great chasm” that rends paradise itself asunder.
If God comes to us in the neighbor, encounters us as the one who is other than ourselves [and we know that God does so because Moses and the prophets and someone who rose from the dead all told us so] then we dare not wear calluses against the other. We know by revelation that God comes to us as the other, the neighbor, the stranger, the unexpected guest. But the one who is truly ‘other’ is the one who seems most totally foreign to us – the ones about whom we would like to say“between us and you a great chasm has been fixed”. Do we show our own kinship with Dives when we secretly think, “What conceivable connection could I have with them? They’re street people! they’re dirty and poor; they’re dishonest and druggies; They’re lazy and crazy and homeless.” “Why on earth would I associate myself with their concerns? They’re criminals and psychopaths; they’re morally reprehensible; they’re old and out of it; they’re young and irresponsible.” “We have nothing whatsoever in common! They’re Arabs, and Muslims and they dress like terrorists. Their skin is swarthy and they pray in a strange way to an unfamiliar God. They’re probably out to take over our country and destroy our way of life.”
And so we define, consciously or tacitly, who we consider to be “beyond the pale” of our empathy or fellow-feeling,who is so totally “other” that we deny our common humanity, and declare ourselves in separate worlds. Between us and them we fix a great chasm. Then World Communion Sunday comes along and we are faced with God’s standard of who gets invited to eat at the banquet of the people of God. And it ain’t just the Christians that God invites.
On the one hand, this is wonderful news: that God’s own Christ shares our common humanity and is intimately united with us at this table. And on the other hand, this is astounding news: Lazarus is here too, running sores and all. And you know what? They’re the same person! So totally has Jesus identified himself with the least, and lowest and the most unlovely of God’s children, that in receiving the Lazaruses of the world, we receive the Christ. For when we accept and receive others of God’s people into the fellowship of our communion, in all their woundedness and uncomeliness and diversity as well as in their beauty and richness and grace, we give testimony to our faith and our gratitude that we ourselves are accepted and received in all our woundedness and uncomeliness and diversity as well as in our beauty and richness and grace. And that is Gospel. That is Good News. Amen