The Life that Really is Life

I take the title for this sermon from the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of the letter to Timothy: “The life that really is life.”

It’s a compelling turn of phrase: “the life that really is life.” What does it mean? What is this life that the early church writer would have us seek after?

Be contented. If you have food, if you have clothing, be contented. Don’t let the anxious waves of greed overtake your life. Don’t let money worry your minds. “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.” So don’t be anxious about money. Don’t worry about money. Don’t give money that power. “For we brought nothing into this world, so we can take nothing out of it.”

That last phrase I quoted has been taken surprisingly literally by certain saints. Next Sunday we’ll celebrate St. Francis, who famously stripped himself of his fine clothing, handing his wealth back to his father before heading off to live among the poor of Assisi. In the early church St. John Chrysostom had to encourage Christians to clothe the dead, “for modesty’s sake” because they were being literalists about these verses. They wanted to bury their loved ones, as the book of Ecclesiastes has it, “naked as we came.”

The tradition of the church dictates that during a funeral we cover the casket or the urn. Holy Communion has very beautiful very simple silk coverings for this purpose. Historically the funeral pall is a reminder that we are all equal in death. These days you can spend a small fortune on a coffin, but if you’re buried from an Episcopal Church, no one will know. Whether you’re in a fine oak casket, or a simple pine box, people only see the cloth that belongs to the church, the same pall covers us all.

So don’t worry about money. Now, I know that the letter to Timothy’s words may seem foolish, even impossible. I know that some in this congregation have dodged calls from collection agencies this week. If money is a big worry for you right now, I’d encourage you to sign up for the Financial Peace course that is starting here in a couple of weeks. There are some real practical steps you can take to get out of debt. Some of you don’t share the same immediate concerns with money, but you have a lot of “shoulds.” “I should be doing this or I should be doing that.” Well, at least for this morning, let go. Don’t worry.

My rector in Washington had a saying, and you’ll hear it quite a bit around here as we start our 2017 Pledged Giving Campaign in the next weeks. “Money is a very powerful tool. If you can give away some of your money, you have power over the tool. If you can’t give away any money, it has power over you.”

The rich man in Jesus’ parable has given his power over. His wealth has blinded him. He feasts, he wears rich robes, but he is not characterized as generous. Day by day he passes by Lazarus, hungry outside his gates. So, Jesus says, Lazarus and the rich man died on the same day. Lazarus is comforted by Abraham, while the rich man is tormented in Hades.

The parable makes it clear that the rich man loved his wealth, but loving wealth is problematic because, as we’ve established, money is just a tool. You can’t really love a tool. By focusing on his wealth, the man has become self-centered. He is so self-centered that even in death he still treats Lazarus not as a person, but as a means to an end. He doesn’t ask Lazarus, “Could you please help?” No, he asks Abraham: “Send Lazarus.” Nevertheless Abraham says, Lazarus can’t cross over to you.

Here’s my big question about the parable: (It’s a question I’ve been wrestling with since hearing Scott Ragland give his interpretation of the story to our Youth on Wednesday Night). I’ve been stuck with this question:

Who built the separation between the rich man and Lazarus?

Jesus doesn’t say, “God has declared.” No, just that “a great chasm has been fixed.” I want to ask, who fixed the chasm? Who enforced the separation? In the first half of the story, it is clear, even if unspoken. The rich man has made sure there is a wall and a gate surrounding him and his feasts. He’s invested in that security. My wonder is, are the two connected? Did the man dig that chasm for himself in the afterlife when he built the wall during his life?

Perhaps tellingly Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall” is often quoted for the phrase: “Good fences make good neighbors.” But that’s not the sense of the poem at all. These words belong to the “neighbor,” and the poet says he wants to ask “*Why* do [good fences] make good neighbors?” and he continues

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

If only the rich man had asked to know what he was walling out. If he had been able to know and help Lazarus, would he be in torment? If he hadn’t been shut up inside, centered on himself, could another outcome have been possible?

There is a discomfort in this parable for our world today. We are investing a great deal in separation. Republicans and Democrats don’t talk to one another. The wealthy and the poor don’t often go to the same schools. Our neighborhoods continue to be segregated. Physically, economically, psychologically, we live in a world with a lot of walls.

When we do not see our fellow human beings. When we keep them on the other side of the gate, the other side of the wall, we deny a fundamental reality. We deny that “they” are like “us.” As they say, “denial” isn’t just a river in Egypt. We deny the truth of our common humanity to our peril.

We’ve seen evidence of that peril this week. This week many of us watched video footage of the deaths of both Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher. These two black men were killed by police officers, and the officers claimed they thought the men were armed. I want to be clear: I don’t believe that police officers take a decision to pull a trigger lightly. I don’t. Even given the history of systemic racism within our police forces, I don’t think the police find it easy to take a life. But the videos raise questions that cannot be ignored.

Here is where I find a fundamental disconnect. Many of the voices that loudly defend the police refuse to listen to those same police officers when they write firearms legislation. Here in Missouri our legislators just overrode the Governor’s veto to pass some of the loosest gun laws in America. Without a permit, without formerly required training, on January 1 most Missourians will be able to carry a concealed firearm.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said to the Post Dispatch the new law “will leave (citizens) less safe, and make the job of law enforcement more difficult and put our officers in danger.” Right there, that is a disconnect. Police officers representing their unions stood with black mothers whose children have been killed and asked the legislature not to override the veto, but they were walled out. Their voices were denied, and as a result, likely, gun violence is going to get worse here in Missouri before it gets better.

We divide ourselves to our peril. We wall one another out to our peril. If we are going to make a difference. If we are going to stand against gun violence, we will have to build unlikely coalitions. More police officers will have to stand with black mothers. LGBT Latinos, friends of those who died at the Pulse Night club, will need to stand with moms and dads in Burlington, Washington, and Newtown, Connecticut. Republicans will have to listen to Democrats, and vice-versa. The rich will have to spend time with the poor.

All that standing together, you may say, sounds hopeful and incredibly hard to pull off. You might even say it sounds impossible. Well, it will be, as long as we stay divided. So buck the system.

Can I make you a promise?

Here it is: the wider your circle of friends, the wider and deeper your community, the more rich your life will be. I promise you. When you break down walls. When you form friendships across economic lines, cultural lines, political lines, language barriers, when you reach out to your neighbors, you will discover something incredibly beautiful.

Jesus was often disparaged for the company he kept. “This fellow shares his tables with sinners.” He ate with Samaritans, Women, Romans, Tax Collectors, Prostitutes. He gave away his time freely to the “them.” In the Gospels we read that his disciples were also scolded for having too much fun. Tells you something, doesn’t it.

As I conclude, I want to return to “the life that really is life.” You see, it turns out, you can’t buy real life. And you can’t defend it either, not with a wall, not with a gun. None of us knows how much time we will have, so seize it. Make a new friend, someone wildly different than you. Work with that friend to make a positive difference in our world. Be generous.

Generosity is not the purview of the wealthy. There are people who can give lots of money away who are not generous. You can give a lot of money away and still be a jerk. Then there are people who simply share out of the little they have, but do so with their heart and soul. That’s generosity. Generosity is more a measure of your spirit than your pocketbook.

So spend time with your family, spend time with your kids and your grandkids. Invest that time, but be generous with your time as well. Get to know your barista. Know the name of the person who cleans up your office, know the names of her kids. Take some quiet time, that time you can’t afford, take it. Sit quietly. Read scripture. Close your eyes and be silent. Pray for people you know who need prayer. Pray for those who you barely know as well.

When your cousin signs up for a marathon to beat leukemia, throw in that $20, and smile when you see the picture of her crossing the finish line. Do the same for your neighbor’s kid. Give some money away to fund a scholarship program or a tutoring program. Whether you have a little to give, or a lot, make a point to keep up on the progress of the kids involved. The key to seizing this life is generosity. Whether you are rich or you are poor, you can be generous.

On a Sunday afternoon sometime, come with the volunteers from Holy Communion to the Trinity lunch program. Serve some barbecue and some lemonade. Get to know a neighbor who is hungry. Roll your eyes with him about the Rams leaving St. Louis. Listen as he tells you about his time in the armed services. If being with someone who lives on the streets makes you uncomfortable, you’re in good company, lean into the discomfort and listen.

It turns out that all around us there is life, all of the time. There is joy and sorrow. There are tough days and beautiful moments. All around us, all of the time, the life that really is life continues. You can’t buy this life with wealth. You can’t defend it either. To seize this life that really is life, God simply invites you to cross the divide, to be generous.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: