Sermon: “Noticing” (Luke 16:19-31)

gates

A few years ago, just after I came to Greenwich, I was called by a New York City wedding planner and told that I was being invited to interview for a celebrity wedding. The wedding was going to be out in the Hamptons the following August.

Now, truth be told, the wedding planner did not come out and say, “celebrity.” Instead, she said something more along the lines of, “a prominent couple,” or “a couple in the public eye,” or some other euphemism.

But however it was that she said it, I caught her drift.

Unfortunately, I was so curious about the “celebrity” part—however it was she put it—that I did not give much thought to the whole “you’ve been invited to interview” part.

That’s kind of a strange way to talk to a pastor.  We pastors like to think of ourselves as the ones doing the interviewing—trying to get a sense of a couple’s readiness for marriage, looking for signs that indeed, God has joined their lives.

But I was intrigued, and probably a little flattered, and so, off I went into New York for the day, wondering who the mystery couple might be.

So I’ll tell you the punch line now. I never did find out. In terms of the interview, I didn’t make it any further than the lobby of the wedding planner’s apartment building.

The whole interview was there in the lobby, and took less than ten minutes. She came with a list of questions.

Was I o.k. with wearing a suit instead of a robe? Did I have a double breasted suit?

Was I familiar with how to work with a videography team?

Was I o.k. with making the Apache Wedding Prayer a big part of the service?

I thought she was gearing up to confirm that I would sign a non-disclosure agreement, which would have been fine, but it never got to that, because I sank my whole adventure by asking my own question.

I was not trying to prove a point, but since we were talking logistics, then I thought it was important to ask when the couple and I would be able to meet for pre-marital counseling.

This stopped everything.

“I’m sorry, what?” asked the wedding planner.

I tried to explain. I wasn’t fishing for secrets. I was trying to help them come to terms with what it was to be joining lives.

Now, it should have seemed funny, of course, needing to explain pre-marital counseling to a wedding planner—to someone who plans weddings for a living, but these are strange times we live in, so I pressed ahead.

“Well, you know, in the Church, we see love as a holy mystery,” I began.

She cut me off.

“I can assure you that they are both highly spiritual people,” she replied, looking at me pointedly.

I could see that we were pretty much done.

Still, I kept at it.

But after another moment, the wedding planner cut me off again.

“Well, Mr. Grant,” she said, “I can see you’re very attached to your way of doing things. Thanks so much for your time.”

And that was that.

I probably should have seen it coming.

But what stayed with me was the window I had been given onto  a whole world I’d scarcely known existed—a world of handlers and assistants and multiple layers of insulation between people in the public eye and other people—those multiple layers that are put in place for their protection, for their best shot at privacy…or for maintaining a certain tone in their daily lives.

My glimpse into that world, brief as it was, made me feel like that could be a hard and very isolated way to live.

II.

On the other hand, this morning’s parable reminds us not to be too sympathetic.

It reminds us that, when push comes to shove, such a life wouldn’t be that hard.

After all, the way Jesus tells it, the Rich Man lives quite, quite well.

Indeed, he is leading a fairly contented life as a bold-faced name, living his days in a party-hearty kind of way, insulated by any number of layers from the rest of us, and from what we can tell, unrepentantly so.

What’s more, Jesus makes clear that this is especially insulated in the case of this rich man, because, at his very gates, underneath his very nose, we’re told there is a poor man, named Lazarus, who is suffering any number of indignities.

The fact that Lazarus is named in the parable, while the Rich Man is not, should tell us where Jesus’ own loyalties lie.

Lazarus’ sufferings are spelled out in aching detail. The only specifics we get about the Rich Man are about his fancy clothes, big meals, and front gate.

But then Lazarus and the Rich Man both die, and now the Rich Man is the one condemned to suffer. He looks up and sees Lazarus being comforted in heaven by Father Abraham.

The Rich Man hopes for mercy, just one finger dipped in cool water to ease the scorching heat of Hell for even a second, and yet, it probably comes as no surprise to us when he is told that a great chasm separates heaven and hell, and that any help from heaven is now impossible.

In life, you see, the Rich Man enjoyed the many layers of separation between him and the rest of the world—but it turns out that, in the process, he’s been digging his own eternal chasm, and now there is no way back.

And so part of what this morning’s parable wants us to ask ourselves is this: are we building bridges or digging chasms?

These are important questions for us.

III.

 

I can’t imagine anyone digs chasms on purpose.

But we do put layers between us and other people.

Sometimes, it’s important that we do.

For example, who hasn’t made the mistake of taking a cell phone call in the middle of a much-needed vacation, only to get pulled into something that could easily have waited?

Who hasn’t been at a party, seen someone in particular across the room, and felt like you just weren’t up for it on that particular night, and so made a particular point of steering clear?

Who doesn’t regret having been pushed to say yes to something, knowing we should have said no in the first place?

So let’s not suggest that layers between others and us are bad in all circumstances.

The problem is that if we’re not careful, those layers can start to seem all too good.

Returning to the parable, it isn’t that the Rich Man is cruel. It’s that he has become insensitive…or at least, desensitized. Maybe he always was. Maybe he has become so. The story does not specify.

However, much as the Rich Man enjoys his comfort in life, it is clear that ultimately, he pays for having removed himself from life, in general, and even as close as the life on his own doorstep.

He pays for having chosen to live in a kind of contentment that Jesus ultimately finds false.

The Rich Man pays for having placed so many layers of insulation between his life and the life of Lazarus…between his life and life in general.

And the great tragedy of it, of course, is that it did not have to be that way.

It was not supposed to be that way.

God wants something better for us.

What if, instead of digging chasms, we committed our lives to building bridges instead?

What if, instead of screening things out, we commit ourselves to being people who notice?

The story of the Rich Man is the story of someone who is literally hell-bent on preserving a very sad, superficial, and frankly, temporary way of living.

But a deeper, more joyous, and more enduring way is open to us.

So this week, the Gospel challenges us to notice. To reach out. To make time. To hear someone’s story. To start building a bridge.

The Gospel challenges us to pull away some of the layers we have put in place between our lives and the rest of the world, or at the very least, to notice them, and ask ourselves what it is we might be screening out, and missing out on.

The Gospel challenges us to remember that, throughout his ministry, Jesus us pointed us toward a day when all the gates would be thrown open—not simply the gates of every great house, but the gates of every human heart.

Jesus imagined a day when the great banquet would not be some gluttonous exercise in self-indulgence, but a feast that welcomed all people, where the greatest honor was not being the first one served, but the first to serve.

That was his way of doing things.

The question before us is if it will be ours, too.

Amen.

 

 

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