February 5, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Many Income Levels, One Spirit
(third in the series Many and One)
One day when I was in seventh grade, my health teacher drew a chart on the chalkboard. It was not a chart about health. It was intended to provide motivation and illustrate the value of getting an education. So down one side were listed the five letter grades, A, B, C, D, F, then next to each grade was a corresponding salary range. I remember him saying: “Grades are not just for kids; adults are graded too, but instead of a report card, you tell how successful they are by their salaries.”
Now twenty-four years later, I could ask Mr. McVey a lot of questions about this chart: What if you’re an A student who decides to become a Stay At Home Parent? What if you’re an F student who signs onto a record label and makes a fortune? What if success can’t actually be measured by grades and salaries…
Leaving aside these questions, what I find so striking about this chart was how obviously we believed it. Nobody raised their hand and voiced an objection. This chart that we dutifully copied into our notebooks confirmed some kind of truth we had already been taught.
It’s as though each of us harbors an intuitive sense of how things are supposed to be. It’s supposed to be true that prosperity comes from hard work. It’s supposed to be true that all people are treated equally, that people who do bad things are punished fairly, that people who do good things are rewarded fairly. It’s supposed to be true that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough and really deserve it. I’m sure you could add some “supposed to’s” to the list. These are the fundamental facts that let the world make sense. See we are shaped by these core values we were taught by somebody somewhere early on.
Of course, the first problem is the supposed to’s don’t always hold up. Currently, we are experiencing increasing economic inequality in the United States, so the very poor are staying very poor, while the very rich are getting richer. There’s supposed to be an American dream; if you just work hard enough, take a second job or a third job, then you can climb out of poverty and move from being poor to being middle class. Except already, people are trying this, and it is not working.
The promise of fairness seduces our faith, but the first problem is that this promise of fairness fails. Grades and salaries don’t match up like on Mr. McVey’s chart.
The deeper and more interesting problem is that the most fairness can offer us is fairness, and what if there is something better? More than the promise of fair wages for hard work, more than equal opportunities for children born in poverty and children born in wealth? What if there is something better than fair? Because you know, there is…
Today we’re continuing our sermon series on Many and One, and the Gospel story begins with Jesus talking to the Pharisees. See the Pharisees were a people concerned with fairness, so Jesus just dropped some hard truth in their laps. Listen to what he tells them: “You cannot serve God and wealth… You justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts…” He goes on to say, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery…” Which sounds totally unfair. It sounds like he’s just getting warmed up to launch into a full-scale rant against them, when suddenly Jesus stops threatening and begins telling them an utterly bizarre story.
Every day, the rich man feasts sumptuously while the poor man, Lazarus, lies hungry at his gate. Then Lazarus dies and is rescued by the angels. Then the rich man dies and is buried. In the afterlife, the rich man is being tormented. He looks up and sees Lazarus with Abraham, and he calls out for help. But in this story, things are fair to a fault. As Abraham explains, “Child, during your life, you received good things, while Lazarus suffered. Now Lazarus is being comforted, while you are in agony. Look, it’s nothing personal. It’s only fair.”
Now all parables are a little strange, but this one is especially bizarre for a couple of reasons. First of all, more than half of the story takes place in the afterlife which is not a normal setting for Jesus’ parables. Usually his stories feature ordinary things: a woman persuading a judge, a man whose younger son squanders his inheritance, a mustard seed that keeps growing. Not this story. This one is set in the realm of the fantastic, the land of mythical possibility with roving bands of angels and wild spirits on the loose.
Secondly, this story features vivid descriptions of touching. Did you notice all the touching? It’s not just that Lazarus is lying at the gate covered in sores; it’s that the dogs would come and lick his sores. It’s not just that Lazarus was rescued and sent off to heaven. The angels came and carried him to the bosom of Abraham. To the bosom of Abraham! It’s not that the rich man asks for a drink. He asks for Lazarus to go dip his finger in water, then come and cool his tongue.
This is not a philosophical disagreement to untangle in a classroom; it’s a man who needs to be a held, a woman who needs clean water, a baby who needs a new diaper, a child who needs something for lunch.
This fantasy sequence is disturbingly tangible.
Of course, Lazarus can’t help the man who’s so thirsty. There is a chasm in between comfort and suffering. And look, the chasm is nobody’s fault. The rich man did not do anything especially wrong; the poor man did not do anything especially right.
Now that their circumstances are reversed, the chasm becomes the emblem of fairness. Like the curtain dividing the airplane into business class and general seating. Like the plexiglass wall in the visiting room of the prison dividing inmates from their families. Like the decision made by those who say, “Oh I won’t go into that neighborhood at night; it’s not safe.” (Even though little children live in that neighborhood.)
That’s the thing about the chasm: It is already here. It’s not the threat we might face one day after death. Instead, we already live with the chasm enforcing division in the name of fairness. It is part of our reality, but this chasm is not our destiny. The Gospel dream is not the American dream. It is more than the hope of prosperity from hard work. It is more than fairness. God’s dream is so much more…
And I know how that sounds. It’s like we’ve jumped back into the realm of roving angels and wild spirits and what’s next, a man who gets up from the dead? What I want to know is how can we actually put our faith in this Gospel dream… I mean, have you noticed the world lately? But that’s just it.
Many days, I talk with people who are struggling financially who have reached out to me because they are looking for ways to help others. I talk with people who have comfortable financial resource who have come here because they are looking for ways to help others. The wealth gap in our nation is real. The decision to reach across and help someone else is a direct threat to this chasm.
Every act of generosity closes the chasm and reveals a glimpse of the Gospel dream.
Every decision to begin the long journey of forgiveness.
Every doctor who treats a patient then refuses to send a bill.
Every hospital patient who asks the person from housekeeping how their day is going.
Every teacher who stays late after school even though these extra hours are unpaid.
Every church volunteer.
Every crime victim who asks the judge for leniency on behalf of the defendant.
Every college student who risks getting in trouble to organize a rally.
Every parent who says “what I want for my children is what I want for your children.”
These things are really happening right now in our world. And none of them are fair. See the dream of the Gospel is already beginning.
It is exquisitely tangible.
A few weeks ago, a woman stopped by the church looking for diapers because she just got custody of her grandchildren. She needed size fours and size ones, so I got her a packet of diapers in each size. She held up the ziplock bag with the size ones, and said to me gently, “Do you have any idea how many diapers a newborn goes through in a day…”
I started in, “Well, we repackage the diapers into these packets, so we can give them to more people, you know, so it’s fair…”
Seriously, nothing about any of this was fair. It is not fair that she’s here getting free diapers. It is not fair that a newborn in our neighborhood doesn’t have enough. It is also not fair that people in our church went and bought those diapers, and blessed those diapers, and repackaged those diapers. Thank God, it is not fair. It is more than that. And it could be so much better than fair. We could give more diapers and more money for diapers, then we could give out more diapers in each packet, and we could advocate for diapers to be subsidized for needy families. This doesn’t solve all of income inequality, but see this one chasm is closing, then we’ll start in on the next.
We follow a man who got up from the dead who teaches us that giving doesn’t let the world carry on business as usual, that when culture’s dream is to get what is deserved, giving is countercultural. This makes giving the work of liberation. Giving goes ahead and makes real the dream of God, and already it is beginning.
May it be so. Amen.