Pay Attention

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

19th Sunday After Pentecost • September 30, 2016

“Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” It’s a line from an old union organizing song; in my head I hear Pete Seeger singing it. But it’s also an ancient question it seems people have always asked. As far back as we can know, our stories, our sagas, our poetry speaks of sides. Homer’s Iliad, the great story of a war between Greeks and Trojans imagines sides and the Bible is full of them: Hebrews and Egyptians, Israelites and Canaanites. Genesis traces our division all the way to the first brothers, Cain and Able, with one being murdered. Which side are you on?

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The story we read from Luke is the Jesus version of a much older parable. It was always obvious that life had immense inequities. Some are rich; some are poor; some live out in the couch of comfort while others huddle on cold cement.

The situation imagined in the parable is common. There is a rich man: there is a poor man. The rich man has good food, good friends, good everything. He feasts every day; he dresses like a king, for only kings could afford clothes made with the expensive purple dye. The poor man has nothing. He’s hungry and sick, he has the first century version of no health insurance: he lies in the street with sores unable to even fend off the dogs.

But, we’re told, at death things reverse. The poor man is carried to heaven by angels. The rich man? The text simply says: “He died”. In the afterlife, they find their fortunes reversed. The poor man cuddles in the lap of Father Abraham, the revered patriarch and companion of God; the rich man is in a place of torment.

Long before Jesus, similar stories were told of a profound reversal of fortune. “Remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony,” Abraham says in response to the rich man’s complaint. The moral seems to be that God seeks a kind of even keel, a balance, and that the more unbalanced we are, the more we should look for reversal in the future. Be careful if your side is up: in the cycle of life, up comes just before down.

Beyond the Story

Other ancient Near Eastern versions of this story end here, with balance restored and the positions of the men reversed. What’s truly curious about this story is how Jesus has used the story to go on and make a profound point about our relationship with God. Consider the conversation in the afterlife.

What’s clear almost immediately is that the rich man has learned nothing. He tells Abraham to send Lazarus to get him a drink, as if he still were in charge, as if even there, his comfort was the most important priority. When he is refused, he still doesn’t understand the new state of things; then send Lazarus to warn my brothers, he tells Abraham. Abraham replies that his brothers have Moses and the prophets, a way of saying, they have the scriptures. “But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent,” the rich man says.

But will they? What will it take to get some attention, some attention for God, some attention for God’s purpose and rules? This story is being remembered and told in a church with amazing similarities to ours. The first century was a time of cultural ferment. All around the people for whom Luke’s gospel were written was a rich cultural buffet with many options. Philosophers and preachers held forth on street corners. It was a prosperous time and some were rich; many were poor. Rome made peace throughout the Mediterranean world and trade thrives in peace time. We know that in the time Luke’s gospel was first read, items from Spain were found in Palestine, Egyptian wheat was eaten in Rome, British goods traveled to Iran and the world was full of choices. But in a world of choices, a noisy world full of the clamor of the market, how is it possible to hear God’s voice and God’s word?

Pay Attention Please

Paul makes the same point in a letter to Timothy. Perhaps the most misquoted verse in the entire Bible is Paul’s statement that “…the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil…” [1 Timothy 6:10] Sometimes we say, “Money is the root of all evil,” but that’s not what Paul has in mind. He knows that money itself has no moral value, it’s just a way of keeping score. Money is a energy stored: so much work, so much sold, so much earned. It isn’t money that’s evil; the evil comes from fixing our focus on money.

What Paul knows is that anything in this world that so occupies us, so consumes us, so captures us, takes our attention from God. That’s what he means to address and that’s what Jesus is lifting up as well. God wants our attention. The ministry of Jesus, the preaching of the prophets, all are a way of God saying to us, “Pay attention please!”

Here is the issue, presented at the end of the parable: if someone comes back from the dead, will even that be enough to get our attention? This is a Christian scripture; this is a Christian question. We gather every Easter to say, “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed,” but is even that enough to get our attention? But then we look at our calendar, we look at our checkbook, we hear the voices of all those who wants us to do something and we begin to respond. Someone needs a ride; someone needs a job done. We make their approval or material things or some other worldly thing become our goal and it draws us like the North Pole draws a compass. In the midst of it, the voice of God is often lost.

Even our religious life can become a part of the noise. American religion increasingly is about what we do. In many churches, the whole emphasis is on getting saved, saying the right formula. Our prayers become to do lists for God, delegated duties that are beyond our ability.

But what is God saying in the midst of all this noise? God is saying pay attention. And we will never hear the rest until we do pay attention. The first act of faith is not to memorize a catechism or believe something, it is to take God seriously enough to stop doing, stop saying, and start paying attention. The first act of faith is not to say your prayers; it is to stop and listen The first act of prayer is not to ask, it is to listen.

Jesus Listened

Jesus listened and the amazing thing is that he heard both Lazarus and Abraham. He heard God erasing the sides, refusing the sides: he saw that to God they were one people, regarded with one love. He heard the suffering of the Lazaruses of this world, of course, and all the accounts of his ministry include healing. But he also heard the desperation of the rich ones too. He never stopped listening to the Pharisees, even when they opposed him. He invited them to stop choosing sides and follow God in choosing to share with each other, forgive each other, embrace each other.

Which side are you on? It’s second nature for us to choose sides. We do it in sports, we do it in music, clothing, style. When I bought a Nikon camera years ago, I discovered I hadn’t just bought a camera, I had become a part of the Nikon tribe; there were people who got angry at me because I had that brand of camera. We do it in our politics. This year’s Presidential election has been particularly nasty. And I see people losing friendships because of it. Now I love politics, I’ve been involved as a volunteer and sometimes a professional for years. But this year, in the interest of not choosing sides, I’ve made a conscious decision not to engage in the war of the sides.

Following Jesus

The reason is simple: I want to follow Jesus. Following Jesus means first of all paying attention to God. When I pay attention to God, what I see is that God is beyond the sides. God is beyond the divisions. Our God is the God of all: rich and poor, alike. So the more we can do to live as binders together, stepping over the division of sides, the more we will find ourselves following in the footsteps of Jesus. That’s why our church continuously offers a chances to do things that recognize people. We do it individually when we baptize someone like Olivia. We do it when we act in mission together, as we’ve done with the South Side Community Center. We do it individually when we bring a coat or some food for the food pantry. All these are ways of paying attention to God’s call in Jesus Christ to mutual care.

Which side are you on? Only when we realize the sides are just human inventions will we finally find ourselves where God has been all the time: beyond them, caring for all, listening to all, loving all. And it is when we know how God has loved all that we also come to the most powerful realization of all: that God loves each of us.