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The 16th Sunday after Pentecost

This past Thursday, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry gave the homily at the Service of Thanksgiving for the life of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Washington National Cathedral. If you did not get to watch it live, you can find it on YouTube.

He used a reading from Luke’s Chapter 10, just six chapters before our gospel reading this morning… and he began with this story from his childhood:

I was probably, I’m guessing, 12 or 13 years old when I had a conversation with my father; or better yet, it was a monologue. He spoke, I listened. He wanted me to do something, and I don’t remember what it was. I’m 69 years old now so it was a long time ago, but he wanted me to do something, and I have to tell you, I didn’t want to do whatever it was. But of course, I didn’t say anything to him, but somehow my facial expression betrayed my innermost thoughts. And he read my mind, and he blurted out as parents often do with pre-adolescent children, “You know, the Lord didn’t put you here just to consume the oxygen.”

Now I do not think Michael Curry’s father was making a philosophical or theological statement nor was Curry himself using it that way. And yet, the wisdom of this statement makes the point that Luke is making in our gospel reading today. We were not created just to consume. We are here to give back. To give back to this world to give back to each other. To give back to the God who created us and gave us the ability and gifts to help others.

Our gospel reading from Luke this morning is not a story that reveals hidden truths about the afterlife, nor about the actual description of what the afterlife will be like. It was not intended to be taken that way. But it is a spiritual story about a lack of compassion and how our lives are impacted by our life’s choices. This is a story intended to help us reflect on how we should live in this life as disciples of Christ.

Jesus tells the story of a poor man named Lazarus. It is interesting to note that Lazarus is the only name given to anyone in Jesus’ parables; His name is a Greek variant of Eleazar which means 'God has helped’ or ‘God is my help’. All the rest of them had only labels: the sower, the father, the prodigal son, the debtor, the master, the Pharisee, the virgins. This guy, on the other hand, got a legitimate name. And because Jesus never did things like that unintentionally. This is a reminder to us that no poor person is invisible to God. Each needy person that we pass on the street is known to God by name and loved by God.

This is a parable of startling contrasts, but its central message is simple: be alert to the needs under your nose. We are not told how long Lazarus stayed by the gate of this rich man but I am guessing that he visited that gate daily to be given the scraps of bread from the rich man’s table. What we do know is that the rich man walked by him time after time and ignored Lazarus’ condition – hungry, covered in sores and comforted not by people but only by dogs. He closed his eyes to the needy right there at his own gate.

This is a great story with no ambiguity about it. We have an obligation as Christians to feed the hungry. To help those less fortunate. To give back with thanksgiving a part of what we have been given through God’s grace. For without an eye for the needy around us, our life becomes self-centered and callous. Jesus is asking his listeners then and now to open their eyes to what is around them, and to open their ears to the simple commands of the Gospel: love your neighbor.

It is not that the rich man in the parable did not believe in God and in the teaching of the scriptures. But he did not choose to live his faith. And so he found himself in agony after his death because of the choices he made in the way he treated others throughout his life.

I recently attended a funeral at an Episcopal church in south Georgia of a man who drowned while attempting to save the life of his young son. After the rector gave his emotional homily, four men who worked with and for the man who died spoke about him. I learned a valuable lesson that day: NEVER let 4 lawyers speak at a funeral! The first three were actually pretty good but the last, well, all I can say is that he most certainly has aspirations to become a preacher!

But frankly, I do not see how the priest could have told them no. They spoke about their friend, their boss, their coworker, and the transformation he had in his spiritual life. You see, this man who died was a well-respected lawyer. His gifts in criminal defense and civil litigation put him in demand all over the country as well as in Great Britain, Spain, Ireland, and the Bahamas. He was often invited to speak on CNN and was quoted in the NY Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post. And other major news sources because of his expertise in Constitutional Law.

Mr. Page Pate easily fits into the category of the wealthy man who dressed in purple linens in our parable this morning. However, this is where the likeness ends. And what follows is why I am telling you, his story.

One of the speakers said that Page was a believer. Like any good Episcopalian, he had questions. Like many of us, Page wanted proof and evidence to fortify his faith. He began by setting out to prove that the crucifixion and more importantly the resurrection was truth. He said that Page did what any good criminal attorney would do: he did his research. And after thoroughly gathering evidence, he concluded that the resurrection and all it stands for Was truth. No question. And after that, his life changed.

Unlike the rich man in our reading, Page lived his faith. His tenacity to help the wrongly convicted became his life’s passion.

Because of this passion, Page became a founding member of the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), an independent nonprofit organization located in Atlanta that works to correct and prevent wrongful convictions in Georgia. Founded in August of 2002, the Project collaborates with a network of pro bono lawyers, volunteers, and students, Georgia Innocent Project attorneys and staff to conduct investigations into criminal convictions. To date, GIP has helped free and exonerate 12 men who lost a combined total of 275 years in prison. Studies estimate that an astounding 4-6% of men and women in prison are innocent of the crimes for which they are imprisoned. In Georgia alone, that means at least 2,100 number of people are currently incarcerated in prison for crimes they did not commit.

I went to the Project’s website and found one gentleman who had spent the most years behind bars. Johnny Lee Gates was released in May of 2020…. Having spent 43 years in prison in a Muskogee County jail for a crime he did not commit.

No, Page was not a man who sat still when he saw a wrong that he could help to correct. And he used the gifts that God gave him to do so. Helping the wrongly accused to get out of jail and begin a new life was Page’s passion. What is yours?

What is God calling you to do to make the world a better place? How is God calling you to fulfill your discipleship by sharing the gifts that God has given you?

Every hungry man, woman and child in the world is on our conscience. Every person who suffers weighs heavily on our hearts. Every injustice is a travesty that should be addressed. And while we did not create the problems, we can certainly be part of the solution. Helping those in need does not necessarily mean withdrawing money from your account. John preached last Sunday on the dangers of that! Sometimes, it means being kind. Opening a door. Loving the person who is hard to love. Honoring each other’s authentic, weird, difficult selves. Giving someone a ride. Buying someone a cup of coffee and listening to his or her story. Standing up for the bullied. Not judging. In a world of homelessness, hunger and loneliness; in a world filled with war and hatred and violence, where can we share God’s gift of unconditional love?

Our Old Testament reading from Amos warns us about worshiping money. We are shown in our Gospel that choosing self over others will take us to a place of misery and suffering in the end. The rich man is not presented as being cruel to Lazarus or mistreating him. He was ‘condemned’ for doing nothing, for seeing the miserable state of Lazarus and doing nothing about it. The choices we make in the way we live make a difference not only to others but also for ourselves.

At the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, the great Mahalia Jackson stood up and sang one of Dr. King’s favorite songs that epitomized why he sacrificed his life. It said very simply:

If I can help somebody along the way, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody they’re traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a good person ought, if I can bring back beauty to a world of rot, if I can spread love’s message as the Master taught, then my living will not be in vain. Then my living will not be in vain.

And so I will end this morning quoting words used by St. Ignatius: Who will I help today?


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