September 29, 2019

16th Sunday after Pentecost Year C 2019

I’m reading a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman called “Neverwhere.” The protagonist is a London stockbroker named Richard who stops to help a homeless girl named Door on his way home from work – and by helping her, he himself becomes homeless. Not because of anything bad that he does, but simply because he helped this girl, his life changes drastically. His fiancé’ breaks up with him when she finds this girl sleeping on his couch. He loses his job and gets evicted from his apartment and becomes homeless. He discovers a whole world of people under London that no one knows about, that know one sees.

The people who live there are unseen by the good people of London. And he becomes one of these unseen ones. People like who he used to be don’t notice people like who he had become. And Richard wonders to himself why he had ever helped that poor homeless girl in the first place. If only he would have not noticed her, none of this would have happened to him. Why did he see her when so many just walked on by?

The story has much in common with our readings today, with Lazarus and the rich man in Jesus’ parable or the people of Israel that Amos is prophesying against because they lie on beds of ivory and are not grieved at the condition of their poor kins people, or Paul’s word’s about the love of money being the root of all evil. And even the Psalmist gets into the theme saying “the Lord executes justice for the oppressed; and gives food to the hungry.”

These ideas are not new to us. We have heard them before. In fact we probably hear something like this many Sundays from our lectionary readings. They are there to remind us who this God we worship really is and who we are. God sees the unseen and God has compassion on them. God desires for everyone to be seen and cared for, for every human being to find the dignity of knowing themselves as a child of God. So it matters that we see each other that way, as well as ourselves.

Grace Church works closely with the Genesis House of Siloam Springs to see and care for people like that homeless girl in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel. Many times during the week we will have people come to the church to ask for assistance with finding a room for a few nights, or helping them with their rent so they won’t be evicted with their kids, or with utilities that have been shut off so they can have electricity or running water. And during those times I am usually busy doing the work of the church – important stuff like planning our liturgy or working on Inquirer’s class notes or preparing for a Vestry meeting.

I am interrupted to talk with these people who are in need. And I have to admit that sometimes I don’t like being interrupted and I say to myself, “what now?” And then I listen to the plight of this person and that and I have to ask God to forgive me for being selfish and impatient and self-absorbed. Because I am the rich man in the parable Jesus tells. I am the person on the ivory bed. I have everything I need or really even want, more than enough. I am comfortable in my affluence and I wonder if I would take that homeless girl named Door home like Richard did in Gaiman’s Neverwhere, if I knew I might lose everything?

In my early years of ministry with college students. I was interviewed by the Pew Charitable Trust about my work and they asked why college students were drawn to Christianity. My response was that the college students I knew were drawn to follow a Jesus who did not call them to an easy life, but demanded more of them than anyone else they knew – he demanded their very lives.

I wonder what would happen if we again heard the radical call of Jesus along with Moses and the prophets to see those who are unseen, to bring dignity to those who do not even dignify themselves, to love the unlovable or those who think they are unlovable, to live our lives in such a way that we remind ourselves each day that if we have the opportunity to relieve the suffering of just one person we will extend God’s reign of love and mercy.

John Stendahl tells this story:

I was visiting a young man in a facility for people with severe brain injuries. He was agitated and eager to walk, so I joined him as he went from room to room and looked in each room as if he were searching for someone. Eventually we came to a big room that was not in use. At the far end a couple of janitors were at work buffing the floor. I saw that no one was sitting at any of the tables and said to the young man, “There’s nobody in here.”

Then, from the other side of the room, came the voice of one of the janitors. “What do you mean, nobody? We’re not nobody.”

I don’t recall what lame apology I offered, but I remember the heat rising in my cheeks. I really hadn’t seen those two men, although of course I’d registered that there were janitors at work. My mind was elsewhere.

Twenty years later I’m grateful for the shame of my experience. I’m grateful to the janitor who challenged me and for the voice and the words that made me see. The memory continues to teach and warn me. Once I was confronted with my blindness, I was forced to recognize that class and race and self-centered preoccupation had far greater power over me than my kindly liberal intellect had perceived. Called to see, I saw the gap between myself and the other side of that room.

As I think about situations and chasms that separate us from each other, I feel the urgency in Jesus’ parable. There was a chance for redemption for the rich man if he’d only seen it in time.

I pray that I see it and that we see each other as we seek to serve those whom God brings across our paths.