Larry R. Benfield | 29 September 2019 | St. John's, Helena-West Helena
Let’s get one thing clear up front: Any gospel lesson that starts by referencing a very comfortable man dressed in purple and fine linen, and by the end of the lesson states that that man is in Hades, ought not be in the Bible. But, alas, that is what the Bible—and Christianity for that matter—is always doing to us: making us on the inside feel uncomfortable when what we want is comfort. And conversely, I might add, Christianity is about bringing comfort to those on the outside who have previously had no comfort in their own lives. It is a twist on that old saying that the preacher ought to bring faith to the doubting and doubt to the faithful.
Yesterday I told the people at the ordination of four priests in Little Rock that they could rest easy in that I would not preach about impeachment—or climate change or school choice or any of the many things that divide us these days. But today is a bit different. I am in a place where this day we commemorate a horrific event in the Delta one hundred years ago, as we try to extract something grace filled in what we are doing.
And then there is that story in today’s gospel: in actuality, it makes me uneasy for reasons much greater than its mention of a man dressed in purple who goes to Hades. The unease is that the story has none of the grace that I associate with Jesus of Nazareth. The rich man can do nothing to keep himself from the torments of Hades. There is a chasm that cannot be crossed, so I have to figure out what is really the purpose of Luke putting this story in his good news. And to do so, I want to step away from the Bible altogether. I want to turn to Greek mythology for a moment. We might as well because it was Greek thought that was the primary incubator of first-through-fourth century Christian theology. So, today let’s talk about Echo.
Echo was a nymph. Echo, we learn, liked to talk incessantly. As with almost everyone in Greek mythology, she eventually found herself involved with Zeus. That guy got around. Echo just about drove Zeus’s wife Hera crazy, not only because Echo couldn’t shut up. There was, after all, Zeus’s wandering eye. So, Zeus’s wife got back at Echo. Hera put a curse on her so that she could no longer talk, except, some sources tell us, to repeat the last word that she had heard. Pardon the pun, please, but she was the first echo chamber. No more authentic conversation was possible for her. In some sense she was doomed to listen to herself again and again.
And here is the utterly fascinating, but perhaps predictable, part of what then happened to Echo, a fitting next step for someone who kept repeating herself. She fell in love with Narcissus, of all people. That’s right. The guy who could not get over his own reflection. Fell in love with someone who was in love with himself. She could only hear herself, and he could only see himself. You know how well those relationships usually turn out. Some of the original recorders of the Greek myths tell us that they both simply withered up and died, “farewell” being their last word that was heard over and over and over again.
There is our example of bad news: Someone can’t stop talking, turns into an echo chamber, and falls in love with a narcissist. People who see and hear only themselves. That Greek myth could be 21st century front-page newspaper commentary. With that background, let’s turn back to the gospel.
In today’s gospel, the rich man is having a merry old time, not listening to the person who is crying at his doorstep, focusing on his own happiness instead. Then suddenly the tables turn. And Abraham tells him how others can avoid the same fate. Abraham twice says anyone who wants not to end up in suffering should listen to Moses and the prophets.
That is the key to this story: listening is one door toward entering the kingdom. That is what Luke really wants to get across to us. Luke is telling us that if we are to be the people of God who enter the kingdom, we will learn to listen. If we don’t, we will end up being in torment, and the only voice we will eventually hear is “farewell, farewell, farewell,” as we and our cause disappear without the comfort and healing power of relationship.
James Baldwin, who, I suppose, is a good an author as anyone to quote on this both particular and peculiar day, wrote in Notes of a Native Son that devotion to humanity is “too easily equated with devotion to a Cause, and Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty.” We know where causes have taken us. Much blood has been shed, literally and figuratively, in the name of causes, be it loathing of another skin color, or unbridled patriotism, or even political correctness, a correctness that already knows how other people feel—without even listening to their stories.
But the gospel lesson is telling us that listening is essential if we do not want to end up in Hades. In the early 1900’s, we should have listened to the cries of people who were being made to feel less than human by others who wanted to hang on to the past. And in the early 2000’s, we have to listen to the cries of people who feel left behind by income inequality and old stereotypes. In every generation there are those who are heard and those who are not heard. I have to confess that the Episcopal Church was tone deaf one hundred years ago, and in our oh-so-pure contemporary political correctness, can come across as tone deaf today as well.
So, what does this have to do with Confirmation and Reception, which is why I first and foremost came here today? Well, I don’t want us to end up like Echo and Narcissus, withering away because we could not see or hear anyone but ourselves.
No, we have a future, if we will but listen, and share good news. That is what people being confirmed essentially pledge to do, along with anyone who stands beside them and recites our Baptismal Covenant, when we agree to see Christ in everyone. The call of our church is not to return to where we once were. We cannot change the past. But we can stand in the hospital room or the jail cell or the divorce court beside people who are hurting. We can listen to stories unlike our own. We can practice compassion. We can bind up the wounded, ameliorate the hurt, go into the scary places where others find themselves, and hear their stories. It is then that those who are heard will know that they are not alone in a cold and uncaring universe. We must continue to say “Welcome,” not “Farewell” to those unlike us.
The call to be a Christian is radically relational. It is to ensure that no one has to go it alone and to assure everyone that they are welcomed as members of the body of Christ. That is how any of us start sharing the same good news that Jesus lived out in his exemplary life. That is how we end up in the kingdom.
Go deep into conversation with the person sitting on your doorstep whom you might have previously missed. Listen to people in their journeys, and change the church by what you learn from those outside the church. Always remember that our call is to love one another as God loves us and thereby change suffering into joy, change despair into hope, and a change a fallen creation into the very kingdom of God. Amen.