Rev. Joe Connolly
“‘Please, I beg you,’ the man who had been rich said. ‘If someone would only come to them from the dead, they would repent.’ ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,’ Abraham and Sarah replied, ‘neither will they be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.’” — Luke 16:30-31.
My guess is the kind of thing I am about to describe has happened to nearly every last one of us. There is something in your home or in your office you see every day or something you pass on the street nearly every day that has always been there or has been there for a very, very long time.
And you just… don’t… pay… any… attention… to… it. It is simply a part of your life, a part of your environment.
Then suddenly you notice it. And you realize that thing has either been there for a very, very long time or has always been there.
That happened to me this week. This [the pastor hold up an old fashioned mercury gage thermometer] has been resting on the wall right outside my office. It’s probably been hanging there since the day I arrived twenty plus years ago. I happened to notice it staring at me from that wall just last Wednesday.
It’s likely I had, at some point before this, actually taken note of it. But taking note of something is not noticing it. They are not the same. For me, noticing something means really recognizing not just its presence but its reality maybe even its function. For whatever reason, on Wednesday I noticed it.
When I did notice it I turned to Cheri Willard, our Parish Coordinator, who was sitting at her desk and said, “I wonder how long this thing has been here.”
She said, “My bet is it was there the day you arrived.”
I said, “I’m not sure I’ve ever paid any attention to it before.”
Our sexton, Eric Burgher, who was also in the office, chimed in. “It’s got to be old. It’s a mercury thermometer. Everything today is digital.”
Joking, I said, “How… old… is… it?” I answered my own question. “It’s so old… it was hanging on the wall in the room where they had the Last Supper. One of the Apostles checked it said, ‘It’s cool enough in that room now. Let’s all go in and chow down.’” (Slight pause.)
Now, my story about this thermometer might seem trivial. And it is. But, using this trivial thing, I want to point to what I think and hope is a larger idea.
In the larger sense, this is the question we need to ask: are we formed by our environment or does our environment form us? Are we shaped by our environment or does our environment shape us?
Do we ignore the environment in which and with which we live and/or are we simply blissfully unaware of that environment. And the key issue— therefore, does our environment both form us and shape us and even though it forms and shapes us, are we totally unaware that our environment has that kind overwhelming influence on us? (Slight pause.)
Let me try another way to look at this. I know I am somewhat overweight so this is a dangerous area for me but this is an example of asking an essential question about the reality around us, the reality in which we live, the reality of our environment and the fact that we simply do not notice that reality. How is it a salad costs $7 and a burger costs $1?
Does it really cost more to grow a head of lettuce than to raise a beef cow to maturity. If the answer is yes, then we are raising both lettuce and cows with amazing inefficiency.
And therefore, until we come to grips with what it really costs for healthy salad and what it really costs for a less than healthy burger, until and unless we can explain that inconvenient difference, we should not consult or tout another article about obesity in America. We might ignore it, but we should know from where and how obesity in American comes— $7 dollar salads and $1 burgers. I’ll bet that was helpful in unpacking that right? (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Luke: “‘Please, I beg you,’ the man who had been rich said. ‘If someone would only come to them from the dead, they would repent.’ ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,’ Abraham and Sarah replied, ‘neither will they be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Slight pause.)
Let me unpack something about this reading. For those who first heard or read these words in the First Century of the Common Era, the phrase “Moses and the prophets” meant something very specific.
“Moses” meant the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Pentateuch was and is sometimes referred to as “the Law.” The prophets were considered a commentary on the Law.
But those terms need to be unpacked still a little more. In the First Century of the Common Era the word “Law” did not mean what it means to us. When we hear “Law” we think it’s a set of rules. It was not thought of as a set of rules in Biblical times.
Those who lived in Biblical times thought of the Pentateuch, the “Law,” as instruction, teaching, an opportunity to learn. These were not rules. Therefore, the “Prophets” were simply an elaboration and an interpretation of the instructions, the aforementioned opportunity to learn.
So within the context of instruction, within that context, the Bible gives an amazing amount of instruction about and attention to material possessions. In parables and oracles it warns about the delusions of material possessions.
Scripture directly addresses the way we humans make idols of our possessions, our where-with-all. Scripture repeatedly directs our attention to the poor and the destitute and the need to help.
Indeed, in this story it’s clear the rich person knows about Moses, the Law and the prophets. Further, the story never says rich person mistreated Lazarus.
So, the issue is not about someone being mean or abusive or even arrogant. The rich person simply never noticed Lazarus. On top of that, the rich person clearly never even noticed Moses and the Prophets. They were just there— a part of the environment— unnoticed.
So, as to what this story is about, it is clearly not about any reward in the afterlife and should not be read that way. This story is about what is happening here, now.
The rich person simply does not recognize what’s happening here, now. So perhaps, the key question for us is simple. What is happening here, now? And to be clear, this question primarily applies to what we do not notice but is right in front of us. (Slight pause.)
So, what is right in front of us? Here’s the list I came up with. Racism, sexism, climate change, class oppression, hunger, inequity in food distribution, ruining of he environment, famine and drought caused by humans, poverty, isolationism, inadequate healthcare, personal violence, violence sanctioned by institutions, nationalism, homelessness, verbal abuse, bearing false witness, denigrating others, drug trade, human trafficking— you name the injustice and we humans partake in it and we forward it.
And yes, my bet is each of us does see, does notice some of the aforementioned problems. On the other hand, we also tend to focus on just our own pet peeves. But the world is larger than just our pet peeves. Just like I did not notice a thermometer hanging on the wall, there are a multitude of things we ignore or just do not see.
Any one of these issues could be called more pressing than the next, more urgent than the next, more significant than the next. Further, these problems do not just happen here in this country. These are world wide issues.
Now, having used the word “injustice” I need to take a moment to define injustice for you. Injustice has a simple definition: people violating people. The bad news is we all do it. We all violate other people, often unintentionally, often unknowingly— but it happens. And there’s another truth about injustice is also simple: injustice knows no borders. Injustice knows no boundaries. Injustice knows no race. Injustice knows no creed. (Slight pause.)
All that leads me to the second I think more important item we ignore: “Moses and the Prophets.” I want to suggest the term “Moses and the Prophets”— what it really means is— the Word and the will of God.
And, yes, Scripture is really clear about what the Word and the will of God says: first, love God. Second, love everybody.
So, since we humans continue to commit acts of violence, acts of injustice, what part of love everybody do we not understand? What part of God’s justice— not our justice, God’s justice— do we fail to understand?
Of this I am actually quite sure. Perhaps most the prevalent injustice out there is simply not noticing. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The late Thomas Merton was Catholic writer, Trappist Monk, mystic. These are his words: ‘Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is love and this love will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.’”
BENEDICTION: There is a cost and there is a joy in discipleship. There is a cost and there is a joy in truly being church, in deeply loving one another. May the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ rule among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.