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I remember my father disciplining me for not cleaning up my room. It seemed silly to me that I would get a spanking for some clothes and toys on the floor in a room that only I really ever came into. He would say, “It’s not just about your room. I’m trying to teach you responsibility. I’m trying to teach you to do what you say you’re going to do. I’m trying to teach you to take care of your things.” I wasn’t buying it. But now, with my own children, I understand the real lesson. I also remember him saying, right before the spanking, “This hurts me more than it does you.” I thought, “Right, Dad. Sure it does.” Now I also know that he was serious. The sting of a swat goes away pretty quickly. But the scars we bear as parents, the second-guessing, the regret, the work that is done on the “real lessons”..that goes on a long, long time.
Jesus tells this parable, often called “Dives and Lazarus”, alongside several others in Luke’s gospel, in an effort to talk about money and identity and power, and how they relate to our relationship with God. But what is going on here? What is the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach? As we listen to it, we might think that the chasm between Lazarus and the rich man is the same one there was in life, that is was wealth and power that separated them. We might imagine that to the rich man, Lazarus was invisible in life, and he remains so now. But that’s not the case. He calls Lazarus by name. He knows him. Some of Dives’ best friends are “Lazaruses.” But he continues to think of him as below him, treating him like a servant even in the after life…asking Abraham to send Lazarus, still a slave in the rich man’s eyes, to bring him water or deliver a message, as if the only thing that had really changed was the setting. He continues not to treat or even see Lazarus as a person, as an equal, as one deserving of compassion and regard. He never listens to Lazarus’ story, or hears his suffering. He continues to deny Lazarus his humanity. And when he is sent away lamenting his situation, as I suspect he is when Abraham reveals that no “special” help is headed to his brothers either, I imagine him to be something short of contrition…he’s just trying to keep his blood-relations from the torment of Hades, but still clinging desperately to his one-sided worldview, still angrily asserting his own reality, still trying to “make Jerusalem great again.”
The real lesson of this parable lies deeper than feeding the hungry, or even economic justice or faithfulness to the teachings of our religion. The real lesson is about our hearts, and how we divide up the world into those who count and those who don’t, if not with our words, then certainly with our actions…even our lack of action. We’re tribal, and we like to divide up, like we’re picking teams on the anthropological playground.
Maybe another example is needed. Terence Crutcher. He has been the subject of virtually every meeting I have had in the past 10 days, regardless of what the agenda was originally. He has been the focal point of rally after rally, of powerful vigils, prayers, laments, tears, his own funeral held last night at Antioch Baptist to a packed crowd. Is it because so many people loved Terence and the Crutcher family? Yes, certainly. But there were many people at that service who never knew Terence. They were there because this is Terence, and it isn’t Terence. This is a single incident, and it isn’t a single incident.
If we, in our largely white congregation, fail to hear the voices of suffering, the clear, distinguishable voices and we respond with excuses or platitudes, antagonism or rationalization, then we are failing to learn the lessons of our own faith. Compassion is easy when it doesn’t cost you anything, when it doesn’t ask you to examine your worldview or admit that there might be error, even in the things you hold most dear. Compassion is easy when we call “being nice” compassion. But compassion isn’t being nice. It’s not what Abraham is calling out in Dives, for I’m sure that Dives tossed Lazarus a crumb or two from time to time. Compassion isn’t charity, nor is charity justice. Compassion is that feeling you have in the pit of your stomach that compels you to a different conclusion, convicted by someone’s suffering. It is the deeper lesson of both Jesus’ parable this morning and the hard lesson of Terence Crutcher, a man who is part of a story to us, but is a father, a son, a brother to others…a man whose story has been repeated over and over and over for people of color in this society we have created.
Our news channels, our newspapers, our newsfeeds are all full of the story of Mr. Crutcher, from every angle, with so many versions and counter-versions that we can get lost, thinking that the real issue is whether or not a window was rolled up or if he was “on something”, when the real lesson is about how we see, treat and know one another. The real lesson is that the search for our common humanity is not separate from our spiritual life. Our treatment of one other IS our search for God, in whose image we are ALL created. Every. Single. Other.
The stain of racism stands in our way in our search for God. It is a demon that lies to us about privilege and ability, choice and obligation and sets in our hearts a bias that is evil. As Rev. Lavanhar of All Souls said on Wednesday evening during the vigil at Metropolitan Baptist Church, “This isn’t a case of a bad apple…but a poisoned apple.” It is too easy to hang this all on one cop, or a bad decision or even some supposed inherent prejudice, which we don’t know anything about. This is much deeper than that. For whether we are talking about Mr. Crutcher or Eric Harris or Khalid Jabara, murdered on his front porch by a man whose racism is perhaps easier for us to grasp because it is so overt, the underlying foundation is the poison of racism…a poison that has been injected into the system of the United States since it’s inception. A poison that still resides in each of us, and cannot be dismissed from our systems by casting out a single cell, or with one inoculation. It is a sepsis, an infection of the whole system, that lives in every part of us. And many of you know from personal experience what it takes to rid ourselves of such an infection – round after round of treatment, constant vigilance, dedication, hope, prayer, taking our medicine and a fair amount of luck. And even then it crops up again.
I have no desire to disparage a law enforcement community that works an often dangerous and typically thankless job under great scrutiny. In fact, I want to try and make their jobs less dangerous, to give them accountability that comes along with the best training, equipment, salaries and education that we can give, for their lives matter, too. It is too easy to say this is a problem with police, or even with policing. The issues we have seen most glaringly demonstrated in encounters between black and brown skinned people and law enforcement are symptoms of a larger illness. They are symptoms of a culture that seems to have come “so far” in terms of racial interaction, but which is slowly coming to realize how much of our progress has been a mile wide and an inch deep. And if we respond to the cries of suffering from “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter”, it is the same as Dives saying to Lazarus, begging and starving at his door, “Well, Lazarus, everyone is hungry.”
Jesus tells this parable, alongside ones about dishonest money managers and prodigal sons, in order to impart something deeper than “treat people fairly.” For the good news of the Gospel is not “be nice to each other.” The good news is that God loves every single one of us. The good news is not only that you are worthy, but so is your neighbor, your black neighbor, your brown neighbor, your Muslim neighbor, your transgendered neighbor, your Republican neighbor. The good news is that you are created in the image of God…and so is everyone else. Yeah, I know…it’s that second part that’s the kicker. And this lesson might be the only lesson we need from the gospel, for we have a chance to play it out every single day, and it is the lesson that keeps on giving…we never stop learning from it. We can never listen well enough, learn fully enough or love deeply enough. There is always room to grow. That’s what we call being alive.
I don’t want to stoke a red hot fire under you this morning. Because as much as we may feel the fierce urgency of now as a reaction to the past week, our city, our state, our world needs more than your raging, hot anger. It needs your cold anger. With hot anger we act irrationally and misdirect it, often towards the wrong people. With cold anger we focus on what we can do to change oppression, exploitation and injustice. Charges have been filed. An arrest made. Now we let the system work even as we also know that the system still doesn’t work for far too many people AND that there are more systems than just this one. For if we are to cast out this demon of racism, we will need more than your passion, more than some momentary righteous indignation. We need your dedication. We need your discipline. We need your discipleship. For we churches who are largely made up of people from the category known as “white” have a lot of work to do. We may not have made the mess, but it is our job to clean it up. Not all of it. And not you, all by yourself. As some great ancient wisdom from Judaism teaches us – “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Community organizing is happening in our city, soon under the name ACTION (Allied Communities of Tulsa Igniting Our Neighborhoods). Active prayers happen here on Thursday night. There are books we study to broaden our horizons together on Wednesday nights, there is a letter writing campaign after church today and we will soon announce a chance for us to meet with city officials as a church. We will soon be engaging with curriculum from the UCC on “white privilege” and racial justice. And there are group meetings and efforts for change going on all around the city. What all this needs is you. And I know you’re busy. I am, too. Get involved anyway. The world won’t change if you don’t.
It’s hard work. It’s long, exhausting, difficult work. It is one step forward and three steps back work. But repentance, a word that means literally, in Greek, to “turn around”, repentance is hard work. And this is our chance. This is our chance to really listen, to step away from which side is “right” long enough to hear someone’s pain, and not argue with them about whether or not it is OK, or how they are really responsible for their pain. If we are willing to accept this gospel truth…to abandon even our own most cherished assumptions, to set aside the “way we were raised” and move into the uncomfortable places, then we are in a small camp, my friends. For most people, as the text reminds us, won’t even be convinced “if someone rises from the dead.” But we don’t have forever. The natural results of our apathy, or our unwillingness to change, the text also tells us, comes back on us. We have Moses and the Prophets, we have this ancient wisdom calling to us from the ages…we have the truth. We have to listen.
I don’t understand what it is like to be black in America. I don’t understand what kinds of fear that creates. I don’t have all the answers…I don’t even have some of the answers, but I want to see change. I long for a world where love is stronger than fear. I believe in a world where love is stronger than fear. I trust in a world where love is stronger than fear.
Now we must work for a world where love is stronger than fear. One step at a time.