Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pentecost 19-C, 2013: Awareness. Benedicte.

Lectionary: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Preacher: The Very Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

In her book, Illuminated Life, Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister writes: “What is right in front of us we see least… As a result we run the risk of coming out of every situation with no more than when we went into it.” (22)
Our spiritual paths should include growth in awareness, the opening of our eyes to whatever blindness we have, because as Chittister says, awareness, “mines every relationship, unmasks every event, every moment for the meaning that is under the meaning of it.” (23) Awareness causes us to ask, “What do I see here of God that I could not see otherwise? What is God demanding of my heart as a result of [this] event, [this] situation, [this] person in my life?” (23)

This, I believe, is what Jesus is teaching in today’s parable. I had always considered this to be a parable about privilege. But privilege is step two, as it were. Step one is awareness.

Let’s start with step two. To be privileged is to have certain rights and immunities. The rich man is the icon of privilege, which includes not only all of his wealth and comfort but also his immunity from noticing or doing anything for the poor man, Lazarus, who starves to death right outside his door.

Most of us here have the privilege of knowing that we have a safe, dry, warm (but not hot) place to sleep tonight. We know we can bathe, use the toilet, or go to the sink and get a glass of water whenever we need it. We know we will eat lunch later today, dinner tonight, and breakfast in the morning.

Knowing that makes us privileged, and we are often unaware of the many privileges we have. Here’s how I learned this.

When Steve and I quit our jobs and went to seminary, we thought we’d be OK financially. We had money in our savings account. Our daughter was on a full-ride scholarship at a music conservatory in FL. We owned our home, which we planned to lease while we were at seminary, and we had two good cars.

Then it all changed. Four months before we moved to Sewanee, we learned that a man had begun stalking our daughter and we had to get her out of FL – quickly. She transferred to Boston University and suddenly we were faced with $38,000 of tuition for each of the two years she had left.

We also soon discovered that there was no meaningful employment to be found on the mountain where our seminary was beyond bar-tending and waiting tables, which is what Steve did. In addition, we had unexpected tuition costs for our boys who ended up attending the Episcopal school next to the seminary. Did they have to? No, but not doing so would have isolated them from the other seminary children.

So, before I attended my first seminary class, Steve and I had used all of our savings, began cashing in our stocks and were dipping into our retirement.

While we were already intentionally simplifying our lives, we had two growing boys with appetites to match. In order to ensure they had enough food to eat, Steve and I ate about every other day until our financial chaos settled a bit. By Middler year, we were still poor, but we were all eating everyday (mostly).

It was during this time that I learned what food insecurity was and how it affects those who have it. All of my life, I knew I could eat when I was hungry, so I rarely over-ate. When I first experienced food insecurity, I ate whenever food was available – whether or not I was hungry – and I ate lots of it, knowing I might not eat again for a couple of days.

My usual preference for eating healthy food fell by the wayside. Any food I could get was good food. Besides, healthy food was now too expensive. I had to buy food I could stretch to feed our family. I knew the food was filling us and not nourishing us, but I had no choice, so I prayed we would avoid the consequences of poor diet until we could eat well again.

Hoping we would eat well again revealed to me that eating well was a privilege I’d had but hadn’t noticed I had before. Even after years of serving the poor and homeless as a shelter director, I had not fully understood the true and far-reaching consequences of food insecurity until I experienced it myself.

Being hungry made me grumpy and resentful. It made it hard for me to concentrate on my studies. Since we had no money we couldn’t go out to eat or play with our friends. Poverty isolated us.

It was during this time that our boys grew out of boy’s clothes and shoes and into men’s – which cost way more. They were growing so fast, and my heart would break giving away clothes and shoes they barely wore but had already outgrown.

One day, I was struggling with the frustration and injustice of our situation (in other words, I was having a pity party). Steve and I had walked away from financial security and a life we loved to answer God’s call to me to serve, and now we couldn’t adequately feed and clothe our children.

There we were, at a college where most of the kids drove around in BMW’s and Mercedes. All around me, I could see the “plenty” but I couldn’t touch it. My heart broke. So did my spirit.

I cried out, asking God, ‘Why have you called me? Why have you called us - and then deserted us.’ I had expected (at least an interior) reward for the sacrifice we were making. Instead, we were suffering. It just didn’t seem fair.

But God hadn’t deserted us. God had led Steve and me to seminary and guided us through every difficult and wonderful moment of it. By staying prayerful and committed to one another, God was able to show us the redemption – the gifts our poverty was offering us. Gifts like: detachment from our possessions; an awareness of our many small excesses; a realization of our attachment to our reputation as people of plenty (which implied that we were good people); and freedom from our privileged notion that good people who are willing to work hard can obtain a sustainable living.

We had been like those who were at ease in Zion. We had always given generously to our church and to civic agencies that serve the poor and needy, but we had not done the one thing that God requires of all of us to do: to love our neighbor as we loved ourselves.

We had been loving ourselves first. When we gave our tithes, we gave from what was left over after we had taken all we needed and wanted. We had been practicing the ‘me-first’ ethic without even known it… until God awakened us.

I want to be clear – God did not make us poor. It happened. But God did redeem us as we experienced this poverty, and showed us what true treasure is: living in the Trinity of the love of God, neighbor, and self.

There was a news story last week about a ranch manager in south Texas near the Mexican border where immigrants were entering illegally are dying of dehydration. Risking his reputation and retaliation, the ranch manager put a “55-gallon blue plastic drum holding one-gallon water jugs… [on his land] [and topped it] with a 30-foot pole and a large blue flag… so it could be seen.

The rancher said he didn’t want to see people continue to die on his ranch... ‘If dead human beings don’t catch your attention, what the hell else is going to? We’re just trying to be human about it.’” (Source:

This guy gets it. This is what Jesus’ parable is about. What matters to followers of Christ is noticing that people are in agony, not judging why, and offering them comfort. We have to “be human about it.”

We have to love them as we love ourselves, and that means entering into a caring relationship with them. It means listening for the meaning under the meaning in their stories, then working to bring about the will of God for them.

And what is the will of God for them? Our psalmist offers the answer: God wills justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, freedom for those imprisoned by anything. God wills that the bowed down be lifted up, that strangers be cared for, and that we build a community to sustain the lonely and helpless.

The church is that community.

We were asked to pray this week about our stewardship – the offering of our gifts and generosity to enable this community of faith to make manifest the love of God by our worship and service to the world. I call on us to begin today by saying “Benedicte” (Latin: “Thanks be to God”).

Benedicte – for opening our eyes to the many privileges we enjoy. Benedicte – for trusting us to work for your glory and the welfare of your people. Benedicte. Amen.

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