Do we see the other? A sermon on Luke 16

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

I find today’s parable from Jesus to be a bit problematic.

First of all, this parable has been used by many as a way of talking about what happens after we die.

Heaven and hell: the good people are treated lovingly, the bad people are in agony in flame.

And it is too late, it seems, for any kind of redemption.

I had a professor in seminary who put my personal beliefs about heaven and hell just right when he said,

“If we truly believe in the ultimate redeeming power of God, then there may be a hell, but if there is, it is empty.”

Too often I think this parable has been used to install fear of God’s terrible judgement in people, based on a cosmology of the afterlife that is theologically flawed.

That’s a whole other sermon.

But regardless of what you think about heaven and hell, this parable isn’t actually about what happens to us after we die.

It’s more about how we relate to one another in this world, right now.

And even in this regard, the parable can still be problematic.

After all, it sets up such a wide contrast between the two main characters:

The poor man Lazarus, and the rich man, who, while not actually named in today’s gospel, is traditionally known as Dives…

Lazarus and Dives are a study in contrasts: poor/rich, sick/whole, hungry/feasting, outside/inside the gate, good/bad, saved/condemned.

They are such polar opposites of one another that the unbridgeable divide between them, the great chasm fixed between them…

seems both metaphorical and literal.

How on earth, is there any way to bridge the gap, between two people who are so far apart from one another on the spectrum of difference?

So, far apart, it seems, that the sin of Dives is not actually his prosperity or his privilege,—however much we might want it to be—

but instead the sin of Dives is that he literally does not see Lazarus at this gate.

He literally does not see the person he passes by every day.

Lazarus and Dives are so far apart that they do not see one another at all.

For each of them the other is so completely Other, with a capital “O”…that they literally pass by each other without seeing.

I can’t help but be reminded, as I reflect on this parable this morning, about our current political climate.

I can’t remember a time in my own lifetime when a presidential election has been so divided.

And when I talk to people with more life experience than me, they often say the same thing.

We collectively can’t remember a time when people of both parties find it so difficult to understand and fathom where the other side is coming from.

More than simply not understanding each other, the parties seem to be slipping into something even worse than misunderstanding…

..they seem to be devolving into something even more angry and hateful towards one another…

…the chasm between people seems to be growing greater and wider, and even more uncrossable,…

and the people on the other side are starting to be categorized as Other, “those people are crazy,” “they are criminals,” “they are stupid”,

Even the categories are starting sound familiar from today’s parable: rich/poor, educated/uneducated, white/black, good/bad…

We are starting to literally not see each other…and that is the sin of today’s parable.

That’s what widens the chasm between us and makes it so difficult to cross.

Now, there are multiple ways of dealing with this kind of problem, particularly as it relates to political divisions.

I know one person who, in a past presidential election, actually canceled her television and newspaper subscriptions…

…because she simply couldn’t bear to engage with such a broken process.

In today’s election, that would also mean closing your Facebook and Twitter accounts, and cancelling the internet.

Her strategy for dealing with the chasm between us was to withdraw from it completely.

More than simple withdrawal from the political process, many people are actually experiencing an even more profound apathy, or at its worst, cynicism,

such that they choose not to vote or engage with the political process at all.

They find the political system so disheartening, so broken, that they actually give up their own power, their own voice, their own ability to make a difference.

And the chasm stays just as it is, maybe even grows a little wider.

Another person I know, who is deeply passionate and committed to his beliefs, reacts to the current political situation with anger.

It’s actually kind of difficult to have a political conversation with this person, even if you agree with him, because he gets so mad about things.

There is passion and energy and a deep love of his country behind his words, but his words are not really productive.

Because, for those of us who are already painfully feeling the brokenness of the political system…

such anger either makes us more angry, or it makes us less willing to engage on the issues.

We just devolve into emotional reactivity, and we lose the ability to have perspective.

And the flames of anger and difference burn a little hotter, and the chasm is still unbridgeable.

I’m sure you know people like these two also, maybe you yourself are even one of them.

Sometimes I am.

If the sin of today’s parable is Dives and Lazarus’ inability to see each other, to cross the chasm between them…

…then as people of faith, perhaps we need to look at how it is that we see each other, particularly as it comes to our political selves.

Contrary to popular perception, there is actually a lot of broad consensus between political parties on some key issues,

like addressing crony capitalism, drugs and incarceration, and energy resources.

Our political system is not as completely broken as it seems.

And not only is cooperative political work being done on these issues, but they make good starting places for our own political conversations with one another.

But perhaps even more importantly, if we take our cue from Jesus’ parable to us today,

then perhaps the most important thing we can do towards bridging the chasm between us, is simply to be in relationship with one another.

To practice seeing one another, in small, but powerful ways.

As Parker Palmer, a Quaker teacher and writer, says “It’s more important to be in right relationship with another person, than it is to be right.”

If we completely avoid having conversations around difference, then we aren’t in right relationship with each other.

And if we engage in political discourse with each other with the sole intention of winning an argument, then it’s not actually right relationship either…

…and we are just wasting our time.

Instead, as Parker Palmer suggests, try evoking the story behind another person’s political convictions.

This desire to hear another person’s story should be genuine.

We don’t want to listen to another person’s words for the flaws in their logic or as a way to tear them down.

But listen because we really want to know the story behind why they feel the way they do.

asking, “Tell me a little about your life that will help me understand why you hold your conviction so passionately…”

Because once we hear another person’s story, we start to see them as a person again.

And it is impossible to hate someone once you know a piece of their story.

And sometimes, particularly in heated and divisive climates like our current one, we may run into people whose words…

…are so angry that they strike at the core of what we believe as people of faith, that all people are beloved children of God.

When we hear comments like that that are racist, or sexist, or violent, as people of faith we cannot not say anything…

but we can respond in ways that help us to be seen and still see the other person.

One way to do this is to respond by saying, “What you’re saying is personally hurtful to me.

I want to live in a world where we respect one another.”

Bridging the divisions between us is not easy, but it is possible.

And we want to live in a world where we respect and see one another.

If Dives and Lazarus had done this, to see and be seen, by each other, the chasm between them wouldn’t exist.

And so, in our world, as people of faith, we know that no chasm is uncrossable and that we are called…

in small but powerful ways, to see each other, and to build bridges.