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The Ones with No Names

Krystal Leedy

September 29, 2013
Luke 16:19-31

The rich man is still ordering people around. He can’t stop. Even in death, the rich man still calls upon Abraham to tell Lazarus that he’s thirsty, as he sits among the flames in hell. Can you just see the rich man snapping his fingers and calling for the boy, Lazarus, who used to sit outside of his gate as a lawn ornament more than a human being? The rich man, lavished in beautiful things, with everything at his fingertips, certainly took advantage of all that he had. We are painted a picture of a luxurious mansion with a gate around it, with servants hustling and bustling to get the estate ready for soirées and galas. The rich man often has his picture in the newspaper as he stands in a fine suit next to political leaders and people that find their names on a VIP list. His ambition, his wealth, his comfort overtake him to the point that he cannot see that next to his green, plastic trash can, sits a man who is in desperate need of nourishment. And the rich man does not become rude to Lazarus; he just does not even see him anymore. Even in death, the rich man’s behavior does not change. He reaps what he sows, and by this point, Abraham has had enough. Standing in front of Lazarus, the advocate Abraham calmly says to the rich man that Lazarus can no longer provide him with the lifestyle to which he has grown accustomed. Abraham stands in front of Lazarus and claims that no longer can the rich man treat people as though they are invisible. And the rich man continues to harass Abraham while Lazarus takes a much needed nap on a cloud.

I heard a story on the radio the other day about pigeons. Yes, pigeons. The passenger pigeon used to be the most common pigeon in North America, and they are now extinct. In the 19th century, the passenger pigeons are mentioned in many newspapers and writings of that time. There were so many that they would darken the sky with their feathers and bird-like ways. There would be hundreds of miles of pigeons that would cause the sky to darken and the sound would be like thunder. I did not feel any sympathy for these pigeons as I heard how their roosts could take out portions of forest and their feces probably did not smell good as it spread out over beautiful elm trees. I did not feel any sympathy for them as one shot could take out as many as thirty at once because there were so many. I also did not feel sympathy for them as humans took out many of these pigeons, with vast exterminations and habitat destruction. And then what people began to notice was that the extinction of an animal was caused directly by humans. But, that fact was just a fact. And as many as 5 billion pigeons used to roam North America, and that statistic is just a statistic. Until, they named Martha. Martha was the last known passenger pigeon on the planet and was kept frozen on a 300-lb. block of ice following her death. Her feathers were worn because she was molting when she died. And, I began to think about the molting season of this female bird and how she would leave her feathers behind- her feathers that could be used as teaching tools or craft projects or inspiration for people who wanted to fly an airplane. I began to think about Martha’s children, about her baby birds that would have been taken care of by Martha and the 5 billion other pigeons that used to scatter the sky. I thought about Martha sitting in the Smithsonian, as a stuffed reminder of how extinction can be caused by humans, realizing that the symbol of one individual bird was much more powerful than statistics about the mass loss of the passenger pigeon. And, I was pleased to hear that much care had been taken in preserving this taxidermy pigeon, until the story changed in tone and they reported that Martha was in a closet somewhere in the Smithsonian Museum. Now, I am well-aware that not everything at the Smithsonian can be displayed all at once, but to hear that this once-vibrant bird, a representation of all of her fellow bird brothers and sisters, is in a closet. Well, it made me deeply sad. A stuffed bird made me sad. Not just because she was extinct, but because she had a name.

The one named in this passage is not the rich man. The one named in this passage is not the one given voice. The one named in this passage is Lazarus, a passive character with skinned knees. Our mute person with tired eyes and a seemingly Dr. Doolittle relationship with animals is not even spoken to during the entire passage. No one speaks to him. No one looks at him. No one notices, except the dogs. We want so badly to give the rich man a name. After all, many of us know that this parable is written for our benefit, and the rich man seems to serve as the main character. The one with the most lines on stage or screen time, after all, is usually the main character. In fact, when people talk about the rich man, they give him the Latin name Dives (dee-vez) which means rich man because they cannot stand to be in the place on the one who is unnamed. And, people of God, Christians have stood for centuries as the rich ones, and in this passage, we are unnamed. Our identity is gone. We are reduced to a fraction of moment, a slice of life that we aren’t too appreciative of. A time in our lives when we have forgotten those who have no voice. We are reduced to that moment. We are reduced to the stereotype of what it means to be an upper-middle-class wasp. We cannot escape it in this passage because that character, the rich man, that archetype, has no name. We are the unnamed ones in this passage because so many live unnamed everyday, and the gospel of Luke is brilliant about turning that on its head. Because we know what the rich man looks like. We see him in his suit. We see how he spends his money. We notice him because when we look in the mirror, we can see him. For him to be unnamed is scandalous. People always name the rich man. But not Luke.   

We are called to learn about the names that God gives to the people that we ignore or can no longer see as they become like trees in a school play, hidden in the background. We are called upon to give voice to the voiceless, to reach out to those who are hungry, to bandage sores, and be a part of Jesus’ healing ministry here on earth as it is in heaven. As the Kingdom of God comes near to us all, we notice those moments when this meal of bread and wine is not simply something that happens on Sunday mornings, but that the body and blood of Christ are transformed on Tuesdays to be cinnamon toast and coffee. And on Thursdays and Saturdays, the body and blood of Christ becomes a bushel of carrots and a bottle of grapefruit juice. It’s not perfect, and we do not reach everyone. It’s how we help on a systematic scale. It’s how we help as many as we can on a weekly basis. We offer help to as many people as we can, and we should continue doing things like UPLift and Micah 6. We should continue offering our food and money to those who have neither. It is a good ministry that we should not forget about just because it is always there. But this passage is not about the 2300 homeless people in Austin or the one in four children who will go to bed hungry in the state of Texas. This passage is not about poor people in general. This passage is about Lazarus, a man with a name and a story. A man who sits on the drag with a can for change and a cardboard sign. A man who is not allowed to lay on the sidewalk. A man who has a dog that is more well-fed than he is. A man who wouldn’t mind if you just bought an extra meal at Pita Pit and gave it to him. A man who is a drug addict and cannot trust anyone anymore. A man who will end up at the emergency room at Seton Medical Center. A man who will die and be taken by the angels. A man whom we do not look up to, but a man that we should not look down upon. A man whose name means “God has helped,” and is waiting for that to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s not always practical to approach people on the street. I realize that. Three teenagers walked in from the street on Sandwich Thursday into the Fellowship Hall and I didn’t know what to do. I let them make a sandwich and they left. And I launched into a discussion with the campus students about how you can’t feed everyone and how if we left the doors open to our church, we would not have any money left for sandwiches. And I began to talk about those teenagers as though I knew what they would do and who they were. But, I don’t even know their names. It’s hard to be an urban church, but our location is a part of our calling. And, I wonder, if we practiced here how to be people of God out there, if we could get better at it. If we see the face of person here that we haven’t seen before and ask them about their name, about their story, even if we were afraid, maybe it would teach us how to bandage the infected wounds on Lazarus’ legs. And maybe if we were to try to invite someone in this congregation to our table at home it would be easier to offer bread and wine to Lazarus whose stomach is growling. And I wonder, if we were to look people in the eyes and honestly pass then the peace of Christ, wishing each other well on the journey this week, that we would see the eyes of Christ in Lazarus. I’m not sure if it would do any good, but Lazarus’ name means “God has helped,” and since God came not just as a Spirit but in flesh and bone and as bread and wine to help us understand who he is by what he did, we should probably do the same.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.