St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Not Throwing Away My Shot”
Collect: O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
365 days ago today my wife got me a gift that I will never forget. We went to see Hamiliton in New York City. I had listened to the soundtrack countless times, but I remember the first time I heard the music, one song hit home. My Shot. [by Lin-Manuel Miranda, et al.]
I am not throwing away my shotI am not throwing away my shotYo, I'm just like my countryI'm young, scrappy and hungryAnd I'm not throwing away my shot...[My apologies for trying to rap.] But it is true. We get one shot at this life. That is it. A friend who believes in Reincarnation argued that point, but even then, I replied, “No matter what comes after, this is your only chance at this one!” This one precious, fleeting, wonderful life. I learned too early this truth.
At the age of 10 I made a decision to try and live this life without regret. I remember where I was, and what I was doing. And for the most part I have lived my life that way. For good or bad, but with as little regret as I could manage.
One of the founding ideas of our nation is that it is a truth we hold to be self-evident, that each and every one of us was created equal. Now we know that in giftedness, looks, and income that is obviously not true. So how is that self-evident? Opportunity. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. It explains. In other words, Don’t throw away your shot! We each have been given what we have been given, and it is the task of this life to do the best with what we have been given. The shorthand for that is, “You have been blessed to be a blessing.” A pseudonymous quote attributed to John Wesley that our Methodist sisters and brothers cherish puts it like this:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
Today’s Gospel brings this home so well. At each and every one of our doorsteps is an opportunity to do good. Across each and every one of paths we see a wounded soul. The Rich Man did not think that Lazarus was his problem. The Samaritan whom we call Good was not called to medical missions. But both of them found that God had gifted them with a moment to make the world a little bit better. One saw someone and said, “Not my problem.” One saw someone and knew he was his brother’s keeper.
Our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters put it this way, “Whoever saves a life saves the world.”-The Talmud [Or from the Qu’ran: “Whoever saves one life, it is written as if he has saved all humanity.” Same point.] Too often we look at a problem and we hold back because we think, “Why bother, it is just a drop in the bucket!” But friends, what is a bucket, or a puddle, or a lake, or a river, or AN OCEAN if not a gathering of drops. It is not that we see ourselves as too important, but rather we see ourselves as too weak. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” [Ps. 139:14] and “made a little bit lower than the angels” [Ps 8:5 & Hebrews 2:7]. Our drops are what makes the world go round. The raindrop does not bemoan how little it is, it cries out with the cloud full of raindrops, “Let’s do this!” and a storm is born.
Looking at the Gospel reading for the day, and we see a man of privilege, who has the opportunity to feast daily, finds himself crossed over into eternity to eternal torment. And even then he attempts to remain in his place of privilege.
- Notice, he does not appeal to Lazarus whom he knew and ignored in life, but rather directly goes to Father Abraham, thinking he has that right…
- Notice, he assumes that someone can and will respond to his commands, wishes, and whims still, just like they did in life…
- Notice, he believes his brothers are deserving of being given another chance…
Privilege is something that is highlighted more and more into our consciousness. And we will be dealing with that for decades, maybe centuries, and deservedly so. And it has been that way since before Jesus told this story 2,000 years ago.
Now this is a parable, a rabbinical story Jesus retells and reinterprets to make a point. Luke is a master of reminding his reader that Jesus came to pronounce Good News to the poor. And here they receive it. They will not be ignored. Their suffering is not in vain.
In the privileged Rich Man’s life, we learn that he had been warned, and that he should not be surprised by his predicament. At the end of the story, Jesus drops this nugget, “‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ [The Rich Man] said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Now as followers of the Resurrected Storyteller, we see a shocking post facto allusion. Jesus being the one who testified after rising from the dead. But he makes it clear, following the Way of God has already been given to us. We have Moses and the prophets. At another place Jesus promises those who follow him:
“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” From the Sermon on the Mount.” [Matthew 5:18]And when Jesus told us the greatest commandment, Love God with everything, and your neighbor as yourself. He assures us: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 22:40] We have been told, and afforded the opportunity to repent. Let them who have ears, let them hear.
We have been told. We have no excuse. The Rich Man, you, me. All of us have been told. C.S. Lewis even accounts our sense of right and wrong, however we define them, to our being molded to be in relationship with God. Without that we could not be accountable to God’s right and wrong. [Mere Christianity]
All that being said, the Rich Man was warned. He did not listen. Father Abraham said that his brothers would not listen, even to someone Resurrected.
That is not the only irony in this story, notice that the man of note, the Rich Man, is not given a name. In older translations, he is called Dives, which is just the Greek form of Rich Man. The person who we would normally name, the “important” person is unnamed, and the beggar is. Lazarus, not to be confused with the friend of Jesus who died and came back in the Gospel of John, Lazarus is the hellenized version of Elazar, meaning “God has helped.” The beggar with open sores being licked by dogs is called “God has helped.” Jesus being a master storyteller, this irony could not have been accidental. His original listeners would have caught it, and it would not have been lost on them.
Change, repentance, metanoia, transforming our mind is something that draws us to Church, but we all know that Change is hard, and some would say, impossible.
When Stephanie and I were in graduate school together, we were told one simple and clear thing. “Past performance is the best indicator of future behavior.” We all can hope and wish and pray for change, but when all is said and done inertia is what rules the day.
Inertia is that term from physics where whatever you are doing you will tend to keep doing unless acted upon by an outside force. At rest, you tend to stay at rest. In motion, you tend to stay in motion. Inertia comes out in how we live our lives, too.
We all fight, buck, or avoid change. Even when we want to change, old habits are hard to break. Try losing weight, or keeping your New Year’s Resolutions. Again, that phrase that they drilled in our heads went this way: “Past performance is the best indicator of future behavior.” Lazy bums tend to be lazy bums. People of action cannot stop being people of action.
Now the point Jesus is telling all of us, though, is that Change is possible. Jesus knew that inertia traps us in the human experience, and in this parable the human soul. Our inertia is something that needs the effect of an outside force. And, I believe, friends, that is what Jesus was and who he is. That outside force that can affect change.
Biblical scholar Robert McLellan said of this story, “God does not equate riches with lasting value. Neither does God equate poverty with faithfulness, for doing so would make God’s grace dependent on human action.” (Robert McLellan, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Vol. 2)[And therefore no longer Grace.]
But we are given what we are given. Those faithful in the little that they have been given, like Lazarus, and those who have been faithful in a lot, like the Rich Man could have been, that is what we are called to do and who we are called to be.
This is a big day for me. Today is a big day for each of us. Each and every day is a big day for me. Today is the only chance I have to live this day. Every day is once in a lifetime. How I live it is the my shot. Will I take it? Or will I not reach for the brass ring as I go by? I close with the words of the poet Mary Oliver, who passed this year.
The Summer DayWho made the world?Who made the swan, and the black bear?Who made the grasshopper?This grasshopper, I mean-the one who has flung herself out of the grass,the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.I don't know exactly what a prayer is.I do know how to pay attention, how to fall downinto the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,which is what I have been doing all day.Tell me, what else should I have done?Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?Tell me, what is it you plan to dowith your one wild and precious life?—Mary Oliver