Monday, September 30, 2013

The Aisles Must Have Room for Stretchers and Crutches

Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2013

Something kind of jumped out at me as I read this parable of the rich man and Lazarus in preparation for this weekend: the rich man knew Lazarus’ name and he recognized him, even across the great abyss between heaven and hell.

This fact brings up all kinds of questions.  How many times did he pass Lazarus at that gate?  How often did he see him?  He had learned his name...  Maybe he felt pity for him, maybe he felt bad walking past him.  Maybe he didn’t like to look at him – perhaps he resented the fact that it was his gate that Lazarus had chosen for his spot to beg.

This parable brings to the foreground so many questions about social responsibility, about what it means to love our neighbor.

Christ has told us that whatever we do for the least, we do for him.  And the inverse is true as well, whatever we have not done for the least, we have not done for him.

How can we not take this parable very seriously?  There are beggars on the side of the street that we drive by each day.  There are struggling families here in our community that are dealing with all kinds of issues, from substance abuse problems to mental health issues to deeper spiritual issues.  Maybe some of us live in these situations ourselves, but by and large I have noticed that most of you who come to Mass on Sunday seem to be pretty put together: well fed, well dressed, and by and large socially main stream.  Or you dress up nice, anyway.  But it doesn’t take but a quick drive through the downtown of Augusta to realize that that’s not everyone in our community, is it?

Now the Catholic Church in this country has traditionally been the church of the poor, the church of the immigrant.  All of the old churches – people talk about how today they are in the bad parts of town – well they were always in the bad parts of town because that is where the Catholics lived.  They wouldn’t let us build the Catholic Churches in the good parts of town – I remember reading in Bangor they refused to let them build downtown because they didn’t want drunk Irishmen laying in the gutters and carousing in the streets.  Catholics were not considered to be polite society in the mid-1800s.  We were the ruffians, the riff raff.

But that’s not the case today, is it?  In the 70s and 80s we started building our churches in these suburban neighborhoods, where Catholics were now living.  After the GI bill, Kennedy and Fulton Sheen, Catholics had integrated into mainstream America and were now living the American dream.  And by and large this is still the Church that we have in Maine – it’s different in other parts of the country where there are large Hispanic or other Ethnic populations, but here I would say that our experience of Catholic life is decidedly middle class.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being middle class.  But we need to take a look at this parable, don’t we?  Do people who are poor or living in dysfunctional situations feel like they can come here?  When they look at our churches, when they see us drive into our parking lots and enter these doors, what do they think of all of this?  Do they feel like they could walk in with us?

The parish office is on the top of sand hill.  That’s a rough neighborhood.  There are a lot of Lazaruses there – I can hear them out my window – they have mouths like sailors.  Christ has told us that we cannot be indifferent to our brothers and sisters who are suffering or who are in difficulty.  We cannot just pass them by on our way to church, feeling sorry for them.

In recent years we have professionalized our outreach to the poor, sending those who are suffering to institutions where people are paid to care.  And many of us support these ministries with a check, and that is important because many of them do work that we could not do, but can a referral to a social service agency, whether it be Catholic or state run, really satisfy our duty to the poor among us?  I don’t think so.  You cannot delegate compassion.  Our duty to Lazarus is personal, it is about dignity, it is about whether we acknowledge the humanity of the poor and afflicted or whether we pass them by.   Christ is clear: our parish, our Church must be a place of refuge for those who suffer and are afflicted: we ourselves must be a source of help and encouragement to the Lazaruses of our day.

Pope Francis in the recent interview that caused a big stir put it this way: our Church, the parish, must be like a field hospital: a place where those who are suffering, who are injured, who are addicted or who are tormented, can find the healing and redemption and the encounter with Christ that they seek.  The church cannot be our private club, he said, the place where only those who have their lives in order feel welcome. The Aisles of our churches must always have room for stretchers and crutches.

What does that mean for you and I?  I’m not sure.  Many of us are older.  It’s not as if we can just walk into a poor neighborhood and start ministering to those in need.  And I am not convinced that those who are poor in our community need our money or our handouts to begin with.  Our government is pretty good about providing basic care.  The issues that really are harming people, the issues that are really afflicting them in our time are spiritual in nature.  So many Lazaruses today are afflicted with broken families, mental health issues, addictions, sinful habits, and an immense spiritual poverty.  They need Christ.  They need compassion, love, and a home where they can encounter God – a community that cares about them, cares about helping them to find God and find happiness – that sees in them the face of Christ and treats them with dignity.

A first step for all of us I think must be interior: that we work to see the face of Christ in Lazarus, to leave behind any sense of superiority, distain, prejudice, animosity, judgementalism, or indifference.  And we should pray for the courage and the strength to reach out to Lazarus with compassion and without fear.  Just this prayer alone will accomplish incredible wonders in our community if we take it seriously.

And as we go about this interior work, there are some exterior steps we can take too.  Maybe we work to leave the comfort of our homes more often, to simply go to the gates of our society and spend time there - prioritize being a part of our community.  Many of us do not even know Lazarus’ name.  We are in worse shape than the rich man in the Gospel.  At least he took the time to know the man’s name.  Who are your neighbors?  Who are your co-workers?  Who are the people struggling at the gates of our town?
I am convinced that if we pray and place ourselves at the gate, Christ to show us how to approach the Lazaruses of our community, how to show them that our spiritual home, our church, is also their home, their church.  To tell them about how Christ has come to heal the broken, to save what is lost.  To explain to them that Christ’s merciful love is the only reason we are all here – because in one way or another we are all Lazarus.

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