“Relationships are Everything”
26 March 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel Singapore
Anyone here familiar with Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series? Full of British humor it’s a funny take on the Sci-Fi genre where Earth is revealed to actually be the one supercomputer that can ask the ultimate question to which the answer is 42. An answer which was calculated by a supercomputer named Deep Thought after 7 and ½ million years. Unfortunately, Earth is destroyed to make way for a new space bypass. Sometimes we get so wrapped around the answer that when we find an answer we’re not sure what question or problem it is answering.
Today’s parable is a hard one to hear. Mainly because it hits close to home. One caution in hearing and processing this parable, be careful not to lose sight of what Jesus is getting at in this story.
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in apocalyptic imagery and the debate over if we are going to heaven like Lazarus or a hellish eternal suffering such as the rich man appears to have landed that we just can’t see past our own image of God. If we have an image of a vengeful and spiteful God who is focused on sorting out the winners from the losers as if spirituality and following Christ was some sort of competition, we’re going to see this story as a caution about not doing enough. From there we start to envision our salvation and relationship with Christ as one of karma or good works.
And we’ll miss the point not just of this parable but of the whole point of following Jesus and being a part of God’s peaceable kingdom.
During seminary, those undergoing the rigorous theological training to which we submit ourselves feebly try to boil the meaning of religion and faith down to easily digestible phrases. One friend of mine mentioned her take on the meaning of life and faith that has stuck with me ever since. Whenever she was asked the meaning of life, what our purpose in life was, or why did God send Christ to walk the earth and then die on a cross would always answer, “Relationships.”
A wise woman she is. The more I explore Scripture and what it is that Christ is asking of us, the more I know that Elizabeth is on to something with her one word response. So much so, I think the answer to life the universe and everything isn’t 42, but rather relationships.
And relationships, or the lack thereof, is what this parable is all about.
I don’t think the rich man is in his predicament because he is rich. He’s there because he didn’t even attempt to get to know his neighbor, especially the one that was literally on his doorstep in need of help. Not once in this story does the rich man directly address or speak to Lazarus. Not even to ask him to get out of his way or to vacate the property. The rich never acknowledged Lazarus. Even after they both are dead, he speaks only to Abraham. The rich man was so consumed and concerned by his own comfort and condition that he failed to notice the suffering not just around him, but the suffering right before him.
And that’s why this parable is so powerful. Because we all ignore the suffering around us. Sometimes the suffering is so obvious it’s easier to walk past it because we just don’t know where to begin. Sometimes the one suffering is making a scene or disrupting the social order so we just look down to avoid embarrassment. Maybe we don’t know what to say so we don’t even look at the person in the wheelchair at the MRT station trying to sell is tissue or the blind musician playing around town. And before you try to justify you actions or get defensive, know this we all have done it and will probably do these things in the future, including yours truly.
Being disturbed by suffering, overwhelmed by the scope of injustice, frozen in bewilderment of where to start or what to say is normal. In fact, it means we at least acknowledge the fact that suffering is staring us in the face. I doubt the rich man even noticed Lazarus, so we’re at least a baby step or two in front of him. However, just acknowledging suffering isn’t enough. Christ is telling us there is more to our calling than looking at suffering and thinking to ourselves, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
We are called to step into that suffering. But how?
The first step is to move from xenophobia, fear of the other, to philoxenia, love of the other. And it’s not easy. But a good first step is to seek to build a relationship with those we see as the other.
Before seminary when I was stationed in Hawaii, I attended First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu. One of the ministers there really strechted and challenged the congregation in how we saw and interacted with those much of America consider the other, the homeless. So a group of young adults started a new ministry to take sandwiches and, more importantly, conversation to the homeless on Friday nights. I was curious, so with not a small amount of trepidation and doubt, I volunteered to help out one Friday night. It changed my life.
The ministry wasn’t just to physically feed them, nor was the focus to bring them to Christ or evangelize those sleeping on the street. The sandwiches were the opening for us to get to know people society had forgotten and ignored. And I developed relationships with a few of them. We learned their life stories, their dreams, and eventually their needs. Because of these relationships, some of the homeless community began to regularly attend church. One even became a member of the prayer team. He became such a part of the church community that when he was gravely ill, members of the church ensured someone was at his bedside until he passed away.
Living in a high wealth country such as Singapore can lead us to believe that the need isn’t among us or that society will take care of all the needs. But, there is a need here, we just may need to open our vision slightly to see it. Perhaps we start by buying tissues from the travelling vendor at our favorite hawker center whether we need them or not. Before you know it, you’re in a mutually beneficial relationship where you are helping them and they are providing you much needed tissues to not just clean up after a delicious hawker meal, but guaranteeing you a seat to enjoy said meal.
Maybe you hire someone to help your business or around the house when you don’t necessarily need any help. You do it to give them dignity and a sense of worth or to provide an easier job for more money. And you get to know them and care for them asking what they need and learning about their life to further the relationship.
We decide to have meaningful conversations with those that come and clean our offices each week. Learning their names, asking about their families, listening to their stories.
For those who utilize amahs are they paid the minimum? Or are they paid a higher wage and taken care of in other ways. Do you get to know your amah and treat them as family and have a relationship with them where you know their story and needs and can help alleviate suffering and need when feasible.
Relationships are scary, can be full of uncertainty, leave us vulnerable. Yet, relationships also expand our world, broaden our vision, enrich our lives. Relationships with those who are other than us built out of philoxenia give us the knowledge and courage to tackle big things in small ways. When we personalize and care about people and their stories, we receive the courage to stand up against injustices to change systems that keep people down and thus live out God’s Kingdom.
If only the rich man had just once stopped and acknowledged Lazarus. He may not have been able to help Lazarus, but I do know that both of them would have been changed by the relationship and the world would have been better off. Let us use this Lenten season to develop and strengthen our relationships with those we consider the other.
Relationships don’t just matter, relationships are life, the universe, and everything.
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