Pentecost 19 Traditional Sermon
William Willimon, professor at Duke Divinity School, writes this in his book, Remember Who You Are.
Back in high school, every Friday and Saturday night, as I was leaving home to go on a date, I remember my mother bidding me farewell at the front door with these weighty words, ‘Don’t forget who you are.’ “You knew what she meant. She did not mean that I was in danger of forgetting my name and street address. She meant that, alone on a date, in the midst of some party, in the presence of some strangers, I might forget who I was. I might lose sight of the values with which I had been raised, answer to some alien name, engage in some unaccustomed behavior. “Don’t forget who you are,” was her maternal benediction as I left home.”
You and I, of course, always know who we are right? … except when we don’t. I don’t have to worry about high school parties and dates anymore … but I do get “forgetful” about who I am in the car sometimes … and when I am under pressure … and when I am in the presence of that person who knows exactly what buttons to push so as to light up the flames of my anger. I don’t know what makes you forgetful about who you really are … But maybe it is jealousy of the next door neighbor who always has a newer car than you … Or the boss at work who makes your life miserable … Or the political figure who makes you nauseous just hearing her stump speech or seeing him standing at a podium in from of his cronies. We are all at risk of forgetting who we are occasionally. And at times like this, those who know you best, sometimes feel compelled to ask you today’s sermon question, “Who is the real you?”
In our story from Luke’s Gospel today, we have two main characters … well, besides Jesus (he knows exactly who he is, obviously). The one is a rich man dressed in fine clothes … the other, a poor man covered in sores. The one feasts like a king every day … the other scraping leftovers from the floor and the dogs. One has a name … the other does not. And therein lays our clue to the story. Because the character in our story who is given a name, is not the one we would expect. It is Lazarus, the pitiful beggar … the one who in fact remembers who he is … more on that a little later.
Now before you get all righteous on me, and turn Lazarus into one of those charming homeless people who show up in movies on the Hallmark Channel … just forget it … he’s not that guy. There is nothing charming about this man with the sores, whose only friends were the town mongrels. He is one thing, and one thing only … hopeless. But Jesus names him … Lazarus … the name may be symbolic, as it is a Greek form of the name Eleazer, which means “helped by God” … but the important piece here is that Lazarus is named. He has an identity … he is the one helped by God … and thus the name becomes a prophetic announcement about those in the world who cannot care for themselves. They are the ones God cares for.
But as we know from having read this familiar parable before, God is not the only one into whose hands these poor souls are entrusted. They are also entrusted into the hands of those who can help with some earthly sustenance. People like the rich man in our story. The man who has no name, because he has forgotten who he is … he has forgotten the responsibility of his wealth, and has focused only on the blessings it brought. Yes, this is also a bit of a stewardship parable, as it addresses the use of our wealth … just as it is a bit of a justice parable, in that it reminds us of our calling to feed the sick and clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned.
Once again, allow me to remind you not to get too righteous with this character in our story, too, because just as Lazarus was not the greatest guy in town, most likely our rich man wasn’t the awful individual that we like to portray him to be, either. He seems to have been a Jew, so he probably worships most weeks. He gives to the poor … he volunteers at the homeless shelter in town … he is a good father, a faithful husband, and a wonderful neighbor … he is his office coordinator for the United Way … he coaches his daughter’s softball team … and he buys cookies each year at our Cookie Walk. Yes, he is not such a bad guy … because he is you and me and the person sitting down the pew from you. He is a stand up guy … who tries to do the right thing … and serves where he can. So maybe he goes out to dinner at the Newsroom a little too often, and has a few too many drinks at Annie Bailey’s. But he’s a good giver … and takes his turn on Council when it comes up … and tries to sing the hymns in church, even the ones he doesn’t know so well. His problem? … he has forgotten who he is. He has forgotten that his good deeds are always about more than just checking off the boxes. They are an expression of the faith that is within us. They are not acts of obligation, but choices made out of love for all the “others” in our lives, whether they are Lazarus, or Pete from the golf course. They are acts that remind you, “Who the real you is,” just as they remind me, “Who the real me is.”
Sometimes we forget, don’t we? We get so caught up in all the acts and deeds that are part of the drama of our lives, that we forget to remember the Creator who has set this drama in motion, the Savior who is the real star of the show, and the Holy Spirit who gives life and vitality and meaning to the story. Who is the real you? … it is the you that God has fashioned, and the you into whose hands, God has placed a ridiculous abundance of riches, from the people in your life, to the world in which you live, to the talents and skills you use every day, to the dollars in your pocket. The judgment upon the rich man in our parable is that he forgot all that … he forgot the most important thing about being the person God made him to be … namely that he was in fact, God’s person, and not accountable solely to himself.
It is a harsh parable in some ways, to be sure. Because the judgment that hovers around the rich man’s head, hovers around our heads, too. You are never far from forgetting who the real you is that God created … nor am I. It is the presence of sin in our lives that wants to turn your mind to something else … something easy … something pleasing … something that is admittedly a little selfish. Something that wants to lull you into forgetting who God has made you to be, as a steward and a servant and a worshiper, and a companion to those who cross the paths of your life. “The real you” … that is the battle that goes on in the world of your life … who will answer that question, and in what way.
Yes, it is a harsh parable, but not as hopeless parable. Because in fact, as people whose real identity is as the children of Christ, we are not already living on the far side of the chasm with the rich man in our story today. We are not lost causes or hopeless cases. We are in fact the brothers in the story that the rich man is so concerned about. We have the testimony of Moses and the prophets … and we are those who are convinced that someone has risen from the dead. Not Lazarus, of course … but the one who named Lazarus for us. The one who names you and me. The one who knows who is the real you and the real me.
That Jesus … that Savior … that one who continues to tell the world his story through the Bible … and through our hymns … and through the witness of the children of God … and through the Sacraments and holy rites of the Church … and through the acts that the children of God do in Jesus’ name … and through the prayers lifted up on behalf of others … and through the gifts of time, talent and treasure that we offer back to God …. Yes, that Jesus has given you a name … it is Lazarus … the one who God helps. It may sound like Cindy or Pete or Tom or Jane or Haley or Robert or Methuselah … but at its core, it is Lazarus … the one God helps. And (we dare to say with confidence), the one who God saves.
So as you leave today, and go to wherever the next event is that calls to you…. Don’t forget who you are. Amen.