Monday, September 27, 2010

Connecting Names to Hunger

In today’s gospel Jesus offers us a challenging story. I’d like to offer a story of my own. Years ago a successful businessman was abducted, drugged, beaten, robbed and thrown out of a moving car into the doorway of an office building in New York City. He lay barely conscious on the sidewalk, his clothes in tatters, bruised, bloody and dirty. In NYC, it’s not notable to be lying on the sidewalk in tattered clothes and bleeding- he could’ve been just another drunk, or bum. It’s because someone saw this man thrown from a moving vehicle that the police were called and he survived. The person who called was not one of the many in business suits, who walked around him, but the immigrant street vendor. Lots of other well to do people walked right by him and through that door into their skyscraper. Help was just on the other side of the door, if only he could get there. There are many victims of such events- this man was my Dad. Putting a name to a face changes everything. And every face has a story.
In Lazarus’s story, he didn’t place himself at the gate. Literally, he "had been thrown before it." Many don’t get to that place by their own power. They’re tossed there by others. Whether the gate is a good thing or not depends upon your perspective. If you want to be blind to the Lazaruses at the gate, want to pretend all is well in a personally controlled environment, a gate is good. It’s the phenomenon a resident of the Rescue Mission where I worked called “eyes front.” But if you’ve been thrown there, a gate might as well be that chasm we hear of later between the rich man and Lazarus. Some who have found themselves thrown at the gate were once on the other side of it. Just ask someone now dealing with foreclosure because they lost their job, or had a catastrophic medical condition. They know that feeling of being thrown at the gate. So too do the children of the poor who are powerless to change the equation.

On a larger scale, many in our world struggle with illness, hunger and the threat of death, victims of larger forces, yet seemingly invisible to others. Though then and now, good people want to believe they must have brought it upon themselves. But we don’t hear why Lazarus was in the state he was in-perhaps because it isn’t important. What IS important is that he’s hungry and in need.
But I’m still speaking in the abstract- let’s focus our vision a little closer. Take a moment and picture in your mind what a hungry person looks like… If it’s only the stereotypical image of a homeless person in the inner city or a child in a third world country, it’s time to expand your image of that face. Hungry people also live in rural and suburban areas. They hold down jobs, own homes, and try to raise families. They might live in your neighborhood or work in your building. The number of people in poverty in 2009 (43.6 million) is the largest number in the 51 years according to US Census Data. Hunger is on the rise in Pennsylvania. For African Americans and Hispanic persons 1 in 4 live in poverty. 18% of Pennsylvania children live in poverty.

Nearly 1.2 million Pennsylvanians, almost 10% of our population, live in households at risk for hunger. That’s enough people to fill Penn State University’s football stadium nearly 12 times.

We don’t have to look far beyond the gate to see these faces. But if we do look farther, we’ll see that while a family in poverty in the US is one living on less than $54 a day, half the world’s people live on less than $2 a day. Globalization changes everything. In our world today, there are 8 million Lazaruses at the gate. Eight million people suffering unto death from diseases intensified by poverty like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and water borne illness. And tens of millions more whose struggles with these illnesses won’t lead to death, but will result in lost income, heavy debt burdens due to health care costs, interrupted education, homelessness, and social stigma.
And every single face has a name. Names like Donna, Angelo, Ster, Abdul and names like yours. Why do I say this? Because names put a human face on a statistic. We may be tempted to generalize “the rich” or “the poor” since so few of us belong to that category. Whenever we generalize people we find it is easy to say that “they” need to fix it, need to work harder. “They made their bed and they can lie in it” or “God helps those who help themselves”- which by the way are words NOT in the Bible. But we always pay more attention to things that affect us directly, to names we know. When we “know” someone we see their plight, and feel their concern because they are a part of us. We find ourselves opening the gate if you will to let them into our world. We find ourselves contemplating the question author Shane Claiborne asks, “What if Jesus really meant all that stuff?” What if it was our name?
The rich man wasn’t condemned for being rich, but for his indifference and uncaring attitude towards poor Lazarus right outside his door. His greatest fault throughout the story was that he never recognizes the humanity of Lazarus. In the entire time Lazarus sat at the gate of the rich man, and after death in the demands the rich man made, we never see him recognize the existence of Lazarus as another human being created in the image of God. This problem persists today while people die every day because they’re too poor to live, as climate change brings rising coastal waters, droughts destroy crop production in the world's most insecure areas. For decades now humanity has had the means for global destruction or global possibility. Our ability to confront these challenges is one of the great pressing issues of justice in our world today. That’s some pretty heavy stuff.
How can we who are living as those blessed by God respond to this call? The name "Lazarus" may be significant. It means "Helped by God". In the parable, Lazarus is a man who can do nothing for himself, who can't even keep the wild dogs from licking his sores. Yet both our gospel and our Psalm today lift up that God helps those who are in need- those who put their faith not in “help yourself” but in God. Those who stop relying upon government, or gate building to protect their way of living. Who remember that rulers after all are busy making a name for themselves-gathering for themselves. We can’t place our trust there.
Instead, happy and blessed are those who help is the God of Jacob. We have a God who desires to be involved and to help us. A God who then calls us to adjust our vision and tear down our gates, to live as those who proclaim we are “helped by God” and are liberated from putting our ultimate faith in ourselves. In this way, one writer suggests, wealth ... is not the proper object of your devotion, but a convincing way to demonstrate and live out to whom your devotion is truly offered.
We live in the center of wealth in this world, as residents of the world’s wealthiest nation. And we live as those blessed to have as the center of our living a God who enables us to live gratefully and with justice. This justice of our God presents a fundamental and radical challenge that is simple yet hard to realize: to recognize our common humanity with all God's children of this world. To believe that all of the faces around us and around God’s world deserve to have their humanity honored, to be comforted, and to live in abundance as children of God. When we do this, faces with a story will be connected to God’s story, to a God who really means it.

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