On Where We Meet the World and How We Mind Our Gate
September 25, 2022
Amos 5: 4, 12-15
For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel: Seek me and live;
For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins –you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time.
Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Luke 16: 19-31
‘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.”’
Today’s sermon is titled On Where We Meet the World and How We Mind Our Gate.
On Monday this past week I drove north to spend a few days with 40 other UCC clergy that serve all over the state of New Hampshire. We met at the Marie Joseph Spiritual Center where I also take my personal retreats in the month of August each year. I’ve befriended one of the nuns there; her name is Cecile. I found Cecile on Monday afternoon not long after I arrived. It was raining and she was sitting on the covered porch reading. I went to speak with her and she quickly put her book away but there was something about the colors and patterns on the cover that caught my eye. They seemed familiar. I should say here that I read one or, at the most, two novels a year because both work and school require so much research, so I am not very familiar with many books but I was quite certain the book she held was one I had read. Our conversation eventually came around to a place where I could ask what she had been reading. She retrieved the book and passed it to me. It was one of the few books I have read. It’s title is All the Light We Can Not See. A Friend had loaned me the book in the first year of the pandemic and I had read it while there at the spiritual center, on retreat in 2020. It is an epic story of a young blind girl navigating the perils of war and greed in the 1940s…all the light we can not see. There is something deeply stirring about that title. It is ominous and yet promising. All the light we can not see. There is so much light, so much goodness and kindness, hidden in among the injustice, conflict and strife that we are met with on a daily basis, wherever it is that we meet the world. There is light to be found in the eyes and hearts of all people if we take the time and effort to look and to see.
In the parable we are offered today from the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus describes a man who sees the light too late. The man is nameless; he could have been any number of people then or now. What we know about him is that he appears to live in abundance while a leper, by the name of Lazarus, waits at the gate “longing” the scriptures say, “to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” When both men die, Lazarus is carried immediately to heaven and the nameless man is “tormented in Hades.” Here I am obliged to interject that Jesus did not use the word “Hades” or “hell.” Jesus did not speak Greek. Jesus would have used the word “Sheol” which is translated as “the grave or the pit.” In Jewish tradition, Sheol is a stopping point for souls after death where they work through the sins of life but all souls eventually pass on from Sheol. It is here in Sheol that the nameless man experiences the cost of not minding his gate, of not helping the leper who crouched there, longing for crumbs. The man desperately wants for his family to be warned so they can change their ways before it’s too late, but his request is denied. He is told, “They have the words of the prophets and still they do not listen.”
This story is nearly two thousand years old and the words we heard today, from the prophet Amos, date back three thousand years ago. The prophet has words of reprimand for the Hebrew people of his day, but they could be words of reprimand for that nameless man in Sheol and words of reprimand for us today. I imagine the prophet Amos shouted the following words when he said, “I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you…Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate.”
Establish justice in the gate. Three times in the scriptures today our attention is guided to a gate. I love the imagery of a gate. A gate is an opening in what is otherwise a barrier. A gate can provide or prevent entry, exit, and access. A gate is a thoroughfare, a place of passing in and out.
Let’s think of the gate as being wherever it is that we meet the world. Some of us meet the world as soon as we awake and interact with others in our household. Some of us meet the world when we answer the phone. Some meet the world through morning news on radio, television or computer. Some don’t meet the world until we go out to work or shop or run errands. Wherever it is that we meet the world, the message is to pay attention to those in our path. It is not up to any one of us to save the world and fix all the problems, but do not turn a blind eye or withdraw a helping hand or close off a loving heart to someone who is in our path.
In our more quiet moments, when we are not meeting the world with all of its complexities, we would be wise to look within and ask if someone might be waiting on the other side of the gate? Is there someone, or some group of people we have separated ourselves from? If so, are we still served in maintaining that boundary? Is there someone waiting by the gate to our hear? Is it someone longing for something….forgiveness perhaps? Is there some relationship that needs mending? Is there someone who would be uplifted and edified with a little of our love and attention?
Friends, we do not have to look too deep or too far or too wide but we should be paying close attention to what is right here, right now; pay attention to neighbors; pay close attention to issues of neighborhood, town, and state lest national interests completely eclipse them.
Here is an example. If I turn right out of my driveway, I eventually pass a house where new neighbors recently moved in and I keep meaning to stop by and at least introduce myself, but I keep just driving by. If I turn left out of my driveway, and go down the road aways, I pass the house of someone I do know, and I have not seen his car in his driveway for the past few days. I’m concerned about him, but obviously not concerned enough to put on the brakes and knock at the door.
“Mind the gate!” I hear the ancient voices say. Are the needy being pushed aside, right here in our own neighborhoods? Is the integrity of democracy being threatened in our own state? I think so! “Establish justice in the gate,” the prophet cries.
As we go about our lives from place to place along familiar byways, right here in the Monadnock region, how can we establish justice? I recall that the personification of justice is a woman, blindfolded, holding scales that are in a state of balance. The blindfold is key to the image. She can not see. She does not discriminate based on outward appearances. She did not discriminate on the basis of income or social standing, and neither did our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus looked for the light in each and every person, even if it was very dimly glowing.
There is so much light we can not see and there are so many reasons we can not see it. We are busy, we are set in our opinions, we are fearful, we are so apt to say “what if” instead of “why not.” “Establish justice in your gate,” the prophet Amos says. Wherever it is that we meet the world, may notice who we find there and may we bring honesty, fairness, and equanimity to each encounter. In doing so, we bring the kingdom of God, the reign of God, to earth. That was Jesus’s hope for humanity. That was the center of all his teaching and all his stories, ushering in a new way of being based on love.
In closing now, I lift up that at times like these when it feels as if the very fabric of humanity is unraveling, the scriptures remind us “Mind the gate!” Make a difference where and how we can, with senses tuned to all the light we can not see. It’s out there, among us, and within us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
God of All Things, you move through us at times like the light from a candle flame…gently, warmly, casting a golden glow of comfort and peace. At other times, we are cracked open, unexpectedly shaken, stripped of our comfort and complacency and thrust into a fiery awareness of human suffering that we would just as soon avoid. Through gentle flame and raging fires, and through depths of unfathomable darkness, you call to us in voices familiar and strange…sometimes whispering, sometimes urging, “Come home, come close.” Open our senses to hear your calling, Lord; empower us to care for ourselves…body, mind and spirit as befits a child of God. Help us, we pray, to feel deserving of such love. Turn us, Lord, continually back to you. This I ask in the name of Jesus, who gave us this prayer…
I leave you with these words from the prophet Amos:
“Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you” (always). Amen.