Friday, October 25, 2013

Grateful for the Word

Scripture for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; II Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

This will be a sermon about gratitude, because I have two fresh and rewarding experiences as a preacher that I’m still unpacking. And, yes, this should be a sermon about gratitude because that spiritual power pulses like the heartbeat of Luke’s little story.

I have never worked as hard on a sermon as one which required me to write and deliver just half of it. That may sound cryptic, though some of you know that I’m talking about a gig Diana and I shared, a week ago yesterday in Brooklyn, where The Rev. John Denaro was installed (“instituted”, in the language of the Prayer Book; we secretly called it John’s coronation) as Rector of St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Parish in Brooklyn Heights.

Etched in our memories is an evening at Spice Root where, at dinner with John and Joel, John invited both Diana and me to be the preachers at his service, in one sermon. In forty years of parish ministry, we’d never heard that request before. The invitation, he said, reflected the nature of his friendship with us both; of course, we were touched… and instantly challenged to imagine the outcome. How would we construct a shared sermon? Whose role would it be to do what?

Let me tell you what we did. In two long conversations with John, one by phone and one over another meal, we took notes on all that it meant to him to receive and accept this call to serve a congregation that in several real senses has risen from the ashes. The yoked names of the parish suggest a merger in the past, and a church merger requires passing through the refiner’s fire. The thumbnail version is that the St. Ann’s buildings had been sold and Holy Trinity’s massive facilities came to house both congregations—until disaster struck, not in the form of a fire (as you might expect from the story line) but a prolonged and nasty conflict around leadership, which shuttered the place for years. Until 9/11, when remaining parishioners threw open the doors of the church as a relief center. Out of the ashes of that devastation, the parish began to reform itself.

So here is what we did with our sermon. We opened with repartee that had fun with the question of what a rector is called to do, playing with the questionable assertion that a rector is the parish’s CEO. In John’s case, we wondered if that might mean Chief Entrepreneurial Officer, or Chief Entertainment Organizer (both fit him well, but that last one drew both laughter and applause).

Then I sketched some major themes of John’s vision for the parish’s outreach to its wider community: “Connect with need” is his mantra.

Diana then had a heart to heart with Joel, offering perspective on being the rector’s partner. You may recall that when a priest is instituted as Rector, parishioners present objects that symbolize their shared ministry. Diana selected a few choice objects for Joel, including a roll of duct tape for when he might want to let it rip but knows he shouldn’t, to be placed over mouth, then breathe through nose until calm.

A verse of Psalm 37, sung that afternoon, reminded us to trust God. “In doing so,” Diana said to Joel, “you will be a grounded and steady refuge for John. Your heart’s desire in safeguarding the happiness and security of your personal relationship will also safeguard the happiness and security of this parish,” she said. Watching her high in that pulpit, hearing these words, I felt such gratitude for her and for the truth she was describing.

Then we brought you into the sermon. John had suggested to us that we talk about some of the ways in which St. John’s reaches out to its wider community. He implied that he’d like to import some of those to Brooklyn. I sketched our valuing the presence and ministry of college students, our experimentation with worship, our longstanding commitment to invest 10% of our pledged income (over and above diocesan assessment) in outreach beyond St. John’s, and from there it was a natural segue into our annual medical mission trip to Latin America.

Diana then carried the ball of arts and music, focusing especially on ways we invite parishioners and guests to use these physical spaces to feed the spirit, including art shows and the creation of contemporary Lenten stations of the Cross. We know John’s keen on projects like these. She then described the stunning phoenixes of the Chinese artist Xu Bing, still (briefly) on display at MassMoCA, utilizing debris and broken bits and artefacts from the controversial demolition of hutong neighborhoods in Beijing, in her words, “each piece informing, supporting, and complementing all the other pieces into a whole that is overwhelmingly larger than life—just what a parish is called to do for itself and for the world.”

Finally, each of us issued a charge of Godly advice, I to John and Diana to his congregation, including his family and friends. Diana reminded them that installing a rector is not a spectator sport, but a team commitment to give him what he needs to do what they have charged him to do, learning to think from the perspective of abundance, not scarcity.

I urged John to recognize that each of his tasks, especially the pesky ones, is opportunity to honor the incarnation of God in human flesh; at the same time, that he must keep sharp his skill at discerning whether it is his hand needed on the plow, or someone else’s. I also urged him, as he institutes what is new, to get his people to clarify what already constitutes the genius of their parish, so that both old and new are treasured and fulfilled. That echoed a Gospel reading, earlier in the service, to the effect that training for heaven requires a stewardship that values and uses both the old and the new.

I said there are two recent experiences in preaching that prompt my gratitude, because each seems to have gone well. The second requires us to relocate to the activities room at Williamstown Commons, where I lead a monthly eucharist. In recent months, I’ve come away from such services feeling as if I were bombing, just not connecting with residents. My hunch: that I needed to prepare, whereas the fact is that it’s hard finding time to do that for the three monthly services I lead in area facilities.

So, last Wednesday morning, at morning prayer and on my way over to the nursing home, I found myself praying, “Help me find, help me give.” What I hadn’t noticed was that I was leaving the office a few minutes earlier than I usually give myself to drive there, which allowed me to set the table, sit down and stop moving about, and say hello to people as they entered. A bunch of little things seemed to be conspiring to help me see and hear, find and give.

For one, I chose to remain seated for the first half of the service. Each person in that circle was in a wheelchair, so remaining in my chair allowed eye contact in a fresh way—such a simple choice I’d either not noticed or forgotten. It also suggested conversing, rather than conducting, and that relaxed me to hold this Gospel we have heard today with a more open hand.

We decided, those residents and I, that the other nine people in the story made a beeline to Dunkin Donuts. After all those days, months, years of separation from the community—living outside the town, crying out “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever anyone approached them—they were ready for whatever constituted normalcy.

Jesus’s charge to show themselves to the priests probably could have gone unsaid—or gets said for our benefit—for they knew well that only the priests could issue them the equivalent of a green card, a certificate of healing that would allow them to work and to live in town.

What is clear is how important this story is as a sign of the power of God’s kingdom. And what is so significant is its message that God’s mercy, God’s grace, can be recognized for what it really is only by gratitude. Not that God is limited to heal only people who know what’s happening to them, who know what accounts for their healing. No, God works healing far more generously than we can explain: embedded in the wondrous organism that emerges from a mother’s womb are capacities to heal and repair, to resist and overcome infection—to the extent that we may take healing for granted. Nine out of ten do, it would seem.

All ten people are suffering from leprosy, perhaps especially its social isolation, its endless shaming and alienation. They seem to raise one united chorus of voices as they call across the vast gulf, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Later, just one solo voice is heard to praise God. And though all ten got what they wanted, only this one receives more than he had dreamed of asking for: the priests have certified the others healed and fit to return to work and to community, but this one receives Jesus’s declaration of salvation.

The story emphasizes its own surprise: This man is not a member of the established church of his day. Jesus calls him a foreigner, marveling at his faith, expressed through gratitude. Southern Baptist bible scholar R. Alan Culpepper puts it this way: “Ten were healed, but only one recognized the healing for what it was. Is healing simply the natural process of nature or a sign of God’s love? In retrospect, are the opportunities and experiences that prepare one for greater challenges simply chance or evidence of God’s providence? Who can fathom the ways in which God works in human experience?”

Today, we bring Cecilia and Francisco to the font. What will happen there? I mean, what beyond their receiving certificates of baptism. For what good, and to what end, is their baptism?

So that they will begin-- surrounded, aided, supported-- the spiritual tasks of recognition: recognizing in their own experience the love of God. Perceiving deeper meaning in what moves within and around them. Seeing the need of others, as Jesus sees, even at a great distance. Finding faith in its purest form, gratitude. Giving thanks, giving attention, giving awareness. Receiving Jesus’s declaration of salvation. Realizing opportunity to become the blessing of God.

At the Institution of a Rector

A Sermon in Two Voices
at the Institution of The Rev. John Edward Denaro
as Rector of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Parish, Brooklyn, New York
5 October 2013
The Rev. Peter Elvin (voice A) and Ms. Diana Elvin (voice B)

A: So what do you think about John stepping from Priest-in-Charge to Rector?
B: Out of the frying pan into the fire?

A: Priest-in-Charge sounds so powerful: does anyone ever say a Rector’s in
B: Not that I recall. Priest-in-Charge sounds hierarchical, almost militant.
“Rector” seems so well-behaved, vaguely academic, Trollopian…

A: The dictionary says its root is the past participle of the Latin “regere”, to rule..
B: Who knew? But don’t they call this a service of Institution? Is John
becoming an institution?

A: And is that supposed to sound powerful? Sounds more like something
powerful happens to him…
B: Let’s hope it’s not like when the White Witch in Narnia turns a creature
to stone…

A: Or even worse: makes him a Chief Executive Officer…
B: Is that what a Rector is? A CEO?

A: Are we sure that’s not Chief Entrepreneurial Officer?
B: That’s John. Or Chief Entertainment Organizer?

A: You heard about that Barn Dance? There won’t be many dull moments
around here…
B: Or Chief Ecumenical Operator? John’s sharp on interfaith dynamics.

A: How about Church Environment Overseer?
B: John certainly values the dynamics of group and community values. He’ll
model well.

Voice A

Because he leads by example. How long does it take a total stranger to discover that John enjoys people? Has a playful sense of humor? That he has bright, inspiring energy (the kind that makes us ask, ‘Where does he keep getting it?’)? And that he respects people, appreciates the privilege of the pastoral union, and gets the concepts of team building and leadership?

Ask John, and he’ll say that the teamwork enjoyed here manifests the energy of the laity (and, I’m sure he would add, the talents of his committed staff members). But the fact that we’re all here today says that your energy and John’s energy make good chemistry together. There’s so much to celebrate, that both you-the-people and he-the-priest (as well as he-the-bishop) feel so ready to upgrade this relationship and render it longterm. “People here are so good, so open-hearted and responsive,” John tells us. And, you know, that describes John, too. Like wise Solomon in our first reading, John listens to Lady Wisdom, learns without guile and imparts without grudging.

John’s aim is to see that you see your own strength as a community in Christ. Wisely, John knows that you and God already have a good thing going; that he is to deepen, strengthen, help God evolve and harvest that good. And speaking of strength, the spiritual organism of this parish has proven itself versatile in its many adaptations in its history, a real Comeback Kid, familiar with change and death and resurrection and amazing grace.

John speaks of downtown Brooklyn as the Crossroads to Everywhere. Even we in the Berkshires know that Brooklyn is more than a happening place: Everyone wants to live in Brooklyn, “The Coolest City on the Planet”! Consider the dynamism around you in this boomtown. Conversion, even if its common reference is housing, conversion is a ready-made concept for use here in Brooklyn! We hear that in the market for homes, there’s a keen appetite for homes with a past, places that exude history. St. Matthew’s language comes alive here in a real Brooklyn way: if training for the kingdom of heaven requires valuing what is old and what is new—this is a dynamic you know about. And here we are in a holy house redolent with history, situated to embrace and help play is role in the renewal of community all around you.

In the dynamic mix of old and new, the old is on display in our liturgy (and its setting), yet requires the new to connect us to the world. The old is treasured and taught in our “family values” of those Holy Habits your Bishop made the compass of his creative ministry in the Diocese of WMA, and I’m sure he’s teaching them here, too: Personal prayer, Bible reading, generous stewardship, weekly eucharist, sharing your faith, service in outreach—habits that help us engage with the living God who uses these very commitments to strengthen us in love that is new every morning.

John’s dream for this parish is that you connect effectively with your wider community, extending and expressing your mission beyond these walls. John cites your 10th anniversary 9/11 observance as a rich example of your outreach, and even though I’ll bet John was much engaged, he makes it clear that that was you caring for your neighbors. As commercial and residential expansion and gentrification sweep through your neighborhoods, what shapes will your caring for neighbors take?

When John looks at these impressive but demanding buildings, he knows they have a mission, that they are alive with possibility, and sees what he calls “a community commons”, a place for all, a venue for considering what world it is you occupy, and how you and your neighbors thrive—or do not thrive—in that world. “Connecting to need” is his mantra. You’re doing it, through your monthly outreach mitzvah projects, and your Sunday sandwich program.

There is a fire in John’s belly, and there is a fire in yours. Watch out, Brooklyn, for we are here today to celebrate countless ways, some known and many more not yet, in which you will honor that flame of love, let it shine, let it draw people to you, let it warm hearts and wills.

Voice B

Joel, as Peter and I considered your participation in this day, we realized that the words John chose from Psalm 37 are a good guide for both of you: “Take delight in the LORD, and he shall give you your heart’s desire. Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass.”

This day formally celebrates a new relationship between John and this congregation, but we all need to remember that John is John because you are you. If you are like most of the other life partners of clergy I know, you will be happy to cruise just under the radar, breaking the surface every so often in your own unique way, but your role is not to be diminished: your role is not to be diminished, and you are not to be diminished.

Clergy households have to balance on a tightrope: you will probably know much more than you will ever be able to do anything about directly, because you won’t be involved directly. You will witness what’s going on in the parish, and you will live with John’s professional challenges and opportunities but, as the saying goes about the traditional mother-of-the-groom, you may have to “smile, wear beige, and keep your mouth shut” more often than not. From time to time, you may feel like a man without a parish, or perhaps I should say, a man without this parish. That’s OK. It’s still worth it.

You are a person of integrity. You are intelligent and kind. Your moral compass points True North. You welcome and enjoy people of all kinds. You know how to play and how to play into the human condition.

I don’t think you’ll have any trouble doing what the Psalmist instructs and trusting this parish and trusting God. And in doing so, you will be a grounded and steady refuge for John. Your heart’s desire in safeguarding the happiness and security of your personal relationship will also safeguard the happiness and security of this parish.

But just in case you need reminding, I have a couple of “symbols of institution” for you, too:

• You already have the magic wand I gave to you when John was called to be interim priest. Don’t forget that contains unlimited wishes. Be careful what you wish for…
• Next, a roll of duct tape (when you just want to let it rip but know you shouldn’t). Place over mouth and breathe through nose until calm.
• Next, a stick of insect repellent, to try to ward off the occasional sting or bite from people who may slide down the evolutionary scale to release their inner arthropod, from time to time.
• And finally, anytime you want it, an infusion of joy (or at least perspective) from me to you that will remind you over and over how fortunate you are to be in this whackadoodle, exhausting, privileged position along with John.

Voice A

John, am I divulging classified information if I say that some of your very best sermons are written in Williamstown, at your branch office, Tunnel City Coffee? If we were just a little smarter, maybe we’d figure out a way to do sermon sharing…

My point is that for years now, John and Joel have been part of the community of St. John’s, Williamstown. When John asked the two of us to preach, he suggested that even though our two parishes have very different contexts for ministry, there are some patterns of outreach at St. John ‘s that he wouldn’t mind importing to Brooklyn.

But first, our setting at St. John’s. Our 1895 stone building is perhaps one-quarter the size of yours here, and decidedly rustic by comparison. We’re situated at the heart of the campus of Williams College, in a town of 8,000 and a whole lot of gorgeous bucolic greenspace.

It’s our great fortune at St. John’s that we enjoy all the generations, in part because of where we’re set, in part because our parish (spearheaded by members who are faculty, staff, or alums) has a passionate appetite for welcoming students both to worship and to lay ministry.

We employ a halftime youth minister, we experiment (a lot) in worship (both the parish eucharist and alternative services for families and kids) and are committed to breaking the sound barrier. I mean the one that either keeps families with preschoolers from feeling at home, or ensures that they will feel welcome.

For 35 years, we’ve taken 10% of our pledged income and aimed it outwards in support of many mission partners (local, national, global). This voluntary commitment beyond our assessment has helped save us from our more anxious selves, kept our eyes on the prize, and made its impact on parish culture.

All but one of the past 12 summers, an intergenerational medical mission trip to Latin America has staffed and supported surgical and dental clinics in under-served places, gotten missioners doing things they never imagined doing, and spawned a few careers in medicine and public health, and—the other side of the blessing-- acts like leaven in the parish.

Voice B

John has expressed admiration for our Williamstown parish’s emphasis on ministry through the arts. It is a ministry of art, music, and performance that features talented parishioners as well as invited guests to use our physical spaces to enhance the spirit through outreach to the community and deepening relationships within the parish family. I know that John looks at the talent in this place and has similar hopes for St. Anne’s and Holy Trinity.

In thinking of how to describe the exponential benefits of the concept, I am reminded of the Chinese artist Xu Bing whose “Phoenix” exhibition has been on display at our local Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Xu Bing has constructed two enormous phoenixes, one male and one female, that hang 20 feet in the air in a football-field sized gallery. Each one weighs 12 tons and is about 100 feet long from nose to tail feathers. They are constructed out of debris from politically controversial construction sites in Beijing: shovels, gates, hoses, motor housings, hard hats, steel beams, canisters, rusted saws, twisted pieces of metal, concrete slabs, whirly-gigs, and so on. The art is partly a political statement about the demolition of historic hutong neighborhoods that left hundreds of people homeless. Left alone on the ground, the debris and broken bits are nothing but junk. But Xu Bing’s phoenixes rise from rubble into a cohesive whole, outlined in hundreds of tiny LED lights, each piece informing, supporting, and complementing all the other pieces into a whole that is overwhelmingly larger than life—just what a parish is called to do for itself and for the world. Just what this parish has the capacity to do. Consider the passage from Matthew that we heard today:
“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Xu Bing’s phoenixes are scheduled to move from Mass MoCA to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine here in New York, if engineers can figure out how to suspend 24 tons from the rafters. I hope every one of you can experience the impact of that art in a sacred space. It will inspire you.

At our parish, we have a special events coordinator on the staff, himself a composer and instrumentalist. Jimmy coordinates and oversees art shows that can be hung in the church itself or in two parlors newly renovated to accommodate gallery space. For several years now, lining the interior windows of the church nave, we have installed unique and contemporary Stations of the Cross created for Lenten meditations—each year artists interpret the stations, accommodating a different centralizing theme, kicking off each opening with a Mardi Gras celebration on Shrove Tuesday, complete with King’s cake, New Orleans-style muffuletta, and a lot of bead swinging.

Many guest artists augment both worship and community outreach by sharing their talent, world view, and works of art. It takes time, creative thinking, and thoughtfulness to keep the stream of artistic expression alive, but we are committed to keeping at it. You, too, are in a neighborhood rich with possibility.

Voice A

John, here is my (and I dare say our) charge to you, as you become Rector of this historic and changing parish.

Keep paying attention to your long-standing passion for people at the borders, migrants at our nation’s borders, neighbors at the margins of society here in Brooklyn, parishioners at the periphery of parish life. Keep reaching out, creatively and boldly, to people at the borders.

As you pursue your vision of this parish’s connecting to its wider world, continue building alliances that will encourage and inspire and feed you and build partnerships that will strengthen your people.

Keep letting the Holy Spirit overshadow you as you read God’s Word and preach to God’s people, so that Christ the living Word may reach the minds and hearts of many who will come here seeking inspiration in an age of disillusionment.

Recognize each of your daily tasks, especially the pesky ones, as opportunities to honor the Incarnation of God in human flesh; but keep sharp your skill at discerning whether it is your hand needed on the plow, or someone else’s.

As you institute what is new, help your people clarify what already constitutes the genius of this parish, so that both new and old are treasured and supported and fulfilled.

Voice B

I invite everyone, including John’s family and friends, to stand.

Installing a new rector is not a spectator sport; it is a team commitment. John has promised to be a faithful leader, working hard to guide you, challenge you, steward your resources, create informed and compelling liturgy, and hold your feet to the spiritual fire of the Gospel. He can do that, but not alone. He needs a legion of lay ministry backing him up.

Give him what he needs to do what you have charged him to do. Give him yourselves—your service, your commitment, your time, talent, and treasure. Be honest. Be respectful. Bravely and simply pay attention to your neighbors’ needs and relate to everyone as if they have already reached their best potential. In other words, set an intention and a precedent for becoming a mature, open, and compassionate community. Keep celebrating strength and resources among yourselves and allow yourselves to become what God has so graciously given you. Think from the perspective of abundance instead of scarcity, and you will astonish yourselves, believe me.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Creative Contentment

Scripture for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost includes Amos 6:1a, 4-7; I Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

It is no accident that the scripture readings assigned in the church’s high stewardship season include Jesus’s parables about money, wealth, and management. Today we also hear the prophet Amos and the apostle Paul weighing-in on what matters most to them.

As parish leaders gather around the table to find ever-new and ever-old ways to engage us all in the twin tracks of supporting the life and work of the church, on the one hand, and supporting the personal spiritual practice of adventurous sharing, on the other, today’s readings come along like gifts from heaven.

Amos, writing several hundred years before the days of our Gospel, sounds the alarm warning “those who are at ease in Zion, and… who feel secure on Mount Samaria…”, who pamper themselves, indulge every appetite for the finest, most luxurious and expensive sensory experiences, but are not grieved by the ruin of society around them, and are not motivated to lift a finger to help their neighbors who have so little. Alas for them, declares Amos, for “the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.”

I’m going to guess we don’t have many reveling loungers sitting in our churches on Sunday. But we do live in a culture fascinated by such revelry, a culture that seems to aspire to serious lounging. Perhaps Amos had in mind an 8th-century BCE version of XS, a night club at the Encore resort in Las Vegas, where the drinks and cover charge bring in more revenue than the slot machines. $5,000-25,000 to reserve a table near the dance floor—now this is serious lounging—and for that your table is stocked with Belvedere vodka and Perrier-Jouet champagne, silver ice buckets, and more. A state of joyful delirium is promised from electronic dance music engineered by celebrity djs, and at 3:00 a.m. confetti cannons go off, showering the club with ribbons.

Probably not many of us will hear the siren call of that particular temptation. Personally, I can’t imagine a more apt description of Hades, where the rich fellow in our Gospel is undergoing torment. More on him in a moment.

First, we need to stop at the classroom of St. Paul, writing to his protégé Timothy. His subject appears to be wealth and money. He observes that as we bring nothing into the world, so we’ll take nothing out of it. He warns that the rich fall into temptation. They get trapped, caught up in distractions (just the opposite of what one might expect, since the rich appear to have many more options than ordinary people have, surely more than the poor—yet the multiplying of options opens the barn door to senseless and harmful desires that wealth makes possible, and in this state of distraction some people “wander away from the faith and pierce themselves with many pains”).

It is not wealth that Paul blames. It is the love of money that he calls “a root of all kinds of evil.” The Christian Gospel is not based on the claim that money is the root of all evil. It is the love of money that Paul criticizes, and that little word “love” is critical, for his subject is not money but contentment. Paul values contentment for everyone, but hear again how he defines it.

His theology of contentment starts with the liberating assertion that God richly provides everything for our enjoyment. A Christian’s hope is not in the accumulating of as much of that provision as possible. Our hope, our trust, our faith is in the sufficiency of God’s provision. That hope, that trust, frees us to be part of the pipeline of provision, to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for ourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that we may take hold of the life that really is life.”

Notice how without apology Paul teaches the importance of contentment. It is for this that God frees us. Unless we claim that freedom, we will not have the contentment that Paul describes, the contentment that comes from behaving like God, acting in the likeness of God that both Old and New Testaments of the Bible insist God has placed in us, the image of God. Paul says that likeness is action. It is the doing of good for others. It is generous sharing of oneself. It is taking hold of real life.

The rich man in our Gospel today is, therefore, very poor indeed. He has the wardrobe of a rich man, and his table groans with the sumptuous dishes of the well to do. But he does nothing Godly. Most of all, he does not even notice Lazarus, a beggar whose health is so poor that his skin is covered with sores, and whose stomach is empty. He keeps hoping that crumbs will drop from the rich man’s table. He has no finer hope because the rich man has no fine hope, none of that contentment and truly rich faith that Paul values, faith that frees a person to be like God, to be a channel for providence, to generously share.

Maureen Dowd writes about how, in 1996, billionaire Ted Turner upbraided fellow Forbes 400 List members Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, calling them old skinflints for not loosening up their wads. At that time, Buffett and his wife were focusing on how to share their wealth after their deaths. But by 2008, Buffett and Gates began plotting philanthropy that would not wait.

They’ve enrolled 115 of their wealthy friends and associates to join them in a pledge to liberate a majority of their net worth. Buffett calls his recruiting campaign, Dialing for Dollars. He says he gives a warning to each billionaire. “If I’m talking to some 70-year-old fellow, I say, ‘Do you really think your decision-making ability is going to be better when you’re 95 with some blonde on your lap, or now?’”

Like all of Luke’s parables about wealth, the crucial moment now is highlighted in his story today. At virtually the same moment, both the nameless rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus die. It’s a dead giveaway that this story will have a surprising outcome, one that turns privilege on its head. The one who is honored by name is carried away by the angels to be with Father Abraham in heaven. The unnamed rich man also dies, and is buried. Period. No angels, no heaven, no companionship with Abraham. The last will be first, and the first last. This is more than death being the final equalizer: this is death transforming injustice, revealing truth, accomplishing judgment.

One person I visited this week, hearing this Gospel when we had eucharist together, angrily rejected this parable: God could not be like this, punishing beyond death, making salvation and damnation outcomes that are based on what a person deserves.

I could agree with her that “just deserts” is poor theology. Grace is the foundation of Christian theology, and our catechism teaches that grace is unearned and undeserved.

But, for heaven’s sake, it’s a story. And isn’t there something profoundly satisfying about one of these two reversals? Lazarus has been taken up in life that really is life. Moses the lawgiver, and the prophets like old Amos, and Father Abraham the exemplar of hope and trust and faithfulness, they’re all rejoicing at this vindication, aren’t they?

And the other reversal? Well, isn’t that for our instruction? There is the rich man who has, just like Amos’s lounging revelers, never grieved over the ruin of the poor, never noticed the underclass that cleans house, does the grunt end of landscaping, works at the casinos and swabs the toilets at Club XS for next to nothing—or has no work, and no prospect, no hope. The rich man has had countless moments of now when he could have looked, seen, noticed, responded, related, helped—but never did, never reached across the chasm between them.

And now? What a revelation, as he looks up across this even greater divide and sees the apotheosis of Lazarus! You would think he might be left speechless, but his self-care instincts are intact: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue…” Send Lazarus. The very person he never lifted a finger to help…

Abraham responds tenderly: Child, remember… Get real. You are where you are because of all those countless moments of now when you did not choose to be aware, and so did not act.

No, I do not believe that we’ll get anyplace good by suggesting a stewardship of fear: Be generous, or else… We will not use this parable that way.

The poet Hilaire Belloc wrote about this parable. He imagined himself and the rich man arriving at the River Styx at the same moment. Each is bent over, shouldering an oversized duffel bag. In the rich man’s are “The fifteen sorts of boots you kept for town, the hat to meet the Devil in; the plain but costly ties; the cases of champagne…”

In the poet’s bag are “a mist of shadowy things; laughter and memories, and a few regrets, some honor, and a quantity of debts…” We may assume that each person has his or her own bag full of… whatever.

My own at the moment is full of projects, the garden to put to bed for the winter, ducks to get in order as I prepare to get away, always another sermon to write…

And, while praying yesterday, didn’t Amos and Jesus gang up on me and get me asking whether I’m grieving the ruin of lives here in the Berkshires, as drug trafficking and drug abuse spread like a plague… Am I noticing what the predatory industry of casino gambling will bring with it to Massachusetts? Really considering the results of terrorism in Kenya and Pakistan and Iraq and Syria? Grasp the dislocation of tens of thousands of people in Northern Colorado; and, two years after our flooding here, the ongoing unsettling of life for our neighbors at The Spruces?

Now, in every moment of now that God provides, we may become rich in awareness so that true needs are seen, neighbors met and served, the ruin of our society grieved and stopped, turned to take hold of life. We are called to get real, to recognize the seeds of our own creative stewardship, the makings of our own best contentment.

Maureen Dowd’s column appeared in the September 22nd issue of The New York Times. Hilaire Belloc’s poem “To Dives” is included in “Chapters Into Verse”, Volume II, edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder.