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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ground Hog Day, Lazarus and the Rich Man

A Sermon for XVIII Pentecost
Luke 16:19 – 31
Proper 21- September 30, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Do you remember that movie “Groundhog Day”? Comedian Bill Murray, plays “Phil” an egocentric meteorologist from Pittsburgh who wakes up one morning after a severe blizzard (which he had predicted would not amount to anything), and then discovers himself trapped in the same news day.

The 'Really Big Story' he's covering is that it’s Ground Hog Day. He’s in a hotel room in Punxsutawny, Pennsylvania, waking up to a cold dawn on February 2nd to see whether or not “Punxsutawney Phil” the infamous ground hog, comes out of his hole to see his shadow. If he does, we'll know for "certain" there will be six more weeks of winter.

He awakes that day and everyday, over and over again, at 6 AM when his alarm clock goes off and he hears Sony and Cher sing, “I got you, babe.” Sounds terrible, right? Not to worry. Being the egotist, he soon discovers how to enjoy his fate. He indulges himself in drinking and frivolity, only to go to bed and wake up the next morning to . . . Ground Hog Day.

He even tempts fate and tries suicide – several times. Still, he wakes up and it's February 2nd , it’s still six am and Sony and Cher are still singing, “I got you, babe" - but now the song sounds like a malicious taunt.

Finally, he begins to re-examine his life and opens his heart to Rita, his producer, and her advice helps him to gradually find a goal for his trapped life: as a benefactor to others.

He cannot, in a single day, bring others to fulfill his needs but he can achieve self-improvement by educating himself on a daily basis. For example, after seeing an elderly homeless man die, Phil vows that no one will die on "his" day and performs many heroic services each and every day.

He even learns to play jazz piano, speak some French, sculpt ice, and memorize the life story of almost everyone in town. He also masters the art of flipping playing cards into an upturned hat. This is quite impressive to me since this is a goal I, myself, have set to achieve before I die.

Eventually, he enhances his own human understanding which, in return, makes him an appreciated and beloved man in the town. Finally, after professing true love to Rita, one which she is able to accept, he wakes up on February 3 - though again to "I Got You Babe."

Yet it is a new day, with Rita beside him on the bed. Phil suggests to Rita that they live in Punxsutawney, though he suggests, "We'll rent to start." The closing song is “Almost Like Being in Love” a song from the musical “Brigadoon” which, you may remember, dealt with a village trapped in time.

When I did some research on this movie, with thanks to Wikipedia, I discovered that, just last year, in 2006, the United States National Film Registry deemed Ground Hog Day as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." You may laugh at that, but I see in the movie “Ground Hog Day” a modern parable of this gospel story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Much can be – indeed, has been made – by pious preachers over the millenia about the point Luke makes in this gospel. Yes, there is a great chasm between the rich and the poor. And, it is an important point to be made – one that is as difficult to hear in our day as it was for the Pharisees, who first heard these words from Jesus. There is no denying the harsh words of Jesus for those who are rich.

However, to hear this parable simply as an admonishment about the evils of money is to miss the deeper message about the richness we all squander in the gift of life. The harshness of the fate of the rich man is not because he was rich. It was about what he did – or didn’t do – with his riches when he was alive.

More importantly, the harsh judgment came upon the rich man because he lived an unexamined life. I believe it was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

If we get caught up in self-righteous self-flagellation about the wide gap between the rich and the poor, we miss this important point of the gospel story. The point is to do something NOW about closing that gap, that ‘chasm.’ The point is to examine what it is you have – the abundance of your life – and determine what it is you can share to relieve the suffering and poverty of others.

No matter our own personal wealth or social location, it is a natural human dynamic to think that you don't have enough. Moreover, it’s a very easy leap over a very small chasm to deeply resent the wealth we perceive others have.

I confess that when I read this first line, of this gospel story, I had an immediate personal reaction: ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.’ My immediate thought was of the recent statement from the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church at that gathering this past week in New Orleans.

Those men and women in fine linen purple shirts were gathered in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in part, to respond to the Primates’ Communique. The deadline for response is September 30th. Today.

What? You ask. Again? Didn’t they just do this back in March? Didn’t you tell us, Rev’d Elizabeth, that they were wonderful? Didn’t we read the statement for ourselves? And it was. Wonderful. Wasn't it? What happened?

Welcome to Ground Hog Day in The Episcopal Church! Except, this time, the bishops did what they always seem do in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury – or anyone, for that matter, with a purple shirt and a British accent.

They buckled. Big time.

You can read Bishop Beckwith’s response to the statement from the House of Bishops in the bulletin insert. It would seem that our brand new bishop is on a steeper learning curve than even he imagined he’d be.

The point is that he IS learning. He’s open to learning. He is meeting with the Newark Deputies to General Convention and we’ve invited any one else who is interested to come to a meeting with him on October 9th to discuss this situation. Together, we’ll figure a way to respond here in this diocese and stand in solidarity with those who don’t enjoy the religious and theological freedom that we enjoy.

That, my friends, is "JUSTICE." Not, as Fannie Lou Hammer once described, "JUST US."

In our bulletin, you can also read the thank you letter from the folks in Malawi to whom we have recently sent over 2,000 knitting needles and yarn.

You may remember that Ann Bennett read a story about Project CitiHope and learned that the women in Malawi use bicycle spokes as knitting needles. She thought, "Why, I've got lots of knitting needles just sitting around the house. I'll bet other women do, too.

So, she wrote a short article which went into our bulletin and The Epistle. It also appeared in The Independent and The Courier. Within weeks, we had collect over 2,000 knitting needles and miles of yarn.

But, what was even better than that was the stories that poured in. Women told us about their first knitting lesson and their grandmother, mother, aunt or neighbor who taught them. They brought in their grandmother's knitting needles which they wanted to be sure went to someone who would love knitting as much as she had.

With the sharing of these stories came the healing of memories and their generosity was blessed. As Mr. Gabriel Wesley Msonglole wrote, "Your love is amazing!" Indeed!

You'll also note in our bulletin insert a flyer from the National Church about "Recovery Sunday" - a day which highlights the ministry of helping those with addictions to alcohol or drugs to recover from the living hell of the disease of addiction.

So much of life can feel like Ground Hog Day. We can feel as if our lives are trapped living out a script not of our own choosing, in roles that were not meant for us. Our every day, ordinary lives, no matter our financial status, can be as dull and as meaningless and repetitious as to become a living hell.

We can resign ourselves to our fate, even tempting it with destructive behaviors from time to time. We can fantasize our resentments and imagine those who have more than we do as paying the tortures of the damned in eternity for the brief enjoyment of the luxury of their abundance here in this life. Or, we can do something to change that by changing ourselves.

I have a very clear memory of being a child of about 10 or 11 years old. That’s such an awkward age, you know – not yet a cool teenager, not really a child. For some kids, hormones are starting to swing out of balance, taking moods and self esteem and body images with them.

Cliques in school begin to form and it’s important to sit at the lunch table with the cool kids. If you don’t, you think you’re life is going to end – or, you’re afraid it won’t. Being a pre-teen girl is “all drama all the time” – and every day is Ground Hog Day.

I remember having a talk with my grandmother. I was miserable. I hadn’t been accepted at the lunch table with the really cool girls. I was a “greenhorn” – a Portuguese immigrant. My hair was thick and curly and black – not blond and straight and beautiful.

My skirt was beautifully made by my grandmother, but it was not ‘cool’ because it didn’t come from a department store and have a designer label. I didn’t have the money to buy my lunch but brought my own from home which was not the bland frozen pizza or hot dogs the cool kids ate, but something spicy and delicious and actually nutritious.

I felt ugly and foreign and, worse – poor. I hadn’t known that we were poor until that moment – but my classmates certainly made sure I knew my social status.

I wailed and lamented my fate to my grandmother, sobbing that I didn’t have any friends and probably would never have any friends, and that my life was ruined.

The only comfort and solace I could find was to think that “they would get theirs” one day. “They will be burning in hell while I sat in heaven with Jesus, right, grandmother?” I asked.

My grandmother shook her head sadly and said, “Well, if that makes you feel better, then okay, you can believe that. But how will that change things for you now?"

"Listen,” she said, “here’s what I’ve learned: If you want a friend, you’ve got to be a friend.”

“Do you mean I have to be nice to those mean girls?” I said.

“No,” she said. “I’m saying that YOU have got to be the friend you want others to be. Then, if you find a friend, or if one finds you, you’ll have true friendship.”

It took me years to learn that my grandmother was right. If we want a friend, we've got to be the friend we need. If we want leaders, we've got to be the leaders we want - not wait for bishops. If we want heroes, we've got to be the heroes we dream of - not waste our lives being helpless victims.

The unexamined life that is lived over and over and over again, aimlessly, pointlessly is hell. This life is an enormous present, and some of us never open it up. Indeed, many of us never even take off the gift wrapping.

Here's the gospel truth of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the truth which everyone learns who lives through the Ground Hog days of our lives.:

The chasms between us are only as wide, or as small, as our imaginations allow them to be.



fs said...

I always knew there was a sermon in the movie Groundhog Day. And it was a good one, too. Thanks, Rev. Kaeton.


Oh Wow, I can Not thank you ENOUGH for the wonderful wonderful enlightenment. Thank you and God bless you. I watched Ground Hog Day for my Philosophy class and to be honest, I completely missed the point of the movie, unitl I read your writing. Thank You