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Sunday, September 25, 2022

What does it take?



St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE

Pentecost XVI - Proper 21 

September 25, 2022

Luke’s gospel presents us with some complicated and complex and often confusing parables. What are we to make about this morning’s parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus?

Lazarus – not the friend of Jesus raised from the dead in Bethany but another man named Lazarus – (that Lazarus) ends up in heaven, and the rich man in hell. We don’t know the offense committed by the rich man that landed him in hell. Scripture tells us he had nice clothes and ate well and expected the poor to wait on him. Is being wealthy and arrogant sin?


Lazarus was poor, sick, and hungry; that’s really all we know about him. Did that, alone, land him a place in heaven? Or, did he do something great, something altruistic and noble that cost him everything he owned and resulted in his poverty and ill health? We don’t really know. Jesus doesn’t mention that the rich man became rich by stealing or embezzling, or that Lazarus was a great spouse and self-sacrificing father.


Morally, how are they different? The answer is, we don’t know.


Perhaps it’s not about being a scoundrel or a saint. Perhaps this is about being human and, despite how much money you have or how nice a person you are, people are just people, and God loves us all, no matter what.


On my last Sunday with you, I want to share one of my favorite stories about the early days of my ordination. I’ve told this story many times over the years but, for me, it never gets old. 


It was 1986. I was a newly ordained priest, a Chaplain at the University of Lowell in MA. And, I admit, I was feeling, well, maybe not in control but at least on top of the word. Truth be told, after three years of seminary and having passed the rigors of the ordination process, I was pretty full of myself.

It was in my capacity as a university chaplain that I first met Fr. Koumranian, the pastor at the Armenian Orthodox Church in Lowell. For some reason unknown to me, Fr. Koumranian took a liking to me – or, maybe he was simply intrigued by a “woman priest” – and decided that I should learn the “real” liturgy of the church. So, he took me under his wing in one of the most delightful and important mentor relationship I have ever known.

He was called “Father” so I, of course, became known as “Mother”. That’s not what I wanted; it’s what he insisted. He would call me and, in his heavy Armenian accent, begin, “Mother? Dees is Father. We are having baptism at church. It would be good for you to learn Divine Liturgy. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. You come.”

Mind you, that wasn’t so much an invitation as an expectation. I was thrilled. I went. Every time. No exception.

One evening, he called. “Mother? Dees is Father. Der is funeral Wednesday. It would be good for you to learn Divine Liturgy. It would be good for my people to see woman priest. You come.”

Nothing was so important that couldn’t be rearranged so that I could be there.

There was smoke. There were bells. There was chanting. I admit that I loved it all in that beautiful mosaic tile sanctuary.

When it came time for the eulogy, I looked around the church and saw that it was filled with lots of old Armenian men and women, all dressed in black. 


I thought sure the eulogy would be spoken in Armenian and I could meditate quietly while he preached. To my surprise, Fr. Koumranian walked into the aisle, near the casket as he began the eulogy.

“Der are people in dees world,” he said, “who are always making you happy. You see dem walking on de street and your heart leaps for joy, for dey are making you so happy.”

He put his hand reverently on the casket and said solemnly, “Dees . . . is not one of dos people.”

I was, in a word, stunned. I shut my eyes tight. All I could think was, “Don’t let my face show what I’m thinking.” Which was, “What in the heck is he doing?” When I opened my eyes, I could see the front row of women, including the man’s widow.
They were all nodding their heads in agreement.

Fr. Koumranian continued, “But, isn’t God – our God – so wonderful, dat now – even now – even one such as dees is resting eternally in de arms of Jesus? Because, you know, eets true: People is people. And, God is God.” And then he said, “Ah-min,” and sat down.


Sometimes, when you least expect it – but, often, when you need it most – God brings people into our lives to help put us right into our place. Fr. Koumranian, for me, was one of those people. He died many years ago, but lives on in my heart.


Over the past 36 years, whenever I’ve felt just a little too big for my britches, I remember this important lesson from the early days of my priesthood, and I think about the lesson Jesus taught his disciples through many parables – especially The Rich Man and Lazarus.


Fr. Koumranian’s greatest lesson to me was one the Rich Man neglected to learn. It is the lesson of Servant Leadership: I am – you are – here not to be served, but to serve.  Our baptism in Christ makes that clear. Those who are ordained to the priesthood – as the reading from the Book of Hebrews (5:1-10) reminds us, “according to the order of Melchizedek” – are to lead the people of God in servant ministry.


As Jesus himself has said to his disciples, “ . . . .whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."


That has been my goal since my very first day with you – to model for you what it means to be a servant leader and lead you into servant ministry. I may not have always done that with grace and style – there have been times when my frustration has gotten the better of me, especially before I realized just how decimated the organizational, corporate infrastructure had become here at St. Paul’s – but I have always done it with the heart and mind of a servant leader.


I know that the leader – laity or ordained – sets the tone. I have always tried to be optimistic, energetic and enthusiastic about what I’ve seen here: The possibilities. The potential.


As I hear the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, I have come to understand that the moral measure of each person does not factor into the lesson Jesus is trying to teach. What if the most important thing on your early report card is not having been right? Or, experienced? Or, the one with the best attendance or the longest record or served as Warden or sat in the pew?


What if the most important thing is not being morally impeccable, but how you treat the poor? What if the worst sin is to get rich and complacent and forget about those who are suffering? To have food and shelter and be impervious to those who are hungry and homeless?


What if it’s not going to matter to God where we worship or even how we worshiped – whether the vestments were the right color for the liturgical season, or that there was a HVAC (heating or air conditioning) system throughout the church, or there was a state of the art sound system, or a fully functioning, professional choir – not HOW we worshiped but THAT we worshiped?


What if all that is really going to matter to God is that we pray, in the words of Great Thanksgiving in the Service of Morning Prayer in the BCP, “not only with our lips but in our lives.” That there is at least some shred of consistency and integrity in what we say on Sunday and what we do on all the days of the rest of the week?


At the end of the day – or, at least, at the end of this parable – it doesn’t matter to God whether you are rich, fat and arrogant or poor, sick and hungry. It doesn’t even matter what you say you believe. What matters to God is what we do with what we’ve been given. 


Today is the birthday of one of my favorite children's authors, Shel Silverstein. In his book, "Where the Sidewalk Ends," he writes:

How many slams in an old screen door?
Depends how loud you shut it.
How many slices in a bread?
Depends how thin you cut it.
How much good inside a day?
Depends how good you live 'em.
How much love inside a friend?
Depends how much you give 'em.


Or, as my dear friend, Terry Parsons, often asked, “What do you do with all you’ve been given after you say, ‘I believe’”? 


Whether you are a scoundrel or a saint, here’s the Gospel truth: God loves you more than your wildest imagination. 


And, God loves us more than any of us deserve.


Because, in the words of one of my favorite priests, ordained according to the order of Melchizedek, “People is people. And, God is God.”



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