(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on September 23, 2018, Proper 20)
The Old Man Playing Pinball
It was the beginning of my weekend, a Thursday evening, and I was out with a friend at one of the eateries in my neighborhood. There happened to be a soccer game on the television, so I had all that I could ask for: time to unwind, a friend to share the moment with, and soccer in the background.
But what I remember most from that night is none of those things. Instead, I still see what was in the corner of my eye: an old man playing pinball. My first thought was, “Good for him! This guy probably grew up playing pinball. And he’s still enjoying it today.” The flashing lights and arcade noise of the machine drew my attention throughout the evening. Whenever they died down, I saw the man dig into his pocket and slip another quarter into the machine. The glow of the machine returned and washed over the man’s impassive face. When the man eventually left, I thought he had run out of quarters. But minutes later he returned with a drink from the bar. Taking a swig, he dug deep for another quarter and resumed his play. The pattern continued for the rest of the evening. Slipping in quarters. Grabbing another drink. Every once in a while shoving the machine against the wall in frustration.
When I left that evening, the man was still glued to the game. His memory remains with me. It even haunts me a little bit with a lonely feeling. The mindless digging for more money. The glow of the game on his glazed face. The resignation with which he would walk away for another drink.
I have a suspicion that this memory haunts me most because I see its lonely truth not only in that old man but also in myself and in the world around me. Of course, it looks different from person to person. For some, it may be a weekend Netflix binge. For others, it may be scrolling through Facebook. For me in my college years, it was the computer game Championship Manager, where I took the bottom-league soccer minnows Dagenham & Redbridge from obscurity in the English league to champions of Europe.
“You Are Those Who Justify Yourselves”
Last week as we read at the beginning of Luke about Jesus proclaiming good news to the lowly (Luke 4:16-19), I shared with you my dilemma, which is basically this: God’s good news in the Bible is for the poor, and I’m not. That leaves me wrestling with the question: Where am I in the good news?
Today I’m scrambling to find an answer to that question, and so I’m flipping several pages in the gospel of Luke to get to a place where Jesus addresses people like me, people who are more or less “comfortable.” I’ve turned to Luke 16, where Jesus has been talking about money and has just made the infamous proclamation, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13). When his audience ridicules him for making this all-or-nothing claim, he suggests that they have their hearts in the wrong place. “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others,” he says, implying that they are more concerned with justifying their way of life than with listening to any message that might challenge it. I can’t help but feel that he’s addressing people like me when he says this, people who justify their place in life, saying, “I worked for it, I earned it, it’s not my fault that others have it more difficult.”
Next Jesus tells a story.
The Good News for Lazarus:
Not Money but Embrace
My kneejerk reaction to this story is to justify myself. This doesn’t apply to me. I’m nothing like that rich man, dressing myself in the finest clothing and feasting every day. But I remember how Jesus has just pointed out my self-justifying behavior. And so I hold myself steady and try to hear what this story might have to tell me about where I am in the good news.
The first thing I notice is that as exaggerated as the story is, it still strikes too close to home. Sure, I’m nothing like the rich man, feasting in his finest everyday. But Lazarus at his gate—that’s like the beggar whom I pass each morning on my way to church. Lazarus is all around this city and all around this world, and the chasm between rich and poor only gets bigger each day.
As a story, the tale of Lazarus and the rich man proclaims the message with which Jesus began his ministry. It is good news to the poor. Many folks read this good news as a simple reversal of fates for the haves and the have-nots. If you’ve got it bad now, you’ll have it good later, and vice versa. But if that’s the case, then I wonder why there’s nothing said about Lazarus receiving riches after his death. The good news for Lazarus is not wealth but welcome, not money but embrace. In life, he knew rejection, but now he knows love. This little tale is undoubtedly about money, but I think it suggests an even deeper dimension to the chasm between rich and poor. I think it shows the heart of the matter. Because what matters most to God, in the end, is that Lazarus be embraced and loved.
There is no embrace, however, for the rich man. The rich man is alone. It says that he sees Abraham and Lazarus “far away,” at a great distance (v. 23). Later Abraham elaborates: “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” which is only natural (v. 26). As in life, so also in death. In life, the chasm was the great gap between wealth and poverty, a gap that was symbolized by the rich man’s gate that stood between them. In death, there is no gate, but notice how the rich man twice calls out to Father Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand for him. Even now, he persists on seeing the world according to the old gap. He continues to view Lazarus as something of a servant and presumes on his own privilege to get what he wants.
A Daydream and an Alternative Ending
I wonder, though, if the rich man even knows what he wants. Water, he says at first. Or a warning to his brothers, so that they not also be deprived of their comforts. But I wonder if that’s really what he wants.
I had a flash of a vision this week as I was reading the story. In my daydream, the man playing pinball and the rich man blurred together. After slipping in quarter after quarter and buying drink after drink, his face glazed over in the glow of his happiness, which was actually not happiness at all, he woke up to his great loneliness. Surrounded by people, he was forlorn and friendless, lost in a game made up of money, mastery, and the false promise of more. And his eyes were opened, and he saw all around him a great chasm. And he looked across the chasm and saw Lazarus and Abraham. And he felt the torment for what it was, and hot tears, tears of fire, sprang from the corners of his eyes as he saw Lazarus comforted in the embrace of Abraham. And he begged Lazarus: “Brother, I am alone. Would you come be with me?” And suddenly the chasm was gone—had it even been real?—and Lazarus reached out and embraced me.
The Embrace of Lazarus
I wonder if we hear in today’s story what concerns us most. If it’s money that is most important to us, then we hear a story about money. We hear a criticism of our wealth. If it’s security that we’re after, then we hear a story about the afterlife. We hear a warning about eternal torment.
But if the story itself is any indication, what matters most to God is not money or security. It’s relationship. Communion. Embrace. That is what Lazarus receives from Abraham. And that is what the rich man misses out on. He faces instead the chasm of his strength and security and self-sufficiency. He faces the chasm of his loneliness.
And that is where I find myself today. Hearing Jesus proclaim good news to the poor, and asking, “Where am I in the good news?” I discover today, if I am honest, that I am often standing in front of a chasm. It’s not a chasm of punishment, but rather a consequence of my life. It’s a chasm of quarters and distraction, money and mastery. It’s a chasm I feel acutely when I pass by the needful, whom in fact I need. It’s a chasm of loneliness.
How is that good news for me? Well, I’m still trying to figure it out, but I know this much. The God of Abraham desires to embrace me as much as to embrace Lazarus. And to receive that embrace is perhaps no different from giving that embrace to persons like Lazarus, who lay on the other side of my chasm.
God of embrace,
Who lifts up the lowly
And welcomes the ones
Whom the world rejects:
Uncover before us
That separate us
From your embrace.
In Christ, for whom there is no chasm. Amen.
 Cf. Matthew Stewart, “The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy,” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/the-birth-of-a-new-american-aristocracy/559130/, accessed on September 19, 2018. See also this report that world hunger is on the rise: Jason Beaubien, “The Fight Against World Hunger Is Going in the Wrong Direction,” https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/09/11/646786468/the-fight-against-world-hunger-is-going-in-the-wrong-direction, accessed on September 19, 2018.