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Things Left Undone

In mid-June our virtual Sunday service was led by Rev. Liz Russell, who drew on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus from the sixteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel to help us think about the recent “Black Lives Matter” protests, the unfinished work of addressing racial prejudice and what these mean for our church communities. We reprint Liz’s homily here.

The priest of a suburban parish in a predominantly white area was taken ill. Another priest arrived to take the service in his place. He asked the sidesperson how to get to the sacristy but was met, not with welcome, but with hesitation and suspicion.

‘Why do you want to know where the sacristy is?’

The priest explained why he was there although that might, perhaps, have been obvious given his clerical collar. The welcomer interrogated him.

‘You’re a priest?’ ‘Who sent you?’

After explaining again who he was and why he was there he was met with -

‘Well, why didn’t they send us a real priest?’

A second vignette. It’s the beginning of a new university year and the lecturer gets to the lecture hall in good time and starts putting something up on the board. Students begin to drift in. As the start time of the lecture neared he sensed people becoming apprehensive and heard them saying to each other,

‘Where’s the professor?’ ‘When is the professor going to come?’

The professor was standing in front of them, putting something on the board.

Those two stories relate to the same person. Someone who is a priest, a professor of moral theology in a leading university and black. It didn’t happen in this country and it wasn’t in an Anglican setting but it could have been. It probably wouldn’t have been spoken in quite such an open way but it’s not impossible to imagine similar thoughts going through people’s minds.

When I read them recently those stories struck me with both horror and sadness but also as such a powerful illustration of so much that is happening at the moment. The great, often unacknowledged chasms and lack of understanding between all sorts of people.

In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man appointed for the first Sunday after Trinity – and we may note that Lazarus is the only character in the story given a name – Jesus used a familiar folk-tale and adapted it to a new purpose.

The folk story of the wicked rich man and the pious poor man whose fortunes were reversed in the afterlife was popular at the time, with its depiction of the fate in store for the good and the evil after death. But it wasn’t Jesus’s intention. I’d suggest, to put about a strict doctrine of rewards and punishments. We’re not told that Lazarus was an especially pious person nor that the rich man was

actively wicked. But the rich man had become indifferent to the needs of others. He no longer noticed. It was as much about what he did not do as what he did.

And perhaps those are the sort of sins that might worry us the most. I’m often haunted by the things I haven’t done – the phone call I haven’t made, the person I haven’t caught up with - the things I’ve neglected to do. And we all know a Lazarus.

The rich man may not have been evil but he used what he had on himself, thoughtlessly, and he just hadn’t noticed Lazarus. He had become blind to him. Lazarus was easy to ignore. But then, in the parable, the roles are reversed, Lazarus is now at the banquet table and the rich man is in torment. But, unfortunately, he hasn’t really learnt. He ignored Lazarus in his lifetime and now he treats him as a bit of a slave, saying to Abraham ‘Send Lazarus to cool my tongue’.

Last autumn, Ben Lindsay spoke at St Paul’s Cathedral. He’s an interesting and thoughtful speaker – the black leader of a church in south London where the majority of the congregation is white. He’s written a book called We need to talk about race – understanding the black experience in white majority churches. This is a very timely book and I commend it.

One of the chapters is called ‘You don’t see us’ and the author recounts the experience of a friend of his who happens to be the white leader of a black majority church. As a white person, he acknowledges that he didn’t really notice a person’s race and he had often felt that was a good thing. And we might feel that ourselves. But he has come to learn, from his congregation, how race and racism is something they live with all the time. Most of us, together with the cultures of which we are a part, do place chasms of misunderstanding between ourselves, if unwittingly.

In the First Epistle of John we are told that to love one another is the mark of being God’s children.

“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.”

To live this life of love isn’t a command that comes in isolation but one that flows from relationship. We are to love one another because love is from God. Our love and God’s love are directly connected. In Jesus we see what love is – action by one person for another.

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