And more than that, the gate that the rich man built to keep Lazarus and the rest of the world out turns out to be a chasm that the rich man can no longer escape. He didn’t keep the world out. He locked himself in. The rich man is, in other words, getting exactly what he wanted. He just couldn’t see it at the time.
I understand where all this comes from. It’s good to be personally holy, it’s good to be inclusive, it’s good to be active. I know what our denomination is trying to say by telling people that being Lutheran means doing God’s work. But I rankle when I hear it all the same.
Naaman wants to be impressed and is bitterly disappointed. He wants shouting and magic words and hand waving and theatrics but all he gets is a simple command: wash in the Jordan seven times. All he has to do is trust the word of the prophet and he can’t do it. So it falls to his servants—the lowly people, so lowly they don’t even get names—it falls to his servants to persuade him.
And for whatever it’s worth, I think he’s right. But as I thought about it this week, I realized that this author never said explicitly what he thinks makes a saint. If I were in charge of Messiah’s sainthood development program, how would I know one when I see one? What are the characteristics of a saint? And how do we know they are genuine and not pious frauds?
And the truth about people who do not fear God or respect humans is that they may look and sound and even feel tough, but in fact they are not. All it takes is the right kind of pressure to make the judge in the parable give in. The justice of the widow’s case is not his concern. His concern is only that he should not suffer or sacrifice for any particular outcome.
God, he suddenly saw, did not send his Son to die for us in order to multiply the terrors of the law. God did not forgive our old sins in order to make us even more afraid of the sins that still lay ahead of us. God did not reveal his righteousness to the faithful in order to torment those faithful with a still higher standard of perfection than what they knew before. God’s righteousness is not the demand that we wring every last little imperfection from our crooked souls. Instead, it’s almost the opposite: God’s righteousness is the gift that makes us righteous, even though we are sinners, even though we are not just a little imperfect but are instead complete disasters, even though we know and want to know nothing at all about God and his love for us and for our neighbor.
Everyone has some scars from wrestling with God. Everyone has had to make a choice they didn’t want to make. Everyone has surrendered something to keep holding on to God. I am never more aware of this than when someone shares a story with me of how they have been wounded by the church. It breaks my heart because the church is where you are supposed to be safe and cared for and loved.
We grow accustomed to each other in a peculiar way, beyond excellence or inadequacy or anything else. God brought us together in the exemplary and characteristic way God acts in the world–through the ministry of the Church–and that forges a unique bond. Rupturing it, and forming it anew with new people, is a much weightier task than I’d been able to imagine when the bishop laid his hands on me and I knew only the pure and shiny farewells of the perennial student.
That is what I have hoped to impress upon you over these years of being together face to face around the words of our faith: Your very presence here is a victory. It infuriates the demons and thrills the saints and angels. Your very presence here puts you in the path of grace that you cannot earn and yet that claims all of your life. Your very presence here brings you to the throne of God, whether the sermon is memorable for two seconds after it ends or the hymns take off or you’re sad or angry or just not feeling it today. Christ has brought you home through danger and temptation and opened your voice to praise. That in itself is a victory. That is the resurrection from the dead.
On Sunday you paid very moving tribute to my work here. For the last six weeks, in fact, you’ve been telling me what I’ve meant to you, in cards and conversations and kind messages on Facebook. It’s been overwhelming. So it’s only fair that I acknowledge what you have meant to me. Not just that you were gracious and kind and receptive, to me and to my family, but that you were, in fact, the difference between continuing to answer my vocation to ordained ministry and quite possibly washing out of that ministry altogether.