It started in a field outside Harmony Church, Missouri – about 100 miles from Kansas City. A teenager named Dale, nervous, insecure, from a poor family, wondering how he was going to make something of himself. Then, one day, a speaker from the Chautauqua Institute comes to town. The speaker tells his own rags to riches story based on, as he argues, the art of public speaking. Young Dale finds his way to college, enters every speaking or debating competition he can lay his hands on, starts winning awards. He becomes convinced this art, of persuasion, is the key to success in this life.
That was the moment things began to change, argues Susan Cain in a fascinating book I started this week called, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a Word that Can’t Stop Talking." She says that this young man, Dale, who eventually tweaked the spelling of his birth name and went by Dale Carnegie, after the famous industrialist Andrew Carnegie, appeared at the perfect time. Dale finished college in 1908, when Henry Ford is selling model-T’s, and JC Penny, Sears and Roebuck, and Woolworth’s had become household names. Carnegie got into sales himself, then sets up shop at the 125th street YMCA in New York City as a public-speaking teacher.
With the ascent of Carnegie’s career, Cain argues, our culture became increasingly concerned with appearance, with the way one presents oneself, by how one is seen by others. We shifted from what cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. As we embraced this kind of culture, Cain writes, Americans started to focus more and more on how others perceived them. They (we) became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. "The social role demanded of all in the Culture of Personality was that of a performer," Susman wrote. "Every American was to become a performing self."1
I felt a bit ill as I pedaled the bike at the Lakewood Y, reading, thinking about that statement – "Every American was to become a performing self." I thought about watching the Emmy’s last Sunday night, about the unbelievable amounts of time we spend thinking, covering, reading about people who may be really talented artists, or may simply be in that ever-growing number of people who are famous simply because they are famous. While Entertainment Tonight and US Weekly are easy targets, I wonder how that trickles down to us, to both our petty insecurities and the ways we share the gifts God has given us? How do we feel like we must present ourselves to others? To certain groups we want to seem smart, to others, the life of the party. To others we want to seem responsible, to others that we have it all together, even if, especially if, right under the surface, it feels like everything is on the verge of falling apart. How do folks like us get sucked into thinking so much about how we are seen, and miss the world for it?
I think that dynamic is what today’s text is about. The beginning is soaked in hyperbole. The rich man dressed in finery feasted, feasted sumptuously, not just some days but every day. Now begins the contrast, the poor man lying outside of the security booth in the rich man’s gated community, covered, COVERED, with sores, longing to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table, a table he likely hasn’t seen and won’t ever see. The verb ‘to eat’, ‘to satisfy his hunger,’ chortazo, is commonly used for the feeding of animals rather than humans.2 Lazarus is a form of the Jewish name Eleazar, which means "God helps." But no one does. Dogs lick sores. They are different in every way possible, yet they both die. Lazarus heads up to hang with Abraham, which isn’t a big deal until the next verse, when we are surprised to learn where the rich man goes. Hades? Hold on a minute. The roles have been reversed.
The rich guy, true to stereotype, calls out to Abraham, and asks him to send Lazarus to help cool him off a bit. This scene feels terribly sad to me. He still treats the poor guy who sat at his gate as someone who exists to meet his needs. Abraham lays out the new situation. Child, which feels to me said out of both love and pity, remember? Do you remember? In your lifetime you had it pretty good. The rich man wasn’t necessarily a bad guy, but he had his time. Lazarus, remember Lazarus?, he had it much worse. But now he is comforted, and you are in agony. Besides all this, in addition to the things that have changed, they have been changed forever, for eternity. A great chasm has been fixed, no matter how nicely you ask.
My father was searching through an old storage closet in Montreat some years back and came across a recording. It was a tape from Anderson Auditorium in Montreat, from a weekend late in August, 1965. The speaker, one Martin Luther King, Jr., begins his speech at a church retreat by apologizing for being late. The day he had been scheduled he was in Watts, Los Angeles, meeting with government officials, on the streets, trying to quell the riots there. In this speech, King challenges the church on issues of race, pushing them to be more than clear on their stands on segregation. Then, he moves into the connection with issues of poverty. He takes some time, and points the assembly to our text.
"There is nothing in that parable," King says, "that says Dives -[the Latin name for the rich man] – went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth." He names the story of the rich young ruler, but says that in that story, when Jesus tells the man to go, sell all he has, and give his money to the poor, Jesus was "prescribing individual surgery, not setting forth a universal diagnosis." King moves on, pointing us toward the kind of symbolic long-distance call that takes place between Dives in hell and Abraham, with Lazarus, in heaven. King claims that, "Dives went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him." He moves on to say that, "Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible…because he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. In fact, he didn’t even realize that Lazarus was his brother."3
If King is right, this may not be, ultimately, a text about poverty, about our wealth, or about the proper allocation of resources. This is a text about vision. I wonder if we are so caught up being our ‘performing selves,’ – and I am not even sure we realize we are performing most of the time. I fear that we, all of us, get caught up in what others think, in trying to be some ideal version of ourselves, some image we feel we have to project to the world, that this tendency leads to the blindness the rich man has in this text. The rich man and his stuff and his table and his feasting, his working and his living, these things churn and churn and we feel so overwhelmed and it can lead to a kind of paralysis. Blindness. Completely missing the deep needs right in front of us, a world filled with joy and beauty and with pain, and world that needs the gifts God has given you.
This is where we get at the heart of stewardship season which, as you know from Daniel, begins today. I wonder what we could do if, instead of the performing that leads to blindness, what would it be like if we lived, truly lived, as if we believed that everything we had comes as a gift from God. That we are here to share those gifts, to give them away in the serve of God and each other? And that we could, by doing things investing in church, in this church that I believe with all my heart IS, by God’s grace, changing things in our neighborhoods and downtown and all over the world. What if we prayed that God would free us to be community? True community, where we could quit performing, just for a little while, and love each other, and grieve together, and praise God with laughter. And be free.
In that same speech in Montreat, King continues: "I submit this is the challenge facing the church, to be as concerned as our Christ about the least of these, our brothers and sisters. And we must do it because in the final analysis we are all to live together, rich and poor, lettered and unlettered, tutored and untutored. Somehow we are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality." "And for some strange reason," King says to us, "I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God made the world…we must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish as fools."
So, past poverty, past vision, it’s about community, and the key to how community is formed. How we are called to be free, to be authentic with each other, fed by the bread of life. These are hard days, to be sure. But Lazarus is in front of us, at the gates, every day. And we still have the chance to change things, if only we are willing to see.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Susan Cain, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking," (New York: Broadway Books, 2012), pages 19-21.
2. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p 316. Luke section by R. Alan Culpepper.
3. From "The Church at the Forefront of Racial Progress," by Martin Luther King, Jr., preached at the Anderson Auditorium, Montreat, NC, August 1965. Recording courtesy Bob Tuttle.