The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
What is in a name? My name is the diminutive of Robert, it means fame, glory. Stephen means garland or literally, that which surrounds.Brutus tells me his name means awkward or clumsy. According to tradition the Rich man in today’s parable is called Dives, which is the latin for ‘Rich’. And when Jesus says he’s a rich man, it’s an understatement. This is extreme wealth in first century Palestine. Dives is grotesque about his wealth. He doesn’t just feast as our translation suggests, he is gourmet dining on exotic and costly dishes every day. Eating meat while the majority of the local population, working six long days a week, were lucky if they got to eat meat once a week. Dives is portrayed as self-indulgent and self-centered. If he notices anybody else, it is only because he sees them as being able to serve him in some way.
Dives isn’t, however, named in today’s reading, it’s a name he’s been given to make it easier to talk about him by the scholars and preachers since. Lazarus, however, is, unusually, uniquely, named. Lazarus is the only character named in one of Jesus’ parables. Lazarus means, ‘God is my help’. Lazarus trusts in God, and then in today’s parable he is brought into the company of Abraham, to Heaven. The meaning of Lazarus’ name is interesting, but the significance is that Lazarus is named. He is recognised by Abraham and by God by name.
Giving of a name helps us to create our identity. It defines us individually, not simply by our family or our culture or our community. Like Santa Clause checking his list, knowing each person by name, so does Abraham, so does God, know us each by name. Today as we baptise Keira, we welcome her into the church by name. According to our faith, she is named as one of the children of Abraham. Part of God’s family in which we are all a part.
In our parable, Lazarus is in the company of Abraham and Dives is in Hades. Dives asks for Lazarus to be sent to him, to cool his tongue with a damp finger. The request is refused. Dives is where Dives should be and Lazarus is where Lazarus should be, there is an unbridgeable chasm between them. And what has led Dives to this suffering? Why does he deserve such a fate? Was it because of something he did? Because he threw Lazarus out? Because he caused Lazarus to be diseased? When Dives asks for Lazarus to be sent to his brothers, to warn them not to end up in his torment. Abraham scoffs - they’ve got Moses and the prophets.
They have what we call the Old Testament - that’s all they need to show them the right way.
Today’s prophet is Amos, and he helps us discover what Dives is doing wrong, actually, he helps us to see that it is not what Dives has done wrong, it is what Dives has failed to do right. It’s pointed at by Lazarus being given a name by Jesus. By Lazarus being known by name, by him having an identity which goes beyond ‘the poor man.’ Amos warns us of those who are at ease, those who enjoy their wealth while others suffer. those who don’t even bother to see those around them who are suffering. They ‘are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!’ Dives failing is that he had no awareness that Lazarus existed, that is, until Lazarus could do something for Dives.
This week Boris Johnson made an attack on those who amass fortunes so that they can pass on the largest possible house and largest possible grouse moorland to their children, rather than feeling they should do something for society with some of the money they’ve earned. He said it at the launch of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. It was as if Boris had been preparing his own sermon to give this morning, but it was in part a commentary on the different expectations in British and American Cultures regarding funding of social causes. Michael Bloomberg being an example of Wealthy American philanthropists, using his wealth to encourage cities to do radical things to improve urban life in Europe. Boris was keen to point out the benefit of having investors, risk takers, engaging in improving society rather than just governments.
The failure to recognise the issues in society which need help, or worse to simply ignore our neighbours because we’re happier living in our own circle, is something we should all keep in mind. Last week, as we welcomed the horses of Hyde Park into our forecourt, we were recognising part of the community in which we live. When the existence of the stables was under threat it was by bringing this part of our community out into the open, making them visible and undeniable to all, that the stables and horse riding on the estate were protected. By getting to know the people and horses, rather than hiding the issues around them being here, the community has been enriched.
A number of people went to St Paul’s Cathedral this week for a panel discussion on Compassion. One of the speakers was Camilla Batmanghelidjh. Her work with children in some areas of this city where gang violence is a huge issue, has led to a number of children and teenagers moving away from violent crime. By recognising the individuals, acknowledging that they have been ignored and rejected by society and by caring for them as individuals who both need and deserve love and compassion, has helped them move away from gang culture. The Metropolitan police’s head of gangs and organised crime, Cdr Steve Rodhouse, recently pointed out how important it is for the issue of gangs to be recognised and brought into the light, so that it is properly dealt with. In an article in the Evening Standard on Thursday, he noted that the whole community has to make it clear that gang violence won’t be tolerated. At the same time, giving the children a chance, giving them a way out, is an essential part of both the police’s and Camilla’s work to stop gang violence.
Where in our own community of Hyde Park do we need to be honest about the causes of disquiet. It is easy to hide the real issues and simply try and move issues and people on, get them out of our neighbourhood, making them somebody else’s problem. Ignoring their humanity, ignoring the names of the people involved.
The work of the Reckless Giving project last year, raising money for both projects on our doorsteps, which we can see and build a relationship with, but also for those far away, is a good example of how we have sought as a community not to be blind to the grief of others.
Today’s parable ends with some brilliant rhetoric. Dives tries to convince Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, to show them a better way. ‘but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ According to Abraham Lazarus’ rising from the dead won’t convince those who don’t repent after reading the Scriptures.
There is an echo here of the story of Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother, who Jesus raises from the dead in John’s Gospel, leading to Jesus’ conviction, rather than to people turning towards and following of Jesus. The ending of the parable also points to Jesus’ own resurrection. We are reminded that Jesus’ death and resurrection allowed him to bridge the unbridgeable chasm between Hades and Heaven.
So while there is always more to do, and there are always things we feel that we have failed to do.
We can confess, in the words of our liturgy, the things we have done wrong, but also the things we have failed to do. And in confessing we can have confidence in being forgiven for our shortcomings. In confession, we remind ourselves that it’s not just about doing good to those we know and like, but about being good neighbours to those we don’t know. But we aren’t confessing so that we feel guilty, rather we confess to be forgiven and to motivate ourselves to continue to grow and do better.
Lazarus reminds us that it’s important we don’t walk around blind to those around us, or trying to find ways to hide the things we’re uncomfortable with, or ignoring the people we don’t know. This starts here, inside this church community. In many ways it was exercised on Friday night during the Dog Collar’s Dinner. As people travelled from one house to another, they talked to different people from this congregation, getting to know people they had perhaps never spoken to before. Partners and friends came along and were made to feel welcome and accepted as part of this community. St John’s is known for being a very friendly church. That friendliness spills over into the way we engage with the whole community, like at Horseman’s or during the Reckless Giving fund raising. That getting to know each other, getting to know each other by name, as individuals, can transform the way people live their lives and makes our wider community a better place.
So, while it’s something we are generally good at, I want to challenge you to speak to somebody whose name you don’t know during coffee and fizz. Somebody who you’ve never talked to before, or somebody you talked to 6 months ago and are now embarrassed because you can’t remember their name. Don’t be shy about asking each others names, lets be gracious in accepting that somebody doesn’t already know our name.
Lets not ignore uncomfortable truths or the humanity of each other. Lets join with Christ in bridging the chasms between people, and letting that sense of revolutionary inclusivism spill out into the streets of this parish.