November 4 (OS October 22), 2018: 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 6. Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Abercius, bishop and wonderworker of Hierapolis (167). 7 Holy Youths (“7 Sleepers”) of Ephesus: Maximilian, Jamblichus, Martinian, Dionysius, Antoninus, Constantine (Hexakustodianos), and John (250). Martyrs Alexander the bishop, Heraclius, Anna, Elizabeth, Theodota and Glyceria, at Adrianopolis (2nd-3r dc.).
Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI
For mercy to be merciful, it must be effective.
Speaking to the wealth Christians in his community, the Apostle James makes this very point when he takes them to task for not caring for the needs of their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ. Good intentions and good words need to be followed up with effective action:
If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (2:15-17, NJKV).
This, however, isn’t simply a matter practicality or utility. Rather the need for mercy to be effective is rooted in the actions of God.
St Paul tells us that God doesn’t simply overlook our sins; He overcomes the power of sin and death in our lives (see, Romans 8:2) and as we hear this morning makes us “alive together with Christ.”
Mercy, in other words, is a matter of prudence. The merciful heart is first aware of the need and then acts to provide the good thing that is lacking.
Look at the rich man in the Gospel. He is aware of Lazarus’ need. And how could he not? Lazarus “laid at his gate.”
The rich man is not condemned because he failed to lift Lazarus out of poverty. He is not condemned because he failed to bring Lazarus into his home and give him a seat at this table.
No, the rich man is condemned because he failed to give Lazarus “the crumbs which fell” from his table. He is condemned because he failed to show even the mercy of the dogs who “came to lick” Lazarus’ sores.
To say that our mercy must be effective doesn’t obligate us to great things. We are only called to do what he can, however little that might be.
Again, the rich man is not condemned for failing to lift Lazarus into the middle class. No, he is condemned for not easing, even if only temporarily, the sting of poverty.
What about us? How merciful is our mercy?
Relative not simply to the New Testament era but even within the lifetime of our grandparents and parents, we live in an unimaginably wealth age. Even within my lifetime, we have become so much wealthier.
When I an infant, I slept not in a crib but a dresser drawer. In the first year or so of their marriage, my parents didn’t own a refrigerator. They used a literal “icebox.” When I began elementary school my great-grandmother still cooked on a wood burning stove.
And now? Now all but the poorest of the human family now are richer than the rich man in the Gospel.
Prosperous as we are, what then are we to do?
Given all that, in principle, we could do, all the needs we could, in theory at least, meet, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Our prosperity and the freedom it provides can paralyze us.
But the standard we hear in the Gospel is not that we must do great things but only that we do the small things we can do.
Our mercy, in other words, must not only be effective but humble. What might an effective but humble mercy look like?
Social scientists tell us that the most effective way for churches to help the poor is not so much by giving money or things. Rather, as communities rooted in the shared moral vision of the Gospel, churches have the unique ability to help not only the poor but all those on the margin of society. Churches do this by making room for them in their midst.
We help not primarily through material means but by inviting and making room for others here in our worship this morning. We help others by changing ourselves and our community by inviting and integrating others into our life together in Christ.
Let’s be clear.
We are not in the inner city. Given our location on a university campus, we are generally not confronted with the effects of generational poverty.
Based on where God has placed us, we are called to be merciful to those who for all their great talents and abilities, are often as lonely and isolated in their own way as was Lazarus in his. Not all poverty is material. Often it is social, moral and spiritual.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! It is our primary task to open our hearts and community to those who don’t know the “kindness” of God. It is our task, our vocation as a community, to help others see that they too are the God’s “workmanship, created in Jesus Christ for good works.”
That this our other Lazarus is a student, professor or staff member at a major research university doesn’t diminish the importance of what God has called us to do.
To do this effectively and humbly, all we must do is what Christ calls us to do. We make at least a little room in our lives for those we meet. What could be easier, simpler than this?