Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | September 25, 2022
A few doors down the street from where I lived in Clarion, Iowa there was a big Victorian style house. It was three stories tall, with a wrap-around porch. The house had sat empty for a couple of years and needed a lot of work to make it livable.
A new family moved to town and bought the old house. It was said that the folks who bought the place had money; no one could say how much exactly, but the word was, they were rich. They had enough money to buy a run-down old place and fix it up in grand style. Within a year of their buying it, the old house was a showplace. One Christmas they hosted a big party and invited all their new friends and neighbors.
Well, almost all their neighbors. The people from across the street were never invited. Bonnie and Greg were their names. They were a young couple in their 20’s and they had three or four young children. They were what would qualify as poor people in that small town.
The first time I met them was when they came to the food pantry and then asked me to conduct their wedding. Out of curiosity, I asked them, “What brought you to ask me to do your wedding?” they said I was the fourth minister on their list. The other three gave them excuses as to why they wouldn’t do it. They became part of what I called my “Underground Church.” Qualifications for joining this congregation seemed simply to be that other churches and ministers couldn’t be bothered.
Bonnie and Greg were hard to miss. In the summer their kids were all over the place. Splashing around in a little wading pool in the front yard. Picking up dust and grime. Riding their bikes up and down the sidewalk. Their shirts always seemed decorated with a melted chocolate; their noses always ran. They always seemed to be having a lot of fun.
And the cars they had. Not rust-marked family sedans, grown respectable with age; but old beat-up, redneck cars with big tires and loud engines. Half the time jacked up in the driveway cars. Always some uncle or brother-in-law in coveralls working on a car with parts strewn about.
Whenever the grass needed mowing, which was most of the time, the five-dollar garage sale lawn mower was usually broken. That too was usually in the yard with pieces of it lying around.
People around town seemed afraid of Greg; probably because his appearance inspired fear. The best way to describe his demeanor was that he always looked as if he had just escaped from prison. Sometimes he would talk tough to match his looks, but he never did violence, because he was at heart, a gentle soul. Had there been hills in that part of the country, then Bonnie and Greg would have been called Hillbillies.
The fellow in the newly renovated house across the street would tell Greg and Bonnie, “I would appreciate it if you would keep your kids out of my yard.” They would look at him as if he was speaking a foreign language. Of a summer evening, he liked to sit out on the front porch and enjoy the cool breezes with a gin and tonic in hand. Sometimes friends would drop by to join him. But how could one sit on the verandah and enjoy a cool drink with a view of the drama hillbilly junction constantly unfolding across the street?
That was a problem, if not the problem; his problem, in any event. Inquiries to the city produced warnings about keeping the grass mowed and junked cars off the property. But these warnings from the city never produced the intended results. Inquiries to the landlord were answered with, “They pay their rent, that’s all I care about.”
Then the rich man had an idea. It was so simple he wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before. Go back to the landlord and offer to buy the place. Make the deal so sweet he couldn’t refuse it. A check was written for a tidy sum and now the rich man owned the eyesore that was despoiling his view.
Of course, it’s not in proper form to go about evicting the poor. There are rules against that sort of thing. One can’t just tell people to leave. But one can raise the rent so high as to make it unaffordable. Thus, may one force undesirable tenants to seek new lodgings. Which he did and which they did.
Once the human unsightliness was removed, the rest was no problem. The rich man gave the fire department $200 dollars and they burned down the house for a training exercise. Problem solved. Now he could relax on his front porch, cool drink in hand and enjoy a view for those summer nights, unobstructed by any unsightly poverty.
Maybe when you a hear story like this you wonder how people could be so selfish or cruel. Maybe you feel a little uncomfortable; while it doesn’t seem right to dislodge poor people, who wants to live across the street from the grapes of wrath? No matter where we place right or wrong in a story like this, it seems a case can always be argued for either side.
That’s the problem with such stories. Justice or injustice is often a matter of perspective. We like to think we would always be on the side of truth and justice. But then, we appreciate hard work and the rewards it offers. If our means provide us the good life, what’s so wrong with living that life? Can we be faulted for that?
Scripture challenges us to examine our comfort zones. That’s because it’s becomes easy to trust in the security wrought by our own efforts. Jesus told a story about a rich man and poor man. They lived close by each other, but had no real relationship, no sense of community. The rich man lived a life of luxury. The poor man, whose name in the story was Lazarus, lived outside the gate of the rich man’s house.
Both men ended up dying, and there was a reversal of fortune. Lazarus found himself seated at the banquet table with Father Abraham. The rich man found himself in hell. His was not a hell of fire and brimstone, but a hell of misery and deprivation. It’s as if in the afterlife, they traded places.
The barriers that the rich man created to prevent himself from seeing the poor people outside his gate, followed him into the afterlife. Only now, the gate was sealed shut and he found himself on the outside looking in. Before, he could have opened the gate, in the very least to offer a hand of friendship. Now, all he could do was live with his misery and regrets.
In his book, A Captive Voice, David Buttrick writes:
“The story is surely told to stir concern for the poor who, whether we wish to acknowledge them or not, are our kinfolk. How would we rewrite the story if we could?
Would we not walk out of ourselves into a world where people hunger and thirst and claim them as our brothers and sisters, which of course, in God’s sight they are? Perhaps then the walls would come tumbling down. Think of it, the gate of our everyday indifference is a gate to and from heaven.”
The story of the rich man and the poor man is a story about choices. All the gates in our lives, the barriers that define our comfort zones, also serve as avenues into the world. The story is not about fear of what might happen to us after we die. There are better reasons to be faithful. Most of them having to do with the fact that our God is a God of present hope. Justice is here and now.
In the “Time to Prepare” section of our bulletin this morning I included the first part of a poem by Kahlil Gibran, “On Giving.” The entire poem reads –
“You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
There are those who give little of the much which they have–and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving.”
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.”
Bonnie and Greg found another place to live. They were still regular customers at the food pantry. Sometimes Greg would ask me for a few dollars for odds and ends. Bonnie might be having a nicotine fit and he didn’t want to go back to the house without a pack of smokes. Sure, no problem.
The time came when I was leaving Clarion to move to St. Louis Park. A couple of days before the move, Greg came to the food pantry and I loaded him up with groceries. Before he left, he noticed a cake mix on the shelf and he asked if he could take that. Sure, no problem, take what you need.
The night before the move, we were getting the last bits organized, when there was a knock on the door. It was Greg, and my first thought was, “Does he need more food, already?” But then I saw that he was holding a cake in his hands. He said, “I made you this cake. You’ve always been good to us.” There was no frosting on it, and it was bit lopsided, but to me it was a most beautiful cake. Amen.