16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 25, 2022 (Proper 21, Year C)

When I was in elementary school growing up in Baltimore, there was a bench outside of every classroom. This was not a bench you would use to relax after a hard session of playing dodgeball at recess. This was a different kind of bench. If you misbehaved, the teacher would send you to the bench. And you’d have to stand up in front of the class, do the walk of shame past the other students, open the door, and go sit on the bench. The threat of being sent to the bench always hung over the classroom as a behavioral deterrent. And I think the point was to go out there, sit on the bench, and reflect upon the crimes you’d committed against both the teacher and all of humanity. But all you really hoped for was that the principal, Mr. Kirk, wouldn’t wander down the hall and drag you into his office for a little chat.

Benches in general are tough places. I mean, sure a judge sits on a bench, and so does an organist for that matter. But in sports to get benched is a very public acknowledgment that you are underperforming. It is a place of shame, a signal that you don’t belong with the real players out on the field. It is a place to fidget and stew and dream about future glory if only you were given a chance. But in the meantime, you chew gum and stare at the action happening inside the lines and beyond your control.

In the ancient world there were also benches. These weren’t outside of classrooms or at sporting arenas but they stood outside the gates of the homes of the rich. Beggars would congregate on the bench in hopes that the wealthy homeowners would bestow alms upon them. This was a societal norm, part of the social contract. After a great feast, the rich would send leftovers out to those sitting on the bench. The hungry were fed and the rich felt virtuous in their act of charity. 

In the parable we just heard, the poor man Lazarus would lay outside the gate of the unnamed rich man’s home day after day. Maybe he stretched out upon the bench or maybe he just lay down next to it, too tired and hungry and beaten down by life to even sit on it. We hear that the rich man feasted sumptuously every day, while Lazarus would have been happy with a few scraps from his table. Surely, over time, the rich man recognized Lazarus, but he never really saw him. He certainly never viewed him as an equal, as a fellow child of God, despite their different circumstances or even precisely because of them. He looked right past him or perhaps if even noticed him at all, it was as little more than an eyesore, detracting from splendor of his magnificent home.

This contrast between wealth and poverty is stunning, jarring even. It reminds me of places like Atlantic City where obscenely appointed casinos with fountains and fancy restaurants and expensive suites coexist next to virtual slums. And it’s hard not to think about the growing income equality gap throughout our country, where the rich have ever more and the poor have ever less. 

This rather curious parable holds up 2,000 years later because we’re still dealing with the same issues in our own day. And I’d contend that this is less about what heaven and hell will look like — that’s not the point. Rather, it’s about the choices we all make every day. It’s about how we treat the people sitting outside on the benches in our own lives. It demands that we think about those sitting on the benches outside our homes and outside our offices and outside our families. 

Many in society would claim the rich man did nothing wrong. Many would take it a step further and say he was blessed by God. He was fabulously wealthy and he obviously enjoyed his wealth. He entertained lavishly, he had the fancy house, and all the best money could buy. He didn’t owe anyone anything, after all he earned it. Or at least inherited it.

So, why would he end up in that other place, the place of eternal torment? I think this whole parable points to what it means to follow God’s dream for us. The rich man is not condemned for his wealth, but for his lack of compassion. The will of God is to reach out to those who suffer, to help those in need, to assist those on the benches of society. And the rich man does not do that. The Psalmist lays out the way of God pretty clearly when he writes: “Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow.”

That seems pretty straightforward and so, again, we must ask ourselves in what ways are we doing this? How are we reaching out in love to those on the benches in our midst? The first thing we can do is to expand the notion of those who sit on the benches of our lives. It may be the person begging at the intersection in Boston, it may be the person who is lonely and without a place to go on the holidays, it may be a friend who’s simply feeling isolated and alone. Our role as followers of Jesus is to reach out. To care. To be there. To act. To join them on the bench. And that’s something we can all do no matter our social status or standing. That’s simply following the way of God. Sometimes it’s enough to sit beside someone on the bench and simply listen and see them and be available to them. 

And in another respect, we all take our turn on the bench, in one form or another. It may not be extreme poverty. But it may be through feelings of grief or unworthiness or guilt or heartbreak. It may be physical pain or emotional anxiety or feeling overwhelmed by life. There are moments in our lives when we need someone to simply sit beside us in our pain. It takes vulnerability to ask for help in a culture that idolizes strength. But asking for help, admitting we cannot do it all ourselves is strength in God’s vision. Scripture tells us that “Power is made perfect in weakness.” And coming out of the trauma of a pandemic, that’s what this community has to offer: strength through vulnerability. After all, we worship as Lord the one who was strung up on a cross to die. And yet here we are. Stronger together, standing in the warm glow of the resurrection to eternal life.

This has been a hard week in this community. Yesterday we gathered to bid farewell to a beloved parishioner, a husband, a father, a friend, a companion on this journey of life and faith. And yet at the heart of it all, we proclaimed with boldness that death is not the end, that hope conquers despair, that life itself endures. So reach out to those on the benches of this life. It may not  always change things in the short run, but it makes all the difference as we collectively live into God’s big, bold, beautiful dream for this community and for the world.


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