Stories Beget Stories

Audio from 9:00 am sermon

In the introduction to his new collection of assorted writings, A View from the Cheap Seats, one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, who’s written theologically-charged fantasy novels such as American Gods and Good Omens (with the late Terry Pratchett), names all the writers he’s read evangelists. Evangelists because reading one author, such as Tolkien, led Gaiman to yet another storyteller and from thence to yet another writer—a journey for him of good news through words and imagination. Stories beget stories, and the stories we tell bring tangibility to ideas and concepts that we can’t otherwise touch.

For example: How many of you watch 30 Rock? It’s one of my comfort shows; one of my favorite episodes is called “Leap Day”—it aired February 28, 2012. In it, Leap Day is a major holiday where people dress in yellow and blue (heaven forbid if you’re not wearing it), nothing that happens that day counts, and an old man named Leap Day William, who lives in the Mariana Trench, emerges every four years to exchange children’s (and adults’) tears for candy.

One of the storylines in the episode revolves around CEO Jack Donaghy—the stereotype of an ultra-Republican, ultra-conservative businessman, played by Alec Baldwin. Jack sees Leap Day as an opportunity for making extra profit for the company and even has a bet with his business school friends as to who will make the most money on Leap Day—the goal causes him to neglect his year-old daughter. During a rhubarb-induced slumber, he is visited by the Spirit of Leap Day Past, Present, and Future, and after seeing his grown daughter “experimenting with liberalism” (she’s participating in a Habitat for Humanity build) in the future, has a change of heart and goes home to spend time with her, after giving Kenneth the page money enough to buy the biggest rhubarb (the holiday food) in the shop down the street. “The one as big as me, sir?” Kenneth asks as all ends happily.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the storyline was begotten from Charles Dickens’ well-known tale, A Christmas Carol. I know I’m getting to Christmas early, but then again, so are the stores. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his change of heart is a familiar story to most; if not the print version, then through movie or TV versions. Does the mention of the story conjure up certain images for you? Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s poor yet cheerful clerk. Or his son, Tiny Tim, who wears iron braces on his legs and uses a crutch, and whose words, “God bless us every one,” still moves me when I reach the end of the story.

And Scrooge. A name that’s even made it into our vernacular: “Don’t be a scrooge!” we say to those who seem in danger of being curmudgeonly and ungenerous. In the story, Dickens describes Scrooge as cold. He’s well-to-do and callous—he won’t keep Christmas, saying “humbug!” to all. He grudgingly gives Bob Cratchit a day off for the holiday; won’t accept an invitation to dinner from his laughing nephew, Fred; and when gentlemen knock on his door to ask for a donation for the poor, Scrooge asks “are there no prisons?” “are the workhouses no longer in operation?” Of course, he gives no money. He won’t keep Christmas at all. All who know him feel there is no hope for reversal. Scrooge rejects kindness and caring and turns his back on those in need. He may not feast every day—he generally dines on porridge at a tavern but neither will he share his wealth.

And yet, someone comes back from the dead to warn him that his dealings in life will affect him in the hereafter. While Scrooge dines on his soup in his cold rooms, he is visited by the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley—I’m sure you can envision it–weighted down by the chains he forged in life through his actions: a long, heavy chain with which he must spend eternity. He must wander the earth as well, no chance of happiness or peace. Yet Marley is given the chance to warn his friend Scrooge, to give him a chance to escape the same end.

And so probably the most familiar part of the tale—Scrooge is then visited by three Spirits; those of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Scrooge sees what he was in his youth—a boy at school with a lively imagination, an apprentice clerk who enjoyed making merry with his boss and friends; he comes from a not very wealthy family. When he’s a young man, his fiancé breaks their engagement—Scrooge is becoming enamored with wealth, becoming hard-hearted and ambitious. It wouldn’t be right for him to marry a woman with no dowry, so she generously leaves. In all the scenes he’s shown, Scrooge easily reconnects with his old self, reliving eagerly the joyous ones, and feeling sorrow for how he’s behaved recently, wishing he’d acted differently.

In the end, we see a total reversal, repentance in Ebenezer. After the last visit, it’s Christmas morning; it’s not too late. Ebenezer opens his curtains, opens his window and shouts to a boy outside, asking if the big prize turkey is still in the window at the butcher’s. “The one that’s bigger than me?” the boy asks. “Yes!” Scrooge tosses an excess of coins to the boy. The turkey is to be a surprise for the Cratchit family, they’re going to feast; though earlier in the book, we see that they easily make a feast of what they have—that the feast is in being together, is in the love they have for each other.

Dickens and the Victorians loved the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus—it certainly helped to beget A Christmas Carol. Dickens does some reversals of his own—the biggest one is that the rich man does have someone to come back and “bear witness” to him. But I’m not here to read an English paper comparing the two stories. It’s enough for now to know that one is born from the other.

Which brings us to our gospel reading for today—the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Jesus tells this parable on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to his own crucifixion (part of me now pictures Jesus and the disciples sitting around a campfire). This is a story of rejection and reversals. The Pharisees, who have taken Jesus to task because of who he associates with—the tax collector and others—have rejected those same outcasts and rejected Jesus as well. We have a classic story of the reversal of fates of the rich man and Lazarus. Can you picture Lazarus? He’s a beggar, covered in sores, in pain and hungry. We could get graphic here imagining the pus and the blood running. And I’ll leave it to you to imagine whether the dogs who lick his sores are being compassionate in their doggy way or have a different end in mind.

Can you picture the rich man? He’s wearing purple robes—very exclusive ones as purple is meant only for members of the Roman royal family. And he feasts every day, disregarding the beggar at his gate. Imagine that—feasting everyday in the same way that the feast was given for the return of the prodigal son; Luke uses the same word in each story. And after he dies that he is in Hades, a dry, dusty, hot place, being tormented while Lazarus, who’s also died, is in the bosom of Abraham, at peace. The rich man calls, callously, for Lazarus to be sent to him to put a cooling drop of water on his tongue. We heard Abraham’s refusal as well as the refusal to send Lazarus to the five brothers. There is no hope for the rich man, it seems.

This parable is the only one in which a person is given a name—Lazarus. I find it interesting that medieval folks tried to give the rich man a name—mostly commonly Dives, which is a misreading of the Latin word for “rich man.” So basically, they were still calling him “rich man.”

And the chasm. Do you see a wide gulf, say, like the Grand Canyon—so wide that you can’t reach across it? Or do you see the gate that separated the two men?
So what stories does Rich Man and Lazarus beget for you? Did Jesus hope that his audience would go forward and retell this story to others? What resonates in this gospel for you?

What comes to mind for me is a quote from Scrooge’s nephew as he describes Christmas: “The only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on another journey.”

These words remind of an experience I had a couple of weeks ago. I went to Goodwill; I was buying something for a costume. Outside the store, sat a young man, a teenager really, homeless. He had a variant of the usual cardboard sign: “Anything helps. God Bless.” A couple of people passed him by as they entered the store. I looked at him, and said, “I’m sorry; I don’t have any cash on me.” He answered, “That’s ok; just thank you for saying something. That’s enough. God bless you.” I went into the store, and didn’t think until later that I could have offered to buy him a Coke and chips.

So I wonder: do we share things in common with the rich man in the story? I don’t mean that we feast every day, callously disregarding the beggars at our gate, or that we are are destined for the heat of Hades, like the rich man. But we live in a culture that tries to teach us to love material possessions, that tells us stories about them—that the newest iPhone, the newest Tesla, the latest iteration of Pepsi or Coke, will help fulfill us, these stories are all we need in life; these things will keep us safe, and safely, behind our gates.

Like Scrooge, though, we have someone who came back from the dead, someone who loves us immeasurably, someone who through stories and example, reminds us to not only see the outcasts, but to share what we have now with them—even if it’s a kind word, an acknowledgement, a hug. We do have the resurrected Christ who wove stories throughout his journey to the crucifix to teach us, to help all try to make reversals, as needed, in our own journeys when we find ourselves reveling solely in our material things and forgetting those who might be outcasts, or are simply in need of our help. We have the feast that we share together at least every Sunday.

I wonder what stories will you beget with your life. Where will this gospel lead you?

God bless us, every one. Amen

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