Tuesday, 18 October 2016

King's College Valedictory Sermon

Luke 16:19-31

This simple piece of purple cloth may not mean much to any of you.  But 2000 years ago when Jesus was telling his story this purple cloth was hard to come by.  It was an extravagance.  It was a display of wealth.  It was a symbol of power.

We have different kinds of purple cloth in these days.  Our wealth might be symbolised by the kind of car we drive, the size of our portfolio, or the size of our house.  Our wealth might be demonstrated by our position on the corporate rung or the number of letters before, or after our name.  The purple cloth symbolises the privilege of education, power, authority and money. 

And on this night when we celebrate the Valedictorians this purple cloth may symbolise the opportunities that lie before you.  As young men you may not quite appreciate the access to wealth that you have already had – the wealth of experiences and education that you have been exposed to, and the wealth that might lie ahead for you.  But on this night as we gather and listen for what our futures might hold it is clear to me that we in this room, all of us, have purple cloth.

The story that Jesus tells, a story known as a parable, is a primarily not a story about whether a person is going up to heaven or down to hell.  Whilst Jesus uses this as his context Jesus’ primary concern is about how to live in this world and he is challenging assumptions and making a corrective.

The symbol of power and wealth, the purple cloth, had become a blindfold for him to the needs of others.  The access he had to be able to live a life of leisure meant that as he came and went from his home he was blind to the suffering man at his door.

Part of the irony of this story for Jesus listeners, and so now also us, is that this poor man has a name, Lazarus.  In both the ancient world and in our contemporary one it might be assumed that those with the purple cloth are known – that they have made a name for themselves.  Yet, in this story, it is the rich man who remains anonymous whilst the beggar is known and named.

It may be an interesting aside for those of you who read the scriptures that Lazarus is in fact the only character in any of Jesus’ parables that is given a name and in being given a name Lazarus is given value. He is known by God.

The message here is pretty clear for those of us who hold the purple cloth there is a responsibility to remove the blindfold and see the suffering and need in the world and to respond.  To show compassion and generosity.

For those of you who are about to finish your time at Kings you may discover that there is a much bigger world out there where people suffer and where our struggles as human beings appear to be intensifying.

There is a sense in which college life is a bit like life in a humidicrib.  It is controlled and contained environment and if you want to, you can traverse your years in college concerned only for grades and your sporting and social life within the college.  In some senses protected from some of the big issues we face.

Yet whilst you have been in the protected world of Kings the rest of the world continues on:

The Syrian Crisis has deepened and concerns about terrorism have grown.  Malaysian Airflight 17 was shot from the sky over the Ukraine.  There are more refugees and asylum seekers across the globe than at any other point in history.  There have been typhoons and cyclones, earthquakes, floods and fires.  In West Papua the indigenous people continue to be persecuted by the Ind.  Whilst in Australia the incarceration rates, abuse, and suicide of young aboriginal people remains at shocking levels.  And just today I read that across Australia the number of children living below the poverty line has increased from 13% to 17%.  That’s nearly 1 in 5 kids living in poverty in this country.  We do not have to go far to find Lazarus at our gate.

Our obsession with consumerism and the need for economic growth in a finite world have left us coming far later in our response to climate change than I am comfortable with.  Just this month we have passed 400 part per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  One article I read about this suggested we may face sea level rises of a number of metres in the next 50-150 years.  If this is the case we will see climate refugees coming to us from our neighbouring Pacific Islands.  Such is the deep impact human beings are having on the environment some scientists have labelled this age in which we live the Anthropocene.  The potential is that that more people are going to be impacted and endure great suffering in the decades to come, there will be even more people like Lazarus.

As people who hold the purple cloth, for those of you young men embarking into the age of the Anthropocene, the question is will the cloth become a blindfold for you or will you see Lazarus? Will you see those who suffer? Will you make the connections between our own lifestyle and the condition of others? Will you see and will you respond?  Do you have the capacity to shift not only your own mindset but the mindset and the overarching narrative of our culture which is very much about personal success and happiness?

I cannot answer this question for you but I can identify how difficult it is to make the leaps that I am speaking about.  The great Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor talks about the blindfolds we wear to not only block out those who suffer around us but also to keep out God.  He describes us as having become buffered from God and each other.  Rather than the porous life of our predecessors which allows God in we seek to hold God and each other at bay.  The constant response that I have had from many of you “that we don’t do spiritual stuff at Kings” is a reflection of that very buffering. 

So with you on the cusp of leaving Kings and with this story of the purple cloth of the rich man and the suffering of Lazarus I can offer you two ways of listening to what I am saying.

The first is to say to you that this story is a political, philosophical, moral and ethical imperative which challenges those of us who have the purple cloth, who are wealthy, to think of more than ourselves.  In an age of rampant individualism and isolationism the challenge of this story is to live for the community of humanity more than simply for yourself.  For me that is the basic meaning, the secular meaning, the simplistic meaning of the story. 

But as a follower of Jesus there is also a deeper meaning that I would highlight, a spiritual meaning.  All lives matter, and even the lowest anonymous beggar like Lazarus is known to God.  Our lives are intricately entwined and joined to one another’s lives and to God’s own life.  The spiritual invitation is that Jesus’ presence in the world is an invitation to you to share more deeply in life by living a divine life; to live as God created you to live caring for one another and sharing all that you have for the sake of the common good.

This kind of challenge can bring phenomenal changes in a person’s life and it brings to mind the hymn write John Newton who live about 150 years ago.  He was a slave trader who had an encounter with God and so gave up his purple cloth – he turned away from trading in people’s lives and began to help people.  Many of you will know the words of his famous hymn:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see

He had been blinded by the world and by the purple cloth of wealth and ambition.  The change in his life was monumental.  He began to live on earth as it is in heaven. 

This simple piece of purple cloth may not mean much to any of you.  But 2000 years ago when Jesus was telling his story this purple cloth was hard to come by.  It was an extravagance.  It was a display of wealth.  It was a symbol of power.

What will you do with the purple cloth you hold? Will it become a blindfold to the needs of others?  Will it become a gift that allows you to help others?  Will it become the inspiration for you to seek more deeply into God’s love for you and all people? What will do with the wealth of knowledge and opportunity that you have?

As always my invitation to you is to be open to the spiritual meaning of what I have shared and if something has challenged or moved you to speak to me or another person of faith that might help you understand the God of love who comes seeking us.

Regardless, of how you might answer the questions I have put before you it is my prayer that God will bless you and guide you in the years ahead and I would say to you that it has been a privilege to get to know you.  May God bless you all!

No comments:

Post a Comment