Earlier this week, I walked in (late!) to a meeting at church. We always begin this meeting with a reading of the Gospel for the week, and I’d just missed it. One of our committee members looked up and said, “Don’t worry—Jesus healed ten lepers and one said thank you—that’s about it!”
While our synopsis-giver was kidding, and we all laughed, I think we laughed, in part, because this brief and cursorial “taking away” from the Gospel hits pretty close to home. The Gospels are easy to ignore—especially when their stories are well-known, familiar, and have been fodder for those felt-board diagrams used in the 80’s (usually involving sheep).
For those of us who are ministers and attend worship more than one a weekend, the temptation to let that Gospel slip by without much processing is even greater. By the time you’ve heard your Deacon proclaim the account of Lazarus the beggar three times, your mind is ready to move elsewhere. And, this is precisely what happened to me—serving as accompanist for several Masses a few weekends ago—when the lectionary cycle brought us to the account of Lazarus, the sign of suffering, and the call for those of us with hard hearts to hear the voice of God crying in our midst.
While I didn’t pay much attention during the Gospel, I began to pay attention during the homily—but not to our preacher-presider. I’d heard this homily once already, and he was describing how easy it was for us to ignore the homeless person on the corner of our state highway, to reject the lonely high school student at lunch, and to forget the angst that refugees experience as they negotiate life in a strange new place.
As our homilist continued, my attention was grabbed by a sudden movement in the congregation. As accompanist, I often have a unique vantage point—and in my line of vision, I could see a small boy, maybe 7 or 8, hunched over with his hands covering his face, rocking back and forth, weeping. I watched as people around him responded. An older lady tried patting him on the back—and he ignored her. A middle-school girl edged away from him with a look of annoyance. Another young boy came and sat next to him, whispering something into the child’s ear. Eventually, the little boy lifted his head, furiously wiped away tears, and grabbed a missalette, resolutely staring into it with a stoney expression.
The whole scene had transfixed me—not because the child was crying, but because the child was Burmese.
In our little parish on the south side of Indianapolis, we have a significant number of Burmese refugees; Indianapolis itself is a relocation area for the Burmese who have been escaping religious and ethnic persecution. Last year, Indianapolis had nearly 14,000 refugees from Burma, about 80% of whom are Chin, Karen, and Karenni. They often have few skills in English, aside from needing to negotiate strange new stores, food, clothes, and roadways—not to mention the cultural idiosyncrasies (of which there are many) in any given Midwestern city.
It is immensely easy to ignore the suffering in our midst. And, preoccupied as I normally am during worship, I’d never quite bothered to notice how many Burmese families were part of our congregation. After watching the little boy, I began to scan the congregation. I realized that about a quarter of the assembly that morning was probably of Burmese origin. “How is it possible,” I wondered, “for me not to have noticed such a dramatic shift in population and congregational make-up?” But, I suppose, as the story of Lazarus suggests, if we can ignore Moses and the prophets, not even someone rising from the dead would waken us from our stupor.
Just as the rich man longed for Lazarus to dip his finger in cool water, the little boy’s tears began trickling into my consciousness; sitting on my organ bench, I began to wonder not “how could someone ignore the suffering in their midst,” but how “could I ignore the suffering in my midst?”
I admit I do not have an immediate answer. But, in the meantime, I think I should start paying better attention to not only the Gospel—but to the world around me, the one to which the Gospel calls us to go out and spread the good news.