Living with Flash

Colossians 3:12-17/Luke 16:19-31

For the past seven years, I have done a sermon series entitled “The Beatitudes of Broadway.” We use a different Broadway show each week as the modern lesson. We will continue that tradition early next year here, and I hope we will have some fun with it as a church with a true Broadway tradition.

The ironic thing about this hit series is that, although I have preached on 20 or 30 Broadway shows, I have not seen most of them. (David is the Broadway queen in our house.) I’ve been preaching long enough, however, to know it’s not a problem to preach about something you know nothing about.

The truth is I do that every Sunday, because it is hubris for anyone to think they really KNOW anything about God. After all, that is why we call this “faith.” I have much more respect for someone struggling with the questions than I do for a person who thinks they have all the answers, especially about God.

This month, we have been using superheroes as our modern parables in the hope that we might uncover our own superpowers and become the superhero of God’s dreams. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about some of the superheroes we’ve talked about, until today’s. Somehow, my household became a bit obsessed with the television series “The Flash,” which premiered five years ago.

That may be because Grant Gustin, the actor playing Barry Allen, aka the Flash, is cute and looks good in his red suit, but I think what has held my attention is the Flash is a superhero who struggles with the limits and consequences of his power. As the “fastest man alive,” he has to work not to outrun the foundational values of his life.

Family is one of those values, and the beautiful thing about this series is family isn’t about only blood relations. Barry was raised by an African American police officer, and his team of misfits at Star Labs all become his family, in the best sense of that word.

Also, unlike most superheroes, the Flash isn’t reluctant to ask for help, and he really does believe his team is his true superpower. They often confront him on his stuff, and, though he resists at first (like most men!), he eventually listens and is willing to be vulnerable and apologetic.

What intrigues me most about this character, though, is his relentless hope. This includes his belief that even his worst enemy has some good and MIGHT be saved. His hope often leads to conflicts with his team and frequently makes everyone’s lives harder and the task riskier. Still, he persists in believing in the power of redemption. In the end, he is simply kind.

Kindness and power are an all-too-rare combination. As we work to discover our own superpowers, and affirm our divine self worth, there is a risk that we will forget to be kind.

If we all got to pick a superpower—like flying, or shooting fire out of our fingers, or reading minds—I doubt any of us would pick kindness. Yet, in most of the funerals I have done for superheroes, that has been the characteristic most often mentioned. Some people just seem to have that gift, and it makes the world a much better place. The Bible, however, doesn’t think of it so much as a gift that is given as a behavior we can put onto our lives like a garment.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

The books of Galatians and Ephesians both call kindness a “fruit of the Spirit,” which indicates that it is something we can grow and develop as an expression of our spiritual lives. That is important because Christians, quite frankly, are too often unkind. The number one Christian radio station in the country is in Dallas, and they have done an excellent job of blanketed the city with bumper stickers featuring their call letters. A friend’s father often said he was grateful to see one of the stickers because it warned him that the driver was going to drive like a … well, that there driving was going to be neither kind nor polite.

We know what he means, but honesty compels me to ask, myself if not you, “In this age of polarization, as we seek to combat injustice, how do we remember that it usually is better to be kind than be right?”

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story of a rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus. Both men die, as happens to all people, rich and poor. Then Jesus describes a great chasm between them. This chasm existed before their deaths and found a manifestation after.

It is easy for we liberals simply to believe the rich man was selfish and greedy and, therefore, was punished. That’s okay, until we realize that, by global standards, you and I also are rich. I read that if you earn more than $10,000 a year you are richer that 82 percent of the world. Our own riches seem to reframe Jesus’ story.

Am I the only one bothered by the fact that Jesus doesn’t tell us if Lazarus was a good person or a bad person? Is Jesus saying that he got rewarded simply for being poor?

Is Jesus saying that failing to bridge the chasm between what we have and what others lack shapes the part of us that we will carry into eternity?

I don’t think God sends some of us to heaven and some of us to hell. I do wonder, though, if we create an eternal state for our souls by how we treat others, particularly those at the margins of life.

Now, you don’t need me, nor the Bible, nor even Jesus to remind you that you should be compassionate and kind; hopefully your mama taught you that much. I think the point of this story, and perhaps this sermon, is to challenge us to see that, when we fail to live into what we already know is good and right, we create a great chasm between us and a life of eternal quality.

I’ll confess compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience are not always my superpowers, but when they are, I certainly feel better about myself and about my life. Maybe only then do I break through to the eternal part of my life. Ultimately, if you want to feel good about yourself, then be a good person.

We need to make the better, and often more difficult, choices. Making different choices about how we treat other people, especially those who we might otherwise ignore right at our doors, is risky and costly, so we avoid it, even though we know it is the right and good thing to do.

In the parable, the rich man cared about his biological family and wanted to save them from making the same mistakes he had made, but he never even saw Lazarus laying right there at his door.

That is the key to compassion and kindness becoming your superpower. We must open our eyes and truly see people as members of our family. Lazarus was once an infant who coddled and cooed; a toddler, a little boy, someone’s son and grandson. Perhaps he was a husband, father, or grandfather. Being a beggar at a rich man’s gate was not his mother’s dream for him when he was born, and it was not his lifelong goal.

Life happens. Yes, sometimes it is the result of bad choices, but circumstances often have a mind of their own. The challenge is that our belief in an American meritocracy is held by the winners who got the breaks we didn’t always earn.

The problem with living with a meritocratic worldview is that compassion and kindness are reduced to pity because, if we get what we deserve, then, subconsciously, we believe the poor, the suffering, and the struggling are getting what they deserve. There is a chasm between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the successful and the failures, but, in actuality, the chasm may be in the souls of life’s “winners” who Jesus says use the wrong score card.

In this list of biblical superpowers, humility is at the center because, without it, none of the others are possible.

Humility is one virtue our current president never pretends to have, yet most religiously conservative voters in this country don’t seem to care. Meritocracy means they subconsciously believe that, because he is rich and successful by one standard, he must deserve the position into which the system placed him.

Now, that may be easy enough to see in him and his supporters, but where does this manifest itself in us? How do we maintain a healthy self-esteem and still walk humbly with God?

Which brings us back to the Flash. He is vulnerable and able to acknowledge his mistakes, which is why he is also able to seek the good even in those who would hurt him. Ultimately, family is most important, and family isn’t just the people you are kin to.

Humility is seeing everyone, including ourselves, as God sees them. This isn’t a profound request, but I want to ask us to do something as an urban church. It is a very UN-New York thing, but, as you pass a homeless person or encounter someone asking for money, LOOK AT THEM. See them.

Whether you give them money or not is up to you, but try to see a child of God, a member of your family. Speak with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Then, whisper a prayer for them and their family.

Kindness can be your superpower in a flash if you humbly try to see other people as members of your family.