Wednesday Words
September 6, 2023

Jesse Kinne
Director of Communications and Outreach

Greetings, Bethany Community!

Well, now, for me that’s an especially meaning-laden address this week, because I’ve encountered so many Bethany’s recently!  I was updating my LinkedIn profile and found that numerous Bethany Lutheran Churches immediately populated the list of connection options, most of which had the same default icon – I couldn’t tell which was ours!  I’ve since updated our LinkedIn page with logo and location, but the name’s ubiquity on earth reminded me of the namesake’s magnanimity beyond.

The historical town of Bethany is a short distance from Jerusalem, and is the site where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, as told in the Gospel of John (and the extended version of the Gospel of Mark as well) – a miracle followed by the passion and crucifixion.  The symbolism of this sequence suggests a balancing out of forces, the exchanging of a life for a life.  But, then – Jesus is raised, too! (and in three days rather than four.) This subversion shows us that life and death are not equal forces in the presence of God, through whom corporeal renewal and a truer life-eternal are made generously possible.

Lazarus of Bethany is sometimes conflated with a parable in Luke 16, which tells of the beggar Lazarus and rich man Dives who, upon perishing, respectively proceed to Heaven and Hell.  Dives laments for his family’s likely future alongside him, and unsuccessfully petitions that Abraham send Lazarus to warn them against their ways.  The themes of generosity and mortality are inverted in this story.  Rather than bodily and spiritual generosity being the divine response to earthly deaths, spiritual suffering is upheld, rebirth withheld, for those who hoard treasures and worship pleasures of the mortal coil.

Although there are many other meanings latent within these stories, reading them as meaningfully conflated through the name Lazarus amplifies something which has to me always been a core message of Christianity: that life isn’t a zero-sum game.  Generosity renews us even as we fill the cups of others.

The parable of Dives and Lazarus has inspired some of the music I hold dearest to my heart.  British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1939 eponymous “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus” is based on a Christmas folk song (potentially dating to the Renaissance) telling the parable.  Here’s a great recording.  While I haven’t uncovered an explicit connection to the biblical story, there’s also Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 “Pictures at an Exhibition” piano suite (orchestrated by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922), composed in honor of his recently deceased friend Viktor Hartmann.  The latter’s paintings made while traveling abroad served as the inspirational basis for the work’s movements (internal passages), one of which is called “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle” – or, “Two [Polish] Jews: Rich and Poor.”  Although some of the paintings have been lost, we fortunately still have this pair of portraits.

One of the things I have enjoyed about writing this week’s blog post, is that my sense of scope and community came full circle.  I began with myself and our immediate community; was lifted to an awareness of the encompassing geography of this slice of North America, full of churches named Bethany Lutheran; and I found myself connecting dots across many times and places.  Universalisms really are to be found universally, and for me, the universal message of Bethany is generosity.  We’re doing wonderful things to take care of each other, of the intersecting communities within Chicago, and of those in need who are beyond our immediacy.  As our space undergoes its renewal, I look forward to how it will empower us in return, that we may better honor our namesake through service and action.

My Best,

“my cup runneth over”
- Psalm 23