September 29, 2019
Proper 21 Year C
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I like the difficult passages in the Bible. I like delving deep into the texts of terror that seem so out of place in a book that is supposed to teach us how to be good. I like hunting for hidden details in the seemingly boring genealogies and long lists of rules and regulations.
I’m all about the stones in the road and the sticky wickets, revelatory etymologies, and uncovering that one little nugget of historical context that makes an old passage come alive with new relevance.
I’m not afraid to preach on the book of Revelation and I love the parables of Jesus – the more inscrutable the better. Which is why I was jealous, actually jealous, that Todd got to preach on the parable of the dishonest steward last week and a little annoyed – yes annoyed- that I got stuck with the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Annoyed, because this parable isn’t really all that complicated. It means exactly what you wish it didn’t. It isn’t hard to understand. It’s just hard to hear.
So much so, that there is a part of me that wants to make it much more complicated than it actually is. I’d love to use this parable as a springboard to debate the relative importance of faith vs. works or what we must do to be saved or the nature of heaven and hell
or even the logic/nature/character of a God who would impose eternal suffering on one person for not easing the temporal suffering of another. That’s a sticky wicket.
But it would also be an adventure in missing the point.
I could make this parable about any number of things. But given that it’s found in Luke – the gospel which brought you: Mary’s Magnificat, Jesus born in a stable, and the sermon on the plain in which Jesus says, not “blessed are you who are poor in spirit,” but “Blessed are you who are poor.” Period. Full stop.
The Parable of the rich man and his barns, the sad young man who walked away from Jesus because he was so very, very rich, the story of Zacchaeus who gave away half of all he owned and became so very, very happy, and that darn camel who has yet to make her way through the eye of the needle –
I regret to inform you that what this parable really is about…is money, generosity, and the way God wants us to treat one another right here, right now, no matter what.
Remember the T.L.C. show “What Not to Wear”? Me too. Did you know it’s getting rebooted in 2020? Yeah, it is. I read it on wikipedia. But that’s not the point. The point is that if we were giving out titles now, we could totally call this parable, “How Not to Live.”
I know it doesn’t come off that way at first. After all, the rich man looks like a total poster child for success in his purple robes and fine linen? He feasts sumptuously everyday, in his big house behind his beautiful walls. So really, who wouldn’t want to be like the rich man? I like nice clothes…a lot. I like good food…maybe even better. Safety and security sound good to me.
And honestly, who would ever want to be like Lazarus? Seriously, not just poor, but begging for scraps. Not just weak, but covered in sores. And don’t even get me started on the dogs and the licking. That’s just nasty.
The rich man died surrounded by friends and family who cared enough to give him a decent burial. Lazarus died and was carried off by the angels, and not in a nice gentle Sarah McLachlan kind of way. No. “Carried off by the angels” is a euphemism meaning that when he died, no one on earth gave a damn.
The rich man had everything you could ever want. Lazarus lived a life you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Am I right? Yeah.
Except for one thing. There’s one precious thing Lazarus has in this story that the rich man doesn’t. Anyone want to take a guess at what it is? Lazarus, Lazarus, Lazarus…what does Lazarus have that the rich man doesn’t.
A name! Yes.
This isn’t just a tale about a rich man and a poor man. In this parable the poor man – not the rich man – has a name. In this parable the nobody is a somebody. Indeed, Lazarus is the only one with a name in any of Jesus’ parables, and that’s got to be significant. That’s the sort of detail Luke wants you to notice because with that one move Jesus dignifies Lazarus, humanizes him, and telegraphs his solidarity with Lazarus and anyone like him.
The fact that Lazarus has a name is important, because it means Jesus sees Lazarus as a whole person rather than some hollowed out caricature of a person, and if Jesus sees him as a whole person then guess what? So does God.
If Jesus is on Lazarus’ side – in spite of whatever led him to such a bitter end – then so is God. If Jesus thinks this man deserves help, no matter how futile such help might seem, then so does God.
In fact, that is what the name Lazarus means, “God helps.” And friends, if we want to be on God’s side then we need to see others – no matter how down and out they might be – the way God sees them. We need to see them as people first – men and women with names and stories, dignity and worth – and we need to help them too.
That’s actually where the rich man went wrong. I don’t think he was condemned to Hades for being wealthy, but for being indifferent…indifferent to the suffering of the poor man sitting in his doorway.
He wasn’t damned for being rich but for believing that it was his riches that made him worthy of all the good things he enjoyed in this life – respect, security, fine food, and new clothes, and by extension for believing that because Lazarus was poor, he didn’t deserve those same things at all.
He wasn’t oblivious to the suffering of Lazarus, he just didn’t think he had any responsibility to help alleviate it.
Which is why it’s so fascinating to see how he changes his tune the moment their roles are reversed and he’s the one suffering. Notice that the rich man’s sense of entitlement is so great that even in hell he not only expects others to come to his aid and do his bidding, but he has the audacity to talk about Lazarus like he’s not even there and ask Abraham to dispatch the poor man on an errand.
“Father Abraham, have mercy on me, send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames” begs the rich man, as if Lazarus is now the pool boy and the rich man is just stuck in a particularly bad resort. Seriously! Here he is, looking up from hell into heaven, and he still thinks he’s better than Lazarus, that people like Lazarus exist merely to serve people like him.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad, and I think it is also meant to be a little scary. I think this parable is a wake up call for those of us who do have; for those of us who enjoy the blessing of having clothes to wear and food to eat, homes to live in and families who care. Jesus isn’t condemning wealth outright, but he is reminding us that there is a difference between loving what we have and using what we have to show love.
Accruing wealth and position, safety and security, is what we’re wired to do, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as we keep in mind that all we have is a gift of grace… gifts God intends for us to use on behalf of one another.
I think that’s at least part of why Father Abraham makes an appearance in this parable. You may remember that while he lived, Abraham himself was very wealthy. God blessed him richly with land and sheep, a beautiful wife and a household full of servants, 2 sons and descendants like unto the grains of sand in the desert or the number of stars in the sky.
That’s a whole other story, but in the midst of it, God lets Abraham know that God has blessed him for a reason. God blessed Abraham that Abraham might be a …what?… a blessing. Yes. A blessing not just to others, but to all nations. God blessed Abraham and his descendants -the rich man, Lazarus, me and you – that we might be a blessing to everyone.
So enjoy the good things you have. They are a blessing from God. They may even make you a better person. Just don’t fall into the trap of believing that your blessings make you a better person than other people.
Everything good in your life is a gift, a gift meant to be shared. The rich man lost sight of this and in so doing lost sight of others. The blessings that should have connected him to others, the gifts that could have enabled him to bring joy and help to those who needed it most, ended up separating him from others, not just in this life, but in the next. And Jesus wants us to know that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Sarah Dylan Breuer points out that, “In the parable, the rich man is separated from Lazarus by a great divide, but the truth is that the distance between them was always there. It didn’t spring up upon their deaths …it was created and cultivated and carefully maintained by the rich man while they both lived.
What Jesus wants us to understand is that whenever we create or maintain an unbridgeable chasm between people, we automatically are on the wrong side of it.” On the wrong side, because Jesus himself will always stand in solidarity with whoever we’ve left on the other.
So when we as a country build walls or set policies that keep others out, we’re not just shutting out refugees, we’re shutting out Jesus. When we avert our eyes from the panhandler on the corner, we’re not just ignoring them, we’re ignoring Jesus. When we as a church lock the doors at night, the ones who lay down to sleep on our steps, sleep outside with Jesus.
And I know there are all sorts of factors we could cite to complicate all that, just like we can complicate this parable. But that kind of rationalizing doesn’t narrow the gap, solve the problem, or bridge the divide. It only ever seems to put more distance between us, the ones we are called to love, and the one who loves us all. And I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing I long for and know that I need, it’s always to grow closer and closer to Jesus.
Thankfully, like the rich man’s brothers and like all of you, I’m still here, still alive, still a work in progress. Like them and like you, I still have time to keep working out my faith. And I want to close by telling you all that although I know I can do better, and you all can probably do better, and we as a church can always do better when it comes to seeing and serving others the way Jesus would want us too, we may be doing better than you realize.
Allow me to close with a story that illustrate why I think that. I told this story at the retreat we had yesterday, and Jenna said, “we need to hear more stories like that,” so I think it is worth sharing with all of you. I don’t have the person’s permission, so I’m not going to share his name, but I think I can still tell you what happened.
On Thursday, I was sitting outside on our front steps keeping an eye on our farm cart and talking with a young man who wants to go into some form of ministry that combines faith and farming. While we were talking one of our members came up the steps. This man joined our church about 5 years ago, and he’s someone who has been struggling for many years to stay sober.
He’s been homeless on and off, and it has been hard. But as he came up the steps he said, “Pastor Sarah, I’ve got something I want to show you.” And he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. “It’s a lease,” he said. “I just signed it. I move in Tuesday. And I’ve got a job as a cook. And I’m getting to see my grand daughters again.” And then he turned to the young man sitting beside me and he said, “This church is full of good people. They’re the reason I’m doing ok.”
He was right. This church is full of good people. And you are part of the reason he’s doing ok. Thanks to Cathedral in the Night, this is a place that has fed him when he’s been hungry.
Thanks to the recovery groups, this is a place that has picked him up when he’s fallen down and helped him get sober. And thanks to all of you who know him, and all of you who come here and support my ministry and Todd’s ministry and Pastor Steph’s ministry, this is a place where people know his name and have always treated him with love and respect each and every time he has come through that door.
Together, we really are part of the reason he’s doing ok, and I pray that God would help us to keep our hearts and eyes and hands open so we can be the reason for the next person who walks up those steps and sits down outside that door.
Because at the end of the day isn’t really all that complicated. It’s just hard.
A holy man by the name of Ramana Maharshi was once asked, “How are we to treat others?” He replied, “there are no others.”
You and me and the man on the steps, all stumbling around down here with just enough love if we’re willing to give it, just enough love to see us all safely home.