Dr. Anne M. Cameron
November 21, 2010
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
”There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.'
He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”
It's getting to be holiday time. Next week begins the Season of Advent in the church year. Tonight we are going to 'hang the greens' and get the sanctuary dressed up for the Advent and Christmas Season. We will have some hot cider and some good cookies afterward. It will be nice. This morning would be a good morning for small talk. Something to feel good about, stick in your pocket, and take home and forget. The fall sure is a lovely time here in Lake Highlands . . .God is good, God is great. . .
But no, no, no. The Bible and the season isn't going to let us get away with that. This is not an easy text we have today. It's something we'd rather avoid. This story of Lazarus and the rich man is offensive on so many different levels, I hardly know where to begin. There's gluttony. Excess. Homeless beggars with open sores. Dogs licking those sores. But it gets worse. There's death. Well, I guess none of us can escape that. But wait, there's more. Judgment. Eternal damnation. Hell.
No one (not even Jesus himself) is going to win a popularity contest preaching this word.
What we have here in Luke is one sermon in a series. Jesus is getting ready to say goodbye. He says all the really tough things he's been holding inside, because he knows he'll be leaving soon. It's his final chance to say the difficult things that have to be said, for the sake of the flock. It's an act of love, but it's tough.
All you have to do is open your Bible and check out Jesus' sermons starting around Chapter 12. You remember. . . Jesus warns about hoarding all our money; Jesus tells us to invite disabled people to our fancy parties; He has us all turning things upside down, looking for lost sheep, coins, and sons, when there's perfectly good sheep, coins, and sons waiting for us at home.
And then this. This 'certain rich man' we stumble on may not be all that different from us, typical Presbyterians, who are by and large more educated, more wealthy, and better off than most people. His face may not be all that different than the one we see in the mirror. So let's not be too hard on this rich person, who was, after all, living the American dream. He lives in the moment, he grabs for the gusto. He may even be well-intentioned. He might even go to church.
The problem is not his wealth, it's his blindness. He can't see the need standing right there on his doorstep. He walks past it every day. Lazarus is invisible to him . Invisible, a bum sleeping in the park. Invisible. A bag lady shuffling around town. Invisible.
I imagine this rich man thinks he has all the time in the world. He is riding high with his dinner parties and his social connections. I bet if he does think about Lazarus he figures there will be time tomorrow to take care of that eyesore parked at his front gate. Kingdom of God? Far off in the future. Heaven? There's always tomorrow.
"I don't know if you heard."
"Stephanie, you know Stephanie Mills?"
"Her husband died Friday night."
"Heart attack. So sudden. Only 42 years old."
"You know, he was a gourmet cook. They had just come back from a fabulous trip where they met some famous chefs."
"They didn't see it coming. No time to say goodbye. Gone."
Mildred Thompson had been a member of that church for 57 years. 57 years. It was a Disciples' Church. An old country church. Pretty church. White clapboard, bell tower. Creaking front door, painted red. You know the church. They got a new pastor. Called someone not seminary trained. Mildred was skeptical. But she went. She listened. Once or twice. Went home and called her daughter.
"Julie, Julie, I can't go there any more. I've lost my church."
"What? Mom? What are you talking about?"
"I just can't. This new pastor they got. She's about to turn the place upside down. She wants us to start a soup kitchen! A soup kitchen, for goodness sakes. Imagine who would be walking in our door if we do that. I'm too old. I can't do it. If I bend that much, I'll break. 57 years. I can't go back."
Six months later Mildred was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was alone, with her books and her Bible and her daughter's daily visits. Others from the church had stopped calling. No one told anyone she was dying.
"Julie, I miss my church family. I miss my pastor."
"I'll give her a call, mom. First thing in the morning. Go to sleep."
Mildred died at 2 a.m.
They were so full of life. Those two cousins. Seniors in high school. Inseparable. Laura on the drill team, Matt played basketball. Into everything. Into themselves and their friends. Facebook, IPod, Xbox, music, shopping, partying. The world at their feet. Six more months and they'd both be heading off to A & M.
The night of the accident they hadn't even been drinking. It was a big truck, hauling bricks. Didn't see their little Honda civic on that Farm to Market road. It was horrible. If only someone could've warned them.
There's always tomorrow.
Our certain rich man managed things well in this world. But things don't turn out so well for him in the next. The scales fall from his eyes. In death, he's able to see what he couldn't, in life. Only it's too late, the die has been cast; his eternal fate is sealed. He ends up on the wrong side of a chasm that, we are told, cannot be crossed. He ends up in Hell.
This rich man tries to salvage this catastrophe. He begs for a special warning---a spiritual telegram--- to be sent to his five brothers.
Ready for a telegram?
Truth is, we've had a lot of scriptural telegrams. Yet even a whole Bibleful of telegrams won't do the trick! Telegrams don't work too well if we don't open them, or ignore them. We won't get too many more messages, either, if we kill the messenger.
So what can we do? If God judges us by our lifetime of actions, can we EVER be good enough? How can we possibly know where the dividing line is? God knows, we want to land on the Abraham & Lazarus side. How can we know? We cannot know. We cannot know. We can only despair.
If we are responsible for determining our eternal fate, if all depends on our good choices and lofty intentions, all is lost. If it's up to us to choose life, well forget it. There's only despair. Because there's never enough time. Never enough good works. Never enough life. There's always something, someone---distracting us, blinding us.
But thanks be to God for the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Because even though this is one of Jesus' final sermons in the gospel of Luke, this is not God's final word. The heart of the Christian message is a message of hope, not one of despair.
We cannot cross that chasm. We cannot possibly leap far enough or do good enough. We do have a messenger from the dead. Our messenger was put to death on the cross. Our messenger bore the sins of the world. Our messenger put things right, descended into hell and opened the gates of Hades.
Our messenger has promised us, "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev 21.5). The kingdom we have is the kingdom he opened for us. We are given only today. The kingdom we have is our messenger in our midst. Only today. Only Christ.
Only Christ can bridge the unbridgeable. Only Christ can cross the unfathomable. Christ meets us. Christ speaks to us. Christ may look like a bum or a bag lady, but don't be fooled. The kingdom of God is among us.
The kingdom of God? Today it looks like mourners gathering round Stephanie Mills at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. Only today it sounds like the faltering voice of Mike Mills' pastor---with his homespun humor and his heartfelt witness to the life of service Mike gave to Good Shepherd and to his community.
The message among us? It's written in Mildred Thompson's will. In that part where she left half of her little estate to the white clapboard church with a creaking front door. The will said the money would go to Mission. The Disciples said "now we can buy food every week for the people sitting by our gate". And Mildred's daughter said, "Amen".
The chasm that's been crossed? Right now there's some teenagers sitting in a church basement with their mouths open and their hearts breaking, doing their best to remember Laura and Matt and to figure out what they are supposed to learn from all this.
We have only today to live into the kingdom. Today is the only day we are given. Today we can choose to look toward heaven, or to ignore what God has to say.
The Kingdom off in the future, or the Kingdom here and now? How much time do we have? If we're holding out for someone to come back from the dead---well, that, you see, that's already been done.