Sunday, September 26, 2010

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16
19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.* The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.* 24He 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.” 25But 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. 26Besides 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.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He 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.” ’

Based on advice from our lawyers, everything I say today about the existence of Hell may be incorrect, and may result in the preacher spending time in the aforementioned place.

No animals were harmed in the making of this sermon.
Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Professional preacher on closed course: do not try this yourself.
The beverage you will enjoy after church may be extremely hot.

Now that the lawyers are satisfied, I can tell you that today’s sermon is about warnings. Luke is warning everyone who will listen that life is about consequences. The rich man wants a warning sent to his brothers, saving them the torment he endures. And Jesus is warning us that since we already have Moses and the prophets, we might as well read them.

One more warning: While this passage is a parable, and therefore a work of fiction, it nonetheless contains essential truth regarding socio-economics and access to scripture.

Warnings are at the heart of parenting. Don’t touch that, it’s hot. Don’t put you tongue on that, it’s cold. We’re like an almanac of do’s and don’ts, and it never seems to end. There seems to be a shining moment, early in childhood, when children heed warnings. Then you’re just talking to yourself. Over time, the warnings become increasingly vague, like “be careful” or “be good.” These serve mostly as ammunition later, when you get to the “I told you so” phase of child rearing.

So we give warnings, but we have the nagging sense that they will go unheeded. This could be a fine summary of Luke 16.

Jesus has constructed a familiar scenario with a very specific ending. Think of every joke you have ever heard that starts with “standing at the pearly gates, St. Peter says…” In Jesus time there was no St. Peter, only Peter in his pre-saintly state, and so we learn that the convention was pearly gates and Abraham.

Two men die: a rich man (unnamed) and a poor man (Lazarus). Lazarus finds a comfortable reward in the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man is across a deep chasm in fiery torment. The rich man calls across the divide to Abraham, seeking some relief. Discovering that this is not possible, the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his five brothers. “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them,” comes the reply, the assumption being that the scriptures provide all the warning anyone will need.

So let’s start there: what warning? What does Moses say, and how specific is it to this story? Maybe the best example is from Deuteronomy 15:

7“But if there are any poor people in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward them. 8Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. 9Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year of release is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin. 10Give freely without begrudging it, and the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. 11There will always be some among you who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share your resources freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.

Maybe I should just call for the offering now. Moses would be pleased. Notice how this one, short passage distills a number of teachings about generosity and the poor: refusing to lend is a sin; give freely and the Lord will bless you; the poor will always be with you; sharing your resources with the poor is good and good for you, but it is also a command.

And just in case the reader still doesn’t get it, just in case the case Moses made is not enough to convince, he adds a coda. One day you will release an indentured servant, and give him his freedom:

13 But when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. 14 Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

This is the biblical equivalent to “I’m you mother, why don’t you call me.” Remember that you were once a slave, you were once helpless, you were once poor, and I freed you from all of that with power and an outstretched arm. As they suffer, you once suffered, so be generous with all the things I have given you.

Maybe I should just call for the offering now. Not quite yet.

The rich man ignored these warnings, warnings that were will known to everyone in the ancient near east. Like today, there was some social security in the land, with laws regarding alms for the poor and setting aside the corners of your fields so that poor gleaners could pass by and be fed. The need to care for the poor was a commonly held assumption, but the rich man stepped over Lazarus on his way out the door.

Now, you could argue that the poor rich man has suffered enough. He is in fiery torment, even if he is only a fictional character. He has suffered in this literary Hell for what seems an eternity, and will continue to suffer as long as this passage is preached. He commits the sin of indifference, neglecting the poor right under his nose. But who am I to judge?

I don’t dress in purple and fine linen, and I don’t feast sumptuously every day, but I have enough, and it’s a rare day that I don’t have a few coins rattling in the bottom of my pocket. When someone asks for a dollar, I seldom refuse, but I don’t like the guy at Lakeshore and Leslie, who goes from to window to window asking for change. And I don’t give to the guy at my local LCBO, I find him too aggressive, though the store manager says he’s harmless. So where does that put me in the life to come?

Luckily, I don’t believe in Hell, in good United Church fashion, although I know the price will be steep if I’m wrong. I did enjoy reading the book “Who in Hell,” essentially an updated version of Dante’s Inferno, with a catalogue of people known to have committed mortal sins and reside in the hot place. They even take a poke at the living, suggesting that some are walking around while their souls are in Hell. Ask me later.

Even the Catholic Encyclopedia concedes that theologians are divided on the location of Hell, and some suggest it may be here on earth. Maybe sitting in traffic on Black Creek Drive. Even Popes disagree. John Paul II said it was less a place and more a state of being, separated from God. Benedict XVI (no surprize) said ‘oh no, it’s real.’ If Popes can’t agree, you have every right to be undecided.

The next time you drive to Sudbury, take note of the signs that warn about moose. Early on, when the lights of Barrie are still behind you, the moose on the sign look placid, almost friendly. Drive on, brave traveler. By the time you hit the French River, the moose look manic, maybe psychopathic. The danger is more than a garden variety “please note,” it is a full on “watch out, we’re not fooling around anymore.”

Reenter the Rich Man and Lazarus. Jesus is running out of ways to explain compassion. The disciples are a foolish and self-centered lot, the people come and go, the religious elite are openly hostile. Jesus knows they know all they need to know about caring for the most vulnerable, showing mercy, being generous. But why do they need constant reminding? Why do we need constant reminding? Ultimately, I’m not sure, we just do.

So the story that begins like one more pearly gate story ends with a lesson: A generous God has generously given us ample warning. And the Highway 69 moose look meaner all the time. This is not judgement, this is warning. God is continually erecting one more sighs, one more story, one more sermon: all we need to do is drive with caution, and care for the poor. Amen.


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