The Life We Give The Sunday Sermon: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 25, 2016 Scripture:  Luke 16:14-15a, 19-31 The Life We Give

Another parable this morning. Last week we looked once again at Jesus’ teaching about the “Dishonest Steward.” Some surprising discoveries. This morning, The Rich Man and Lazarus. Now, as parables go, this has to be one of the strangest. Not to our ears I bet, you’ve heard this one many times, but strange to our hearts, I’m not sure how well we’ve understood and lived out its lessons. It’s not difficult to understand, but incredibly difficult to internalize and follow, to “give our hearts to.” Its meaning is clear: Riches cannot save you. Its intention is unswerving. It ends with a deafening silence.

Pray with me …

Now, before we read the parable, our scripture lesson for this morning, let me note something. The audience in the Gospel of Luke has changed. Last week, Jesus was speaking to his disciples – and Luke was speaking to us as disciples. In the parables earlier in Luke – the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin – Jesus was speaking to, teaching, his disciples, including you and me. But as he begins this lesson, he is speaking to a very different group: the Pharisees. I’ve included verse fourteen and the first part of fifteen in our reading to make that clear.

Now, though the audience in Luke’s gospel has changed, I want us to still consider ourselves the audience. Let us try to imagine ourselves to be like the Pharisees – the ones who like clearly defined boundaries for our place and other’s ‘s place; of what’s right and what’s wrong; of who’s in and who’s out. The ones who enjoy their own prosperity and snicker a bit at the very thought that people are not able to serve God and wealth at the same time. “Of course that’s possible.” So, just … try to imagine yourself to be … Pharasaic (wink, wink) … We are still the audience for Jesus.

Listen for the Word of God. Read Luke 16:14-15a,19-31 … The Word of the Lord … Thanks be to God.

Have you all heard the song “Rock-a My Soul?” I learned this song at church camp with I was a kid. Hartman Center in Northwest Pennsylvania:

Rock-ah my soul in the bosom of Abraham.  Rock-ah my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Rock-ah my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Oh, rock-ah my soul.

So high, you can’t get over it.  So low, you can’t get under it. So wide you can’t around it. You must go in at the door.

Peter, Paul, and Mary made a recording of that back before I was born, but it’s an old spiritual that dates at least to the 19th century. I’ve been imagining Lazarus all week being rocked in the bosom of Abraham, that place of comfort in ancient Judaism after earthly death. And I’ve imagine the Rich Man in our parable is singing this song, longing for the comfort that Lazarus enjoys in the bosom of Abraham, and not understanding why he can’t get there. He tries to climb over, climb under, and go around: have pity, just the tip of a finger, water to cool. He doesn’t understand, even in death, that the only way to the comfort he seeks is to go in at the door while the door is right in front of you, which is surely every day of your life on this earth – the opportunity, the responsibility to attend to one another.

Moving from Jesus’ Judaic heritage to our own Christian one, we, too, have a doorway. Try as we might to go over, dig under, or get around, the Way is too high, too low, and too wide. We must go in at the door. More on that – or him – in a moment. But before that, let’s leave the fun of a childhood campfire memory for the reality of the Rich Man in our story. It’s too late for him to “go in at any door.” We don’t like to think of it ever being “too late,” but this parable is pretty clear that there comes a time when time itself runs out – earthly death is such a time. As I mentioned at the outset, this parable ends in a deafening silence. It’s too late for the Rich Man by the end of this story. But his fate is our lesson.

We can think of this parable in three acts. The first act introduces us to the characters. It is full of contrasts and reversals: the rich man is not named, the poor man; the rich man is dressed in purple, the poor man in sores; the rich man feasts sumptuously, the poor man is actually “feasted upon” (in a rather grotesque show of how low a human life can sink, dogs lick Lazarus’ sores). In this first act, the rich appear to be rich and the poor appear to be poor.

In the second act, the roles are reversed: By the end of action in this short section, just a few verses long, the poor man is looking down from heaven cradled in that Abrahamic bosom, and the Rich Man is looking up, begging in his torment. Now, keep in mind the audience of this parable – the Pharisees, you and me (we’re “imagining”). There’s an undiluted, direct message to all those who love their money more than people, their possessions more than the poor, their feasts more than sharing of food with the hungry. Ours is only the first act! There is a second one. This is becoming one of the harshest readings in scripture, and there’s still another act!

The third act is the longest and most developed. The narration gives way to dialogue. The Rich Man cries out and Abraham responds, three times, three complete exchanges. In the first of the exchanges, the Rich Man seems none the wiser at all for this incredible reversal. He still acts like a little king, ordering Abraham to order Lazarus to serve him. But Abraham’s threefold response, while not without some tenderness, is fatal. It … is … too … late. For all the Rich man’s requests. Time has run out. Complete and final death … for him. Deafening silence in the end. What about us? The reader, the hearer of the parable?

The Rich Man’s fate is supposed to be our lesson and it may not be too late for us … The conclusion of this parable, which ends fatally for the Rich Man, pushes us back again, across the yawning chasm of death into the earthly world once more, wiser and ready to change. All we need is for God to show us what to do, right? We’ve heard the lesson. We’re ready to go. We’re calling out, “Break through! We’re here waiting! Break through, God! Tell us what to do!” But there’s a deafening silence for us, too. Listen again for it: Break through God!   Tell us what to do!! …

Silence …

Why? I’ll tell you why …

Because God has already has “broken through.” God has already shown us what is good and told us what to do. If we haven’t yet listened to Moses and Micah or to the other prophets or to the one whose life conquers death itself …

The reward for our discipleship is before us: full life, abundant life, through the life, the love, and the Way of our Christ. Do what he did and we, too, will receive Life. That’s our reward. But here’s the catch: Our reward for following Christ – full and everlasting life – is only as full and everlasting as the life we offer others. Our reward means nothing unless we do as much unto the least of these.

Curiously woven into this parable are two worlds that we know all to well: the world of the haves and the world of the have-nots, the world of the rich and that of the poor, the world of the comforted and that of the afflicted. This parable-lesson is set up with clearly defined boundaries between those worlds and begs the question of whether, and when, the twain shall meet. Where are the “divides” in our world today, in our lives today? The headlines say not only “rich and poor,” but “black and white,” “Muslim and Christian,” “Gay and Straight,” “immigrant and resident.” We have pretty thoroughly divided up and categorized the humanity that God created equal. But the full and everlasting life we give our hearts to is only as full and everlasting as the life we offer others – all others. Strange …

One of the most indicting things about this story is that the Rich Man is not disdainful of Lazarus, he simply doesn’t notice him. We don’t notice Lazarus – the poor, disenfranchised, alien “others,” in our own world because, like the Rich Man in Jesus’ parable, we’re too busy trying to go over, under or around the life he calls us to. It’s only when we “go in at the door” that we can’t miss the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed among us.

Jesus is our doorway. When we follow him, we’re not going over, under, or around, we’re going through the door of life … for all.

One final thought: Maybe all of us – readers, preachers, hearers, congregation all – find it too hard to identify with either the rich man and all his wealth or the poor man with all his devastation. They both represent people other than us, we think. If that’s the case, then perhaps you can identify with one of the five brothers the Rich Man entreats Abraham to help, with those who still have time to be instructed by Moses and the prophets and to recognize the face of Christ is the suffering of this world.

Stepping out of our privilege is perhaps one of the most difficult journeys of transformation, one of the most difficult tasks of our discipleship, but it’s the only way we will ever experience any reward. And when we do then this parable, this lesson, this teaching becomes a word for those of us in this life. When we tend to Lazarus’ needs, whoever he or she may be in our world today – and they are legion, we understand the Scriptures and recognize in them our Lord who is otherwise a stranger to us.

The cost is our life, the joy is our life. Start paying attention to your call from God in Christ. There’s no way around it. We must go in at the door …


Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / September 25, 2016