Proper 21c, September 29, 2013

September 30, 2013

Chillin’ With Jesus
Luke 16:19-31

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

You may have noticed that I’m not inclined to preach in a manner that reinforces the familiar theological concept of being damned to hell for eternity if you don’t make the right confession. The truth is I’ve never even listened to much of that kind of preaching, but I grew up in Arkansas and it’s sort of in the air. I think it’s accurate to say that I heard enough about hell as a child to carry some fear of it into young adulthood, but I don’t buy in to that line of thinking any more. I know that the Christian movement has been largely fueled by people seeking to avoid hell when they die, and fear of hell is a strong motivator. I’m guessing there is some correlation between the decline in participation in church and the decline of fear of hell.

I can’t quote a study on this, but I believe there is some connection there. I’m not saying that we have eradicated the fear of eternal damnation in hell, but it’s presence in our society has been greatly diminished. I think the mega-churches of today are built more on the possibility of great success and prosperity in this life than they are on the fear of hell in the afterlife.

It occurs to me that in my preaching I don’t offer Jesus an avenue to escape the flames of hell in the afterlife nor do I suggest that Jesus provides us with the path to success in life. When I think about that I feel a lot better about the number of people who show up here on Sunday mornings. I’ve been feeling sort of bad about our inability to grow, but I’m operating without two of the most powerful tools available to a preacher. I don’t offer fear of hell or the secret to success. I’m surprised anyone sticks around to hear what I have to say.

I know there’s the music, and I’m grateful for that as well.

Given the focus that lots of well-meaning Christians have put on hell you would think that this was the primary subject Jesus addressed, but when you read the Gospels you’ll find that Jesus spent very little time talking about hell, and when he did, it wasn’t in the same manner that most revivalists have utilized the notion of hell. I think there used to be this widespread assumption among Christians that upon death, we all will enter into eternal reward or punishment, and where we end up largely depends on what we profess to believe.

This is an oversimplification of a gross generalization, but I’m certain that this is not an uncommon understanding of what happens when we die. But you sure can’t build that scenario around today’s portrayal of hell. We don’t know anything about the beliefs of Lazarus or of this rich man. All we know about these two people is how they lived. And the way I see it, this blows the traditional view of hell out of the water and it casts a pretty dark shadow on what you might call the prosperity gospel. Anyone who thinks being a good Christian provides the path to great wealth needs to contemplate this story for a moment.

Obviously Jesus wasn’t opposed to using the threat of eternal flames in the afterlife in his preaching and teaching, but I think he did it in order to get us to be more conscious of how we are living in the current life. Jesus didn’t tell this story to provide us with an exact blueprint of the afterlife. He told it as an attempt to wake us up to the realities of this life.

If this is an exact portrayal of what happens when we die the interesting thing is that our eternal fate has nothing to do with what we confess to believe. If Jesus was primarily concerned with the eternal resting places of our souls, and if he told this story as an actual portrayal of the possibilities, then the fate of our souls has nothing to do with religious practice or faith. According to this story, our entrance into eternal reward or punishment is based upon our economic standing and charitable giving. I don’t think there are many North American Christians who would like to think that this is an accurate portrayal of our options when we leave this world.

I don’t pretend to know much about the afterlife, but I trust that Jesus did, and what I glean from this story is that we often live with really distorted notions of reward and punishment – of righteousness and accomplishment – of heaven and hell. This story of Lazarus and the rich man illustrates these distortions and this story offers motivation to pursue a more meaningful form of existence than conventional wisdom would lead us to believe.

This story that Jesus told isn’t unlike other stories that have been uncovered in other places and religious traditions. This notion of reversed fortune in the afterlife isn’t unique to Jesus, and this particular story doesn’t significantly differ from a Jewish story of reversed fortune. Jesus wasn’t trying to break new theological ground when he told this story – he was reminding people of truth that had already been revealed. Jesus said as much when he told of how the rich man begged to have someone contact his brothers about the unfortunate consequences of their selfishness, and Jesus said this truth was already out there.

While this story portrays a reversal of fortune, this really isn’t a surprising story. It’s not surprising in that it portrays God as having more appreciation for a man who was wounded and ignored than a man who was self-serving and uncompassionate. It isn’t hard to believe that God would react to the individuals in the way that’s described, and one reason that it isn’t hard to believe is that this has probably been true to our own experiences.

I’m not saying any of us have ever ventured into the afterlife, but it isn’t a foreign concept to hear of a helpless man being rewarded and a self-indulgent man being tormented. You don’t have to die before you can experience such reward and punishment. It’s hard to willingly place ourselves in positions of need, and it’s hard not to dress in purple linen and gorge ourselves as often as the opportunity arises, but the reward of self indulgence is shallow and the grace that comes to us when we are in need is rich.

Someone suggested to me that I watch a TED Talk by a woman named Brene’ Brown. If you aren’t familiar with TED Talks they are relatively short videos available online from all kinds of people who present ideas worth spreading. In the talk that I watched, Ms. Brown spoke of the value of vulnerability. She actually preaches a pretty good sermon on it, and I can’t really do it justice, but she spoke of a type of conversion she had to the idea. Actually she described it as a breakdown. It was her therapist who described it as a “spiritual awakening”, but the point is that she once was a person who highly valued the ability to measure, control, and predict life, and she came to understand the value of our inability to control and predict the course of our lives. She spoke of how it’s our various inabilities that can enable us to seek connections with other people.

Now, our inabilities and inadequacies don’t automatically provide us with connections. Knowing the truth about ourselves can be very painful, and we often go to great lengths to numb ourselves to those truths and to put masks over our perceived inadequacies. Which are strategies that only lead to more disconnection.

She didn’t say this, but I would also say that it’s our vulnerability that enables us to seek connection with God. In the same way that we forge connection with other people when we acknowledge and deal with our frailties and faults, I think we seek connection with God when we see ourselves well and embrace our imperfections, faults, and needs.

The rich man in our story ended up in such a miserable place because he had access to all of these things he thought he needed, and it was all of that stuff that kept him ignorant of himself, unconscious of other people, and isolated from God.

I think we actually have a good portrayal of heaven and hell in our story today. I don’t think Jesus wanted us to think of heaven as being destitute and covered in sores, but I do think he wanted us to see the value of vulnerability. Lazarus had no illusion of himself. He understood the value of every crumb that fell his way. He was in touch with gratitude. I would never romanticize the life of a man who lived on the level of a dog, but I would say that a person who lives with such self-clarity has the easiest access to the kingdom of God.

And the rich man in our story was as far from God’s kingdom as he could get. He adorned himself so well he didn’t really know what he looked like. He fed himself so well he had no sense of gratitude, and he was so focused on himself he never even saw other people. The rich man in our story was disconnected from himself, from other people and from God. This man was living in hell before he died. I’m not saying that he didn’t eat some good food and enjoy some fine entertainment, but I don’t sense that his appetite was ever satisfied.

Friends, I do believe in heaven – I also believe in hell, and I think we have access to both. I don’t know how these concepts play out in the afterlife, but I have a clue about their presence in this life. We are moving in the direction of hell when we live without compassion for ourselves and others. We don’t have compassion for ourselves when we don’t recognize and deal honestly with our own frailties and inadequacies, and it’s hard to be kind to others when we don’t recognize failure in ourselves. It’s hard to be connected to anyone else when we are disconnected from ourselves, and when we live with such disconnection we are clueless about God. Hell is real and it’s not hard to go there.

I don’t know about you, but I want to hang out in heaven with Jesus. I don’t know what that will feel like in the afterlife, but my sense is that we would do well to find him in this life. He’s not unavailable, but he’s hard to find. Getting to him requires us to have some tremendous personal courage. We have to see ourselves well, and we have to take notice of our neighbors.

Getting to heaven isn’t easy for any of us, but it’s a possibility for all of us, and I take great comfort in that. I don’t know what happens when we die, but from what I can tell we need to pay attention to how we live today.



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