Proper 21c, September 25, 2016

September 26, 2016

Fire Prevention

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.'”


This week’s passage of scripture is sort of the opposite of last week’s text. Of course last week’s text is about the opposite of any passage of scripture because there wasn’t much about it that made sense. It wasn’t easy to see what Jesus was wanting us to understand when he told the parable of the dishonest steward who was commended by his master for his shrewd manipulations. But we don’t have to think about that this week. What we have in this morning’s text isn’t confusing, but it can be a little disconcerting – especially for those of us who enjoy a certain level of worldly comfort. This story doesn’t leave us wondering what Jesus was talking about, but it does leave me feeling a little uneasy, and that’s probably the way Jesus wanted me to feel.


As you may or may not have noticed, I’m not inclined to give much attention to the issue of eternal punishment or reward in my preaching, and I’m not going to deviate from that this morning, but I probably should use this text as an opportunity to address the issue. Being the good United Methodist that I am, I’m happy to own my lack of clarity about what goes on in the next life, but this is not to say that I don’t think there are profound consequences to the way we choose to live.


I don’t accept the way heaven and hell are often portrayed by Christian preachers who seem to have a clear understanding of who is going where upon the moment of death. I just can’t claim to know with any certainty what transpires upon our death. I’m optimistic about it, but I don’t claim to know what happens. I can’t speak from experience or special knowledge about this, but I am confident that our relationship with God extends beyond this life, and I base that upon what I know about Jesus. Jesus had no fear of death, and he wouldn’t have felt that way if his relationship with God was going to end with his crucifixion. Death happens, and so does resurrection. That’s what I believe. I don’t know the details, but I don’t believe that our souls expire with our bodies.


Given the focus that a lot of well-meaning Christians put on hell you would think that this was the primary subject Jesus addressed, but if 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 many hell-fire oriented preachers speak of it. There is this well publicized notion that upon death we will either enter eternal reward or punishment, and where we end up depends on what we profess to believe, but it’s hard to pin that teaching on Jesus.


Obviously, Jesus wasn’t opposed to using the threat of eternal flames to get people’s attention. Today’s passage of scripture portrays a pretty bleak future for a man who was tormented by some eternal flames, but we don’t know anything about what that man professed to believe. He clearly was familiar with his faith tradition, but he had totally failed to connect his faith with his life. He had not connected the story of God hearing the cries of the people of Israel with the need for him to hear the cry of poor Lazarus, and this was a fundamental mistake.


But I don’t think Jesus told this story to generate concern about the design of the afterlife. Jesus didn’t tell this story to provide us with an exact blueprint of what transpires upon death. Jesus told this story in 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 our religious practice or faith. According to this story, our entrance into eternal reward or punishment is based upon nothing but our economic standing and charitable giving. I may be wrong, but 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 or the current life for that matter, but I trust that Jesus did, and what I glean from this story is that we often live with distorted notions of reward and punishment, and of righteousness and accomplishment. This story of Lazarus and the rich man portrays those distortions, and this story serves as a form of motivation to pursue a more meaningful form of existence than what religious traditions often lead us to accept.


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 familiar Jewish story of reversed fortune. Jesus wasn’t trying to break new theological ground when he told this story – he was reminding people of a truth that had already been revealed. This even came out in the story as the rich man begged to have someone contact his brothers about the unfortunate consequences of their selfishness. The importance of living with compassion had always been a central theme in the Jewish religious tradition, and it had often been ignored.


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 for us to believe is that this has been confirmed by our own experiences.


The truth is that you don’t have to die before you can experience the value of living with compassion and the torture of selfishness. 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.


We know these things, but patterns of self indulgence are hard to break. We’re surrounded by the message that happiness is found in the work of consumption, and we often forget that the greatest reward is experienced when we’re engaged in the work of compassion. The emptiness of self-indulgence is like hell and the joy of compassion is like heaven. Part of the hell we experience when we engage in self indulgence is that it’s very isolating. When we build ourselves up we are often creating barriers between ourselves and others, and that is very much a form of hell.


And one of the manifestations of heaven is to be in the company of other good people. As we see in this story that Jesus told, Lazarus was in the company of Abraham, while Lazarus was very much alone. There was a great chasm between him and other people. This may be true in the afterlife, but I think it’s true in this life as well. Joy happens when we reach out to other people, and when others reach out to us.


I guess we all would describe hell in somewhat different ways, but for me, the notion of being isolated is one of the most torturous possibilities. We’re told that the rich man loved to dress in purple and fine linen. This doesn’t really describe the way in which we are tempted to spend our money, but the way we are inclined to use our resources often has the same impact – which is to create and promote an illusion of ourselves. The act of self-seving adornment is in some way an act of hiding behind a façade, and while a good façade can be very inviting to other people and can result in the illusion of community – such behavior is ultimately very isolating.


We generally do our best to keep our neediness and vulnerability hidden from other people out of fear that we may be avoided, and the truth is that many people will avoid becoming associated with someone who doesn’t exude confidence and success, but compassionate people aren’t offended by such a condition, and where there is neediness and vulnerability there is the possibility of redeeming love. And is there anything more heavenly than that.


Chances are, we can all identify ways in which we live like the rich man who is blinded by his own self indulgence. He thinks he looks wonderful in those purple clothes, but they only bring attention to his foolish ways. Unfortunately, the ways in which we live like the rich man are probably not immediately obvious to us, and Jesus wants us to be concerned about this. There are consequences to self-oriented behavior, and he wants us to have some fear of living like that. He doesn’t want us to ignore the people around us who are living in torment. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for us.


Of course, there are ways in which we all are living like Lazarus. Maybe we aren’t having our wounds liked by dogs, but all of us are powerless in some way. Life isn’t easy for any of us. None of us are perfectly cloaked in purple and fine linen, and that’s a blessing. It’s our powerlessness and need that makes us most open to other people and in search of the redeeming love of God. It’s our helplessness that makes us most available to the gifts of heaven.


It’s hard to aspire to be like Lazarus, but it’s good to recall what came his way when we find ourselves facing illnesses or hardships that we are powerless to overcome.


Jesus told this graphic story to illustrate the different directions that our faith can take us. Will what we believe lead us to become the loving and compassionate people that our faith tradition has always directed us to be? Will our faith make us more open to those experiences that put us in touch with the eternal gifts of God? Or does our understanding of God serve to keep us disconnected from other people and unaware of those redeeming possibilities in which we are all in need?


I don’t think Jesus told this story to generate fear of where we’ll spend eternity, but I do believe he wanted us to feel some urgency to find true life, and to avoid deathly patterns of behavior. Jesus didn’t want us to get burned by a misguided sense of where we will find abundant life. Jesus wanted us to experience the greatest sense of connection to God and to our neighbors and the primary path to that joyful place is through compassion.


It’s God’s love for us that guides our hearts to find that true path to abundant life, but it takes some effort on our part to move along it. Thanks be to God for the opportunity we all have to avoid the tormenting flames of selfish isolation, and to embrace the joy of heavenly communion.


Thanks be to God.



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