Sermon for Sunday 25 September 2022
Sermon for Sunday 25 September 2022
At his gate lay a poor man called Lazarus. Luke 16.19
Barriers, boundaries, borders, brexit; there’s a theme of modern politics. It’s also the theme of our personal lives. We put up barriers. So in that classic story of the rich man and Lazarus, we have divisions, gateways and chasms, we have rich and poor, we have the living and the dead, messages sent across the barrier, no way back. It’s all about the unfairness of life, which all of us feel at one time or another, the way people get away with what they shouldn’t. This story is a classic way of explaining that: you get your just deserts in the end. So we’re told: Heaven and hell will put everyone to rights; Lazarus goes to a safe place in Abraham’s bosom. The rich man, Dives, which means riches, goes to hell.
Does that work for you? I’m not sure it solves the problem of life’s unfairness for me. The concept of heaven and hell as reward and punishment at the end of our lives is not the full story; it’s threatening, and is usually used to gain power over others.
Let’s have another look at it. The kingdom of God doesn’t begin when we die. It begins right now. There is another world right here now, life in the present. We tend to live in the past and the future, with regrets about the past and fears for the future. For God there is only the present. In the present God sees our whole life, and loves it as it is now. In the present you will find your heaven and your hell. Heaven is fullness of life, communion, choosing a goodness which lasts forever. Hell is the state of being when you don’t love anymore; it is to be cut off, alone, isolated, dead in life. Jesus came to rescue us from that. He gives us a new way of looking at life and death, another dimension, role reversal right here now. When we become poor in spirit, we become rich, when we are meek, we inherit the earth.
The trouble with the rich man in the Gospel story is not that he had the money, but that he had no religion. He didn’t see Lazarus at all. He had not seen the great wisdom of our religion which is that all things are to be reversed, that the blind will see, and the dumb will speak. And the twist to the story is that even there in hell the rich man treats Lazarus like a slave, and asks Abraham to send him across from heaven with some water. But it’s too late. We can only quench another’s thirst on earth, and life on earth is over for the rich man and Lazarus. What’s done is done. The present is over. In Dante’s Inferno the damned are those don’t know the present; they know only the future. Lazarus goes to Abraham’s bosom. That was the proper name for a comfortable resting place in the afterlife for the righteous dead. Maybe we can update this a bit. St John Chrysostom did so in his homily on this text. He points out that, in Genesis 18, Abraham, residing at that prestigious address, the oaks at Mamre, rushes out and invites into his home three passersby (who turn out to be mysterious representatives of God), without asking what their names are or where they’ve come from, because when God’s around these details are not important. So Abraham’s bosom in our Gospel can represent the kindness of an open welcome in this world, judgement free, all the while in Abraham’s case, and for us in this church too, entertaining angels unawares.
If I were humble enough to examine my conscience, I would find there a long list of Lazaruses I have not only failed to help, but have consciously avoided. All of us need some help, to be convinced, as the Gospel puts it, that we can make any difference to the unfairness of life on earth. But Christians do not live and work alone. Jesus rose from the dead to be with us now, and it doesn’t matter how useless we think we are, because we can see with his eyes, we can heal with his hands, we can pray in his name, we can give with his self-giving love, and like calls to like, we see Jesus in other people’s lives also, and there is no difference, no great gulf fixed. We shall be surprised by what we can do, we shall be surprised at how close God gets to us when we welcome Lazarus into our lives. God is counting on us to join in his work of compassion and love. Remember then the rich man’s failure in this story. Throughout his life, which may have been a successful one, his mind was closed to God in this world, and therefore his heart was closed to the demand of compassion, even when the most obvious need was sitting at his gate. So easy to go that way. So easy. When we do respond to any opportunity for compassion and help and love, opportunities which the world presents to us all the time, we share in God’s redeeming work, So let us, as Paul writes to Timothy, “take hold of the eternal life to which we were called” the life which is that of God Himself, where we join Our Saviour, who has risen from the dead and walks among us.
Fr Julian Browning