Sermon preached at St. Luke's, Madison. Here are the readings for the day: Amos 6:1a,4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31.
So I’ve got to say, I find this parable of Jesus’ of course absolutely terrifying but also really fascinating, particularly in the polarized religious and political climate that is 2016. After all, the two main features of this passage - hell and a man living in homelessness - frequently get divided into two separate camps among Christians, just as Christians, along with about everyone else, get divided, at least every four years, into two separate parties, left and right.
In overly simplistic, broad strokes: American evangelicals, on the one hand, have this reputation for insisting on a physical hell over and against Christians who would rather discard the idea. Progressives, on the other hand, are seen as lifting up the social dimensions of salvation, like care for the homeless, in contrast to those Christians who would reduce the life of faith to a scorecard kept between each individual and God.
But here, in this passage the party lines fail us. Hell and care for people without homes intersect in this challenging story and become a unique crossroads through which all Christians travel and find something new. The evangelical can’t cite this passage as proof of hell’s existence without being confronted with salvation’s social dimensions. Neither can the progressive point to this scripture in promoting care for the stranger without acknowledging Jesus’ physical, if not literal, portrayal of hell.
This morning, I want to explore the story of hell and Lazarazus, the man outside the gate, through three questions:
- Is hell real?
- What are human beings created for?
- What does the one who rises from the dead show us about how we belong to each other?
Let’s start with the question “Is hell real?”
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus describes hell as a point of no return. A place of eternal punishment. This is where most objections to hell begin. It seems unfair that the chasm would be uncrossable and the pain would be unending. In the understated lyrics of the largely forgotten musical group The Heritage Brothers, “Forever is a long, long time.”
Of course, it’s not clear from the story that the rich man knows what he’d do with a chance to do things differently. Astoundingly, the rich man’s imagination for bridging the chasm is to have Lazarus come over and serve him. He never does see Lazarus, even in hell and with the revelation of God's priorities, except through the lens of a self-interest that says, "My life is of more worth than yours. Sacrifice yourself for me." If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the exact opposite of the last command Jesus gave his disciples before he died for us.
So there’s an uncrossable chasm that neither the rich man nor Lazarus can cross. But, interestingly, sound and sight can bridge the gap. Abraham can speak to the unnamed rich man. The rich man can see the poor man, Lazarus, whom he hadn’t bothered to see in his lifetime. But their positions it seems are fixed.
The spacial ambiguity of Jesus’ depiction of hell - its being both far away and strangely near - led some students in this week’s bible study to observe that it feels like heaven and hell are 1) closely arranged in this story, if not 2) occupying the very same space. This fits in a way the earliest Christian thinking about hell and evil: namely, that evil is not a thing you can grab but a privation and absence. Evil is what isn’t; it’s the existence of non-things. Which isn’t to say evil isn’t real; it’s to say how evil is real. A hole in a blanket is a thing, but it’s also a non-thing. It’s a very real non-thing whose presence can quickly and really ruin a blanket. So it’s real. Exactly because it isn’t. This understanding of the nature of evil led one theologian to paradoxically quip: “The reason the devil’s so angry is because he doesn’t exist!”
Evil is void, departure from God’s purposes for creation. Evil is undoing, unraveling, the resounding “It is good!” God pronounced over each and every created thing in that seven day liturgy at the very beginning. Evil is humanity’s forgetting or rejecting what humankind is made for.
Which brings us to question two. What are human beings made for?
Staying for a moment in that very first garden, with creation, God reveals in creation at least three aspects of what it means to be human. The first is to be made in the image of God and for relationship with God; walking with God in the cool of the day. The second thing it is to be human is to be made for relationship and enjoyment of one another, including the invitation to be fruitful and multiply. The third thing is means to be human is to be good stewards of the land and the rest of the created order. This is God inviting humanity to lift up creation and give names to what we find (tigers, hippopotami, and absurd little creatures like the platypus) and ask God’s blessing and give God thanks. It’s the same pattern we fulfill in the Eucharist, when we take our place in the new creation and we offer bread from the land and wine from the fruit of the earth and lift up our hearts and, in a sense, become more human for doing what we were created to do, as we give thanks to God and share God’s joy.
Finally, then, our third question: How does the one who rises from the dead show us how we belong to each other?
In order to answer this question, it helps to look at how evil, or holes in the blanket, got in the way of humans being fully human, almost from the start, in each of the three ways of being for which humans were created. The first hole occurred in the part of the blanket called relationship with God. Adam and Eve did things they discerned they should not have done. Rather than seek God’s help, they hid, and the blanket tore. The first hole. At the same time, another blanket, a veil, came between God and the ones he loved most.
If you’ve ever wondered if God really loves you, if God’s love is for you, and if you’ve feared you can’t trust God’s love with your whole self, no hiding, you’ve felt the snag of this hole in the blanket.
The second hole occurred in that part of the blanket intended for our mutual enjoyment of each other. You can see this hole most clearly when you hold the blanket up to the light of Cain and Abel’s story. One brother kills another because of insecurity and jealousy, because Cain felt out of place with God. When the rich man steps over Lazarus, leaving him on the ground, preferring his own life to another’s he’s not being original, but imitating Cain and the generations after him.
If you’ve ever felt the desire to block a sister or brother from flourishing in a future you both share, you’ve felt the snag of the second hole in the blanket.
The third hole occurred when human beings, aware of the brokenness of humanity’s life with God and one another, began to wonder if it was possible any longer to lift up the gifts of creation with thanks. Truthfully, I mean. They looked at the land and saw scars of their mistrust of God and one another. You’ve felt this hole if you’ve ever let shame’s voice for you become louder than God’s voice for you and wondered if anything could make it better.
For the people of God, some days it felt like a mess, not a gift. Lift that up to God? Some days it felt like the blanket was more holes than fabric.
But then, at his baptism, Jesus received the blessing of God’s goodness once again for all creation. In his death, he tore the veil that separated humanity from God, and by his resurrection and ascension, the first hole was mended, healed, and Jesus brought humanity into the full presence of God. The second hole found healing, too, when, on the night before he died, Jesus washed the feet of his friends, poured out the cup of forgiveness for them, and told them to love one another with everything in them, even when it meant seeking and extending forgiveness, over and over again. Love one another, he said, as I have loved you. When we look to this one, rising from the dead, we are meant to remember that mending with God has made us people made for mending with one another.
The first two holes repaired, humanity began to hear again the groans of the earth, the same earth she had been certain her brokenness had doomed. Humanity looked again to the one who is risen from the dead and remembered that here, in this one, creation is being made new; that God isn’t done with us yet; that God in Christ is doing new things. Jesus Christ is the one who lifts and offers the toil of the land and the fruit of the earth and blesses what he lifts with himself. All of creation is being made whole, finding new life, in him.
What is the one who rises from the dead supposed to show us about belonging to each other? That’s it’s possible. That, in spite of everything, God in Christ has made us friends of God and one another. That holes are for mending. That evil has been overcome by God. That it is possible to be human again: one with God, one another, and the rest of creation. That God’s people have been given all that we need to love God and one another, to seek and serve Christ in each other, to sing God’s praise, and give thanks, with joy. The risen Christ shows us that mercy is God’s delight - even for you and me - and we will know God’s mercy as we extend nothing less than God’s mercy to one another, our sisters and brothers, and all of those standing outside the gate. For this Christ died. For this he lives.