In today’s parable, Jesus takes a folk tale known in his day and turns it into a narrative masterpiece. The story depicts someone who is, in the words of our Old Testament reading, “at ease in Zion.” He’s been privileged and complacent his whole life and Jesus shows us what that choice leads to. The rich man, whom legend names “Dives,” (that just means rich) tends to his own wants while ignoring the world beyond him – and especially his neighbor Lazarus, who is poor and sick. Now we’re not told that he did anything specific wrong, mind you – he might have been an upstanding citizen – Jesus just lets it be understood that Dives failed to let others into his heart.
Well, as we know, death comes to all. It comes to Lazarus first, and Jesus touchingly describes God sending angels who carried him right to the side of the great patriarch Abraham. And then he lets this blunt sentence drop by way of contrast: “The rich man also died and was buried.”
In case we don’t get the hint that Lazarus, though outcast, lived a life pleasing to God, whereas our comfortable homeowner did not, Jesus clarifies the story by placing Dives in what he calls Hades: that’s actually a word from Greek mythology, one of several terms the Bible uses as images of the state of the dead who have chosen against God. Dives in Hades can see Lazarus in paradise and cries out to Abraham, “have mercy on me.” He who used to ignore beggars has started begging himself -- because in God’s way, as Jesus said, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
It’s a total role reversal, but the amazing thing is that it hasn’t taught Dives anything. He hasn’t changed. Not only does Dives not apologize for ignoring Lazarus in life, he demonstrates that his main concern is still his own comfort – or in this case, the lack of it. And Lazarus, at Abraham’s side, still looks to Dives like an inferior, someone who could be called upon to run an errand.
In keeping with what Dives still thinks of as his stature, he addresses that call not to the former outcast Lazarus, but to the patriarch Abraham. “It’s hot down here, have Lazarus get me some water.” And when Abraham says that’s impossible, he replies, “Well, then send him over to my father’s house.” He remains centered in death just where he was in life -- on his own wants. Remember Abraham saying that a “great chasm that has been fixed between you and us”? That attitude is what fixed it. The great chasm between Lazarus and Dives in this tale isn’t one of physical distance – they could talk and see across it. What separates them irretrievably is spiritual distance, and that’s something people create for themselves every time they refuse to be open to love.
Even the message Dives wants to send his brothers expresses that refusal. He has realized that if his brothers continue as they are, they will surely end up where he is, in misery. But he doesn’t want to make sure they learn there is a place of eternal joy and comfort in God’s presence; he wants them to hear about torment so they can fear it. Dives has destroyed his own sensitivity to the joy of God, and can see only the isolation he’s made. Abraham points out that the brothers have already been given all the warning and promise they need to make the right choices. They have the Bible, a love letter from God through Moses and the prophets that is so rich and full you could spend twenty lifetimes plumbing its depths. But Dives essentially says, “Oh, who reads that old thing? I said, send Lazarus. If someone comes to them from the dead, that’ll be enough to convince them.”
And here is the brilliant climax to Jesus’ story. “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets,” says Abraham, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The not double, but TRIPLE meaning of this line is heart-stopping. Yes, it refers to the parable’s fictional character Lazarus. But there was also a real, human Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus actually had raised up from his grave. Many of those standing there listening to this story probably knew him personally. Had that been enough to convince them all? It had not.
And aside from Lazarus’ temporary resuscitation, there is a third meaning, the resurrection of Jesus himself on Easter day into an unending life. “Neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And that’s where he turns the spotlight off these Biblical characters and takes aim at us. Christ is risen. Someone has come to us from the dead. Is it enough for you?
The fact is that if someone really wants to say yes to themselves and no to God, nothing will be enough. When people choose over and over to live for themselves, they can’t help but deaden their spiritual perception, or in Bible terms, “harden their hearts.” God works 24 hours a day trying to break through to them. He puts himself out, goes to ridiculous lengths. Is it any wonder he laments in the book of Isaiah, “What more was there to do that I have not done?” He gives people the Word of God, and some call it fiction or oppressive. He gives us miracles, and some call them coincidence. He even gives us the resurrection we ask for, and some call it an old wives’ tale.
God loved Dives and reached out to him over and over until the moment he took his last breath, just as he does with every one of us. But the man just kept on choosing his own convenience, settling deeper and deeper into himself. The suffering of others was just part of the landscape, and letting himself become vulnerable to them, or to the awesome love of God, never made it onto his radar.
Yeah, it was a comfortable upstanding happy life, but it proclaimed over and over an unrepentant no to everything that is really important.
Dives walked that path, and he stayed on it his whole life, and he found himself still on it after death. Separated from poor Lazarus by a great gulf, just as he had always been, and only barely able to wake up to the fact that the gulf that separated him from his fellow man separated him from God too. You and I are all choosing every day whether to dig that gulf deeper, or bridge it. The chasm that Jesus pictures for us today doesn’t suddenly, arbitrarily appear after death as some kind of random heavenly punishment, or surprising out of left field reward. Of course salvation is about saying yes or no to Jesus, but that decision is worked out day by day as we say yes or no to many smaller things.
As we choose whether to splurge on that really great looking set of patio furniture Instagram showed us, or give that same amount to charity instead. Whether to kill an evening binge-watching another Netflix series, or spend it praying over the Gospel of John. Whether to go cheer at the kids’ football game, or down a couple vodka martinis alone. Whether to keep your Baptismal vows, or pragmatically live a whole different set of values.
Those are the little daily decisions that establish our path in life. Those are the choices that express the opening, or closing, of a heart. It isn’t like right after we die, out of nowhere, someone is going to say to us, “so, would you prefer column A angelic bliss, or column B lake of fire?” Who on earth would have trouble making up their mind if you put it that way?
No, the choice is the same all along, always has been, always will be: yes to Jesus’ life in us this time, or no. And we’re already making that choice over and over every day, until the moment when it turns out to have been made for good.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We are all here this morning for a reason. Whether we got up, got dressed, and got here because Mom said so or because it’s just what you’ve always done on a Sunday morning or because you’re desperately searching for answers — whatever the reason we give ourselves, the truth of the matter is that God called you here today. God called you here today because he wants to meet you where you’re at — and then bring you close (to his heart).
If you’ve been at Emmanuel over the last several weeks, you’ll have heard about the shindig we threw this morning. Journey Through the Seasons, a celebration and exploration of the church year, came about because the entire leadership team of this parish — the staff and the vestry and the volunteers who are committed to worshiping Christ here and now and in the future — agreed that as post-pandemic pieces have come back together, it’s time to remind ourselves of who we really are — and to whom we really belong, even when we are scattered. Not only are we a church that has an entire service in Elizabethan English. Not only are we a church with a wonderful choir and chanted masses. We are a church governed and renewed by a story we tell again and again, day after day and year after year.
For many or most of us, that fact is strikingly different than anything we’ve encountered elsewhere. Where else do a group of people with varying passions and different incomes get together to rehearse and recite a single story? Yet that is exactly what we’re doing here today — and it’s what the church has done for as long as anyone can remember.
And that’s because we live in a time of expectation. When the first disciples began to die around the 2nd century A.D., the church realized that no one could predict when Christ would once again arrive on the scene. Truly, as Jesus said, his return would be like a late and long-awaited Bridegroom. There’s nothing for it but to wait and wait well.
This is not easy — because the tick of the clock, the push and pull of the seasons, the births and deaths that crowd all of our lives will inevitably turn our eyes from what is not visible to what is. We want to be all-in for Christ. We want to be ready whenever he comes, but the task is hard; and we are weak, and we are easily lead astray.
Thanks be to God, then, that every day dawns anew. With the rising of the sun, we remember the rising of the Son of Righteousness. With its setting, we remember that we are upheld by the one who never sleeps. God, in his mercy and his might, has taken time in his hands and made it holy.
And so it is that we can see the gifts God has given to humankind. Each moment, each second of the day, is a gift from God to us, a chance to lean more deeply into our relationship with him. Redemption was accomplished in one act, thousands of years ago; but because God has claimed time for his very own, that event has become our reality. It is something alive, something working, something that changes everything.
When we come to believe in the story of Jesus' dying and rising and ruling over everything — the cosmos, the universe — the ebb and flow of our lives, the periods of lightness and darkness, become signs of a deeper life, an eternal life. As this story sinks into our bones, as it becomes the story that explains all others, our spirits are made right and our hearts made clean — because we will have entered the very life of Christ. Our whole selves will be swept up into the drama that is God redeeming and remaking this world.
And what happens then but that we are remade into the image of Christ. What happens then but that we become the kind of people who reach out to the tax collectors and sinners of our age with the good news of a King who sacrificed everything he had in order to save the one who was lost.
This is the mystery of God that unfolds year after year, season after season. It is a journey we are all on together, as we follow Christ from birth through death and on into glory until one day we see him face-to-face. AMEN.
As some of you can attest, I have been preaching from this pulpit for a long time and I have saved copies of most of my sermons. In looking through those old sermons I could not find one that was for today’s propers! Perhaps this is because I was often away for Labor Day weekend but none the less these lessons require looking beyond the surface.
What harsh words we heard in this morning’s gospel! Hate father and mother, wife and children? Carry a cross, an instrument of painful death? Be ridiculed for not having enough building materials? Consider how many soldiers one has, prior to going into battle? Give up all our possessions in order to become Jesus’ disciple? Hate, cross, ridicule, war, choose becoming poor? None of these are desirable things and perhaps we shake our heads and move onto more agreeable passages.
Or we can stop, pause, and see these harsh words as means to catch our attention and consider what Jesus meant by them.
At this point in Luke’s telling of our savior’s life, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he knows he will face the worst that a human being can have happen. He will be ridiculed, spat upon, beaten, abandoned by his closest friends, and put to a painful and shameful death. He knows this is coming and that it must happen. Jesus must die for resurrection to happen. And resurrection is the reason God sent him into the world. Jesus knows this, as he and this large crowd are walking to Jerusalem.
That crowd has seen Jesus perform healings and other miracles again and again. They have heard him speak and listened to his parables and stories. What he has done and said is all very appealing; they want to follow him. Large numbers of people walk with him at this point. But they do not know what will happen next. They do not understand what the cost of being his follower will entail.
Jesus tries to let them know the full story, especially what the next period of his life will involve. He wants them to see all the consequences of becoming His disciple. What he has to offer them is wonderful, but it also has challenges.
Discipleship requires total dedication and is not something to go into on a whim. It is a choice to be made after careful deliberation. It cannot be decided by going along with the crowd. So, Jesus does not lighten it up in today’s passage. He uses strong language to indicate what they may face and that there will be a cost in staying with him.
Jesus begins today’s passage by saying his disciples must put him first, above all else. While I am not a student of Hebrew myself, I have read that in Hebrew there are not words to express a greater or lesser love. The words translate into definite opposites. You either love someone or you hate them. Love/Hate are exact opposites. In saying that they must hate their wife and children, Jesus’ point is that if you choose to be his disciple that must be the first priority in your life. In some cases that may mean losing all your family, or in others it may mean a lessening of relationships that had been close. For many mother, father and so on, will make the same choice to be Jesus’ follower, but that is not a guarantee. He also points out that being his disciple may lead to their death and we know of many martyrs throughout the centuries for whom that was true. Of course, there are far more people for whom it was not the case. Nonetheless Jesus indicates it is a possibility. For the original hearers of this gospel, becoming his follower would be dangerous. Jesus was headed to his own death.
Next Jesus tells the crowd they must carry the cross and follow him. Much has been written about what it means to carry our cross. Study through the ages has made interpretation of this statement. In some eras this phrase has been misused to justify many bad things such as spousal abuse, racism and more. For the purposes of this sermon and its length I will summarize “carrying our cross and following Jesus” to mean we are to obey God even in our pain and loss.
When we face the tragedies and griefs that are a part of life, we do not abandon God; our God does not abandon us. Jesus is with us in our sufferings. He, who experienced the worst pain imaginable, both physical and emotional, understands suffering. Jesus empathy and love come to us most especially when we suffer.
Jesus talks about war and new buildings as occasions to prepare before deciding to go ahead with them. He uses these examples to caution those wanting to be his followers that it won’t be all miracles and high points. The reality is that resurrection comes after the crucifixion.
Jesus ends this reading by stating that to be a disciple we must give up all our possessions. He is not speaking of just things we own, though our need to acquire is certainly a part of this. Other things we need to give up may be our yearning for success, our prejudices, our jealousies, our busyness, and addictions, really anything that pulls us away from placing Jesus first in our lives. It is these things we must put away from us.
Becoming Jesus’ disciple is a process. We are human beings after all. We will try to prioritize him as first in our lives and we will fail. We will ask forgiveness and then try again. Jesus understands this about us. What he said to the crowds of long ago and what he says to us in today’s gospel passage is that embracing discipleship is tough. While the benefits are great, beyond great, there will be difficult times and difficult choices that come with being his follower.
Discipleship is more than being a responsible human being. At times we may have to give up our earthly loyalties and step out of our places of comfort to be a follower of Jesus Christ. This gospel gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect on our own journey of discipleship and ask ourselves how we are doing in giving Jesus the highest priority.
We, living now, have the fortunate place of knowing resurrection and the gift of eternal life that Jesus brings to his disciples. The crowd following Jesus in the morning’s passage did not have that same advantage. With the passage of time, we also know that it is through God’s love we are offered the chance to be Jesus’ disciple and that it is through God’s love we are given the support of living out discipleship. This is our hope, and this is our limitless joy.
Today’s gospel reminds us that accepting Jesus’ call is a serious choice. We know the cost is worth it!
May God grant us peace in reading and understanding scripture.