St. George’s United Church, September 25, 2016
Sermon: “Bound Together”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
Our scripture passage this week is a story of two people. Jesus tells a parable. One character in the parable is a rich man who has no name. The other is a poor man who has a name. And his name is Lazarus. Despite the fact that they are pressed so neatly together in a passage of scripture, they aren’t very close, they don’t have much to do with one another.
They live their lives on opposite sides of a large gate. On one side of the gate is a good-sized, well-kept house. It’s a gated community you might say. And inside the master bedroom, the rich man folds his fashionable clothes. In the kitchen he sits down to a decent-sized meal of good food. And in the living room he reclines, and breathes a sigh of relief because life is good. If it’s not happy, at least it’s calm. It’s safe. It’s secure.
On the other side of the gate, though, things are a little different. On the street side, this poor man, Lazarus, is sitting, propped up against a wall. Kind of kind of like an ancient dumpster diver, he makes his livings off of scraps. To make matters worse, he’s sick, too. Dogs, it says, lick his sores. If you know street people, you’ll know how important dogs can be. Even when things are bad, they’ll never leave you. The only people caring for him are the dogs. He’s all alone.
Despite the fact that they live on opposite sides of the fence, their lives eventually come together. They both die. Lazarus, who spent his life suffering, poor and alone, it says, is carried up by heavenly angels to the “bosom of Abraham.” Abraham being the Father of the faith. The man, along with his wife Sarah, who stands at the center of the Old Testament (maybe even the new, too). He’s the example of trust in God. He who was once poor, suffering, wretched and alone. Finds himself in the comfort of an everlasting, holy embrace. We can only assume that this means Lazarus has passed through the heavenly gates. And has entered into holy presence of God.
On the other hand, the rich man finds himself on the other side of the pearly gates. He dies, is buried in the ground. And wakes up in Hades. It’s often translated “hell.” Which you kind of get, because here he’s suffering in flickering flame. But Hades is the Greek term for the underworld. The shadow world of the dead. Where in life dirty old Lazarus was safely tucked out of sight behind his front gate, now he’s in plain sight. The rich man can see Lazarus and Abraham chillin’ on a cloud. The rich man is thirsty, and cries out to Abraham. He’d settle for Lazarus dipping his finger in water and dripping it in his mouth at this point. But no, says Abraham. There is a deep chasm, a rocky canyon between Lazarus and the rich man, that none of them can cross. I remember the pastor on the Simpsons, Reverend Lovejoy once saying to Homer “I’ll see you in hell! From heaven.” The gate that kept Lazarus out of the rich man’s life, now keeps him away in death. It’s what we might call poetic justice.
Now in thinking about this passage, I’m really tempted to go with the obvious meaning. Especially when you read about Goldman Sachs bilking people out of millions, or obscene CEO bonuses. Or certain reality TV stars turned presidential candidates. If you’re rich—you better learn to give your money away. You better learn to pay your taxes and care for the poor. Because right now you’re on the path to Hades. And one day there’s going to be a reckoning. And at one point there’ll be no turning back. So you better turn back now. This stuff makes my social justice loving United Church heart skip a beat. Stick it to ‘em, yeah!
And while this is part of the rich man’s problem—his inability to share his food, his shelter, and his money with Lazarus—he’s got another problem that I think touches all of us on a deeper level. Not just the lives of the rich. The thing that you notice is that the rich man has spent his whole life trying to be comfortable. He has a nice house. He has all the best clothes. He has all the food he could ever need, and lives safely within his home security system. He’s basically spent his whole life trying to protect himself from people like Lazarus. He’s spent his whole life trying to close himself off from suffering. But, in the end, that gate that keeps him safe and comfortable. That gate that keeps Lazarus out of his life. That gate actually ends up, in the end, not only standing between him and Lazarus. This gate stands between him and fullness of life, abundant, eternal life. He thought he was living the good life all along. He thought the good life consisted in trying to get yours while you can. And avoiding the world’s troubles and suffering all you can. But in cutting himself off from Lazaurus, in cutting himself off from suffering. He ends up closing himself off to God.
These words are for us, too. As many of you know, a few weeks ago I was in Toronto as part of the United Church’s national Theology/Interchurch/Interfaith Committee. The topic we spent the most time on was in regards to the latest bill from the Canadian House of Commons. One legalizing, with strict controls, medically assisted death. Also known as Doctor Assisted Death, or Assisted Suicide. The ability to end one’s life before illness or nature does. Our committee was in agreement that there were certain terminal situations of extreme suffering where, after all other options of palliative care and pain management are exhausted, where assisting someone in the dying process would be a permissible alternative. You can wait until the official statement in the New Year. But that issue we were in agreement on.
Our worries, though, was the assumption that not only a good death, but also a good life, should be absent of suffering altogether. And that the worst suffering we could cause would be being a burden on our loved ones. And our medical system. And we saw this as a broader cultural aversion to suffering. We build our houses so we don’t see our neighbors. We build our neighborhoods so people with mental health or addiction issues are far away. Not in our backyards.
Most of us ride in cars safely from point A to point B. It can make us angry and defensive when the suffering of First Nations people, or other people around the world are indignant and voice their own suffering. We tend to shy away from funerals because we don’t want to burden others with the work, or confront others with death (because it’s morbid). Or even on a more personal level, did you ever notice how when you say to someone “how are you?” and they say something other than “good” that it can throw the conversation completely off? We don’t know how to respond. I remember when I was a guest preacher at a tiny little church in Richmond one summer when I was a ministry student. I remember this kind woman in her 80’s seeming a little down in coffee time. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me her 61 year old son died the day before, of a heartattack. She didn’t share it with the people in the church, she said. Because she didn’t want to bring everyone down.
It makes sense in some ways. Feeling safe and secure is a good thing. And some of us can be so caught up in our own suffering that it becomes who we are. And we insist on pulling others into our own whirlpool of self-pity. But like the rich man, we can spend our whole lives putting up a gate between us and suffering. Without even knowing it. Even in church. We do our best to separate ourselves from the suffering of others—especially the weak, the oppressed, and the lost. But Jesus says when we do this, we are like the rich man hiding himself from Lazarus. We are actually hiding ourselves from God.
And that’s the basic meaning of the cross. The symbol that we put on our buildings, and wear around our necks. That in the cross, God doesn’t shy away from the suffering of our world. God doesn’t rescue Jesus at the last minute. In Jesus, God enters into it fully. Feels it’s pain, our pain. Knows its suffering and sorrow. And undergoes it to the point of death. And in doing so, she transforms it from the inside out, with the power of resurrection. God is not only to be found in the good times, baby’s laughs and sunsets. No. God is found, our salvation is found most profoundly on the other side of the gate. In our pain. Our suffering. Our rejection. And our loss.
I remember an email I received a few weeks ago from someone who volunteers at our regular morning drop in. This email reported the words from one of our long-time friends and clients. One whose life has not been easy. Has been struck by injuries and mental health struggles. Homelessness on occasion. But one morning, he walked in to the drop in. And he said, “it’s so good to get up in the morning, and have a cup of coffee with people who actually care.” It’s one thing to share our money. It’s another thing to share our lives. In these words, I heard the gate creak open, the gate between our comfortable lives and the suffering of those who Jesus calls “the least of these.” And discovered God on the other side.
You see, like the rich man, we don’t understand that abundant life, life at its fullest, doesn’t consist in making the most comfortable life possible. It doesn’t consist in ensuring our highest level of happiness. The most assets, or best retirement plan. Or the least amount of pain. In this passage, God is opening our lives and our eyes to the truth. In this whole scenario, Jesus is showing us that true life, abundant life, life at its fullest. That life that won’t fall apart, eternal life, life that lasts forever. Life isn’t found locked away in the safety and comfort. It’s found on the other side. It’s found in relationships. It’s found in entering each other’s lives. It’s not found in shying away from suffering. It’s found in entering in to it. And helping one another carry it.
When we open ourselves to the suffering of others, we are opening the gate for God to get in. Not only for the sake of Lazarus, for the sake of those who wait for us on the outside. But those of us on the inside. For the sake of the health of our own souls.
May God give us the insight, the wisdom to open the gate. And may Christ grant us the courage to embrace others where they are. Knowing we are embracing him and his cross. Which leads to life.