September 25, 2016 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 21C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Once you’re dead, it’s too late. It’s too late to chase your dreams. It’s too late to take that trip to Hawaii. It’s too late to buy the sports car that you’ve had your eye on. It’s too late to make up with all of the people whom you’ve hurt. It’s too late to tell the members of your family that you love them. And, once you’re dead, it’s too late to look for God’s kingdom.
“Besides,” Abraham told the rich man, “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.” The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is Jesus’ own version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Through the eyes of a dead man, he invites us to see the consequences of a life wasted in the pursuit of one’s own interests—a life lived outside of God’s kingdom. But, in Jesus’ version of the story, the ending isn’t as happy.
In our tradition, we don’t preach a lot of “turn or burn” sermons—messages that warn congregations that if they don’t change their behavior the yawning gates of hell will swallow them up. That’s because we believe that God’s grace and forgiveness and mercy are far greater than even the most evil intentions of our hearts. In short, we believe that God’s love is bigger than any decision we make or any sin we commit. We cannot outrun God’s love. I believe that. With all of my heart, I believe it. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to stop and consider whether we really believe what we claim to believe.
What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? For starters, don’t confuse Jesus’ description of God’s kingdom with a prescription for entering it. Nowhere in this story does it say that the rich man should have given Lazarus some of his wealth. Abraham never tells the man that he would have gone to paradise had he been more generous. Instead, he merely states a fact: “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.” That’s Jesus’ description of how God’s kingdom works. Just as Mary proclaimed in the song that she sang when she learned that she would bring God’s Son into the world, God’s kingdom is the place where the hungry are fed and the rich go away empty. Now that he’s dead, the rich man can see it, but now it’s too late. “If only I had realized it while I was still alive,” he laments. “If only I had known.”
That’s when the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to his family to warn them. “Please, Father Abraham,” he said, “I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they also will not come to this place of torment.” But Abraham replied, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And that’s the real point of this story. This isn’t a parable about being nice to poor people so that we can go to heaven. It’s about recognizing that, if we want to spend eternity with God, the one whom God raised from the dead—Jesus the Christ—is the one whom we’d better listen to.
What does it mean to believe in the one who was raised from the dead? You might have acknowledged in your mind that the tomb is empty. You might have asked God to forgive you of your sins and send Jesus into your heart. You might have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and been nourished by his Body and Blood. But have you given your whole heart and mind and soul to the belief that, in raising Jesus from the dead, God declared that Jesus is the one who reveals who God is and how God’s kingdom works? Do you believe that what Jesus said about God’s vision for the world is, indeed, God’s vision for the world? If so, you won’t find yourself on the wrong side of that great chasm, looking across at the poor and the oppressed who have found comfort.
Believing in Jesus isn’t a magic ticket to paradise. It’s a commitment to living the life that Jesus sets out for us here and now—on earth as it is in heaven. The problem with the rich man isn’t that he was selfish or sinful. All of us are just as selfish and sinful as he was. The problem is that he didn’t see—or wouldn’t see—God’s plan for the world. He didn’t understand that the fine linen and sumptuous feasts that he enjoyed while Lazarus sat outside his gate and begged for crumbs were not just an expression of inequality but actually antithetical to God’s will for the world. He failed to see that God’s dream is for everyone to have enough, for the hungry to be fed, for the broken to be made whole, for the disenfranchised to have a voice, for those who are imprisoned by unbreakable cycles of poverty to be set free. Like all of us, the rich man lived right on the edge of God’s kingdom. It was knocking literally on his gate. But the wealth that the man kept to himself had become a giant wall—a great chasm—that separated him from God’s kingdom.
Income inequality is a sin that is ripping this nation apart. A society in which people are separated into haves and have-nots is one that is defined by tension and division. The violence that plagues our streets is fueled by that inequality. The drug crisis that sits on our doorstep is perpetuated by that imbalance. A vicious cycle of hopelessness has broken the hearts and minds and wills of the poor, and what will we do about it? Surely we can see that that is not God’s vision for the world. Surely we can tell that Jesus had something else in mind. Are we so callous and self-centered as to think that God’s plan is reserved not for this life but only for the next—that God’s kingdom is about “someday” and not about this day?
Jesus and the kingdom that he brings are knocking on our door. Will we answer him? Will we follow him? We don’t have to sell everything that we have in order to get into God’s kingdom, but being a part of that kingdom means giving everything that we have away. It means recognizing that God’s plan for the world cannot wait any longer. Believing in Jesus means believing that his vision for the world is God’s vision for the world, and that means that it had better become our vision for the world as well. Jesus isn’t asking us to follow him into heaven. He’s asking us to follow him into God’s kingdom right here, right now. If we can’t see that God’s will for this world is peace now and justice now and equality now, then there’s nothing that will ever convince us—not even if God were to raise someone from the dead.
By the time we’re dead, it will be too late to look for God’s kingdom. The kingdom isn’t waiting for us. It’s right here, right now. Look for it. Look for Jesus—not in heaven but here on earth. Where is he to be found? In the place where God’s vision for the world is coming true. Follow Jesus into that vision. Don’t wait any longer. The kingdom is at hand.