Heaven’s Gate

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on Sunday, September 29, 2019 at Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas. It was my first Sunday as their pastor.

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

My mother spent most of her career in human resources, and she used to tell me this story. A human resources director died and went before St. Peter in heaven. She was given a rare opportunity to choose between heaven and hell. So she toured Heaven and saw the angels, heard the music, and looked at the clouds. It was pretty good. But wanting to know her options, she asked to be sent down to visit Hell, too. When she got off the elevator in Hell it was not at all what she expected. There were 24-hour massage tables and all-you-can-eat crab legs and tennis courts and swimming pools. When she went back to St. Peter she said, “I can’t believe it but Hell made the better offer.” So down she went, and when the elevator opened this time, it was all brimstone and torment and sulfur. “What happened to the crab legs and the massage tables?” she cried out. The Devil answered her, “then we were recruiting. Now you’re an employee.”

I promise this story has no bearing on my experience as your new pastor. But it does say something, I think, about the story of the rich man and Lazarus. We do not always know the future we are making and choosing for ourselves.

In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus’s parable about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man, who doesn’t get a name in the story, dresses in sumptuous clothes and holds feasts every day. To do this—to wear purple robes, a rare and very expensive garment, and to hold banquets constantly—the man must have been truly, exceedingly wealthy. And at the rich man’s gate sits Lazarus, who is poor and who suffers from a skin disease of some kind. He would be happy, Jesus says, to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table. 

The action of the parable really starts after both men die. And we’ll get to that in a minute. But I want to think for a moment about how the rich man might have viewed Lazarus during their lives. Did they know each other? Did the rich man at one point feel pity for him? Did he suspect Lazarus of being dangerous or lazy or dishonest? Did he eventually stop noticing the sick man sitting at the gate he had built to keep himself and his possessions safe? Did Lazarus become part of the furniture of the rich man’s life? A thing he could get by without noticing, accounting for, as he focused on the important tasks of managing his vast wealth? 

That, at any rate, is what I suspect. Because I see it happen. Because I do it myself. It is not hard to exclude from our perceptions and considerations those people whose problems seem too profound. Those people whose needs seem too great. Those people whose cultural or geographical distance can make them seem less important to me than they are to God. I can only assume that the rich man felt an ordinary twinge of human sympathy when Lazarus dies and is carried off by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. And I can only assume that the rich man died with a clear conscience about his life.

But as so often happens in the Gospels, there is a reversal. The rich man finds himself in Hades, in agony. And far off he sees Lazarus with Abraham, among the blessed. A boss even in Hades, he tells Abraham to send Lazarus to touch his tongue with cool water to relieve his suffering. So it falls to Abraham to explain the reversal: Your life was filled with feasting and luxury, and his life was filled with suffering and pain. You’ve gotten the good things you wanted in life. Lazarus is being rewarded now. And more than that, the gate that the rich man built to keep Lazarus and the rest of the world out turns out to be a chasm that the rich man can no longer escape. He didn’t keep the world out. He locked himself in. The rich man is, in other words, getting exactly what he wanted. He just couldn’t see it at the time.

The rich man, to his credit, suddenly becomes worried for others. Send Lazarus—he just can’t stop treating Lazarus as a minion!—to my brothers and warn them, so that they do not come into this torment. No, Abraham says; they have the Law of Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them. No shot, the rich man says. Moses and the prophets are just part fo the furniture, you see. We don’t notice them any more. But if a man comes from the dead to warn them, that will shake them up. Then they’ll listen. 

The parable ends with Abraham saying something truly grim: If they don’t believe Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen to someone who comes back from the dead either. 

There is good news here in the sense that there are many more Lazaruses in the world than there are rich men. Those poor and suffering who have been ignored or maligned as lazy or dangerous will be vindicated.  

But the parable is also clearly a warning. If we are in a position to ignore Lazarus, or to exclude Lazarus, or to lock Lazarus out, it’s our souls that are in danger. It’s our consciences that can become numb. If we are in a position to fence humanity out, we need to think hard about where we are confining ourselves. If we’re in a position to enjoy and indulge in life’s blessings, we need to think about what wealth we are storing up for ourselves in heaven. 

There is no need for miracles or secret wisdom or “proof.” Nothing is more dangerous to our souls than the need to be persuaded. The words of warning that end the parable are also words of great beauty: God has told us, through Moses, how precious our lives and the lives of all our neighbors are. God has already given us, through the prophets, the vision of a world at peace with itself, where none lacks for anything they need. God has shown us our neighbor, God has set our neighbor before our eyes. God has joined us to our neighbor through baptism into the Body of Christ. And all we have to do is have the strength to see, and hear, what is right before us. Amen. 

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