September 29, 2019 - Rev. Michael Ralph
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 16:19-31
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, `Child, remember that 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. Besides all this, 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.’ He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Did you know... that if you were to type the word hell into the Google search engine, the results would show you over 1,000,000,000 web results. Now, I don’t know why you would ever be inclined to do such a thing... but I did it the other day. And those results showed me something… namely that quite a few people still talk about hell. And not everyone does. In recent years, the doctrine of hell has softened somewhat in our churches, hasn’t it? Mainline denominations, like the Episcopal Church, rarely, if ever, broach the subject of hell... even when it comes up in the Gospel, as it does today. We are much more comfortable preaching God’s love and grace than we are hellfire and brimstone. But there are still some churches for whom hell remains a very vital part of their theology and their teaching... particularly those in more conservative Christian traditions. And these churches would claim that without a strong doctrine of hell, Christianity means nothing. After all, they say, without the threat of hell, why would anyone feel the need for Jesus Christ... for the cross... and for the church? Now, I happen to be a person who was raised in one of those churches. And to this day, I can still hear some of those hellfire and brimstone sermons in my head. To be perfectly honest, growing up in a fear-based religion can leave some lasting marks on one’s psyche. And while I think have grown up and evolved in my theology, I would be lying if I told you that I don’t still have some fear of hell that pops up from time. Truth be told, there have been more than a few nights over the years when I have lain awake wondering if I might have offended God in some way... and if, in the end, I will be among those who are cast into the darkness.
Now, I’m well aware that whenever I talk about the hell in the Episcopal Church, I’m talking to a very diverse group of people. Even as I speak today, there are probably some here who hold onto a very traditional doctrine of hell. And there are probably some people here who don’t believe in hell at all because they don’t think that eternal damnation is consistent with the doctrine of an all-loving God. And then I suspect that there are some people here, who quite frankly haven’t given the matter a whole lot of thought because it doesn’t really come up in polite conversation anymore, does it? Want to really enliven a dinner party sometime? Try asking this question, “Hey… how many of you here think you’re are going straight to hell?” Whatever the case, we do need to consider the doctrine of hell because it does come up in scripture from time to time... although far less than you might think. But this is one of those times. And in our Gospel account for today from Luke, we see Jesus sharing a parable… a teaching story… about a rich man who lives a life of ease while a poverty ridden man named Lazarus lies just outside of his opulent home starving to death. The scraps that fall from the rich man’s table could easily have fed Lazarus… but the rich man is far too busy living a life of extravagance to bother with things like poor people covered in sores. But soon enough they both die. Lazarus goes to his eternal comfort in the arms of Abraham while the rich man finds himself tormented in Hades.
And there many people who point to this particular story as Biblical proof that a literal fiery hell exists and that we better straighten up and fly right... especially if we expect to be spending an eternity with Lazarus and not the rich man. Folks, this Gospel used to scare the living daylights out of me because of its vivid description of the rich man’s everlasting punishment. But as I look at this text, I don’t really think this story was shared by Jesus to threaten us with an eternal and fiery hell as much as it was shared to remind us of another kind of hell that certainly exists... a hell that exists just outside of our own doors. It is an existential hell. Lazarus spent his whole life in hell. Hungry, filthy, dehumanized, forgotten, loathed, isolated… Lazarus lived in hell. We’re told that the dogs came and licked his sores… and in Jesus’ story, this is likely the only contact he had with any living thing. And then the parable makes it clear that the reason for the rich man’s eternal torment is exactly because of his neglect of Lazarus. The rich man’s sin wasn’t that he took advantage of Lazarus or stole from Lazarus or even taunted Lazarus. Apparently, his was not a sin of commission. His was a sin of omission. He neglected to help the starving man right outside of his door while he, himself, lived a life of ease and excess. Now, he could’ve done something to alleviate Lazarus’ personal hell. Lazarus was an opportunity for the rich man. But instead, he did nothing. And folks, in the Kingdom of God, doing nothing is, quite simply, unacceptable. Now I know that here in our own little corner of the Garden of Eden, we don’t usually see a whole lot of beggars sleeping outside of our homes. But I think we all know that all we have to do is drive about five miles to see some stark poverty. And quite frankly, the poor are not the only ones in need in our communities. They are not our only opportunities to do something. We also have our own lonely people here. We also have our own mentally ill people here. We also have our own victims of substance abuse. And we also have our own social outcasts here. And while I will never threaten anyone with an eternal hell to get us to recognize the suffering in our own midst, I do offer this gentle admonition. We, as the body of Christ, might be the only piece of the Kingdom of God that someone living in their own hell might see today. And quite frankly, if we don’t lift a finger to relieve their suffering… who will? If we ever expect that God’s love is available to us, why wouldn’t we do something to make sure that God’s love is available for someone else in pain? Because guess what? Human suffering is universal. It will happen to all of us eventually. And whenever we see someone else suffering, I think we need to remember that it’s just not our turn… yet. But it is our turn to do something for them. And doing something isn’t just encouraged in the Kingdom of God... it’s necessary.
And oddly enough, I read something useful on Facebook this week… and isn’t that a minor miracle? I read a quote from Christian philosopher Dallas Willard who said, “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after we die… and more about how to live into the Kingdom of Heaven while we still live.” Folks, we have the opportunity... the opportunity to live into the Kingdom every time we relieve another person of their own personal hell. Ask the people who serve at the Market Street food pantry why they help to feed the poor... and to a person, I bet they’ll tell you… they get more out of the experience than they give. Ask any volunteer who works with disadvantaged children and they’ll tell you that they do it because it feeds their soul. Ask anyone who visits a lonely shut-in and I promise they’ll tell you... that lifting a finger to do something gives them a foretaste of glory divine. Folks, if there is a fiery and eternal hell… and maybe there is… there’s not a whole lot we can do to relieve the people suffering there. C.S. Lewis once said that the gates of hell are locked from the inside… not the outside. But there is a whole lot of hell just outside our own door that we can do something about. Whenever we lift a finger to help, we bring the Kingdom of Heaven a little closer and saints of God stand and cheer us on. We don’t have to wait to experience a little piece of heaven. Heaven and hell are a lot closer than we think. So let’s take a little time to notice… and then for God’s sake, let’s lift a finger and do something. Amen.