So, I’ll be the first to admit it…this is a creepy scripture. It’s talking about failed efforts, greed, wealth and riches, poverty and using people. It’s talking about the afterlife, those who make it in and those who stand on the outside. It flips our ready assumptions and makes us take notice about our past and present behavior and attitudes. There’s a chasm and a fiery infernal, a rich man who has no name and a poor man whose name is Lazarus. Is it the same Lazarus Christ raised from the dead? I don’t know. We are never told.
So, yeah, this is a creepy scripture; it does make me highly uncomfortable, which, of course, in the telling, is Christ’s intent. Faced with a scripture like this, I end up waiting too long in the week to work up a sermon. What do I say? Is there good news here? And I also end up, somewhat reluctantly, thinking about the people I’ve passed by and the ones I haven’t noticed. Worse still, I think about the ones I have seen but pretend I don’t or the ones I can’t get out of my mind, like the young, very young woman in Glastonbury who I drove by as she stood amidst traffic holding a sign in her hands reading “I’m a single Mom. I need help.”
Sure, it broke my heart, but I can’t be blamed for wondering, “Should I believe her? Can we believe her?” And I remember the woman in Manchester with her head in a trash can pulling up whatever she could find anything that could be eaten, sold, or bartered for something better while her two very young children sat in a stroller nearby. What did it take for her to push through all that trash, to relinquish the little pride she might still have to try and find something for her little ones to eat? What roads has she been on? What led her to this? What leads me to remember that my response was like the rich man…I didn’t act while I still could? I didn’t stop and speak to her or try to help. I don’t even know if she would have accepted my help. She might be embarrassed – I would be – and tell me to mind my own business.
Well, I’m good at that. I know how to mind my own business and so I kept driving knowing full well that the very next person who came to the church for help would get it. I wouldn’t hesitate to help that very next needy person. You wouldn’t hesitate either…we have to put our hands in our pockets some time, don’t we? We have to give to one so we can feel better about ignoring so many others. We have to let go of fear for one so we can reconcile our fear of so many others. We have to suspend our judgment, good judgment, maybe, so we can forget and forgive all the others we so freely judge. Like the rich man, we want to save our brothers and sisters, from making the same mistakes we’ve made but we want to do it by using the very people who come to us for help. Then, maybe, we can assuage our sense of guilt and forget and pray that we will be forgiven for the ones we didn’t help or couldn’t help. There are just too many to help, aren’t there? Some sincere, some just users. How do we tell the difference and is it our place to judge which is which.
But, yes, I’ll help that very next person who steps through my door and for a moment, I will feel the flames of my neglect and sense of entitlement cool a bit. The rich man had his whole life to do something for Lazarus, for the many Lazarus’ who peopled his world but he couldn’t see the error of his ways, not until he saw Lazarus on the other side of the chasm standing with Abraham. Even then, he couldn’t or wouldn’t name the man, wouldn’t even address his need to Lazarus just begging Abraham to order the poor man to his aid…he just kept ignoring him as he had always done bitterly confused by the turn of events. Who was Lazarus to be standing with the Father of faith? Who was Lazarus to hold the favored position in the afterlife? He was no one here on this side; how did he manage to be someone of value on the other side?
I remember once watching a movie with two excellent actors: Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep. The movie, “Defending Your Life” is the intriguing tale of another way to look at this afterlife experience. When Brooks dies in a car crash, he’s sent to Judgment City where each person sits with a panel of judges who review pre-selected events in his or her life. The person is then asked to defend their action and be judged accordingly. Brooks meets Meryl Streep there and the two share their life and death experiences. Sneaking into a closed session of Streep’s review, Brooks discovers she is a most extraordinary woman whose life events are quite positive. Brooks, on the other hand has much to defend about his behavior and he does make a gallant attempt with little success. Finally, the judgments are made: Streep, forward to an idyllic afterlife; Brooks, back to try again.
Two buses heading in opposite directions. The moment of grace comes when Brooks knowing he will be separated from this new love, escapes from his bus and gallantly chases after Meryl’s insisting on being given the option to go where she goes. His persistence wins; the door of the bus opens and a battered and weary Brooks pushes through crossing over with Streep to a better life beyond the one he has left. Lessons are learned and Brooks is redeemed.
Seemingly, that is not an option for our rich man. His fate was sealed and though he makes a last ditch effort to prevent his brothers from sharing his fiery doom, Abraham responds with these words, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them. If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Here’s the grace…in this sorry, frightful tale, we get yet another glimpse into the gift we have received in Jesus Christ. It comes as a warning but more than this, it comes as a promise…this someone who will rise from the dead will complete the story begun by Moses and by the prophets. There is hope. There is life. And the chasm can be bridged but now is the time to act.
We may never get it right 100% of the time. There will be times when we will fail to see or, choose not to see, need even when it’s in front of us. Sometimes we will get it right. More often than not, we will make mistakes in judgment or let our prejudices rule our hearts. But, I believe, that though I can’t get it right all the time, God is still working in me, still working in you too, still working to help us all sort through the slips and errors in the way we treat others. God works at it even when we fail to recognize the results of our actions or our failure to act. How? Well, God calls out of us a heart to know that we can’t just turn from the single moms or the hungry ones, from the needy and the poor, the homeless and ill…we can’t just turn away without questioning our motives and putting on trial our prejudices. We are still called to wrestle with our conscience daily, to take small steps in favor of making mistakes because we choose to help someone rather than making mistakes by ignoring or hurting another. I want to believe that the chasm is shrinking, don’t you? Amen.