St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Trinity
June 23, 2019
“And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
THE PEOPLE OF THE TOWN OF PARADISE are finding a symbol for themselves in the ancient myth of the Phoenix. The Phoenix was a long-live bird that, every 500 years, dies in a shower of flames. But from the ashes it rises again and is born anew. There is a major city in Arizona we know by that name. Even older is the nation of Phonecia, a sea-borne people who landed and settled the area north of Israel, today’s Lebanon.
Besides the Phoenix, ancient people held religious ideas about certain gods of grain who, like the seeds, would die and be buried, only to rise again in fertile new planting. Fairytales give us the dying Snow White or Sleeping Beauty who, at love’s first kiss, are made alive once again and go off with Prince Charming.
It’s one of the human race’s oldest longings, to live again, to live forever, to live a better life, to keep going forward after everything, by nature, by necessity, has come to full stop. The longing is fulfilled in legend, religion, and mythology. And one time it truly did happen. And this time made it so for all of us when the Great Day comes and we all rise again.
There is dying and resuscitation, and there is dying and resurrection. Jesus did both. Three times at least we know Christ raised a dead person, truly dead, to continue their lives that, for a time were interrupted by death. People back then knew about unconsciousness, and they knew death. They buried a dead person the same day he died, so it was important to tell the difference. They handled their own family deaths, so it was usual for them to train in the arts of a coroner. The daughter of Jairus, the widow of Nain’s son, and Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, all were certified dead before the wailing began and the burial march was ordered. And by God’s Spirit, Elijah, Elisha, and St. Paul raised dead people to life again. But it was this life. They would all die.
Jesus teaches a parable about another Lazarus, a fiction that certainly has the feel of a true story. This Lazarus is a poor man, much like our homeless, and like them, he has nowhere to go, little to eat, and evidently no family to tend to him. Life has landed Lazarus in poverty and isn’t giving him a hand up. He places himself at the gates of the richest man in town. For convenience, we give him the name Dives. Dives lives in a gated community with gates and guards and guard dogs keeping out anyone like Lazarus who might want something. “You don’t get rich by giving it all away,” is his favorite saying. He sicks the dogs on the beggar at his gate and they run barking.
It’s no crime to have money, and it’s no assurance of saintliness to be poor, but the lesson of scripture, again and again, is that those who are blessed with substance owe God the care of others in need. The poor are often in some proportion responsible for their lack of means. Today’s homeless are, for the most part, drug addicted and mentally ill. Their cure is complicated, perhaps impossible, for most of them. Anyone not so afflicted will get off the streets, because there are opportunities, shelter and exits to the lifestyle. And we know that money isn’t the answer for the hardcore homeless if they are addicted.
Feeding them, making sure they are clothed, and setting some rules around the city to protect us all, including them, is good. But we can’t wish them away. So we contribute to ministries that feed them and that don’t ask too many questions before helping them.
It’s no sin to have wealth, so long as you know where it came from and are thankful. “It all comes from hard work and saving it up,” a rich man might say are his secrets, but if he doesn’t mention almighty God, he’s missed the point. It is hard for a rich man to get into the kingdom, as Jesus said, and the reason is that the money justifies him in his lifestyle. He has it because he deserves it. And it’s not enough, besides. There is always more to have, and to have it, he needs to make it. “Religion is for the weak, the gullible, those who can’t work and earn and achieve. Let them say their prayers, the fools. I know where my salvation comes from: myself!”
I am fleshing out the person of Dives so we might see him better. Jesus clearly sees him as lost, so our pity is lost on him. He was clothed in rich clothing, ate fabulous meals all day, and as his carriage rode out the gates of the estate, he sneered at the poor man begging while his servants ate the remainder of the meal and threw the bones to the dogs.
The dogs were set on poor Lazarus, and they barked, sniffed, and then sensing no danger in the man, began to lick the sores that covered him. Dog lick is actually antiseptic, and the canine love that comes that way is comforting. Lazarus was made comfortable until he finally died. It was a day or two before the staff realized he was not asleep after all.
It was the next day that a heart attack took the life of Dives. His body was not yet in its stone chamber when his soul woke up and he found himself in flames. It was Hades, the underworld, a place of burning and disaster. What could have happened? He was never told about this! But now he looked up, as though questioning his fate, and just like that beggar who’d sat at his gate, now it was he that looked up at another comfortable home and he was denied it too, and in it sat father Abraham, and at his side sat the beggar, what was his name?… Lazarus! All looked well for the beggar. What’s happened? He asked again. Oh. It was a judgment. Well, this was an outrage. There has to be a mistake.
“And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.'” Luke 16
This is an important lesson for us, because the Son of God is telling the story and He clearly believes in Abraham, who symbolizes God’s redeemed people, the father of faith. He describes a place of consciousness after physical death where we might be in comfort or in dire straits, according to our lives on earth. And it isn’t the eternal afterlife, for that comes at another day, with the resurrection of all, the white throne judgment, and a new heaven and new earth, and a lake of fire. This is the intermediate afterlife. For Lazarus, it’s the Paradise that the good thief was promised from the cross.
It is also the hell that Jesus speaks of whose gates will not prevail against His Church founded on the Apostle’s testimony of faith. Hell’s gates, remember, are locked not to keep anyone out, but to keep its prisoners in. And just that same hell is mentioned in our Apostles’ Creed, where Christ descended when He died. Peter mentions His preaching to the dead there, and from that we infer that some heard His message and believed, to their souls’ relief and salvation. Hell, or Hades, so understood, is not the final destination of the damned. They are not even damned yet, not if they can be saved by believing. And why would Christ go there to preach if some of them would not find His message compelling and take the offer?
Dives is refused his request for water on the finger of the man he once disdained, and learns there is a larger gulf between his hell and Lazarus’ paradise than it looks. Realizing in a flash that he got here by rude behavior and a pleasure-seeking life, he thinks of his brothers, living much the same way. So, in another request—you’ll notice he’s used to giving orders—he asks Abraham to send Lazarus, still only a servant to Dives, to his five brothers to warn them lest they fall into his fate as well. Finally, it’s one small concern for others, but too late and too selfish still—he hasn’t included Lazarus with humanity even now.
No dice. Abraham says the brothers have the advantages all the Jews have, Moses and the prophets, and all they must do is hear and believe them. Dives throws his last roll. “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” It’s a pretty good shot. Look! little beggar rises out of the rug in some inner chamber, by the brother’s bedside, like one of Scrooge’s midnight ghosts, to shake chains and wail and warn him—“Don’t be like your dead brother, Dives! He’s in the flames of hell!!!”
The point of the whole narrative is given now. And for us, it’s the point of everything. Abraham said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’
There are religions all over the earth. You can’t prove even one of them by empirical evidence, and that’s why they are religions and not sciences, not mathematics, or history. The mysterious elements of life must be spoken in mystery, and have fulfillment somewhere outside normal sight. We get credit for believing the true set of invisible facts and, like Abraham, for believing it we are counted righteous by God.
There may be no hard proof, as such, but there is a great deal of evidence. And we are left, like good detectives, to put the clues together and understand what they mean. The preponderance of such clues has led the largest sector of humanity to the conclusion that Christianity is on the right road. We believe in the Son of God, once Incarnated, once killed for us, once buried and once resurrected, not resuscitated. He overcame death. There are many witnesses, and there is no body of Jesus left here, no dead remains, though the Romans and the Jews put on a desperate search for them. He did rise from the dead, and it would appear that He only showed Himself to those who knew Him and would believe. He was not a ghost, a specter like Scrooge’s Marley, or Samuel coming up for Saul, shaking his chains and making threats. He was the Lord of Life and He was happy, and assured them all He was no ghost.
But is the world convinced? St. Paul confidently said that the Resurrection is the one point where we rise or fall in this faith. If Christ is not raised, we are dead and might as well give it all up. If He is not risen, we will never rise either and might as well live it up while we can. But He is risen.
The majority of our world won’t have it. They say there’s some mistake, or it means something other than what we insist that it means: this is the Son of God and our eternal judge, the only one by whom we might be saved. Buddha didn’t rise again. Mohammed did no miracles at all. Moses and Abraham were both waiting for Messiah. There is nowhere else to turn. We have the better savior, the only Savior of our world.
Dives’ brothers were not going to change because they’d already laughed in the face of God’s messengers and covenant. They would be among the throngs, most likely, that shouted “Crucify Him!” And they would want to return home and shut the doors to crowds exultantly shouting, “He is risen!” the next Sunday.
And so also are your neighbors, friends and fellow students and co-workers. But these have something Dives’ brothers didn’t have.
They have you.
You’re the witness.
Do you know the young man who stands in the aisle in Costco, calling out in friendly tones, “Hi! How are you today?” and if you look at him and nod, he starts with “Are you happy with your cable service?” I gotta say, I hate that. You have to be rude to turn aside his sales pitch. But I have thought of a better answer—just thought of it. Why not say, “Listen, I’d rather ask you something. Would you like to see my church? It’s the most beautiful church in town, and we’re Anglican. Do you know what that is? Oh. It’s kind of like Lutheran or Catholic, but you should come and see for yourself. Why not this Sunday?”
Are you happy with your faith? Tell somebody.
A perfect man rose from the dead, and like the GI’s who marched into Germany, He broke open the concentration camp of Hades and let out the prisoners.
With Him, we break down gates that keep these poor souls away from heaven.
Let your heart love them all.
Love even Lazarus, who once poor, now owns everything.