Hell Is Here On Earth – a sermon for Pentecost 19C on Luke 16:19-31

1 percentI will be preaching on St. Michael and All Angels this coming Sunday. But for those of you who are working on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, here’s a copy of a sermon I preached a few years ago.

I moved out of my parent’s house when I was quite young and like most young people I didn’t have much money so I lived in some pretty weird places. I once shared a house with a bunch of people that I met working in the travel industry. I didn’t know them very well when I first moved in but as the months dragged on, I got to know some of them better than I would have liked. There were five of us living in a four-bedroom house about a block from Spanish Banks in Vancouver. The house’s proximity to the beach made up for some of my roommates’ shortcomings and the rent was cheap.  So, even though I didn’t like the idea, I didn’t kick up much of a fuss when one of my roommates brought home a puppy.

Now there are those people who would argue that all puppies are cute, I just don’t happen to be one of them. Besides this thing was a Doberman and I don’t care if it was cute, I don’t like Dobermans. I was trying to convince my roommate David that he couldn’t possibly keep a Doberman in our house, when two of my other roommates showed up and quickly became besotted with the creature. One of my roommates when so far as to insist that the puppy was the cutest thing she had ever seen and that we simply had to keep it. While she was hugging and kissing the puppy, David got quite annoyed and pulled the puppy away from her and insisted that this dog was not going to be a pet. He declared that we needed this dog to grow up and be a guard dog, and if that was going to happen then we needed to start treating this dog as we meant to continue.

I had no intention of sharing a house with a Doberman, let a lone a guy who wanted to have one as a guard dog, so I started looking for another place to live. Before I moved out of that house, I had the unfortunate opportunity to watch David as he tried to train his puppy. First of all, David had to give the dog a name and it had to be a name that would instill fear into people, so that’s how the puppy ended up with a name like Vader as in Darth Vader.  None of us were supposed to cuddle the dog or pat the dog or play with the dog. That was just fine with me. But one of our roommates, Ellen was forever getting into trouble for treating the puppy like a baby. So, David insisted that Vader be chained up outside. A few months after I moved out of the house, I went back to visit and discovered that even Ellen was afraid to go into the backyard because Vader was actually turning into a viscous guard dog. She told me that David had been leaving Vader chained up for longer and longer periods of time and no one in the house would dare to go out into the back yard to feed Vader. I found out from the others that even though they’d tried to get David to pay more attention to Vader, he insisted that it there was nothing wrong with the way he was treating Vader. For months David left Vader chained in the backyard for days at a time and as the dog got bigger and bigger, the three roommates that were left in the house with David became more and more afraid of the dog and eventually they had to insist that David move out.  A few months later, I heard that David and Vader had parted ways. It seems that Vader had taken a chunk out of David’s arm and David had to have the poor creature put down. For some reason Jesus’ parable about Lazarus reminded me of Vader the Doberman.

In Jesus’ story Lazarus is a poor creature who is treated very much like Vader. There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day and then there was Lazarus. Lazarus should come as no surprise to us at all. We see Lazarus every day. Lazarus was sick, “Covered with sores,” probably from malnutrition. Lazarus longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. In other words Lazarus didn’t even get the scraps and even the dogs would come and lick his sores. Two human beings, tied together by a story. And just as my former roommate David had a hand in making Vader the viscous snarling creature that he became, the rich man must have had a hand in the plight of Lazarus. The rich man may have tried to isolate himself but he could neither go in nor out of his house without passing right by Lazarus, who lay, because he didn’t have the strength to sit or stand, at the rich man’s gate. Lazarus was tied to the rich man by his need and his desire just to have something of what fell from the rich man’s table.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told this story to those who loved money and all that money could buy for them. But not even the walls that money can buy and build separate us from the poor of this world. That’s right, I said separate us from the poor. You see whether you like it or not this story is about us. We are the rich. I know we don’t like to think of ourselves as wealthy, we like to look at the millionaires and the billionaires and point at them and say it’s them, they are the rich ones not us. Well to those of you who don’t believe that you are rich, I suggest that you take a little trip on the Internet and go to a site called, www.globalrichlist.com   When you get there type in your annual income and the computer will calculate your standing in the world.  My annual salary, it’s a matter of public record, so I don’t mind sharing my standing with you. It seems that even on my modest pastor’s salary I am the 16,101,447th  richest person in the world.  That’s right my salary puts me in the top .24% of the richest people on the planet. We are rich: rich beyond the wildest dreams of most of the people on this planet. And just like the rich man in Jesus’ story if we ignore the poor people on this planet we too will end up in hell. 

Recently, I was trying to explain to some Confirmation what salvation means. I told them that salvation means being healthy and whole in body, mind, and spirit and having a good relationship with God and with our neighbors. In the stories that have been handed down to us, Jesus is deeply concerned with our salvation. Jesus doesn’t want us to end up in hell. Now before I go any further, I should let you know exactly what I mean by hell. When I talk about Hell I’m not talking about that mythic place down below where Satan is busy tormenting poor souls as they stoke the fires. I believe that Hell is about being as far from salvation as you can get. Hell is about being broken in body, mind and spirit, and severing our relationships with God and with our neighbors. Hell is not a place we go to in the afterlife. Hell is here on earth.

I believe that if we ignore people who are in need we end up in hell. Despite every wall that we put up, we right here, are connected to the poor in our world. There is no excuse for ignorance.

Every time we buy a banana, or a shirt, or a pound of coffee, we participate in a relationship with the poor. We can gate our communities, and put up stricter border controls and send back every refugee claimant salvation, or wholeness does not include borders that imperial our fellow human beings.

There are millions of Lazaruses out there, at our gates, right now and most of them are longing to eat the crumbs from our tables. The rich man in Jesus’ story is not what we would call evil.

There is no evidence that he ever did anything we would call cruel to the poor man.  He simply ignored him. The rich man had become so accustomed to seeing the poor man at his gate, that the rich man no longer noticed him. The rich man was not intentionally mean. He was just a man who was so absorbed in himself and his family that he was insensitive to the needs of others—even others right at his front door. The primary message of this parable is all too clear—painfully, even frighteningly clear. Ignore the needs of others and we end up in a hell of a mess—if not in hell itself.  There are destructive and painful consequences that come—not just form doing the bad deeds we ought not to have done, but also from failing to do the good deeds we should have done. The rich man found himself trapped in hell not because of the evil he had intentionally done but because of the good he had failed to do because of his insensitivity that grew out of his self-centeredness.

If our lives are to avoid being a living hell, then we need to open our eyes so that we can see the needs that are at our gates. For there to be anything approaching lasting peace in the world, we as individuals and as nations must be concerned with more than just, “me” and “mine” and “us” and “ours. The world has become a dangerous place, but it seems to me that we who are rich have to take some responsibility for the creation of those dangers. We have ignored the poor for far too long. We have turned our heads away and insisted that it is not our responsibility or we have become so numb by the sheer numbers of people living in poverty that we have turned away in desperation. But unlike Lazarus who waited for the next life to escape his torment, the poor of this world are growing tired of our neglect and just like that scary dog Vader they are ready to lash out.

Is it any wonder that those who would inflict terror on the world do their recruiting among the poorest of the poor? Poverty has become a breeding ground for terrorists.  When we ignore people who are in need, we end up in hell. In the midst of so many starving people is it any wonder that so many poor unfortunate creatures are turning to violence to feed their hunger.

To what lengths would you go to feed your children if you were standing knee deep in mud, and the stench of rotting corpses was overpowering you, while the world looked on from the safety of their living-rooms, would you not lash out in anger?

I believe that Jesus was deeply concerned for our salvation. Jesus told this story not to condemn us but to save us; to restore us to heath by healing our relationships. In the story that Jesus told, Abraham explains to the rich man that there is nothing that can be done to help his brothers because there is such a wide chiasm between the rich man and poor Lazarus and that chiasm is so wide that no one can cross it.

In Christ, who embodies the Love that is God, the chiasm that exists between rich and poor and you and I now have a way to bridge the gap. Christ is our bridge. We do not have to be as insensitive as the rich man in the parable. We have the ability to see the needs of others and we have the ability to act. We really can be the people God intends us to be. But it will not happen if we allow ourselves to be overcome with guilt or numbed by the sheer magnitude of the needy. Our guilt will not feed the poor. And if we are numb to the pain of those at our gates we will be incapable of reaching out in love to feed those who long to eat even the crumbs that fall from our table.

The world is in a hell of a mess. But all is not lost. In Christ who embodies the Love that is God, we can bridge the gap between rich and poor. We can go out to our gates and see who is there, and what they need and out of the abundance of gifts that God has showered upon us we can supply the needs of those who are longing for us to extend our arms across that chiasm.  In his letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul said it so much better than I:

“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

My wealthy sisters and brothers, do not be haughty, do not isolate yourselves from the world. Look around and you will discover that Love has put in your hands the means to cross that chasm that divides us from the poor. Stop setting your hopes on the uncertainty of riches, and let your hope rest in the Love that is God, embody that Love so that we might become whole. Be generous and ready to share and store up for yourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that together rich and poor can take hold of the life that really is life and all may know the joys of Heaven here on earth.

                       

                         

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