Thursday, 22 September 2016

Sunday Sermon: Luke 16.19-31. The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31


“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.’


 Three friends die in a car crash, and they find themselves at the Gates of Heaven. Before entering, they are each asked a question by St. Peter himself.

"When the funeral service is taking place and your friends and families are talking about you, what would you like to hear them say about you?" asks St. Peter to each in turn.

The first man says, "I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor and a great family man."

The second man says, "I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and a teacher who made a huge difference to our children."

After some thought, the last man replies. "I would like to hear them say.... LOOK !!! HE'S MOVING!!!!!"

No, I’ve not gone mad.  I start with that as an illustration: given time, I’m sure we could all come up with a joke about the afterlife and today’s Gospel reading illustrates that there were stories about the hereafter at the time of Jesus too but what we need to recognise straight away is that the parable teaches absolutely nothing about the nature of the afterlife and it was not intended to; here Jesus is merely playing around with an old folktale. The difference is that we tell our afterlife jokes to amuse: Jesus told his to challenge a group of people – The Pharisees. The passage tells us: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and Scribes were grumbling…” (Weren’t they always?)

Now the nature of a parable is that it has two levels of meaning: there is the literal meaning – what you see is what you get – but there is always another level, often more obscure and it is this level that usually carries the real punch. It’s a story with a hidden message: a spiritual nugget for those who understand. “I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” We hear from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. (Ch 13)

So, let’s consider the literal meaning.

This parable takes place at a gate: an entrance, a passing point. The rich man in this story lives a life of ostentatious comfort on his side of the gate, while Lazarus suffers on the other side of the gate. The rich man's preoccupation with wealth and their different social status prevents him from acknowledging Lazarus or reaching out to ease his suffering during his lifetime. We can imagine the rich man passing by the poor man at the gate several times a day, never once addressing him.  From the rich man's point of view, they live in two entirely different worlds with a huge divide between them. There is a gate between them which keeps them apart and, because that divide had been so fixed during their lives, the parable tells us that the distance – or chasm as the text puts it, kept them apart in the afterlife too.

In so many ways, this is a parable about society and illustrates today, as it did then, how fractured and compartmentalised society at its worst can be. It speaks of social division with so many people leading life in a bubble, separate from, and ignorant in any real sense of the lives of others. We live in very different worlds from so many other people and because of that we can apply the parable in a variety ways in relation to our society: wealth, class, education, political affiliation, race etc. but however we choose to interpret the story, Jesus is teaching us about the link between our spiritual life and how we serve and treat our neighbours. So, looked at that way, the gate where the story takes place can be understood as the gate of ignorance, of understanding, of empathy, of compassion – or lack of.

Anyway, both men die: Lazarus likely of starvation and illness, and the rich man? Well, it’s tempting to imagine his death as an over-indulgence linked heart attack or stroke. Lazarus goes to heaven; and the rich man to Hades and in the afterlife their roles are reversed, with Lazarus resting in the "bosom of Abraham" and the rich man suffering the torments of Hades.

Just because this is the literal story and Jesus’ message is really to be found in the hidden meaning doesn’t mean that we can’t take a moral from this level of understanding. We can. We can talk quite reasonably about a practical application to our attitude to wealth and status, or at least relative wealth and status. We need to make this parable real for ourselves otherwise it will remain as a story without the power to touch us. We need to find an application to our daily lives: I don’t have a starving beggar living on my doorstep but, as it happens, I personally find beggars in general, alcoholics and addicts, often aggressive and all rolled into the same person, a problem.

How about you? Who is it that you don’t see? Who is your Lazarus? Is it about race, sexuality, gender, age, disability, social class, weight, political affiliation, a position on BREXIT? Which is it? The parable should become very uncomfortable because in so many ways we are like the rich man. What sort of future do we have to look forward to? How have we been a part of the problem or solution in terms of a more equal society? Have we been good stewards of our riches and do we share them with people in need? Are we judgemental towards those who are different to us? Or do we, like the rich man, live selfish lives, and care less about the outcast in our midst and the poor in the wider world? Tough questions: yet the parable raises these questions for us and it is for each of us to answer them.

So the parable works on the literal level because there is a challenge there to living the Christian life and serving the outcast and the marginalised out of obedient discipleship. We have a perfectly valid application of a Biblical story which is that it is not sufficient merely not to do evil and not to do harm, but rather that we must seek to be helpful and do good, to go the extra mile. The Rich Man wasn't even a little merciful to Lazarus in his lifetime; he was blinded to the needs of compassion by his own wealthy lifestyle. Lazarus, by contrast, was forced to live a life relying on mercy and compassion, which was not forthcoming.  

 But we must still struggle with the hidden meaning. One of the keys to unpicking this level of understanding is to recognise that the key characters almost always stand for someone else. Well, we only have three – unless you include the dogs – The Rich Man, Lazarus and Abraham - and we should include the dogs because they aren’t there as a throw away detail. Indeed they may be the key to unlocking the puzzle. Do you remember the account of Jesus meeting a gentile woman in Mark’s Gospel: a woman from Syrophoenecia? Jesus is initially very harsh with her: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He just called her a dog, which was how the Gentiles were seen, so who are the children in that story? The Jews.

It is the same in this parable. Lazarus, unclean because of his sores, is comforted by, and associated with, the dogs: unclean animals in Jewish belief and the Rich Man would certainly not have had one in his house. Lazarus is being presented as the outsider, the Gentile. At the same time the Rich Man is being identified with the Jews so, on his death it would be only right and proper for him to go to the bosom of his father Abraham and take the seat of honour beside him. But no, it is the outsider, Lazarus who takes the place of honour at the spiritual banquet so far reserved for the Jews, while the Rich Man is cast away.

Yes, well, very interesting but so what? What has this to do with me?

Well the stories of the Syrophoenecian woman, the Centurion with his Servant, the parable of the Good Samaritan and a number of others, open up the prospect that Gentile believers would also become “sons of Abraham” through faith in Christ. The Jews had been Abraham’s physical descendants, but after the crucifixion the place of honour and blessing would be also opened up to the people represented by Lazarus. That’s you and me and potentially most of the people we know.

The self-righteous, accusing Pharisees and scribes, the religious authorities, should have been the ones telling these people of God's love for them. They should have been the ones teaching the people, all people, exhorting them to return to God and receive His love and forgiveness. But, because of their faith in their own righteousness and their contempt for these common people who didn't measure up to their standards, the Pharisees and scribes excluded them and considered them outside the scope of God’s grace.

And what of the ending which didn’t get much attention in the literal understanding of the story? It’s key here: the ending points beyond the parable to Jesus. In the same way that the rich man’s brothers wouldn’t believe if someone were sent from the dead to warn them, The Pharisees would not believe even when Jesus was raised.

Not even a visitor from the dead would convince the elite to recognize the needs of the outsider. Neither does Jesus’ resurrection have the power to create faith, if one does "not listen to Moses and the prophets”, which directs us to caring for the poor, the needy, the outcast and the marginalised. In this understanding the physically marginalised become the spiritually marginalised and the injunction is now to go beyond their physical needs and acknowledge their spiritual needs.

Now this is quite a different understanding of the story to the first and yet in many respects the outcome is the same in terms of its practical application: in either understanding of this parable we need to talk about our obedient discipleship in the way we relate as Christians to others. From the literal understanding of the story we can legitimately talk about understanding our own prejudices and recognising the other in our society to whom we need to express the love and compassion of God. We can then work out ways in which we can be servants of those people in our charitable giving, in our volunteering of time and in our attitudes when we meet those people.
It is the same when we consider the hidden meaning of the parable. We are confronted again with issues of obedient discipleship in the way we relate to others. This time, though, our responsibility lies in recognising that it is not for us to seek to put limits on God’s grace but to recognise that through Jesus’ incarnation, the way to God - so often seen as the exclusive preserve of one group - is now open to all people. The task here surely lies in our being willing to see God in those we come into contact with, regardless of who they are, and to trust the Holy Spirit that those same people will see God in us. This is our Christian witness by word and deed and the Spirit works through us to convict others of God’s love for them and to bring them back to Him – whoever they are. This is God’s grace and it isn’t earned: it is a free gift. It doesn’t depend on a person’s status in society, their wealth, their morality or their religiosity: it depends simply on faith in Jesus. The gate in the parable now becomes not just the gate of compassion but the gate of salvation.

Because of the incarnation no one is an outsider any more. As St. Paul teaches us in his letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s not to be seen as an exhaustive list as it merely reflects the social divisions of its time. People just need to know that God’s gift of a relationship with Him is a free gift of grace and how will they know that if not through us? Surely we would want to share with others who have not yet experienced it, our experience of the saving grace and love of God.

Now there’s a practical application and a challenge.


Saturday, 10 September 2016

Sunday Sermon. Luke 15.1-10. The lost sheep and the lost coin.

Luke 15:1-10

 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


When I came to look at this passage, I was rather dispirited. These two stories are generally told as part of a trio with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. “Whoopie”, I thought, “The Prodigal Son.” There’s a story to get your teeth into.

It begins in V11.

So we’re left with these two little stories which are generally seen as the starter to the main course of the Prodigal Son, the soup rather than the meat.

Perhaps that’s why the compilers of the Lectionary chose to end at v10 today, to ensure that we give these little nuggets of teaching due attention, these little nuggets that have a touch of the Sunday School about them – and we all know the meaning in these parables: the shepherd and the woman stand for God who seeks the lost and when they repent, there is rejoicing in Heaven. There we go! Job done! Coffee anyone?

So the challenge has to be to find something new in what is so familiar that we tend to slide over it, “Yeah, yeah, we know this one.”

I think the first thing that strikes me about these parables is they are quite passive in the sense that we are pretty much observers to the stories. Two scenarios are presented to us as an audience and, short as they are, they each have a beginning, a middle and an end and each parable is resolved with a good outcome. As I’ve already said, we know from way-back the moral of the stories and because they are resolved happily there doesn’t, on the surface, seem very much for us to do – other than assent, because the resolution is in God’s hands and at God’s initiative.

Where’s the challenge?

We know that Jesus used parables to their greatest effect when they spoke to the lives of his audience. Yes people in his original audience would easily identify with the scenarios. They were often poor, so the story of the lost coin would have significant resonance there, and many kept their own livestock because theirs was often a subsistence existence and the loss of one animal would  have untold negative consequences. Well, in the relative poverty stakes none of us here can count ourselves as that poor and yes, I know Brunel keeps rabbits but livestock? Really?

These examples don’t speak to our generation in the way they spoke to Jesus’ original audience. Perhaps the second parable speaks to the house-proud, (and my personal strategy on that is to leave a duster ostentatiously lying about in the generally forlorn hope that Rachel will believe I’ve actually been doing something around the house), but tidiness isn’t really the point of the story.

So we have two parables of how the lost were found and we know, in a general sense, who the lost are – other people: people who don’t know God; people who don’t have a relationship with the living Christ; people who see no place in their lives for the sort of spirituality Christianity offers.  Not bad people as such - people who in many senses live lives much like ours but without the added dimension of a daily experience of the grace, the love and the forgiveness of God in their lives and who, like the sheep and the coin, have no sense of being lost and who would probably be very offended at the very idea.

Recognising that sort of shifts the dynamic of the parables away from the passive way they seem to be presented. We know these people. They are family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers and fellow students. They are no longer abstract, anonymous beings and because we know them, the emphasis of their being found shifts from God to us: they become our responsibility. Now, there’s a challenge. How are the lost found if we know who and where they are? (And just as a passing thought, this speaks to the reality of our diocesan Leading Your Church In To Growth initiative.)

Is the problem that we tend to think of the lost as those on the very fringes of society? The homeless, the beggar, the addict, the offender, the refugee? Those who, rightly, we think need the specialist help of outside agencies because we don’t have the skills and resources to support them? Well, they’re there too, numbered in the lost, and perhaps we are right not to get too involved with those needing specialist help because there are others who work exclusively with them, but that doesn’t let us off the hook with the rest, those we come into contact with on a daily basis and to whom we can relate. The bottom line is that we number ourselves with the found and the experience of that should, surely, be enough for us to want to share that same experience with others.

On Friday night we had a little community event in our street. I got into conversation with someone I hadn’t met before, a very personable and socially able man who, inevitably, asked me what I do. “I’m a vicar.” I said with a certain degree of misgiving because that does tend to be a conversation killer, but actually it wasn’t and I was left pondering my own somewhat apologetic attitude. I’m embarrassed about being ordained? Perhaps I’m guilty here of projecting that diffidence about my faith on to you. Am I right in assuming that what was true of me on that occasion is also true of you: that you feel awkward about initiating discussions about personal faith and belief? And are you sitting there now thinking, “Good grief, if he can’t do it, what hope is there for us?” But actually that was a very fruitful conversation and it led to a discussion about my role as a prison chaplain and how small acts of kindness and friendly words become moments of grace for those I meet in the prison.

There’s a famous quote from St. Teresa of Avila which I’m sure we’ve used in our own liturgy on a number of occasions: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.”

There was a picture that turned upon my Facebook feed yesterday: it shows a shocked couple looking at a letter. “It’s from our church. We’ve been called up for active duty.”

It really is down to us and if we don’t yet feel too confident about being theological in our conversations we need to recognise that this isn’t the only way to be “out and proud” followers of Christ. If “talking the talk” is too challenging, we can “walk the walk” and show in the way we live our lives that we are disciples. In doing so we may well plant a seed that others might water and harvest.

There’s a young man called Tim Haigh who comes into the prison as a volunteer. He’s an ex-offender, a former drug user and general thug. He’s now a Christian who has written a book called “The Leopard Who Changed His Spots” which charts how he had an encounter with the risen Christ at the point of his lowest despair. It talks about being found. It talks about redemption and its being read by literally hundreds of prisoners, many of whom have started to come to chapel. Now one of the key things about his story is that on a number of occasions in his early life, Tim came into contact with Christians who planted seeds for him in much the same way that he is now planting seeds for others. They may come to fruition immediately or it may take decades, but the seeds are planted.

In our own small ways we can be - indeed already are - like Tim. We may not have dramatic life-changing stories to share, but what we say and how we behave plants seeds for others. We may be the ones who reap the harvest of the seeds planted by others and we may simply be the ones who plant the seeds but you can’t have one without the other and so perhaps we shouldn’t feel awkward about our fumbling attempts to share our faith because we don’t know how or when the Holy Spirit will water the seeds and tend the new growth.

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.” Let’s renew our understanding of the implications of that today and commit ourselves to being more up-front and less apologetic about sharing the good news of the Gospel with those we meet.