"WARNING" - Psalm 91:1 - 6, 14 - 16; Luke 16:19 - 32
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, September 29, 2019
Texts: Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; Luke 16:19-32
Our eschatology shapes our ethics. (I hope you will lean in and think with me on this.)
Eschatology is a theological word for “last things.” How we think about “last things” should shape how we live – our ethics.
Put another way - what you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now.
So, our eschatology shapes our ethics. Does that make sense?
Now, what Jesus taught, what the prophets taught, what so much of the Jewish tradition pointed to, and everything that Jesus lived in anticipation of, was that day when earth and heaven would be one.
What the whole Bible points toward – what Jesus preached and embodied - the Kingdom of God - the day when God’s will would be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus comes to inaugurate the Kingdom of God – it is already here in him and his teachings and actions – and it is also yet to come in fullness. Last things.
The kingdom of God everywhere – realized, come to fruition, in fullness – on earth as it is in heaven – this is the goal! As it says at the end of the Bible in Revelation 21: “God’s dwelling place is now among the people.”
So, our eschatology shapes our ethics. (R. Bell, Love Wins, p. 46f.)
It should work like this: we envision God’s future, God’s full reign, and we drag it into the present. When we envision God’s reign, really and truly,
- we love God and love our neighbor;
- we die to ourselves and live unto God;
- we give generously and forgive generously;
- we practice kindness and hospitality;
- we promote peace with justice;
- we strive for care and compassion in fullness.
We live like that because we know about and want to participate – with Jesus - in the full coming of the reign of God.
Our eschatology shapes our ethics.
And just to be clear, eschatology – “last things” – eternal life even - is less about a kind of time that starts when we die. It is more about a quality of time – and a vitality of life – lived now in connection to God and in community with others. Eternal life does not start when we die; it starts now – when we live into the Kingdom of God – when our ethics flow from our eschatology, when we live with love, share kindness, work for justice, extend hospitality, follow Jesus. It is about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.
With all that in mind, we listen to a story from Jesus in Luke 16. Already in Luke 16, there has been a story that starts “there was a rich man.” Jesus speaks lots about how our ethics flow from our eschatology. And it is especially hard for . . . rich people – that would be us.
Listen to Luke 16:19-32:
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He 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.’ 25But 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. 26Besides 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.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He 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.’”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Remember, Jesus’ goal is teach and preach about the Kingdom of God that has come near – and to motivate people to live in such a way that ethics – the way people live - are shaped by this promised and certain reign of God – eschatology.
Now, I think you are aware that names always matter in the Bible. Names remind us that we are known. Names often have other connotations too, like relationships, or distinctions.
Take note – this story begins – “there was a rich man.” The rich man does NOT have a name. But he does have some important descriptors: “dressed in purple and fine linen,” which is to say he is not just rich, but very rich. There is another descriptor: “He feasted sumptuously everyday.”
Jesus has already spoken various stories about the importance of sharing, of caring for others, especially the needy. Jesus has taught often of humility and generosity. Yet – hearers and readers take note - the rich man is conspicuously wealthy, dressed like royalty, and feasting, not occasionally, but everyday. And he has no name.
In very close proximity to the rich man, deposited at the rich man’s gate to beg, but vastly separated in life’s circumstances and social position, is a destitute man. He has a name – Lazarus. His name is remarkable in at least two ways: 1) Jesus does not usually name the destitute people who often come across his path, but he names Lazarus. 2) Lazarus – the name – actually means “only God can be his source of help.” It says Lazarus does not feast like the rich man; he is covered by sores; he makes his meals from the scraps that fall from the rich man’s table; and he suffers the degradation of having the dogs lick his sores.
Lazarus is what his name means – “only God can help him.”
So there is great separation between these two men – the rich man and Lazarus, except there is not – Lazarus lives just outside the rich man’s gate. Their separation, their disparity is neither inevitable nor necessary and could have been easily bridged by the initiative of the rich man to open his gate and extend a generous hand. But this never happened, even though the rich man knows Lazarus, knows his name, and knows that he sits at his gate.
“Gate,” you may recall, is a public space for rendering justice, particularly compassionate justice for the vulnerable. (J. Carrol, Luke, p. 337) This is what the prophet Amos says: “For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy at the gate.” (Amos 5:12)
Wait – our eschatology should shape our ethics – right? The rich man is mostly thinking about himself, maintaining himself with fine clothes, and feeding himself sumptuously, and paying no attention to Lazarus – the poor man, who sits everyday, right at the rich man’s gate (the place where we are to live out our ethics!).
Then we get to verse 22 and the death of these two men reverses their life paths. The rich man receives a burial – that is good. Lazarus receives an even greater honor: he is carried away by the angels into the company of Abraham.
The irony is overwhelming here. The one who received no hospitality – Lazarus - comes into the presence of the person who epitomizes hospitality, especially toward needy strangers – Abraham. And, the one who denied, with all of his wealth and sumptuous living, easy hospitality right at his gate, this rich man with no name, pleads with Abraham, even invoking his status as a part of Abraham’s family. He calls him “father Abraham!” bidding Abraham’s help and care, for himself and for his family, pleading to be released from his flame-afflicted agony.
Only a gate stood in the way of an act of mercy while they were alive. It was fixed and immoveable only because the rich man refused to care for Lazarus, refused to share with Lazarus, refused to recognize and help Lazarus. Now the separation, according to Abraham, has grown into a great chasm – “the chasm has been fixed.” The rich man missed his opportunity to act with kindness, to do justice, to walk humbly with God. The rich man – caught up in his conspicuous living, with extravagant clothes and sumptuous meals - missed his chance to love God and neighbor, to die to self and live unto God, to practice kindness and hospitality, to give and forgive, to work for the reign of God.
Everyday the rich man ignored the needy Lazarus just outside his gate. Perhaps he was lacking in any eschatology. He certainly fell short in his ethics.
Jesus offers all of this as a WARNING.
It is about the promised reign of God. WARNING: are we going to participate in its coming, or not? Do we believe that God creates all things and completes all things? If we do, it also means that our lives have a focus – we work with and for God - for the promised reign of God by how we live, how we love, how we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
WARNING. What motivates us to sense that the story of Jesus is real? The story of Jesus is important for our lives, for our world? What allows us to hear and actually align our lives with the purposes and promises of God’s coming reign? This is the point of this story.
WARNING. We cannot claim the family of Abraham, we cannot claim the promises and salvation of God, if and when we do not pay attention to poor at the gate. Claiming Abraham, claiming God, means living with and for God and loving who God loves.
WARNING. We cannot assume our lives are enfolded in the life of God and never extend love and compassion, help and care to those who cross our path. Enfolded in life with God means serving like God serves.
WARNING. We cannot say we are Christians who follow Jesus and act with disdain toward people we live with. We cannot say we are children of God and continue to turn a blind eye to racism, exclusion, and other practices that run counter to God’s promised reign.
WARNING. We cannot celebrate God’s good creation and not pay attention to Greta Thunberg and young people crying for serious actions on climate change.
WARNING. We cannot dwell in our conspicuous consumption and fail to address the growing income disparity in the world. Just this week, new reports say that, while the economy continues to grow well, what is also growing is massive income inequality – like the vast chasm between the rich man and Lazarus.
WARNING. We cannot bask in God’s eternal love and remain idle or indifferent to cries for peace with justice across our cities and land.
This is about our individual lives. This is about our church – and what we do as a community. We have a name – Second Presbyterian Church – and that name means commitment to the city, commitment to feed the hungry, work with prisoners, help the hurting, strive for justice. We have to keep doing it. We have to keep working in the world for the promised and coming reign of God. What a great calling. What a challenge in these days! What a joy!
This rich man and Lazarus story provides a vivid WARNING – WARNING that gives us pause and discomfort – and motivation and encouragement.
And it is a matter of life and death, both now and forever.
Those who are blessed are called to be a blessing - climate change, income disparity, gun violence, corruption, and so much more.
We have to live into it – on earth as in heaven.
This story about the rich man and Lazarus invites us to think sincerely about our hearts because this story spins on the heart of the rich man. In the rich man’s sumptuous life, he had no heart for Lazarus. He passed by him everyday. In death, he still has not figured it out – he clings to his ego, his status – calling Abraham his father, claiming his former ways of being served – “can’t you send Lazarus with some cool water?” And “Can’t you send Lazarus to go and warn my family?”
The rich man is unable to let go of the world he has constructed – the world in which Lazarus is serving him. (See Bell. Love Wins, p. 77f.)
And in all these WARNINGS, Jesus wants us – not to be served but to serve. Jesus wants us moving, living into, loving into, serving into, the Kingdom of God. Jesus wants to change our hearts, and therefore, change the whole world for the full reign of God.
Remember – our eschatology shapes our ethics. How about it!
This is how one theologian puts it: Our life will become not narrower, but broader; not more limited, but more boundless; not more regulated, but more abundant; not more pedantic, but more bounteous; not more sober, but more enthusiastic; not more faint-hearted, but more daring; not more empty and human, but more filled with God; not sadder but happier, not more incapable, but more creative. . . . Let us go into God’s future radiant with joy! (Eberhard Arnold, Daily Dig, 9/22/19)
May it be so. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment – We believe, O Lord; help our unbelief. And keep showing us the way, following Jesus. AMEN
Alex W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on Sunday, September 29, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.