Sunday’s Sermon September 25, 2022


Luke 16:19-31


When my grandmother was in her late 50’s she suffered a heart attack, and she told of how she had a Near Death Experience. She looked down and saw herself lying on the bathroom floor. She was in an environment that was grey and misty. There was a light shining through and she sensed the presence of a relative who had previously died. Then she began to worry about her family and the people she was leaving behind and in an instant, she heard herself moaning, and found herself back in her own body.

    When my grandmother did pass away, at one point my mom and I were by her bedside in the hospital and she seemed to be looking off in the distance and then she said, “Oh, its so beautiful.” My mom said, “What’s beautiful, Mom?” My grandmother paused slightly and replied, “Oh, Wheeling.” Now that would be Wheeling WV, the closest larger city to where we lived. Wheeling could be considered nice in its better days, but maybe never awe inspiringly beautiful. Later my mom commented that she believed my grandmother was seeing something else. She was seeing the Heavenly City, and she just didn’t want to worry us or perhaps it was just too much for words.

    In our day and age, the stories of near-death experiences are many. Some of the commonalities of these stories are the experience of heaven and hell. Not everyone who dies finds themselves in a good place, but those who tell these stories often hear the command to pray and when they do, they are rescued and taken to a higher place. Some of stories tell of going through some form of life assessment where they are confronted with the many ways their actions have been a detriment to others, and then they are returned to this life; usually with a new perspective to live differently. This is how the stories often go.    

    Perhaps this has always been so. If life after death is as valid as we believe, then the experience of near-death experiences would not be a modern creation, but an equal part of our human existence. Perhaps this is what caused Jesus to tell this story. In verse 14 we are told that Jesus was speaking to the “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money.” Both, Jesus and the pharisees, believed in life after death. They would have had their own experiences of what happens after we die. So, Jesus creates a story about two men who lived and died.

    To begin with the images in the story are common. One man was rich. He feasted sumptuously every day and lacked nothing. He would have been surrounded by friends and neighbors and been thought of highly. He probably was active within the community and made important decisions that affected the lives of many. Wealth, power, and position were his. He was just well-off. Well maybe he was a bit overweight and had high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. (Eating big meals all the time will do that to you) However, the only thing is every time he left his estate, he had to go through the displeasure of passing by some poor old disease infected bums who for some reason always hung around the outside walls of his estate. He never really had anything to do with them. He didn’t run them off and he did spend any time tending to their needs. As the saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. He just did not care for their betterment nor about what harm he might have caused them. They simply did not register in the consideration of his important well-off life.

    The other person in Jesus’ story was Lazarus. Maybe Lazarus gets a name because like today, 55% of the world’s population controls a little over 1% for the world’s wealth, and 1% of the world’s population controls about 46% of the world’s wealth. There are many more people who are poor than very rich. Wealth is hoarded among a few. So, Jesus takes the time to name the poor, and Lazarus condition lives on display for the world to see. There is no one in the world who has not seen the suffering of the poor. Lazarus suffers from hunger, and need. He longs to have even the crumbs from the rich man’s table, but there is no approach to such wealth for him. His situation seems hopeless. Lazarus suffers from illness with sores on his body, which even the dogs come and lick. Usually in Biblical times dogs were not family pets. They were around humans, but dogs were often feral animals that roamed the streets or lived in packs outside of towns. The dog companion was just another way of pointing out that all Lazarus’ friends were of low places. The saying goes even today, “His life was going to the dogs.” Not a good thing, but a very real picture. Then both the rich man and Lazarus die, and here Jesus extends the story of these two beyond this life.

Here there is a great reversal of fortune. Poor Lazarus becomes rich and finds a family and comfort for his every need, and the rich man finds himself outside of the proverbial gate, looking in, suffering in anguish with a wide chasm separating him from the comfort he once enjoyed every day. Just as Lazarus was once cut off, so now the rich man is cut off. There is a heaven and there is a hell.

    Now we might just think that that is the story. A warning of being too attached to worldly wealth and comfort and ignoring the need and want of the world around you. We might think that the whole purpose of the story was Jesus giving the Pharisees a back handed slap for having their priorities so messed up, and for living lives that lacked simple kindness, and compassion. Surely, they must have realized Jesus was comparing them to the hell bound rich man. In fact, surely most of us are most like the rich man than Lazarus. Most of us are richer than poorer. Most of us eat well. Most of us benefit from friends, family, good health care. Our medical care is above only having just a dog to lick our wounds. Most should practice kindness. However, there is more Jesus added to the story and the last part is perhaps the whole reason for the first part.

    The rich man is able to communicate with Lazarus, and Abraham, and so he pleads for some bare measure of comfort, and finally for some hope of deliverance if not for him then his brothers. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus back to his home to warn his bothers of this place of torment. Ironically, he would not lift a finger to help Lazarus in life and in death he is looking to Lazarus to serve him. Hell did not change the rich man’s disposition. Abraham tells the man that the living should listen to Moses and the Prophets. The rich man counters that they will not but if someone was to come back form the dead they will repent. And then the punch line Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Here it is obvious to us that Jesus was talking about himself. Not only do we have Moses and the prophets from which to learn about the good and bad outcomes of life and so direct ourselves to the good, but we even have the grace and mercy found within an empty tomb by which we may enable ourselves toward life.

If only…If only we should listen and receive the life God has made available to us. Our story is not just about a reversal of fortune where the rich are condemned to loss and the poor are saved. Our story is a reminder of how the grace of God has been provided through the beginning of time to save all who may believe. What was it that saved Lazarus, his poverty? No, but rather it was that he had nothing else in life to depend upon except his faith in God. The name Lazarus means “God is my help.” All Lazarus knew could do was to cry out to God, and God answered his call. The rich man on the other hand had his money to solve his every problem. He never gave God hardly any consideration, even when he died. He didn’t get condemned because he was rich, but because he never lived with a dependence on faith. He never thought about the good God had put him in this world to do. He never considered how he could serve others rather than being served. He never considered the pain he caused through his words and actions. He lived by his own might and will.

    So, what is the strength of life you are living with? Have you learned the lesson that the rich man ignored, and the poor man had to rely upon? I once had a conversation with a man who told me had collapsed one day and when help came, he was pronounced clinically dead for 19 minutes. He had suffered a stroke. He didn’t really tell me of his experience within those minutes, but I expect there was a story. He continued to say that because of his stroke he was unable to kneel, and in all sincerity, he said he always ask God to forgive him for not kneeing when he prays. So close was the glory of God to him that that was how he felt. That was how he lived. God needs to be that real to each of us.

This is a very real outcome we are talking about. Hell is someplace that you do not want to go. Sometimes people make jokes about the whole thing. If we live or die what does it matter? If I go to heaven great, and if I go to hell, well at least I will be with all my friends, no problem. But Hell is not an eternal alternative destination. Hell is a place of abject despair, loneliness, and hopelessness. It is a place of darkness, and it is farther described as a place of burning torment and eternal anguish. Whether there are actual fires in hell or not does not matter, because I think what the scriptures are telling us is that the soul eternally separated from God burns with anguish. No one likes being alone, without family or friends, and without the substances needed for life, but if a person finds themselves in hell, that is exactly what happens. God is the only one who can make our souls complete and nourish us for eternal life. Only in heaven is there a fellowship and life.

If I may illustrate my point. When we are born, we begin a walk along the side of a great canyon. The road is a little rocky and not very straight. We can only travel in one direction. We can never turn around. Along the way there is but one turnoff; a bridge with signs posted along the way: Turn here. Next exit, Road to Heaven, Heaven’s highway, Built by Jesus Christ, the only bridge to span the Canyon, Turn here. On the other side is another road. One that seems less travelled. Sometimes from the distance it doesn’t even seem as nice. All through life we can make that turn, but when we die, that opportunity fades away. Once passed the road to hell grows dark and the pavement stops, someplace have fallen over the side into the canyon and eventually it becomes impassable. And at that point a person finds that they are walking the road by themselves. Across the way the Road to Heaven which is now unreachable has become a four-lane highway, with road stops, and picnics along the way, and people everywhere are traveling together, and singing songs of praise to God.

Christ is the bridge to eternal life. We need to believe in him and use what Christ has given to us. Let us fill ourselves not with wealth and riches, but with spiritual wealth that extends itself to all people and is never ashamed of the words Christ has given us. Let us fill ourselves with a heart of love and compassion for one another, so that when we leave this reality, God may welcome us into his eternal presence. Come and see that the Lord is Good. His steadfast love endures forever. Amen.

Published by Rev. Russell

Pastor at the Lake City United Methodist Church in Lake City, Michigan.

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