Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Matthew PottsThe Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity. File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette




By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Seven years ago when my daughter, Cami, who's sitting right here, when she was in kindergarten, my parents beloved dog and pet, Benkei, died. They lived in Michigan at the time and they were visiting us out here on Cape Cod, where we lived then. And it was a really sad time because he was a beloved dog and a sweet guy.

In the Lazarus story, the dogs that come and lick the sores of Lazarus? Benkei would've done that. He was a sweet boy and it was a sad time and my parents made a difficult decision to have him put to sleep while Cami was at school. And she came home and we told her what happened and she wanted to know where Benkei was. Well, where did he go? And that's a hard question because I studied theology for a long time. They don't cover that in seminary. They don't tell you what happens and it's important to me, I feel like, not to lie to children about our faith. If we want them to come into a mature relationship with their faith, then I think we need to trust them with mystery and with confusion and with sadness and those things we don't understand.

And so when Cami asked me, "Where's Benkei? Where did he go?" I tried to answer the best I knew how. "I don't know. He's in our hearts. I don't know. We'll always love him and I believe he'll love us. I don't know." And she kept asking and this was hard because we were hurting too, and it was hard to come up with answers that weren't especially satisfying to us. And Cami kept asking and asking, "Where did he go? Where did he go? Where did he go?"

And I think it was my wife, Colette, who actually answered best or answered in a way that stopped Cami's questions. Cami asked again, "Where did Benkei go?" In her sweet five year old voice and Colette said they, "Took his body and then they burned it and they're going to give the ashes back to Bubba and Papa. And Cami said, "Okay." And that was enough.

Her concerns were not spiritual, they were practical and material. Benkei belonged at home and Colette said, "He's coming home." And she said, "Okay."

Jesus today gives us a parable of the afterlife and you could be fooled by thinking it's about the afterlife. I don't think it's about the afterlife. I think Jesus's parable today, as much as it takes place in the afterlife, I think his concerns, like Cami's, are practical and material. It's about where we belong and who belongs to us and how we take care of each other. Like I said, you could be fooled into thinking this was about the afterlife and in fact, Christian theologians throughout the ages have tried to make sense of this as a teaching about the afterlife and the reformation. This is one of the passages Luther looked to say, "Purgatory? There's no purgatory. Look, Jesus tells us what happens after we die. We go by Abraham's side."

But if we read this passage carefully and in the form in which it comes to us, we can see, I think, fairly confidently that Jesus isn't really trying to give us an accurate depiction of the way things will one day be. This little parable is actually a form of apocalypse. That may not sound right to you because the word apocalypse in our contemporary culture tends to mean a story about the end times but in the ancient world, an apocalypse was a story that imagined a future in order to make sense of the present.

These stories were told during a period of utter destruction, Jerusalem had been destroyed. The Judean people were scattered and slaughtered and they were trying to make sense of their world and the present did not make sense and the history they thought they knew no longer made sense and so a future was imagined, which might make sense of the present. That's what apocalypse does, or ancient apocalyptic literature does. It imagines a future that could make sense of the present.

And this is what Jesus is doing. I think not trying to give all of us listeners, then or now, an accurate picture of what the time after death will be like. It's an attempt to make sense of the present. It's an attempt to depict not how we might live later but for how we live now or how we ought to live now. This is about telling us how we ought to live now.

And if that's the meaning of this passage, it seems like a pretty easy lesson. Don't be the rich man. I should probably just walk down now. That's the lesson, don't be the rich man. But I think it bears closer reading. We can say more about what the rich man does and fails to do when he sits in Hades.

And if we pay attention to what the rich man does and fails to do, I think we can learn a lesson about our own world. This world in our present and our own church and perhaps even our own salvation. So there are three things I want to call your attention to in this difficult parable from Jesus. This parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

First of all, Jesus, it's his custom to teach in parables. There are parables all over the New Testament, these little stories of folks. And if you've been coming to church the last few weeks, we've been full of them. Jesus is telling lots of parables. He's on the road to Jerusalem. He's left Galilee, he's traveling with a group of folks and we have a record of many of his teachings now and he's telling parable, after parable, after parable. A lot of them are about rich men. Last week's parable was about rich men.

We skipped a parable about a rich man, one of my favorites, the parable of the prodigal son. He keeps telling parable, after parable, after parable, in this time and also in all the gospels. And in every one of those parables, almost every one, nobody has a name. He never names anybody. There was a woman who had a coin. There was a man who did this. Only one person in Jesus' parables has a name and we hear him today, we hear about him today. Lazarus, the poor man.

So this is the first thing I want to draw attention to. That Jesus, of all the people, of all the stories Jesus tells, of all the teachings he offers, he gives one the gift of a name. Humanizes one, fills out the character of one, this one, Lazarus, who suffers so much at the gates of the rich man's house.

And I think it's important that Jesus humanizes him in this way and it's especially important because it's an utter contrast to the way the rich man treats him. Not just the way the rich man treats him during life but also after death. So there's this exchange between the rich man and Abraham after death. Notice that the rich man never speaks to Lazarus. He just asks Abraham to order Lazarus around. "Abraham, send him over here. I'm in agony here. Send him over here to dip his finger in the water and quench my thirst. Abraham, send him over to my relatives, send him."

Even in the midst of his suffering, he expects Lazarus to serve. He assumes that Lazarus is beneath him. He refuses to see Lazarus as beloved of God, beloved of Abraham, and wants still to instrumentalize him towards his own happiness or relief. And the fact that he knows Lazarus's name to me is especially damning. He recognizes Lazarus. He knows this is the man who was outside the gates of his home every day, whose sores were licked by dogs. Who was waiting for a crumb from his table. He knows exactly who he is. He recognizes him. He just doesn't recognize him as an equal.

So that's the first thing I wanted to draw attention to. The kind of recalcitrant of the rich man, even in the midst of his agony, insisting that Lazarus come and serve him.

So the second thing I want to draw attention to is that the rich man does not ask to join them there. He asks Lazarus to come to him where he is. It's almost as if the rich man doesn't want to be part of any club that Lazarus is a part of. If Lazarus is over there, then send him to me. Even here in his suffering.

This is especially dramatic that in the passage we had read by Elizabeth, it says that Lazarus is at the side of Abraham. The Greek here is that Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham. He's being embraced. All the loneliness and pain and rejection that Lazarus felt is being compensated in the embrace of Abraham and presumably the rich man should want to be there too. He calls him Father Abraham but he won't go there because Lazarus is there. "Have Lazarus come to me."

So that's the second thing that's going on with this rich man. The third thing is he says, "Send him to my father's house." The rich man has concern for his family, for his brothers, for his father. He is tormented. He's in agony, we're told. He doesn't want this fate for his brothers and his father and this is understandable and sympathetic.

Just a word about the social structure of the ancient world. At the time that this was being told, wealthy homes, two things about wealthy homes, the homes of wealthy families. The first is that there were often benches outside the gates where the poor would gather. It was sort of an unofficial wealth redistribution system. The poor would gather on benches outside the gates of wealthy families and it was sort of the unofficial or informal obligation of the wealthy to distribute something to the poor who there gathered.

We already know from the beginning of this passage that Lazarus was there every day, every day waiting for a crumb. The other thing to know about ancient family homes is they were usually multi-family complexes. If this rich man's father is still alive, he was probably living at his father's house and so the rich man is saying, "Send Lazarus back to my father's house," back to where he already was every day.

I think what Abraham is saying is they never went to him then, why would they come to him now? He was already there every day. We already sent him to the gates every day. He was already bringing the message, the opportunity for repentance and mercy to your family every day. Why would they pay attention now?

There's this great chasm at the end of this lesson, this chasm which cannot be crossed. We talked about this passage of the Faith in Life Forum this morning, and there was some attention to this chasm that cannot be crossed. But the reality is the rich man's indifference was just as impenetrable his whole life. This chasm that they cannot cross in the afterlife, the form it took in the present world was just his indifference.

That was all the obstacle it took. All that was needed to keep them separate. All the barrier necessary to present mercy, to prevent mercy, to prevent repentance. To keep the rich man from his own salvation. Those of you who were here the first time I preached this Fall, know that I preached on another situation from the gospel of Luke. Jesus is at dinner with some religious types like me and a man who's got a painful ailment comes to him and he asks to be healed and Jesus heals him and then they send him away.

And Jesus turns to his hosts and says, "Why didn't you invite him to dinner? We're all eating here. Invite him." And I preached about us, about this church, about this wealthy church at this wealthy university and I asked us to think about who we turn away, who does not come here, who does not feel welcome here. And I think it's a fair question for us to think about because we're here in the middle of this campus and we have this expanse around us, this beautiful Harvard yard with the appointed buildings, which is like a chasm between us and everything else that sits outside of the gates of this university.

And I still have those questions. I haven't let go of those questions, especially for us in this church. For us who are called like the rich man to go beyond our gates but I also know that it is not the only question. The question of who shows up here on Sunday morning is not the only or even the most important question. The question of who shows up in this space is not the sum of Christian life, this hour from 11:00 to noon. It's not the sum of Christian life. Indeed, I dare say that Jesus is less concerned with who shows up here in this hour than what the people who do show up here do with the rest of their lives from Monday to Saturday. That is Christian life.

The rich man in his home, his well-appointed home behind the gates, is paralyzed. He never goes to Lazarus. From within his gates, he never goes to Lazarus. From Hades, he never asks to be brought to Lazarus. The chasm that stands between them is in many ways one of his own making. It divided them in life, it divides them still in death.

I began the sermon saying that I don't think this is a story of the afterlife and I don't, but I confess that the wideness of that chasm, it's impassability, frightens me. We talked about it this morning at the Faith in Life Forum, that there could be some point, some place from which there would be no return.

The unbending, insurmountable judgment of God, standing between us and relief. That is frightening and I think this story is meant to unsettle us. But I also believe there's a hint here, just a hint in this apocalyptic story of good news for those of us who are worried we might be spending too much of our time on the wrong side of privileged gates.

It's true in this passage that it says the chasm cannot be crossed but the Greek word used when it says it cannot be crossed, the Greek word is diabaino, which is the word for Passover. In the letter to the Hebrews, the author says that the children of Israel passed through the Red Sea, diabaino. When Greek speaking Jews spoke of Passover, they spoke of the diabaino. And we Christians, of course, say Christ is our Passover. We Christians believe that there is no distance the love of God cannot cross. Abraham may have been right, there is no person who can cross that chasm but God's love can cross it and Jesus has crossed it.

The question for us, we are like the five brothers hearing the story brought back to us from one who has risen from the dead. The question for us is not whether the chasm can be crossed, it has been, by Jesus. The question is whether we can bear the crossing Jesus has already made. The question is whether we can follow where Jesus has led. There's only one thing we need to do, love our neighbor beyond the gates.