A man visited the local Episcopal church during stewardship season, and after the Eucharist he waited in line to speak to the priest. “Father,” the man said in a halting voice as tears welled in his eyes, “I wish to draw your attention to the terrible plight of a poor family in my neighborhood. The father has died, the mother is too ill to work, and the nine children are starving. They are all about to be turned out into the cold, empty streets unless someone pays their rent, which amounts to $900.” With that, the stranger broke down and buried his head in the priest’s shoulder.
“How terrible!” exclaimed the priest, saddened by the story but heartened by the concern of this stranger. “And you?” the priest asked the visitor, “Are you a relative or a neighbor?” The man dabbed his handkerchief to his eyes. “Oh no,” he sobbed, “I’m the landlord.”[i]
Perhaps he should have read the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
At first glance, today’s parable (“Lazarus and the Rich Man,” Luke 16:19-31) suggests some things about God that are disturbing to us. The story seems to portray a God whose mercy has distressing limits, who sees suffering in front of him and yet does nothing to alleviate it, who disregards a man begging for relief. In other words, in the latter half of today’s parable God looks an awful lot like the rich man does in the first half.
But let’s back up and study this parable carefully. There is an affluent man who lives in a gated community. He buys his clothing at the Galleria, and he purchases his groceries at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. At his gate each day there is a man named Lazarus, whose life circumstances haven’t turned out materially so well as the affluent man’s. But the wealthy man is busy and active and involved, and though he isn’t antagonistic toward Lazarus, he gives Larazus no notice, either.
Well, as life will have it sooner or later, they both die. Lazarus is lifted to heaven by angels, but whatever ethereal car service arrives to pick up the affluent man takes him—much to his surprise—to a place that looks very much like hell. So far, while may not like this parable, and it may make us squirm, we can nevertheless recognize its logic.
But then there’s a twist. Our affluent man, who is, scripture tells us, “being tormented,” looks up to Father Abraham (who represents God in this tale) and begs, “Have mercy on me!”
Abraham replies, in what I imagine to be a voice dripping with false concern, “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.”
It’s like God is saying, “Sorry, Bud. Be sure to put on sunscreen. Those flames are hot.”
But wait…I left out a line in the retelling, didn’t I? Look again at the Gospel passage in your leaflet. What does the affluent man say after he asks for mercy? What is his immediate go-to source of ease? The man says to Abraham, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” And the entire parable turns on that request.
Let me digress for just a moment. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches—confusingly to most of the people around him—that we must die in order to live. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that a seed must fall to the ground and die in order to emerge in new life and bear fruit.[ii] In Mark, Jesus tells his followers that those who attempt to save their lives will lose them, while those who lose their lives for the Gospel will receive their lives back again.[iii] And again in John—in a passage our Baptist brothers and sisters love but from which we tend to shy away—Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again of water and Spirit.”[iv] Presumably, one cannot be born a second time unless one first dies.
But what does all this mean? What does it mean to die and to be reborn? It doesn’t require an old-fashioned Southern altar call (though in truth, there’s nothing wrong with that). Rather, it requires a letting go, a shedding of the world and its assumptions, and its priorities, and its prejudices. It requires that kind of dying—which can be just as excruciating and painful as the physical kind—if we are to rise in new life with God’s assumptions, and God’s priorities, and God’s grace.
Now we can see the conundrum of the affluent man in today’s parable. Even in the depths of hell, the affluent man says to—no, demands of—Abraham, “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”
In the words of Rob Bell, “[The rich man is] dead, but he hasn’t died.”[v] Even with flames licking around him, he operates within the very same set of assumptions that dictated his mortal life. Who is he, in his own mind? He is still one who is to be served. He is one to whom others should bring relief from his discomfort. To quote Rob Bell again, the affluent man is “still clinging to his ego, his status, his pride—he’s unable to let go of the world he’s constructed, which puts him on the top and Lazarus on the bottom, the world in which Lazarus [should be] serving him…[Even in death, he’s] in profound torment, because he’s living with the realities of not properly dying the kind of death that actually leads a person into the only kind of life that’s worth living.”[vi] God has not consigned the affluent man to hell, and God doesn’t keep him there. The man finds himself stuck in hell because he has refused—and he continues to refuse—to die to the world.
One startling part of this story is that nowhere is the affluent man characterized as brazenly malicious and mean-spirited. He steps over Lazarus at his gate every day, but he doesn’t kick Lazarus. Even so, on some level that apathy is even worse. At least malice would require that the affluent man acknowledge Lazarus as a fellow human being worthy of some strong emotional reaction. As it stands, the affluent man simply ignores and disregards Lazarus’ personhood altogether. That is, until he finds himself in hell and demands that Lazarus leave the bosom of the angels to fetch him a drink of water.
What does this story mean for us, especially on this Sunday that we launch our Every Member Canvass stewardship campaign for 2014? Well, as all good Episcopal priests should, the best I can offer is a quote about this parable from our bishop. Bishop Doyle says this:
“[Like Lazarus], there is someone standing at the gate of our lives. And that person, that community, is waiting for us to stand with them as extensions of God’s mercy, grace, and abundant love.”[vii]
There is someone standing at the gate of our lives. There are hungry bodies at our door, awaiting a nourishing meal. There are hungry souls in these pews, awaiting a nourishing Word and the bread and wine of the sacrament. Everything we strive to do at Christ Church Cathedral intends to recognize, honor, and embrace the person at the gate. Everything we strive to do is about dying: about shedding the assumptions, the priorities, and the prejudices of the world so we can live in the beauty and grace of God.
And our work will not—cannot—continue without the support of each and every person who enters this place. Today is indeed the launch of the Every Member Canvass. We’ve just studied a parable that speaks hard sayings and ends in grace, and in that spirit I must do the same. The hard saying is this: In 2013, due to crucial deferred maintenance on our campus and a shortage of financial pledges, we have operated with a $700,000 deficit budget. A parish as large and vibrant as Christ Church can do that for one year, but we simply cannot absorb this kind of deficit again.
That is the hard saying, but it pales in comparison to the grace! And here that is: As of this morning, every member of your Vestry and every member of your Stewardship Council have committed to increase their pledges for 2014. And I, as your dean, commit to pledge to the instruments of the Church a tithe, a full ten percent of my income in 2014. We have each made this decision as our sacramental commitment to die to the world and rise with Christ, to see and lift up the person at the gate. We invite you to join us, to pledge if you’ve not done so before, and to increase your pledge if you’ve pledged in years past.
There’s even more grace than that! Our attendance at Holy Eucharist is up, our work through the Beacon is becoming a model for the entire city, we are becoming a parish that embraces the pastoral care of all our people, and our commitment to Christian discipleship, outreach, and—let’s never forget—worship is taking on new life.
New life. Dying not to the grave, but to the world. The Stewardship Council chose as this year’s Every Member Canvass theme a quote from Jeremiah, in which God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, for a future filled with hope!”[viii] That is all about the new life in which we live each day by the grace of God, by which we live each day seeking out the person at the gate, feeding him body and soul, quenching the thirst of his parched spirit.
The Every Member Canvass is not merely an annual fundraiser. It is our opportunity to say again, concretely and with commitment, that we wish to die so that we may live.
[i] Adapted from an even worse joke found on the internet.
[ii] John 12:24.
[iii] Mark 8:34-35.
[iv] John 3:5.
[v] Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, pg. 76.
[vi] Ibid., pp. 76-77.
[vii] Doyle, Andrew. Unabashedly Episcopalian: Proclaiming the Good News of The Episcopal Church, pg. 85.
[viii] Jeremiah 29:11.