September 25, 2016
+ I know this might reveal my bizarre side. (We all have a bizarre side, after all) But…I love the parable we heard today. I think I might be one of the very few people who do actually love it. For some, it’s just so weird and…well, bizarre. And it is. But…there’s just so much good stuff, right under the surface of it.
In it, we find Lazarus. Now, if you notice, it’s the only time in Jesus’ parables that we find someone given a name—and the name, nonetheless, of one of Jesus’ dearest friends. In most of Jesus’ parables, the main character is simply referred to as the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.
But here we have Lazarus. And the name actually carries some meaning. It means “God has helped me.”
Now the “rich man” in this story is not given a name by Jesus, but tradition has given him the name Dives, or “Rich Man”
Between these two characters we see such a juxtaposition. We have the worldly man who loves his possessions and is defined by what we owns. And we have Lazarus, who seems to get sicker and is hungry all the time. In fact, his name almost seems like a cruel joke. It doesn’t seem like God has helped Lazarus at all. The Rich Man sees Lazarus, is aware of Lazarus, but despite his wealth, despite all he has, despite, even his apparent happiness in his life, we can not even deign to give to poor Lazarus a scrap of food from all that he has.
Traditionally of course, we have seen them as a very fat Rich Man, in fine clothing and a haughty look and a skinny, wasted Lazarus, covered in sores, which I think must be fairly accurate to what Jesus hoped to convey. They are opposite, mirror images of each other.
But there are some subtle undercurrents to this story. Lazarus is not without friends or mercy in his life. In fact, is seems that maybe God is helping him. He is not quite the destitute person we think he is.
First of all, we find him laid out by the Rich Man’s gate. Someone must’ve put him there, in hopes that Rich Man would help him. Someone cared for Lazarus, and that’s important to remember.
Second of all, we find these dogs who came to lick his sores. The presence of dogs is an interesting one. Are they just wild dogs that roam the streets, or are they the Rich Man’s watch dogs? New Testament theologian Kenneth Bailey has mentioned that dog saliva was believed by people at this time to have curative powers. So, even the dogs are not necessarily a curse upon Lazarus but a possible blessing in disguise.
Finally, when Lazarus dies, God receives him into paradise. In fact, as we hear, “angels carried him to be with Abraham.”
The Rich Man dies and goes to Hades—or the underworld. Lazarus goes up, Dives goes down.
While in paradise, while the Rich Man, in the throes of his torment, cries out to him, Lazarus, if you notice, doesn’t ignore him or turn his back on him, despite the fact that the Rich Man did just that to Lazarus. Lazarus does not even scold him. It almost seems that Lazarus might almost be willing to go back and tell the Rich Man’s friends if only the gulf between them was not so wide.
There really is a beauty to this story and a lesson for us that is more than just the bad man gets punished the good man gets rewarded. But even more so, what we find is that, by the world’s standards, by the standards of those who are defined by the material aspects of this life, Lazarus was the loser before he died and the Rich Man was the winner, even despite his callousness.
And the same could be said of us as well. It might seem, at moments, as though we are being punished by the things that happen to us. It is too easy to pound our chests and throw dirt and ashes in the air and to cry out in despair and curse God when bad things happen. It is much harder to recognize that while we are there, at the gate outside the Rich Man’s house, lying in the dirt, covered in sores, that there are people who care, that there are gentle, soothing signs of affection, even from dogs. And it is hard sometimes to see that God too cares.
And for us, at St. Stephen’s, we’ve been through our share of hard times in our past, but even then, we have found glimmers of hope and joy in the midst of the darkness. We find those glimmers in the joy we celebrate here at this altar. We find joy in the marriages and baptism we celebrate. We find joy in welcoming new members into our midst, and the sounds of children in our building. We find joy in each other, as we gather here. See, we do find glimmers of light in the darkness.
To return for a moment to the beginning of our sermon and my bizarreness. Recently a person I only very slightly knew commented to me:
“I know this might sound strange, but I was visiting a cemetery north of Fargo and what did I behold? But a gravestone with your name on it.”
Yes, as many of you know, I do have my gravestone made up. It’s actually the backside of my parents’ gravestone at Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Cemetery near Harwood. And it even has a Celtic cross on it. I’m kind of proud of the fact that among all those Swedish Lutherans, there is a Celtic cross on my stone.
But what this particular person took note of was the epitaph I chose for myself. It’s actually the final line of a poem I wrote toward the end of my “cancer experience” which felt to me very much like a Lazarus experience. The poem was written as my father and I were driving to Minot on a particularly cold night in October shortly after the first snow fall of the year.
We were driving up there for my final interview with the Commission on Ministry before I was ordained to the Diaconate. As we neared the city and came up over a hill, I could see the city laid out below us. Above us, the sky had cleared after a particularly gray and gloomy day. When the clouds had cleared, we could see the stars, which, on that cold night, looked especially crisp and clear. And in that moment, after all that I had went through with my cancer, I suddenly knew for the first time, that, somehow, everything was going to be fine.
At the end of that poem, I wrote what would become the epitaph on my stone: I wrote in that poem, “Dusk” (I’m not going to inflict the whole poem on you, but it’s in my book, Just Once, which I’m giving away for free):
“…I look up into the sky
and see it—a transformation
so subtle I almost didn’t notice it
as I sit there trembling
behind the tinted windshield.
I say to myself
‘Look! Just look!
Look how the dusk—
full of clouds and gloom—
has dissolved into
multitudes of stars!’”
To some extent, that’s what it’s like to be a Christian. To some extent, that’s what its like: when we think the darkness and the gloom has encroached and has won out, we can look up and see those bright sparks of light and know, somehow, that it’s all going to be all right.
Paradise awaits us. It is there, just beyond those stars. That place to which Lazarus was taken by angels awaits us and, for those of us striving and struggling through this life, we can truly cling to that hope. For those of us still struggling, we can set our eyes on the prize, so to speak and move forward. We can work toward that place, rather than “diving” like Dives himself, into the pit of destruction he essentially created for himself.
In a real sense, the Rich Man was weighed down by his wealth, especially when he refused to share it, and he ended up wallowing in the mire of his own close-mindedness and self-centeredness.
But for those of us who, in the midst of our struggles, can still find those glimmers of light in the midst of the gloom, we are not weighed down. We are freed in ways we never knew we could be. We are lifted up and given true freedom.
We are Lazarus.
God truly has helped us. And we see it most when we recognize those multitudes of light shining brightly in the occasional gloom of our lives.