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Do We Take the Gospel Seriously?

Rev. James W. Crawford
Sep 26 2010


Linda and I treasure our being among you on these Sunday mornings for worship here at the hub of the hub of the universe. We deeply appreciate, as we know you do, the high quality of the preaching offered by Nancy, Quinn and Elizabeth. They provide rare fare here and we are fortunate to share in their fresh, evocative Biblical and ethical insights on a regular basis.
The music, of course: imaginative, original, the product of innate gifts married to extensive preparation—a vehicle pointing beyond itself, as art ought, to that Transcendent Source we gather to exalt and glorify. We thank you Old South.
Just a word about our situation. We reside now in an independent/ assisted living complex in Lincoln. So far, we love it. A Tale from the City in this morning’s Globe Magazine captures our condition. Sue Gordon, of Beverly writes: “As I walked into the room, I could see that my three friends, all of them aged seventy something were engaged in a lively conversation. ‘What’s so interesting?’ I asked. One of the women raised her head and reported with a smile: ‘For the last 20 minutes we’ve been discussing a movie. None of us can remember the movie’s name or the actors, but we all know what we are talking about, and we’re perfectly comfortable continuing this way.”
Let it be. Let it be
And let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to you, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Two weeks ago the Boston Globe ran an intriguing story by David Abel on its front page. The story began like this: “Northampton—Authorities dragged the short woman with white hair out of her congressman’s Springfield office while she protested the Iraq war. She spent a month in Federal Prison after painting, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ on missile tubes of nuclear submarines in Connecticut. She has been arrested nine times for trespassing at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.
When asked how often she has been hauled away for acts of civil disobedience, Frances Crowe responds with a smile, ‘Not enough.’”
Frances Crowe; Quaker; ninety-one years old. The Globe pictures her on her front walk with a sign asking, “Does your lifestyle depend upon war?” Her walls bear slogans reading, “People need water, not weapons.” “‘I have a vision of a better world,’ she (says). Where people can live cooperatively, without violence, and that we would be able to feed the hungry, house the homeless and provide shelter for people if we weren’t spending so much money on war … There are still so many problems in society, and as long as I have energy, I am going to keep at it … ”
We begin this morning with Frances Crowe because the intensity of her moral commitment contrasts to the moral apathy targeted by Jesus in the parable Michael Moon read for us a moment ago. Jesus wants to make a point to those of us, who, unlike Frances Crowe, take our religious promises and responsibilities casually.
He uses as backdrop a dazzling story about a rich man and a beggar. But be assured, this parable tells not so much about rich people and poor people—not on your life—this parable focuses on ethical negligence; it flags limp religiosity; it illuminates bland discipleship. The parable does not promise poor people bliss in a heavenly paradise; nor mandate a prescription to the nether world for the rich. In this parable Jesus reveals the cruciality of decisions we make about our lives, our resources, our vocations right now! You see, the key unlocking this parable resides neither in the rich man down below, nor the poor man up above. The key unlocking this parable belongs to the rich man’s five brothers, “yet alive in their father’s house,” aware of Moses and the prophets’ mandates to justice, to community, to compassion - yes, those five brothers who continue nonchalantly to run their lives no less opulently than their recently deceased brother. This parable pleads with us who rest on the Hebrew Scriptures and who confess Jesus as the Christ, finally, with devotion, to follow Christ’s way radiantly, faithfully, courageously. In light of this perspective, then, let’s walk though this dramatic, incisive, one act parable.
Scene one: “There was a rich man.” Jesus describes him: “rich.” Jesus makes no value judgments about the man’s wealth. We do not know if his wealth comes from hedge funds, commercial real estate or Gulf oil wells. We may see here an imaginative IT entrepreneur, a lucky boy who inherited his fortune or indeed, one who engages in sweat shops, graft or drugs.  The one thing we know about him: he is rich.
In addition, conventionally speaking, we may encounter here a person we would label, “decent.” Look, the beggar, Lazarus, lies at the rich man’s gate each day; Lazarus lives. He receives some sustenance from the rich man’s table, though the New Testament indicates the menu consists of the damp crust the rich man uses to wipe gravy from his mouth. The rich man apparently feels some obligation to stay the life of the beggar. He is rich—and, yes, decent: civic minded, a symphony contributor, a loyal college alumnus, a regular church attendee, a solicitor for the community chest. He serves on the boards of neighborhood groups, charitable foundations, service organizations, all befitting a person of his inclination and status. He possesses the elements of a full page TIMES obituary.
A brief word about Lazarus the beggar. Just as Jesus makes no value judgments on the rich man’s wealth, so he makes no judgments on the poor man’s poverty. He does not infer moral superiority of Lazarus to the rich man. In this story, poverty is neither virtuous, nor wealth sinful. Indeed, Lazarus may not be as decent as the rich man. He may be lazy; he may resent hard work; he may lie at the rich man’s gate, angry, bitter, sullen convinced the world owes him a living. Lazarus may be a “rip off.” Or, of course, on the contrary we may encounter here someone victimized by circumstance, born into the culture of poverty, trapped by it, never escaping; perhaps even the tragic prey of a rapacious economic system in recession. We don’t know. We do know, however, that he is poor; that he is sick; that he eats garbage. In this story we dare not confuse these signs of poverty for virtue; they merely reflect the facts.
So: scene one: a man, rich and decent; a beggar poor and sick.
Scene two: The rich man dies and descends to the world below. The beggar dies and goes to recline at table in the household of Father Abraham; he goes to heaven. Be assured Jesus offers us, as one commentator remarks—Jesus offers us no “Baedeker’s Guide to the Afterlife.” He believes in one, but of its topography, its flora and fauna, he is ignorant. We do not literalize the parable’s imagery, because that’s what it is: “imagery.” And what do we see? A man rich and decent arrives at his end and finds himself separated from God. To those who first heard this story, Jesus measures the rich man’s life in a surprising manner. Wasn’t he a sound citizen, a man of integrity, of noble impulse? But there he rests, not in the bosom of Abraham, as the King James translation tells us, but in underworld flames.
And in this life he possessed everything, including, implies the New Testament, a burial fit for his station and class. Can you hear echoes of that occasion now? The friend’s tribute: “He lived life to the fullest.” The civic association: “We shall never see his like again.” And his eulogy offered by—dare we speculate—the Emeritus Minister of one of those tall steeple churches at midtown: “We shall remember his legacy always: the stained glass windows, the sterling silver flower vases, the carillon … May he rest in peace.” A funeral like that for a man in Hell!
On the other hand, there lies Lazarus. In life nothing but rags, boils, garbage and dinner for dogs; no money, no education, no civic activity, no committee chairmanships, no tributes, no proclamations, no eulogies, no nothing. He depends on one thing only: God’s mercy and care. And apparently that tenders enough to get him into heaven.
Scene 3: From his appointed place the rich man sees Lazarus and calls to Abraham: “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.” Abraham replies, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received the good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. But in addition there lies a great chasm fixed between us, so that no one can pass from here to you.”
A chasm? Who dug it? Who separated the rich man from hope? He did. Every time he passed Lazarus without compassion, he dug that gulf a little deeper. Each time he tossed a fetid scrap from his mouth he widened the chasm. Each occasion he deceived himself as to his own largesse, as he congratulated himself on his benevolence, the breach increased. Whenever he took comfort in his beneficence while a starveling lay at his gate; each time he read a poverty statistic rather than perceiving a strapped human being, he created an unnavigable canyon between himself and the high destiny God invites us to share.
The rich man, however, accepts his fate and makes another urgent request. “Send Lazarus to my father’s house, that he may warn my five brothers so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replies, “No way! Those brothers already have Moses and the prophets. They need no special messenger!” The rich man pleads more urgently: “Please,” he cries, “send them someone from the dead, they will change their ways, and make the compassionate and loving choices in their lives I never made.” Father Abraham stands firm: “Sorry! If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
Jesus pulls no punches here. He speaks directly to some of us, perhaps to this church, certainly to me. You, I, we,—we constitute the rich man’s surviving family blithely pursuing our routine, immersed in our own indulgences, anesthetized by the goods of this world to the needs of our neighbor. You see, we know Moses; we read the prophets; we celebrate Jesus! If we are unable to respond creatively, lovingly, with all that we have and all that we are, then we can take who we are and take what we have and go to hell. Against the backdrop of eternity we make no trivial decisions. God sends the rich man to hell not because he is rich; wealth, here is not his crime, but, as Dr. Buttrick writes, his opportunity. His problem lies not in what he possesses, but in his complacency. His bank accounts are not at issue; his obduracy is. The New Testament consigns the rich man to Hell, literally, for his God damned indifference. “He is rich but doesn’t have the heart for it.”
If only Father Abraham allowed the rich man himself warn us! He might say to us this morning: “Tell my surviving family—tell my family that efforts to build human community out of its vast and beautiful diversity reflects always a splendid and challenging enterprise; tell my survivors in every church that healing the wounds of human beings, providing succor for bruised souls, nourishing the faith of the lost, advocating the cause of the oppressed, educating the minds and hearts of men and women, boys and girls are not things to be done after vacations are paid for, automobiles financed, social calendars fixed. “Tell them,” the rich man cries, “that to be faithful their lives and their resources need be controlled not by smart bookkeeping or clever tax write offs, but by prodigal love. Tell them the choices they make embrace matters of life and death.”
We know the Divine reply: Moses. The prophets. Jesus Christ. That’s it.
Well, not quite. Scene 4? This last week—and in this morning’s bulletin—members and friends of this congregation received from our minister, Nancy Taylor, our pastoral staff and church officers a document entitled, “Vision for the 21st Century.” In the next few weeks we will be invited to decide with who we are and what we have whom we serve. If you or I or this church are going to distribute crumbs for love, justice—crumbs for compassion and the retelling, beginning with Moses, of our 4000 year old story—if we offer crumbs for all that, we can take our financial resources, our historic claims, our lofty prayers, anthems, hymns and creeds and we can go to hell. If, on the other hand, we are faithful to Moses, to the prophets, to Jesus Christ, we shall forge decisions making an impact on the routine of our lives, the balance in our checkbooks, the redemptive capacities of this congregation, the saving of life in this city and world.
The parable closes. The curtain drops. Let us pray.