Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21, Year C)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on September 26, 2004. 
Based on Luke 16:19-31 (Proper 21, Year C).

We have a cultural fascination with hearing voices from beyond the grave. It’s the focus of a popular late afternoon TV show. The Psychic Friends Network is a million-dollar per year industry. Ouija board sales are still going strong. The phone book lists hundreds of fortunetellers claiming the ability to commune with the dead. Television newsmagazines love reporting on near death experiences.

This morning we encounter someone who wants desperately to send a message beyond the grave. But he cannot; he is denied. Last week in our gospel reading from Luke, Jesus warned us about the danger of placing love of God over love of money. Jesus reminded us that we cannot serve two masters; that we cannot serve both God and wealth. This week Jesus fast-forwards the scenario. This week we get a glimpse behind the curtain, a foretelling of the eternal consequences of failing to heed Christ’s words. And it leads to a dead man franticly seeking to send a message of repentance to the living, breathing members of his family.

Jesus sets up this week’s parable as a sharp contrast between the lives of two men. We first encounter an unnamed rich man. Someone who wore only the finest clothes and who “feasted sumptuously” every day. A man who lived in a gated estate. He was The Donald of his day.

And then there’s Lazarus. A poor man, a pathetic man covered with sores who lay day after day at the rich man’s gate. Jesus tells us that he “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” and that “even the dogs would come to lick his sores.”

Societally speaking, these two men were polar opposites. They lived in different worlds; their paths would never and could never cross. One wore fine purple linen, the other rags. One ate the fatted calf, the other was lucky to find a scrap of bread.

So in the fleeting blink of an eye that is this earthly life, there is no possible reason for interaction between these two men. But in the eternal realm, their fortunes become intertwined. Upon their respective deaths, the poor man is carried away by angels while the rich man descends to Hades. Their eternal lives, like their earthly lives are polar opposites. But the roles are reversed. The rich man now stands outside the proverbial gate.

The point of this parable is not that poor people go to heaven and rich people go to hell. It’s a matter of values. And it’s a continuation of the conversation about which god you serve: one of the myriad earthly idols that abound or the one true and holy God.

The story then takes an interesting twist. The rich man has a repentance of sorts. He acknowledges that his situation is irrevocable but wants to save the souls of his five brothers. So he requests that Lazarus be sent back to warn his brothers. But it’s too late. If Moses and the Law and all the prophets were ignored, then why would anyone listen to Lazarus? If the message of repentance had been preached by prophets and John the Baptist and even Jesus himself, and was still ignored, why would anyone listen to Lazarus?

Because, of course, Lazarus would go to them from beyond the grave. And if the rich man’s brothers were anything like the rest of us, fascinated with the mysteries of the other side, surely they would heed the call to repentance. That’s what the rich man believes. “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent,” he claims. And the reply is brimming with Christological overtones, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Because that’s exactly what happens. Jesus is the ultimate voice from the grave. His is the voice of one who conquered death and the grave. He has died and yet he lives. And through faith in him we are given the invitation to live eternally. Like Jesus, like Lazarus, like the faithful of every generation who have come before us. We don’t need séances or crystal balls because we have the gospel of Jesus Christ and it tells us all we need to know. The gospel forces us to think about the priorities of our lives. And the only viable option, the only option that draws us toward the ineffable joy of eternal life, is to live a life of service to God and God alone.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004

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