9/26/2010 sermon: Jesus changes everything

Location: Grace Episcopal Church, Alexandria, VA
Text:  Luke 16:19-31
18Pentecost (Proper 21), Year C

Jesus changes everything

I don’t know whether you have met Lazarus, the beggar to whom Jesus refers in our Gospel lesson today, but I have, and meeting him is teaching me that Jesus changes everything.

The first time that I met Lazarus, I was eating lunch in an outdoor café at the Virginia Square Metro Station in Arlington, just a few miles from here. My luncheon companion and I were having an animated discussion about our plans for the Kingdom of God. We had pushed aside our uneaten food and were having one of those energizing conversations. Our ideas built upon each other’s and OUR HANDS WERE ILLUSTRATING POINTS, when a homeless man approached our table and asked for food. I recognized the man as a daily client of the food pantry that volunteers operate in the very church in which I worked, so I shooed him away. That’s when I saw him—Lazarus—out of the corner of my eye: He got up off the ground, beckoned the homeless man over to him, broke his own meager sandwich in half NO QUESTIONS ASKED, and gave a half to the homeless man.

Meeting Lazarus THAT day didn’t change my life, not yet, but I met him again. The second time was late on a dark winter night as I was going into a 7-Eleven right over here in Alexandria. A man was sitting on a low wall outside the store and he asked me if I could spare some change. He scared me at first. He was big and his arms were tattooed and he even smelled a bit. I clutched my coat tighter to me and passed on by. When I left the store he was still there. I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, “Don’t worry,” in the kindest, gentlest voice, “God loves you even-so.” EVEN-SO. That is a way of talking that we don’t hear very often, one that reminded me of church; so did the feeling of love and acceptance that he exuded. That’s when I recognized him: Lazarus.

I don’t think that Lazarus is here in person today. I could be wrong about that, but he’s a pretty busy guy, for being dead and all. But I know what Lazarus would say if he were here. He would say that Jesus changes everything!

Now everything is a pretty big subject, even for a seminarian, so today I am only going to share only three ways that Jesus changes everything. First, Jesus changes the very landscape of our life hereafter. Second, Jesus changes our understanding of what it means to love God. And finally, Jesus changes us, if we let him.

The first way that Jesus changes everything is that, by his life, death, and Resurrection, the order of the cosmos—the very arrangement of our life hereafter—is changed forever. Some people use today’s gospel lesson to try to figure out what it will be like after we die. But today’s gospel lesson tells us the way things USED TO BE. They are not that way any more because Jesus changes the very nature of our life hereafter.

In Jesus’ time the souls of all who died went to Hades. Some people—those who did not obey the Law of God—went to the lower portion of Hades, which was very hot! Those who observed God’s Law went to Hades’ upper region to spend eternity in bliss. Jesus tells us that the two portions were separated by chaos magnum—a large chaos—and that NO ONE could cross that great chasm.[1]

Jesus tells us today of two men who had died. One of these men, whose name we do not know, ended up in the hot portion of Hades. Following Christian tradition I’ll call him Dives, a name which means “very rich.” The other man, whose name is Lazarus, ended up in the blissful region. This was greatly surprising because Lazarus had been a lowly beggar, an outcast who had to rely on the generosity of others, for his very survival. Dives, on the other hand, had been well-off during his life on earth. In fact, in one of those reorderings of things that we encounter so often in the Bible, Lazarus had sat begging at Dives’ very gate. And yet now Lazarus was in bliss and he was in a place of honor next to the great Jewish patriarch Abraham. To make matters worse, Dives could see across the chaos magnum and he noticed that Lazarus’ fate was a great deal better than his own.

Dives begged Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth from death itself to warn his many brothers about what awaits them in the hereafter. However, Abraham thought even that wouldn’t change anything. Abraham said to Dives, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”[2]

In sharing Jesus’ story with us, Luke is being very ironic. He knows that God HAD raised Jesus from the dead. It’s as if Luke is saying, “Just WHAT will it take for humankind to understand that there are eternal consequences for our actions?

Jesus didn’t JUST come back from the dead, though. WHILE he was dead he went to Hades and transformed it forever by emptying it completely of everyone who was there at the time.[3] While he was dead he also defeated the chaos magnum and transformed the upper region of Hades into Heaven. The place which Jesus has prepared for us is the very one in which he invites us to spend eternity. It’s a new place. Jesus himself has become the path we must follow to get there, and he has become the one who will decide where we each will go when we die.[4] Jesus changes everything, including the terrain of our life hereafter.

There was a time when Christians thought that Jesus sets to work on our hearts to change us through fear of Hell. Perhaps that used to work, in ages past. … Did you know? … A full quarter of all Americans do not believe in life-after-death or in heaven? And about half do not believe in hell?[5] In the Episcopal Church we are a bit more nuanced about it than that. Instead we say things like, “God’s justice demands that hell exist, and God’s mercy demands that it remain empty.”[6] Perhaps. Others think that hell is the bad situations that we create here on earth. Perhaps. Or perhaps Jesus has prepared a place for us, so that where he and Lazarus are, there we might be also.

Jesus doesn’t want to scare us or trick us into obeying God. We know from his summary of the Law that he wants us to LOVE GOD, and he wants us to love everyone else just as much as we love ourselves. Our gospel lesson today hints at the second thing that Jesus changes: our understanding of how to live our life here on earth.

The purple-wearing Dives thought that he knew what being faithful to God entails. Some who study these things for a living think that Dives was a temple leader. If so, it would have been very shocking for Jews of Jesus’ time to think that such a man would have been in the hot part of Hades. What did Dives do wrong?

We have to wonder if Dives understood the essence of the Law. Had Dives ever loved Lazarus? Had he even seen him as an individual? We get a hint that the answers to these questions was NO. Dives didn’t talk to Lazarus EVEN after they were both dead. Instead he begs Abraham for Lazarus’ help. Dives is dead and very hot, and yet he still doesn’t get it!

Jesus tells us that Dives “feasted sumptuously every day,” while Lazarus “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”

  • Does Dives beg Lazarus for forgiveness for not sharing his food? No, Dives is dead and very hot, and yet he still doesn’t get it!
  • Dives feasted sumptuously on God’s Word every day. Does Dives realize that he should have shared the Word of God with Lazarus, rather that judging him for being poor? NO, Dives is dead and very hot, and yet he still doesn’t get it! Will Dives EVER get it?

To truly love God we must first truly love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus changes everything, including our understanding of the Law and how to live our lives in obedience to God.

The final way that Jesus changes everything is that Jesus changes us, too, if we let him. What it takes is for us to pause in our very busy lives, pause in our studies, pause in our wealth-acquisition activities, pause in our search for oblivion, and to place ourselves at the willing disposal of the living Jesus. What it means is that we have to ask Jesus to make us more like him.

How, exactly, does Jesus change us? What is it that encourages us to change and become compassionate to all those with whom we come in contact? How does Jesus get our hearts to bloom with love for God and for each other?

I have more questions than answers. But two things suggest themselves as possibilities, and I will end here. FIRST, we have Grace Church: A center for worship and fellowship, a school for discipleship and stewardship, and a community for healing and outreach. It’s fitting that on this Sunday when we give thanks for our founding 160 years ago that we recognize Grace Church’s role in teaching us how Jesus changes everything.

LASTLY, Jesus sends Lazarus. He comes into our lives in the form of people who would be content to share of our great bounty. He shows up at our very gates, in our very homes, in our work places, and he even shows up in our churches. He comes to our tables and to our convenience stores to ask us for our leftovers. Jesus sends Lazarus. He puts people in our lives who already “get it,” who love the Lord and know how to live according to God’s Law. He sends them to share their meager meals and to empty their pockets, NO QUESTIONS ASKED, to shock us and to show us how it’s done. He works on our hearts by making us feel good about doing the least little thing for someone else, making it feel whole and life-giving and right. All we have to do when we leave worship is to let our service begin.

Lazarus might not be here in person today, but I know that Jesus is not a stranger here. I see signs of his handiwork all around. Because this is the point: Jesus changes everything, even us if we let him. He teaches us that we are to love the Lord our God and treat our neighbor as ourselves. And when we fall short we remember that God loves us EVEN-SO.

[1] Luke 16:26, NRSV.

[2] Luke 16:31, NRSV.

[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale : The Mystery of Easter [Theologie der Drei Tage.] (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1990), chp. 4.

[4] John 14:2-7, NRSV.

[6] William Temple.

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