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In the Bosom of Abraham

Sermon - 9/26/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 16:19-31

Seems like a very appropriate story to kickoff our stewardship campaign, the story Jesus tells in the 16th chapter of Luke's gospel, reading from verses 19 through 31:

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, “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.” 25But Abraham said, “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. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’


As I reflected on this passage, it occurred to me that there are three possible takes, maybe more, but three of them that one can take on this story.

The first is that this is just an illustration of karma, that each got what they deserved. University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere talked about that concept of karma and dharma in Hinduism at our interfaith community breakfast on Wednesday morning. Wonderful group of folk that we had there for that. And he defined karma as the idea that there is a moral order to the universe. Everything we do -- everything we do -- has a moral consequence.

The past will come back to either bless our haunt us, as the case may be. That's karma. Only karma, with its companion concept of dharma, which President Lariviere describes as doing what is right for you, fulfilling your destiny, your call in life, your place, your duty according to your place in life, that these two key concepts in Hinduism are closely bound up with the notion of reincarnation. And so your place in line is determined by the karma from your previous life, and your next life is determined then by your faithfulness to your dharma, of fulfilling your duty.

So, then, the Ducks have good karma going for them because they fulfilled their dharma in the previous season, and that's why we lost in the Rose Bowl, you see, so now we can rise to our rightful place :). Or, that's why Jeremiah Masoli had to go, you know, because he was bad karma for the team.

In any case, karma in fact does not work to describe the fate of these two, because there is no scenario possible in Hinduism whereby one's fate is sealed for all eternity. Now, think about that for a moment, because we think of India with its 'caste' system has been vastly inferior to our system where all people are created equal. But which is more moral? A belief system that allows for improvement in one's life, one's station in life throughout all eternity, or a system that essentially says you have one chance to get right?

And that's not to suggest that we should buy into the concept of reincarnation, I'm simply suggesting we need to be careful about condemning the beliefs of other faiths and should have a certain amount of humility in regards to our own.

By the way, that's one of the reasons why I do not view the notion of eternal damnation as a Christian concept, I think it's contrary to the whole idea of God's love. But that's just a small issue :).

So, at any rate, so karma is not an adequate description of what's happening in this text.

The second possibility is to understand this story as a portrayal of the divine justice of God, in which the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded, and heaven and hell is just that place where all that is sorted out. And one can find a lot of support for that idea in Scripture.

The first 10 books of the Bible were compiled and edited from such a perspective -- that the good are rewarded, the bad are punished, without any concept of of afterlife necessary in that, but it was in this life in terms of those first ten books.

And then along comes Job to question that whole premise. How is it, in fact, that the good do suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? That's the question of Job. And it's never really adequately answered. But just the fact that the question is asked acknowledges the reality that the good do suffer in this life.

Furthermore, in this particular story, no mention is made of the righteousness or the faithfulness of Lazarus. Did he deserve this? Was it something of his own creation? Why is he suffering in this condition? And Abraham does not ask, does not apparently care whether or not Lazarus is an alcoholic, or a drug addict, or mentally ill, or a disabled veteran, or a runaway teen, or any other scenario. The only thing that matters is that he died on the streets, suffering. That's the only thing that qualifies him to afford this life of comfort in eternity in the bosom of Abraham.

Now, folks, I can show you any one of a hundred people out on the street of Eugene the qualifies just as much as Lazarus. Thus, the story cannot be seen as an illustration of a reward and punishment for righteousness and unrighteousness, or if it is, then we better follow that advice of Jesus to the rich young ruler to go and sell everything we have and give it to the poor, because there is no other guarantee.

In fact, though, this story really has nothing to do with life after death at all. Whatever rewards or punishments there may or may not be for us in the next life, the whole point of the story is not what happens to us after death, the point of the story is what we do in this life. And Jesus says yes, there is more than enough for Lazarus, and for everyone. Even the crumbs from the rich man's table would be enough for Lazarus if he were so lucky.

The point of the enormous gulf between Lazarus and the rich man in the afterlife is to point out the enormity of disparity between Lazarus' poverty and the rich man's wealth in this life.

I used to clip out news articles on statistics of wealth and poverty. 1989, this title: "Study: Gap wider between rich and poor". In 1990: "Rich-poor gap grew worldwide". 1992: "Poverty, incomes worsening". But after a while, it was the same story over and over and over again. And did you see the news this week? The number of homeless children in our school districts grew by 5 1/2 percent last year. Nearly 20,000 children in Oregon schools that are homeless. We keep hearing the same thing, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

And so I gave up on clipping those stories. And now, what are we debating? Not how we are going to fund critical human services in this tight economy (how we are going to provide for those homeless children), but whether or not we are going to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of our country. Something's wrong with that debate.

Rabbi Daniel Polish, writing for the LA Times, said this (he's Rabbi, interestingly enough, of the synagogue in Hollywood): "All of the religious traditions in America have failed, and failed miserably, to instill values in their adherents. All have been defeated by a common foe -- the rantings of the religious right are a diversion here. The common foe is not secular humanism, whatever that is, the great moral issues of the moment are not pornography or abortion, the false value that has triumphed over the teachings of all religious communities is the implicit ethic of our economic system -- looking out for number 1".

He wrote that in 1987. Another one of those articles I clipped out.

The rich man looking out for number one fails to see, until it's too late, that his destiny is linked to that of Lazarus. And even in Hades, he doesn't quite get it. He still views Lazarus as someone whose purpose is to run errands for him! Go and fetch some cool water for me, Lazarus. Go up and warn my brothers. That's the way the 'haves' of the world have always viewed those who are as not as fortunate.

In 1968, the inner-cities of this country were burning, many literally, in an angry protest against the disparities between black and white, rich and poor, urban and suburban. And the reconciliation program of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ was born in the midst of that. It was our effort to reverse the iniquities of racism and to end the ongoing discrimination that kept people of color from improving their lot in life. And while that situation may have significantly improved since then, we would be foolish to think that racism is no longer a serious problem just because we now have an African-American President. The growing intolerance in this country towards Muslims and migrant workers tells us that the call to reconciliation (or as Disciples put it "to be a movement for a wholeness in a fragmented world"), that that call is still as greatly needed today as ever.

So I was touched yesterday with another news article from Stephen Colbert's testimony before Congress. I clipped that one out, some habits just never go away.. How many follow Stephen Colbert? Dang, almost as many as the first service. That's good. Well, you have to watch Comedy Central.

It turns out those under the age of 30, maybe 40, take their primary news from both Colbert and Jon Stewart who has a similar type of show, a satire of the news. I mispronounced his name in the first service, and got immediately corrected -- turns out the guy is French, who knew? Show's you how much I pay attention to him.

But I caught this article, and it just really spoke to me. He responded to the challenge of the United Farm Workers "Take Our Jobs" campaign. To go and spend a day doing the work of a migrant worker, picking and canning and the like. And it just so happens that a representative from California, Zoe Lofgren, was also there (probably was orchestrated) working alongside with Colbert. She happens to chair the subcommittee in the House that is dealing with immigration reform. She invited him to come and testify in Washington, DC, to reflect on his experience. And of course it was a big circus will all the press and everything. But, this is what he said, true to his style, as a satirist, using satire to lampoon the situation, he says:

"This is America. I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American. Then sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian" [I have no idea what a Brazilian is, someone will have to educate me on that]. He goes on to say:

"After working with these men and women, picking beans, packing corn for hours on end, side by side in the unforgiving sun, I have to say, and I do mean this sincerely: please don't make me do this again! It is really, really hard work".

Which prompted one of the representatives to then ask him: "Is that to say it's more work than you've ever done before?", you know, comedians have an easy life. And he responds: "It's certainly harder work than this" :).

Then he got serious. Another representative asked him: "Why are you so interested in the plight of farm-workers?" He said: "I like talking about people who don't have any power. And it just seems like the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers, who come and do our work and don't have any rights as a result. And yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time ask them to leave".

The final paragraph of the article, and this is what really gets me, Colbert, a practicing Catholic who occasionally teaches Sunday school, quoted from the biblical passage about helping the least of my brothers, adding: "Migrant workers suffer and have no rights". It turns out it's his Christian faith, and the teachings of Jesus, that have inspired him to speak out.

Now, contrast that view with that of a tea-party member, quoted in the Register Guard a couple months ago, I didn't clip this one out because it is so stuck in my memory I'll never forget it, who said "The person on the street corner with a street sign? Not my problem. The alcoholic lying in a ditch? Not my problem -- that's what churches and nonprofits are for".

And I've encountered the same view among Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians, so I'm not meaning to pick on the tea-party at all, but I want to make clear: while he is absolutely right, that is at least what we are here for (part of what we're here for), he's exactly wrong -- it is his problem. "I was hungry and you did not feed me", said Jesus.

The other part of our job, besides helping the Lazarus' among our midst, is to do a precisely what Stephen Colbert is doing, to remind people of the teachings of Jesus. That it's about the least of these. About Lazarus and the rich man. That this is not just a Christian responsibility, it is a human responsibility. It's what it means to be part of a society, the social contract that calls us to have compassion for the least of these in our midst.

In most churches and Synagogues and Mosques and Temples I know are doing a lot, many are doing all that they can with their limited resources. Few are doing more than this congregation is doing in terms of that kind of hands-on direct assistance, to help the Lazarus' in our midst. And yet it is not enough. Indeed, churches and nonprofits alone will never be able to do enough because the need is simply too great and the numbers are too overwhelming. To begin with, we in the faith community represent only 25% of the population in this county. To put that in perspective, there are more people on food stamps in Lane County than are in churches on Sunday morning. Save perhaps Easter, and I'm not even too sure about that.

There are more school children who are homeless in Eugene than our in the youth-groups and the Christian education classes of mainline churches. No doubt God gives us more than enough to respond to these challenges, but God has not given it all to the church. Only by reaching out and building larger coalitions of churches and synagogues and temples and nonprofits and government agencies and schools as we have done in forming the Eagan Warming Center will we have any hope of responding to those needs at our doors.

And so our call is not to take on all of these challenges, our call is to be that voice of conscience, to be that voice of Lazarus, who you will note never speaks in this story. It's not until Abraham speaks out for him that we finally find justice.

Then our call is to call on our community leaders and elected officials, to call on all those with means, to bridge that gulf, to fill in that chasm, to end that great disparity which separates us one from another.

For the real question of this story, the moral of the parable, so to speak, is not 'will Lazarus find comfort and peace in the bosom of Abraham?'

The question is: 'will we?'


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