Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday after Corpus Christi (Trinity I)

The Holy Gospel is written in the 16th Chapter of Saint Luke, beginning at the 19th Verse.

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: and there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

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In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

If you study the Bible, you will quickly see that the Sacred Scriptures are filled with stories of triumph. There’s the triumph of the people of Israel in their exodus from Egypt. There’s the story of the resettling of the Promised Land after the Babylonian exile. And who can forget the great victory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as he rose from the dead, conquering sin and death and promising eternal life to those who believe on His Name. Yes, from the beginning to the end, from the Alpha to the Omega, the Bible is filled with stories of victory over adversity.

However, there is a dark side to the Scriptures. There are stories of great tragedy in the pages of the Bible. Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, losing their innocence and their direct relationship with God. Later, Esau sells his birthright to his brother Jacob for what amounts to a bowl of vegetable soup. Samson is seduced by a woman, losing his special place with the Lord as a Nazirite, only redeeming himself after he has been taken captive and blinded. Strapped between two pillars, he summons all of his strength and brings down the building upon his enemies. Yes, in addition to triumph, there is tragedy in the pages of the Bible.

Today’s Gospel reading, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus falls into the tragedy category, I’m afraid. As we will see, the Rich Man is condemned to an eternity of torment, punished for ever in Hell. Even worse, his request to father Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them of their impending fate is rebuffed, with the horrible words, “If they hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” How did this man of wealth, this man of power, find himself in this terrible, terrible judgment?

The fate of the Rich Man is even more stunning when you realize that this is a man who had it all. The Bible tells us that he dressed in purple cloth and fine linen. Purple cloth and fine linen? Purple is the color of royalty, the color of kings. Purple cloth was extraordinarily expensive in part because the ingredients required to make the dye were rare and costly, and in part because only a few skilled craftsmen could blend the ingredients in a way that would make the dye into a deep and rich violet. Linen was another fabric that was often reserved to Kings and princes. Linen was then, as now, a pure fabric, one that wore easily on the skin, and one that absorbed the sweat that naturally came about in the heat of the ancient near east. Purple cloth and fine linen was the stuff of kings and in choosing these clothes, the Rich Man was arrogantly proclaiming himself to be the equal to royalty. The purple and linen spoke to the Rich Man’s desire to be seen as subservient to no one, answerable to no one, accountable to no one.

Indeed, in his arrogance and conceit the Bible tells us that the Rich Man would feast sumptuously every day. Now think about that. What would you say about a man who would travel with an entourage into Atlanta to Buckhead to spend hundreds of dollars every night at Bones or Ruth’s Chris? Would you wonder about his judgment? Would you wonder about his sense of propriety? But this man wouldn’t go to Buckhead to feast. No, he would gorge himself daily in his own home. Then, dressed as befits a King, he would come and go from his estate, passing through the gate of his property on his way to and from the city, where he would go to be seen in all of his glory.

And there, laying at the Rich Man’s gate, was the beggar Lazarus. Now, when the Bible says “laying at the Rich Man’s gate,” it means, in our terms, laying across the Rich Man’s driveway. In other words, it was impossible for the Rich Man to enter or leave his property without seeing Lazarus, in fact, without having to step over Lazarus. The Bible goes even further and says that Lazarus was so destitute and ill, that the dogs would come and lick his sores. Now, we’ve talked before about the dogs, remember? They weren’t licking Lazarus’ sores out of pity. No, they were trying to keep the wounds open and the flesh soft, so that when Lazarus finally died, the dogs would be able to feast in a way that Lazarus never could. What does Saint Luke tell us that Lazarus wanted? Nothing more than the crumbs that fell from the the Rich Man’s table. Not a full meal, just the scraps, just the stuff that we scrape of our plates into our dog’s bowls.

Then, Saint Luke tells us, both Lazarus and Rich Man die. Lazarus goes to heaven and the Rich Man is consigned to eternal torment. Why was sent to Hell? The Bible doesn’t tell us the nature of the judgment directly, but from the text we can immediately see a couple of reasons. First, the Rich Man never placed himself in right relationship to God. He presumed that he was the master of his own destiny and he arrogantly claimed for himself an authority that belonged only to God. Second, and closely related to the first, the Rich Man failed to recognize his neighbor Lazarus who laid in his driveway desperately hoping for the scraps that were fed to the dogs. Remember another passage, this one from Saint Matthew about the final judgment of the righteous and the unrighteous? Our Lord said to those unrighteous who stood at his left hand:

“Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”

And so it was that the Rich Man went to his torment, and Lazarus to his reward. The Rich Man consigned to a dominion where he would be forced into submission to demons and where his voracious appetites could never be satisfied. And Lazarus, given a peace and fullness that he had never known in this life.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this awful story, it is certainly not a pleasant or popular one. The lesson is this: Like it or not, agree with it or not, all of us will someday have to give account for our lives before Almighty God. All of us will have to answer and be judged for our deeds. What will that judgment find? Will it find us so wrapped up in our own pride, filled with the unbridled narcissism of the Rich Man? Or will that judgment find us humble before God, not claiming salvation as a thing that is our right, but praying that God will grant us the crumbs of mercy that fall from His table? Will our attitude be that of the Rich Man, who expected everything as his due? Or will our attitude be one of grateful thanksgiving for the gift of salvation that comes to us through our Lord Jesus Christ?

On this Sunday, as every Sunday, we have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to God. We have the opportunity to “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against the Divine Majesty of Almighty God.” And then, as Christians have done from time immemorial, we can approach the Altar to share in that Great Thanksgiving of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We can share in that heavenly banquet, where Christ feeds us with His Flesh and Blood. And in this Thanksgiving, in this Eucharist, we may be made whole and understand our place before God. In that Thanksgiving, we may see ourselves, not as the Rich Man arrogantly claiming his own freedom and living without regard to his neighbor. No, in this Thanksgiving, this Eucharist, let us pray that we may see ourselves as we truly are, sinners under the mercy of a loving God, sinners who have been forgiven and set free by the Body and Blood of their Risen Lord. So may it be now and always, world without end. Amen.

1 comment:

Connie said...

Since I was out of town Sunday, it is wonderful to be able to read your sermon. Thanks for posting it.