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The Last Word

A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

on 25 September 2022 [Proper 21]:

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1Timothyn 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

In my experience, not very many of us pay attention to what the Prayer Book tradition labels as the “Collect of the Day”. For one thing, the prayer that seeks to “collect” and focus the day’s worship comes early in the liturgy. Episcopalians being Episcopalians, we not only eschew sitting up front; we also tend to arrive at church sometime around the closing of the opening hymn! And the collecting collect often functions as an opportunity to catch our breath. Poor “Collect of the Day”: It don’t get no respect!

The “Collect of the Day” is a relatively short prayer, its name indicating its function: namely, to “collect” us for worship: A kind of “coming attractions. The form of the “Collect of the Day” holds two parts. The first part always addresses God. It acts as an opening salutation – a kind of “Dear God”—that contains descriptors that illuminate the nature of God. The second part always contains the prayerful request we wish to make of God.

Important to this day’s experience of God and the God-life, the “Collect” speaks of God’s power, not being a matter of muscle and missiles but rather of “mercy and pity”: “Mercy” being not getting what we do deserve because of our fickleness but also “pity” on us, which is to say that God has compassion for us. And at this point, we can begin to see the import of the Collect and what its focus reveals.

Specifically, if God’s power is revealed in terms of “compassion” and “compassion” means “suffering with”, therein lies rich soil in which to place a homiletical plow. For instance, why does the Creator of heaven and earth have to suffer with us? Moreover, God being God and mercy and compassion being such prominent parts of his nature, what does the Holy One do with such suffering – his own and ours? If my sermon doesn’t strike you well, you have my permission to drift off now and write your own with these questions in mind.

For those of you who are willing to stay with me, I am going to take a leap forward at this point and view this morning’s gospel through the lens of the Collect of the Day. And I ask this question: How does today’s “Collect of the Day” help us to focus on the meaning of the “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus”?

First, two side points about the gospel reading, just in case you find yourself a contestant on Jeopardy. Known in the biblical tradition as the “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus”, the first side-point is that the “Lazarus” of this passage is not the “Lazarus” who was a dear friend of Jesus and the brother of two sisters, Mary and Martha of Bethany. The second point is that the biblical tradition often refers to this parable as the “Parable of Dives and Lazarus”. In Latin, the word “dives” means “rich” -- so the evolution of a personal name for this day’s central character.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we are remembering God’s mercy and compassion and asking for the grace to run to obtain God’s promises, which I believe is the heart of the Gospel of Christ and the point of Jesus’ parable. In the context of this parable, what is our running about?

At first glance, the dramatic scene of pathetically poor Lazarus, starving at the rich man’s secured, gated community raises all kinds of images – none of which should be ignored. For example, how many of us have encountered such “Lazarus” figures on the streets; and if we have not walked over them, have managed to avoid them and their pitiful circumstance? A few, yes? So, this tale that Jesus tells has teeth – important teeth with the truthful capacity to bite our consciences – if not our souls. This is so because all of us here are part of the world’s top 5% of wealth, and all of us – at least some of the time – have hidden behind our “gates” and the “bubbles of life” they protect, to the extent that we conveniently live an “out of sight, out of mind” life from such pain and suffering. As Jesus’ parable reveals, there are consequences to this insulated perspective and attitude toward life. Nonetheless, identifying and focusing on the consequences of this denial is where decoding this parable get dicey.

My own decoding of the parable begins with the obvious fact that we are dealing with one of Jesus parables; and what this means is that the storyline presented is not meant to be just a moral tale about the use and impact of money and worldly success. Undoubtedly, there is significant moral content to this story, but as a parable the passage’s meaning is not simply about leading a generous life and being charitable – as important as those two qualities are. Left at the level of a moral tale, it is easy to absorb the parable’s message as if it were a good children’s Sunday School lesson; but Jesus does not offer this anecdote as a moral tale. It is more than that. It is, as I say, a parable; and Jesus’ parables are all about describing what life with God is like, and what it takes to receive such a gift.

With a little “googling” one can discover that the essence of the parable’s story comes from ancient Egypt and was well known throughout the Middle East of Jesus’ time. In that setting it was told as a moral tale, and we need to resonate with its emphasis on how we live and what we do with our lives: That there are profound consequences to our choices and motivations. Yet on Jesus’ lips, this story as a parable gains added depth and a new trajectory: The depth gained from encountering God and what it takes to have a relationship with the Holy One. And the crucial indicator that Jesus is not leaving this ancient story at the moral tale level (do good, not bad) comes through with what all of Jesus’ parables contain – a surprising and wrenching twist in the narrative.

You see, in a good moral tale such as the one from Egypt, we expect that the heartfelt request of the rich man that someone go and alert those he loves about the consequences of a waywardly calloused life – that this request would be granted and thus relieve us hearers of a tense hopelessness. It seems only right – and compassionate -- to have this “death-bed” request granted and that others be saved from “Dive’s” fate. But (and here is the parable’s twist) this is not what Jesus conveys in his telling of the story; and this is precisely the point at which the parable shifts away from the morality tale’s trajectory. My point to you is that if we do not perceive and honor this shift, then all we are left with is a nice Sunday School illustration of virtue.

The fact is that “Dives” has not learned very much from his experience of being judged. He remains the same as he always was, which has gotten him into this isolated situation in the first place. For example, in requesting that Father Abraham send Lazarus off to provide some quenching relief for Dive’s torment, the rich man reveals the depth of his distorted soul. Even in the throes of agony, “Dives” still views Lazarus’ value only in terms of what the poor man can do to support the rich man. As a result of this recalcitrance, we are told that there is no crossing from that state of torment to a true relief and redemption. Moreover, no warning to others to pay attention and change one’s life will evidently get through, not even if someone rises from the dead. End of discussion. End of story.

For some followers of Jesus, this is the clear (albeit, devastatingly sober) point. Those who deny God’s life and Word and the transforming life held in God’s promises are lost – forever. This perspective in the Christian expression of faith focuses on the reality of sin and its damning consequences such as those personified by the rich man. And while “sin” matters and actions and attitudes rooted in such self-centered separation have deep consequences (think of being in the throes of addiction), there is another perspective in the Christian expression of faith, one that I believe operates in the parable – albeit quietly. That perspective’s first focus is not on sin but on the suffering, the brokenness, and the need for healing. Or as Yogi Berra might have preached: “It ain’t over til it’s over!” The good and thoroughly mysterious news is that mercy and compassion of God-in-Christ always has the last word! What it takes for us to be aware of this and to receive this mercy and compassion is what our lives are meant to be about.

I suppose that in many ways this parable can serve as a spiritual Rorschach. When we look at the parable’s story, what do we see: Sin or Suffering? Symptom or Source? God or us? The response we give stems from the way we view God and Who and What Christ Jesus is all about. In a manner of speaking, I suppose the parable’s message is: “What you see is what you get.” As such, I close with this gnawing question: Can I or anyone else reject God for eternity? Or does God have the last word? Amen.

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