Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Generous Opportunity - A Sermon on Luke 16:19-31, Ephesians 2:1-10

What comes to mind when you think about heaven

According to studies, about 90% of us believe there’s a heaven, and about 85% of us think we’ll go there when we die.  Here’s something that is odd to me---80% of women think they’re going to heaven, but only 69% of men do.[1]

I’m betting just about 0% of us think of heaven as going to sit in the lap of Abraham.  Am I right?  But that’s what happens to the man in this parable we just read from Luke 16.  That’s just one of the reasons this is an interesting parable.  In it, we get three different scenes – one on earth at the rich man’s house where we see Lazarus laying outside his front door, and then two scenes of the afterlife – Lazarus in heaven with Abraham, and the rich man in hell in eternal torment.

Luke gives us vivid descriptions of both the richness of the rich man and the poorness of Lazarus:

·        The rich man is clothed in purple, the color of nobility or royalty, and in fine linen.  He eats sumptuously, feasting every day on fine food.  He lives in the lap of luxury. 
·        In stark contrast, Lazarus apparently has little or no clothes.  We know this because we can see his skin that is covered with sores.  He longs to have even just the crumbs from the rich man’s feast.  His only friends are the dogs who come to lick his sores. For the rich man it’s feast and for Lazarus it’s famine.

Notice that Luke doesn’t tell us the rich man’s name, but he does tell us the poor man’s name – Lazarus, which means “God is my help.”  Lazarus is the only character in any of the parables that gets a name.

In this parable, there are two great chasms. The rich man is in agony in the flames of Hades and calls out to Abraham in heaven for some relief.  But Abraham cannot help him because of the great chasm that separates heaven from hell.  Abraham tells the rich man that this chasm is uncrossable.  There is another chasm in this story. It is between the rich man and Lazarus in life.  This one isn’t uncrossable but it might as well be because the rich man does not cross it.  Maybe he doesn’t even see it, just like he doesn’t seem to see Lazarus.

Life and afterlife. 

This has been a busy week for my DVR recording TV shows.  Maybe it has been for yours, too.  This was the week that many TV shows started their new seasons, and some new shows premiered.  One of the new shows is called “The Good Place.”  It’s on Thursday nights on NBC (or any night on my DVR) and stars Kristen Bell as a woman who has died and wakes up to find herself sitting in an office.  Ted Danson is sitting behind the desk and reassures her that she has come to “The Good Place.”  The show doesn’t use the words heaven or hell, but that’s definitely what they want us to think.  Kristen Bell’s character is surprised to find herself in the good place for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that she wasn’t a very good person in life.  In the show, she keeps trying to cuss and the words will only come out as sanitized versions.  For example, she says fork a lot!  When Ted Danson explains to her how people get to the good place, he tells her that a remarkably small percentage of people are good enough to get in there.  Admission is entirely based on good deeds.

What’s wrong with that premise?  For a TV show, nothing because it’s fiction and you can do whatever you want with fiction.  But in real life, admission to heaven is not based on good deeds.  Salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, and even that faith is a gift from God.  That’s what our reading from Ephesians 2 is talking about.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (Eph 2:1-10 NLT)

We might be tempted to think that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is telling us that it’s the rich man’s lack of good works that kept him out of heaven.  It’s not his actions, although his actions are certainly telling.  They reveal a man whose heart was far from God, otherwise he would have been concerned about what God’s concerned about, namely people in need, like Lazarus. 

We have to be careful not to mix this up.  Through faith, the Holy Spirit renews us and guides us and helps us to do the good things that God has planned for us. We cannot earn salvation through good works.  But we find that our faith  and our gratitude for salvation prompts us to action. 

We see this sequence in the greatest commandment as well.  The first part is to love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. (Luke 10:27 et al).  That’s what gets us started, and what prompts and equips us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Without the love of God, we will not be able to sustain the love for our neighbors.  The first part provides the motivation and the strength for the second part.

We see this in another parable – the story of the sheep and the goats.  Jesus says to the goats, “Away from me.  I never knew you.”  The goats ask for explanation, and he explains that when they didn’t feed the hungry or give water to the thirsty or welcome strangers, it is as if they didn’t do these things for Jesus himself.  The point is that those who love God and are seeking to do God’s will would have loved these people.  Our good works are the outflow or symptom of our faith.[2]

It’s like taking your computer in for repair.  For the technician to be able to figure out what’s going on in the computer, you have to give him access to it – the password to get in.  Otherwise he won’t be able to do anything at all and it’ll just stay like it was.  If you give him access, he’ll get into it and clean things up and get them running right again.  And it’ll run great for awhile and do lots of good things, but every now and then you’ll need to take it back for more clean up.  It’s like that for us, too.  For God to work in our lives we have to give him access – use the gift of the faith that he’s given us to accept the grace and forgiveness being offered, and accept the new life Jesus brings us.  And he’ll get inside and clean some things up and get us back on track and running right and doing good things, and the more we give him access, the more he can do in us.

When we let God have access, we get a generous opportunity, which is to do the will of God and to know the blessings that come with doing God’s will.  In the process God helps us change from a perspective of entitlement to one of stewardship.  We see entitlement in the rich man[3] – all this is mine and I’m entitled to enjoy it.  Instead, he could have been thankful to God for giving him all that he had and used his richness to bless others. 

God gave the rich man a generous opportunity.  God was generous to the rich man, and God generously put Lazarus right on his doorstep, a most convenient opportunity to share his blessings.

Whenever I read this story about the rich man and Lazarus, I get to thinking . . .  Who is on our doorstep?  It can be easier to be generous to different organizations, to send money off to different countries, and fail to notice the need right in front of us.

There’s a pastor who tells about a time when he was about to send away the stranger at his doorstep.  He lived in the house on the church property and a young man came to his door asking for help.  The young man turned out to be the son of one of the church families.  He struggled with alcohol and had gone away and come back so many times that his parents had given up on him.  The pastor was trying to keep up with a busy agenda that day and was feeling somewhat sorry for himself, so he wasn’t feeling very charitable.  He said to God, “Lord, I can’t take care of every drunken beggar in this town.”  In response, a voice seemed to say, “I didn’t ask you to take in every drunk—just this one.”  And so he did.[4]

What opportunities is God putting on our doorsteps to share the blessings that we’ve been given? 

·        Are we responding with cheerful gratitude or grudgingly minimal response? 
·        Or are we turning a blind eye, looking past those right before us to do something easier or more acceptable? 
·        Have we allowed a seemingly uncrossable chasm to exist between us and someone who needs our help?

One thing that is very clear in this parable – we don’t have an unlimited supply of opportunities to be generous.  The ultimate reality is that life is finite, and so are the opportunities.  Opportunity is on our doorstep, but so is death.  I don’t know if your week was like mine, but it seemed that death was in view daily.   There was a lot of it this week on my Facebook feed.  Three friends lost their mothers this week, and one her father.  We heard a lot this week about people getting shot.    Life and death is our reality.  Both are always happening. 

The juxtaposition of death and life this week got me to thinking metaphysically.  In our parable we see life and death almost overlapping, as both are in view in the telling of the story.  And I got to wondering….

 What if heaven isn't a place or a time (future) but a dimension that we only intersect with in fleeting moments in this life . . .because we are bound to this place and time and linear thought . . .but that we get glimpses of when we worship and when we touch sometimes heart and when we do something that impacts eternity?

And is so often the case, I discovered I’m not the first person to think about life this way.  You might already be thinking of some stories or movies that play with this idea.  Some ancient people had a theory about this idea.  The Celtic spiritual tradition says that heaven and earth are actually rather close together and that there are thin places where the distance between them is much smaller, where the veil between heaven and earth is quite thin.[5]  In those places it is easier to feel the presence of God and to have glimpses of heaven, and to see God’s glory.[6]

I do believe thin places exist, but I don’t think they are always static places.  There are certainly places that are special because they show us the glory of God through their beauty or because special things happen there.  But we ourselves have the ability to create thin places whenever we give God complete access to our hearts and lives.  We make thin places when we pray and sing and worship God with all our hearts.  We make thin places when we reach out to other people and touch their hearts.  We make thin places when we do the will of God.

“And the world is passing away along with its desires, but
whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
 –1 John 2:17
·        Churches can be thin places but they aren’t always. 
·        St.Vincent’s House is often a thin place for me, and for people who come there looking for hope and reassurance. 

I found a thin place this week watching the season premiere of the TV show The Voice.  This is a show where people come and sing for a panel of judges who can hear them but can’t see them.  The judges will accept or reject them based on their singing alone, and often based on some rather intangible qualities that can come through in a performance.  Many of these performers see this as their one chance to live their most deeply heartfelt dream.  Some of these performers have known incredible heartbreak and that comes through in their singing and allows their performance of that song to be a thin place.  Most of them don’t mention God, but I felt like I was hearing the heart of God through them

Where and when have you experienced thin places?

Sometimes a hospital room is a thin place.  There was college student doing an internship as a chaplain at a hospital.  It’s a tough internship at first because the student has very little training before they start visiting patients and their families.  In one of this chaplain’s visits, she walked into a room where a man sat beside the bed of his wife who was unconscious.  The man had just been told that his wife had very little time left.  He was angry at God and not much interested in talking to the chaplain.  He told her, “Unless you can tell me where God is in this, you can leave.”  The chaplain stood there unsure what to do or say.  She said a silent prayer.  “God, help me.”  And suddenly she was overcome by the man’s grief and she began to weep.  In that moment, through that chaplain, the man was able to see the heart of God.  God was there weeping with him.  And the chaplain stayed and sat with him for quite awhile.[7]  That was a thin place, a generous opportunity to encounter heaven on earth.

God gives us a lifetime of opportunities to know him personally, to know his generous grace, and to be a part of heaven on earth. Once we are dead, the opportunities have ended, but the most amazing thing about life is that every day, every moment is a new opportunity to have a fresh start and to find and create thin places through our heartfelt seeking of God and of sharing God’s love and grace with other people.  Sometimes it might seem like there are uncrossable chasms between us and God, and between us and other people, especially between us and people who are different from us

Every moment until we breath our last moment is an opportunity to cross those chasms, and to find or create thin places.

Let us thank God for all of these generous opportunities.

[3] Bruce Larson, The Communicator’s Commentary: Luke (Word Publishing)
[4] Bruce Larson, The Communicator’s Commentary: Luke (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 236-7.
[7] Borrowed from Roger Nishioka who told a similar story to the Presbytery of the New Covenant at one of it’s meetings in 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Melissa, I truly enjoyed reading this week's blog post. It is very insightful.