“Lazarus Is At The Door”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
September 29, 2019
On an ordinary week I will spend six to seven hours studying the Scripture lessons that frame our Sunday morning worship services. I’ll then spend another three hours or so writing out the sermon I’ll give in worship. But this past week I spent much more time in study and prayer over today’s gospel lesson, and here’s why. This text from Luke, with Jesus’ stern words of judgment, is among many in the Bible that are used as weapons against the faithful. Turn or burn—that’s what so many preachers have pulled from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Change your life or face an eternity of torment and flames. Give up your nice clothes and good food or, when the time comes, you will be the one sitting outside the gate with dogs licking your sores. Over and over, this is the message I read in the books and commentaries I consult on a regular basis. Even some of the online reflection groups that I belong to went on and on about how our eternal destiny is in our hands and we have the ability to book a ticket to heaven or to hell by what we do in this life. And couldn’t help but think, is that it? Is that all this lesson has to offer us, a warning to turn or face eternal hell?
Frankly, I think all of it is bogus. Its not because I know better, but because we know that while Jesus’ message may be challenging for us to hear and understand today, our Lord is full of grace and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We do not serve a God who is distant and far from us, ready to strike us down into the pits of hell. We serve the God who was born as a tiny infant, who grew into a peacemaker and miracle-worker, who for us and for all of creation gave his life so that we might be set free from the ultimate consequences of sin and death. Then he got up, he rose from the grave, put death to shame and made it very clear that there really is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. Is this really a God, a Savior, who is content to watch some ascend into the bosom of Abraham while others languish away in flames?
Absolutely not. Jesus desires life in abundance for all of us. Jesus wants us to experience heaven here on earth just as much as we will when the roll is called up yonder. That actually makes our task today of interpreting the parable of the rich man and Lazarus a little trickier. If this really was about turning or burning, my sermon would be short and you would have a really important choice to make. But our eternal destiny was decided on the cross and in the empty tomb—God has already prepared a place for us in God’s eternal home. What we need to do is think carefully about what this parable has to say to us where we are today. How is Jesus calling us through the story of the rich man and Lazarus to an even more faithful and even more loving way of life?
This parable has a simple yet important message: Lazarus is at the door. I learned this week that Lazarus is a name derived from the Hebrew ‘Eleazar.’ In Hebrew, ‘Eleazar’ means “God has helped.” That seems kind of strange considering the Lazarus in our parable today spent his life begging at the gate of the rich man. But it does show that even though Lazarus spent his life in agony and pain, ignored and passed over by everyone else, he was special to God. This is a refrain that echoes through the entire Bible. From the time of Abraham and Sarah, to the preaching of the prophets and the coming of Jesus, God has declared over and over that the poor and the down-trodden and weak and the suffering hold a special place in God’s heart. The verse that comes after that refrain is always the same—because God loves the poor, the sick and suffering, the people on whom society has turned its back, God’s people must love them in the same way.
Lazarus is at the door and because Lazarus is at the door, God is at the door also. This parable, though ancient, is a parable for our times. We should not get bogged down in who the rich man is among us or if we are the rich man, or woman, that Jesus is speaking of. Instead, a better use of our time and talents and treasures is to look with eyes wide open to the gates that dot our lives. It may be that you live in a place where it would be impossible for the poor to come and beg. It may be that you’ve never experienced someone coming to your home for assistance. But that is not the only gate in your life. There are gates at the church, gates at your businesses, gates at the places you go to exercise or eat or be entertained. At any and all of these gates, Lazarus waits for even the crumbs that fall from our tables to satisfy their great hunger.
I think this congregation does a wonderful job of recognizing that Lazarus is at our gates, whoever Lazarus is and wherever the gate may be. In a few weeks—and I know I talk about this a lot—we are going to be starting our after-school tutoring program. For 21 years now, volunteers from this congregation and from the community have come together for an hour or two on Wednesday afternoon to tutor and mentor children, helping them to know that they are loved and valued. It takes a lot of work. There are the tutors, but there are so also people who drive the vans to pick the kids up from school and take them home, and people who prepare snacks each week. These children are hungry to learn and they might need just a little more time and attention to make it happen. These children are sometime hungry for connection, for a smile, for a pat on the back. The tutoring program offers to them great big, loving crumbs to satisfy their hunger.
These children are Lazarus and the visionaries who put this program together all those years ago recognized that the gate might not be right here at the church. They reached into the community, beyond the walls of the church, to extend God’s love and hospitality. We could probably put a number on how many children have gone through the program in 21 years, but we could never imagine the impact a few hours on Wednesday can have on a child and what impact that child will then have on the world. I’ve watched it happen—I’ve participated in this program for seven years now. I’ve seen children who did not want to speak to their tutor or do homework turn into energetic, joyful learners who are sad when its time to go home. I’ve watched children be lifted from a place of despair and hopelessness to a place where they are confident in themselves and the bright future that awaits them.
Another way this congregation does a good job at recognizing that Lazarus is at our gates is through our little Fair-Trade store in what used to be the library. We sell about $150-200 worth of items every few weeks which, by all business standards, isn’t a lot. And it might not be a lot to us, but it is a lot to the women in Chicago who make the candles we sell because the income from those candles has helped them start fresh after leaving abusive homes. It might not be a lot to us, but it means a lot to the women from Israel and Palestine who make the pottery we sell—not only are they earning a living wage, they are also learning about peace that they can take back into their neighborhoods. It might not be a lot to us, but every chocolate bar and every bottle of olive oil brings hope to someone we will never meet that their life, their trade, their survival matters.
And these are just two of the many, many ministries this congregation offers to our community and the world. There is food for children who would otherwise go hungry from lunchtime at school on Friday until breakfast at school on Monday. There is support for those in our community who visit Loaves and Fishes for assistance. Three out of every five clients that visits the pantry is either fully employed, actively seeking employment, or receiving Social Security benefits. We provide clothing for school children who might be wearing flip-flops in the winter. We offer utility assistance for the eight to ten people who come to the church each week seeking help. You support and offering each year for retired Presbyterian ministers who experience catastrophic life events.
In two weeks, our friend Dr. Gordon Edwards will be with us in worship and for lunch and a presentation after. Dr. Edwards retired a few years ago after pastoring the Presbyterian church in Stillwater for over two decades. In his retirement years, Dr. Edwards has not slowed down but has taken on a new ministry in Lebanon and Syria. Dr. Edwards works with pastors and churches in Lebanon and Syria to address issues of politics, immigration, access to medical care, and education. Our congregation threw its support behind Dr. Edwards about two years ago and our support makes it possible for this humble and faithful servant to travel to Lebanon and Syria to do the work of the Gospel several times a year. We’ll hear from him in two weeks and then we’ll send him to the other side of globe with our financial and prayerful support.
I’ll say it again: this congregation does a wonderful job of recognizing that Lazarus is at our gates. We should be proud because it takes a lot of work, a lot time, a lot of energy, and a lot of resources. We should not be prideful, because pride gets in the way of God’s Spirit moving among us. But it is OK to look at the many ways we minister to the Lazaruses in our world and be proud of the work we do. Jesus once said to his disciples that the poor will always be with us. We know that he was speaking the truth because Lazarus will always be at our gates. Lazarus will always be there asking only for the crumbs that fall from our tables, so we must continue to think and envision and dream about the ways we can give them a full meal and send them away with leftovers. We have the ability. We have the time. We have the energy and we have the resources. With God’s Spirit bringing all of it together, Lazarus will be clothed, bandaged up, and sent away with a full belly.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we serve and will continue to serve Lazarus not because we are afraid of hell but because we are excited for heaven. We serve not because we are afraid of where we are headed when this life is over. We serve because we know where we are headed, and that place is going to be even more than we could possibly hope for imagine and so we get to work here while we are alive creating and recreating that place all around. The chasm that once existed has been bridged by Jesus Christ, bringing us closer to God than we had ever been before. Close to God, we know that we are loved, we are valued, we are capable, we are enough. And in that good news we do everything we can with everything we have to make sure there isn’t a single person under heaven who doesn’t know the same. So be joyful today—we are following the Lord Jesus Christ and we are serving Lazarus at our gates. Then once we’ve basked in that joy for a while, let’s get back to work spreading it…however we can to whomever we can. May God make it so. Amen.