Lectionary 26C (September 29, 2019)

Jesus breaks this story while he tells it. It’s a standard reversal of fortunes story. The rich man and Lazarus are caricatures. The rich man dresses in purple—plays dress up Caesar inside his mansion—he wears fine linen and feasts sumptuously. Then, poor Lazarus! He lies at the gate hoping for table scraps. He’s covered in sores, which the dogs lick. It’s disgusting. Everyone who heard this parable in the First Century would’ve thought so. Rich or poor. Basically, every ethical system that could’ve passed through Jesus’ Palestine would say the rich man is horrible and obviously should help Lazarus. So, when he dies and goes to Hades and burns, everyone is pleased. And, when Lazarus goes to be with Abraham, everyone is pleased. This is supposed to happen. This story, in its telling, is what sociologist Victor Turner calls a ritual of reversal. The strong wear the mask of weakness (the rich man is across a chasm in Hades), the weak wear the mask of strength (Lazarus is now besties with Abraham). The disparity and contradiction and tension of life gets worked out, sort of. Then, everything returns to normal, even more firmly in place than before.

            That’s what is supposed to happen. Jesus breaks the story. Everything is still okay when Abraham tells the rich guy, “plus there’s that chasm.” Jesus though says the rich man keeps crying: “Send Lazarus to my brothers.” Uh, Jesus, the story’s supposed to be over, now. Abraham tells the guy to have his brothers read the Bible. “No, no, but if someone goes to them from the dead.” Abraham says, “That won’t work.” We’re kinda trapped mid story. The rich man’s cries for help become more pitiful and Abraham’s denial of aid becomes firmer. Finally, we are told the ritual cuts off prematurely, with permanent reversal. Jesus breaks the story.

            The broken story has everyone’s attention, and the apparent new permanence of the situation seems unfair. Why should Lazarus get Abraham just because Lazarus was poor and sick? What, get a rash and get eternity with Abraham? Why is the rich man forever tormented with no ability to reform? That’s not fair. Neither was the situation at the start of the story fair. And that situation is the one that exists in real life. Some feast sumptuously, while others beg for scraps. This ritual of reversal was supposed to make everyone feel okay about life. Instead, Jesus has everyone thinking about poor, wretched Lazarus and how this guy who wore purple never once helped him. Though he knew him. When he saw Lazarus from Hades, he knew his name. He knew him. He knew there was a problem, even if he pretended not to know. Jesus makes everyone admit that the invisible, yet well-known problem exists.

            We have our own invisible, well-known problems. After a week consumed with news of impeachment investigations and endless analysis about how a nation should feel, I thought maybe we’d take a break from that and look at an invisible well-known problems…like our imminent ecological apocalypse. It’s something I know I choose not to see. And I’ve known it was there for a long time. I was a kid when the hole in the ozone layer was observed. But I don’t know that I ever really believed that we could cook the sky and the ocean enough to do what we are told is going to happen. Today, we know that we’re putting into our oceans toxins not seen there since mass extinction events. I fly to Texas on Friday, and I’ve flown dozens of times and never once thought about jet airplane emissions or how the train is better, but I’ve known the data all along. If I think about it now, I think about it mainly because some people won’t let go of it and every time I turn around they say, “I’m still here, and so is climate change.” The story gets stuck, and I’m forced to pay attention. Though, I confess, it all seems grim and overwhelming.

            Jesus ends his broken story, his broken folk tale, with Abraham pronouncing, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” It’s a grim conclusion, perhaps. Or, perhaps Abraham’s conclusion does not just end this story; it warns us away from a false understanding of resurrection and points us toward a deeper, better understanding. Despite this story and its low view of the rich man, its demand that we take note of and do something about invisible, well-known problems—despite this, we who read it know that the one who tells it rises from the dead. We might be tempted to read that resurrection as the long overdue happy ending to our parable.

            Resurrection is God’s commitment to creation, warts and all. The Bible ends with God remaking the world, and then God and the resurrected moving in. In raising Jesus, God says, “I love you and the world enough that I’m going to stick with you.” And there’s continuity. Jesus’ past carries into the resurrection. The Gospel of John portrays the risen Jesus as having permanent nail holes in his hands and a spear gash in his side. He carries the wounds of the past. The Gospel of Mark has the risen Jesus identified as “The Crucified One.” The cross remains part of him. And in the Gospel of Luke, from which today’s story comes, Jesus says, “It is written that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name.” That’s not explicitly stated in the Old Testament, and Jesus knows that. Rather, “it is written” upon God’s very being. God will always be the one to whom the cross happened, and who makes all things new.

            God’s past is part of God’s future, and our past is part of our future. In the resurrection we will be who we were and we shall be changed. Resurrection does not simply say, “Everything is fine, now.” “Everything is fine, now,” is what the rite of reversal tries to establish. In the resurrection, God does not say to the nameless rich man of the parable, “Okay, that’s enough burning. You can go home and back to being a jerk.” In the resurrection the rich man is always and forever the one who did not welcome Lazarus though he knew Lazarus, and he is no longer that. In the resurrection he welcomes Lazarus and everyone knows that he did not do so before and God’s forgiveness and grace are so powerful that Lazarus and the rich man can move on. The gate that separated the rich man and Lazarus will always be part of them and their relationship, and they will move on to something new in God.

            That’s the resurrection. The resurrection has begun in Jesus meaning it’s begun in our world for us. In some imperfect way we are, by the Holy Spirit, able to be always those who had our pasts and those able to move forward. In Lutheran terms we are described by the Latin phrase, simul justus et peccator, usually translated “simultaneously saint and sinner,” or (I think better) simultaneously on the right side of things and on the wrong side of things. Lutherans preach this, but nobody likes it. It’s easier to think of myself as entirely good, or entirely bad, or maybe as being a certain percent good and that outweighs the bad. In reality, I am entirely on the right and wrong sides of things. In terms of our parable, I am entirely poor Lazarus, whose done nothing to deserve this and who needs help, and I am entirely the rich guy who plays dress up Caesar and ignores those he could help. And every day, with every encounter, Christ says, “You are entirely the rich man and Lazarus and yet can move forward and you’re your neighbor because of me, Christ.” If I could boil it down to one phrase: sin’s always there; God’s forgiveness always overcomes it.

            And we need that facing our ecological situation. We need God’s forgiveness to overcome the sin that’s there. And I’m not talking about someone else’s sin; I’m talking about our own. In the ELCA’s social statement on the environment, called Caring for Creation, we name Sin as the problem. We are entirely on the wrong side of things. Our relentless consuming hurts. Our garbage hurts. Our emissions hurt. We hurt other people and ourselves. We breathe the air and drink the water we poison. That’s the story. It does not then end with everyone being okay with the situation, or with a long overdue magical deliverance. But Jesus breaks the story by rising from the dead, the same Jesus but changed. And Jesus begins raising us, the same yet changed. The sin is there; God’s forgiveness overcomes it. We do not get a reprieve. We do not get a magical erasure of the past 200 years. Rather, we are changed. Christ makes us creatures who once poisoned and devoured but do no longer. The people who once wasted by do no longer. The people who did those things, and in whom the love of God has overpowered. People who are sinners, and saints.