The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon
“Where Lazarus Is Poor No More”
Luke 16: 19-31
September 25, 2016
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
How many times have you been in a dinnertime conversation when you and your cerebral guests have ended up deliberating over who will end up in heaven and who will end up in hell?
This question was apparently asked at dinner parties in Jesus’ day as well. There was the assumption that those with well-paying jobs, thriving children, and lovely homes had a leg up on entering heaven. Well informed dinner guests thought these successes more than enough to achieve heavenly ascent. Their opinion was strikingly similar to the old adage, “God helps those who helps themselves”—which, by the way, ain’t in the Bible. It also sounds analogous to works-righteousness, that exasperating belief Martin Luther railed against in which good works are thought to earn us our way into heaven.
The rich fellow in today’s gospel wrote the commercial, “I got into heaven the old fashioned way: I earned it!” He was certain that his swanky accoutrements-planes, mansions, and boats—or at least camels, tents, and arks—were his divine ticket into heaven.
And then there was the other guy, the pitiable one named Lazarus. You know Lazarus, of course you do. If you don’t, you can find him any night sleeping on Holy Trinity’s doorsteps. Now, I am simply presuming that your dinner guests don’t reckon Lazarus to be heaven bound. How could he be with matted hair, oozing sores, teeth rotted from crystal meth, and a Pit Bull on a chain? Shockingly, at least according to Jesus, it is this sad sack, not the one in the Armani suit, who ends up with box seats in heaven.
I am pretty new around here so I have been doing some neighborhood research. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the average Manhattan home price is $1.87 million—the guy sleeping on the church steps has definitely figured out where the cheap seats are. Now, please don’t get me wrong. We are gaga over living in our lovely renovated Central Park apartment which you have divulged has a rental value between $50,000 to $60,000 a year. What freaks me out about Jesus’ telling of today’s parable is that, contrary to dinner party astuteness, the rich fellow ends up in Hades not in heaven—and here I thought I was finally living on the right side of the tracks! After contemplating today’s gospel reading, I have been wondering where I might end up when the final trumpet sounds.
Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus is such a surprise. Reminds you, doesn’t it, of that carpenter’s son from Nazareth who kept popping off about the first being last and the last being first.
Now, if you are feeling a bit agitated right about now, not to worry. I don’t think Jesus is suggesting that Saint Peter will examine our financial portfolios when we arrive at the Pearly Gates—then again, whoever knows? I do have a hunch, though, that this is Jesus’ way of saying exactly what our second reading from First Timothy says, “For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it…” When our final day arrives, we will leave empty-handed, not in a Learjet; our hope will be built on nothing more than Jesus’s blood and righteousness.
I often ask people to write their obituaries before they die: how do you wish to be remembered? The New York Times writer and NPR NewsHour correspondent David Brooks, in his excellent book, “The Road to Character,” provides assistance in obituary writing as he discusses resume virtues and eulogy virtues: “The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success”—these are the virtues the rich man thought would secure his place in heaven. Brooks goes on: “The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at funerals, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you have formed.”
These eulogy virtues have to do with what we deem as ultimately important. You might say they are a vision of heaven according to Jesus, a place where the least and lost, the humble and kind, are held in highest esteem and where honor is meted out to people, not because of their power, possessions, or brashness, but simply because they are unassuming children of God.
Whenever I think of my funeral, what I want sung at the very end is what is always sung at the end of the traditional Requiem Mass; it is called In Paradisum (In Paradise). (Dagmar always tells me, “Write down what you want at your funeral so I don’t forget!”) In Paradisum is the remarkable vision the church has passed down from age to age. According to this ancient wisdom, when we arrive in heaven, the heroic martyrs will welcome us and the holy angels will usher us through the eternal gates; that is, of course, exactly what we expect. What will likely come as a much greater surprise is that the person who will give us the biggest bear hug as we enter through the heavenly gates will be none other than raggedy ol’ Lazarus himself. Who would ever imagine that the skanky guy sleeping on our church doorsteps is on the executive board of the heavenly welcoming committee?
Maybe the homeless folks who sleep right outside here are God’s gift to us. They teach us that the freer our hands are of all that seems so important, the better chance we have of grasping onto the kingdom of heaven when God offers it to us.
Hear now the church’s astonishing vision from the Requiem Mass so when you arrive in paradise and smelly old Lazarus plants a juicy kiss right on your lips, slaps you a little too hard on the back, and says, “Welcome into heaven, good friend,” you won’t be too surprised.
“May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your arrival
and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, once poor,
may you have eternal rest.”