A Message from the Grave

20131002-144202.jpgA Sermon based on Luke 16:19-31
Preached Sunday, September 29
First Presbyterian Church of Oakland

“What will happen to your Facebook profile after your passing? What will you leave behind?” This is the question a software developer raised in our ever more connected world where computers and mobile devices are now the primary tools we use to communicate with friends and family. Coupled with the reality that all forms of social media like Facebook, Twitter and Gmail have more than 1 billion unique users, it’s no surprise that someone would try to figure out how to extend that communication as far as possible – even beyond the grave. Believe it or not, there’s an app for that. It’s called: “If I Die” – it enables anyone to create a video or a text message that will only be published after death. The message can be anything – a life story, a secret or even a will. Once death is confirmed by three Trustees identified in advance by the user, the program will release whatever video, audio or print messages that have been prepared. In effect, providing users with a way to make one final status update, send one (or more) final message to family and friends. Maybe it’s something like this that the rich man from our parable was hoping for when he looked for a way to bridge the gap between his afterlife of torment and suffering and that of Lazarus. One last chance…

Benjamin Zander, the conductor for the Boston Philharmonic tells of a woman he met. She went to Auschwitz when she was 15 years old, with her brother who was eight. Both their parents were already lost. She tells of a yearning she carried – a regret about something left undone. “We were in the train going to Auschwitz, and I looked down and saw my brother’s shoes were missing. And I said, ‘Why are you so stupid, can’t you keep your things together for goodness’ sake?’ ” The way an elder sister might speak to a younger brother. Unfortunately, it was the last thing she ever said to him, because she never saw him again. He did not survive. She said, “I walked out of Auschwitz into life and I made a vow. And the vow was, I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever say.”

Think of the possibilities. If you knew this was your last moment, What would you say? If you knew that in the next few minutes, you would no longer be alive, what would you want those nearest and dearest to you to know? Is there some kind of “last word” you’d want to get in? Some wisdom you’d want to share? Some warning? Don’t we all have this impulse – the desire to leave behind a lasting legacy of wisdom and hope for the next generation?

But if we listen to this parable and understand it to be about the afterlife, then we very quickly find ourselves in that place of deep anxiety. The part of us that struggles with the idea of God’s final judgment wants Father Abraham to be compassionate and merciful toward the Rich Man. The part of us that wonders about the ones Jesus often speaks of in parables – you know – the ones who are cast into fiery pits of eternal torment, the ones who are burned as chaff, the weeds that are thrown onto the fire – that part wants Father Abraham to, at the very least, send Lazarus to the Rich Man’s family to warn them. A big part of us really doesn’t like to hear Father Abraham’s words to the rich man: They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them. And If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. Yet when we read Luke’s gospel from beginning to end, the theme of economic and community justice in the here and now is at the center of Jesus’ teaching. He is clear from the get go that he came to bridge the chasm between the haves and the have nots. He never waivers from his message that the good news is for the oppressed, the poor, the broken, the lost, the suffering. And in this parable, we see Jesus, yet again, on point. This is not a story about what happens to us in the afterlife. It’s a story to get us to open our eyes to what is happening just outside our doors.

There’s no avoiding the point of this parable for our everyday living. Unlike the characters in the story of the Good Samaritan, there’s no way to cross the street to avoid the problem. There’s no way to avert the eyes, to pretend the hungry beggar doesn’t exist. In this parable, Jesus brings the problem right to the front gate. Nobody can go in or out without being confronted by what they see. And that’s what the Rich Man, even in death, fails to recognize.

He had a blessed life. He had all he needed and so much more. He lived safely inside his great house. The noise and squalor of the city lay outside his gates. He and his family were well-satisfied – feasting every day. He went around town in the finest clothing money could buy. Even at his death, we are told, he is buried – surrounded by the love of friends and family, well cared for even at the last. Yet in the midst of all that blessedness, every day, when he left his house, leaving through the front gate, he walked right by Lazarus. He had to virtually step over him to get through the gate. Lazarus’ deep need was not ever invisible. The Rich Man had no excuse. The Law and the Prophets offer no way around the command to help those in need. The Law and the Prophets are quite clear: Blessings received are meant to be shared with others.

As I sat with this passage over the past few weeks, I can’t tell you how many times I wished that Jesus would show up in Congress and drop this parable right in the laps of those who voted to cut food assistance. How I wish Jesus would march right in there and shake his fist at those who threaten to shut down the government if the health care laws aren’t repealed! I want to sit in the judgment seat and proclaim condemnation.

“This is the parable our country’s leaders need to truly take to heart!” I shout in my self-righteous glory! “They might be getting their glory, their power, their wealth now, but as Jesus says in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes:
But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, or you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

And I shake my fist at the sky and wait for Jesus to come.

The thing is. The moment I go down the path of judging those around me, the minute I start scanning the eastern horizon for the evil-doers in Washington D.C., I miss the needs that are right in front of me. There are hungry people in my neighborhood. There are children who can’t afford to buy lunch in my son’s school. More than 40% of Alameda County residents face food insecurity every year. A message from the grave might provide the wake up call, but God’s word is quite clear. The Law, The Prophets, and Jesus show the way.

Jesus did not come to preach good news to the economy. He didn’t come to support decreased taxes and increased revenues. He didn’t come to pander to the economic interests of the wealthy.

Jesus did not come preach good news that provided support the political interests of those in power. He didn’t come to sustain and strengthen the status quo. He didn’t come to affirm, endorse or in any other way sanction the work of the leaders of the day.

Jesus did not come to preach good news for the religious interests of the temple hierarchy. He didn’t come to affirm the work of those who were continually lording it over their people. He didn’t come to bless the leadership of those who made it nearly impossible for the people to live under God’s law.

Jesus came with good news for people who lived in red-lined neighborhoods, for people who slept on the streets, in the back alleys and in the doorways of homes, businesses and even places of worship.

He came with good news for those for whom the self-reliant, self-promoting, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps economy never worked. He came with good news for those with no access to power and little hope for the future. And we are part of his work.

We’re not called to wonder and worry that we’ll end up like the Rich Man. Were not called to fuss about whether our family members will go to heaven or not. We’re simply called to make sure that everything we do makes a difference in the lives of those in need. We’re called to live each day as if it were our last. May the Spirit strengthen us so we can do just that.


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