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A Lesson About Terminal Religion

April 8, 2018

A LESSON ABOUT TERMINAL RELIGION

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas

April 8, 2018 9 AM (First Sunday after Easter)

 

Luke 16:19-31

 

19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.* The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.* 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

Light of the world,
shine upon us
and disperse the clouds of our selfishness,
that we may reflect the power of the resurrection
in our life together. Amen.

We do not find this lesson from Jesus in any of the other Gospel accounts of his life and ministry.  That does not make it less meaningful.  Three things come through very clearly.  

First, Jesus declares that people can and do live in luxurious comfort in plain view of other people who suffer extreme poverty and need.  That is what comes across in the first two verses of the passage.   This situation exists in every society.  In every society some people have more than enough while others suffer from desperate need.    

Second, Jesus declared that it is morally and ethically wrong for privileged and comfortable people to fail and refuse to use their power and resources to provide for their needy neighbors.  Jesus made this clear by mentioning how the rich man was eternally condemned to a hellish existence after death.  The rich man’s afterlife experience was defined by conscious and continuous agony.  Meanwhile, his formerly impoverished neighbor, Lazarus, was welcomed and comforted after death by Abraham, patriarch of the faithful.  

After death, the rich man called out to Abraham from his tormented agony in Hades, the dimension of departed souls who refused to obey the moral imperatives of justice and mercy during their lifetimes.  And the truth shown in the exchange between the tormented soul and Abraham is plain, powerful, and awful. Abraham’s refusal to dispatch Lazarus to provide any relief to the rich man in the lesson makes a third part in this lesson uncomfortably clear.  At some point, it becomes too late for repentance, forgiveness, and mercy for refusing to do justice!  That truth is expressed by the following excerpt from our lesson at verses 22-25.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.  The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember, that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.  Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’”

According to Jesus, we can reach the point and place called “too late and too far.” 

There comes a time when it is too late for us to do the justice we should have already done.  There comes a time when it is too late to repent and be forgiven for refusing to do justice.  There comes a time when it is too late to receive mercy from God or anyone else for refusing do what we could have and should have done.  

There is a point beyond which we can go too far for God or anyone else to change our fate.  We can go too far to turn back.  We can go too far to be rescued.  We can go too far to be forgiven.  We can go too far gone and be too late to make amends for refusing to do what we could and should have done.  According to Jesus in this lesson, it is possible for people to reach the point when our moral condition is not only wrong, but also incurable, when our prognosis is terminal, and when our destiny is fixed.  

I must now share a final truth from this lesson:  God holds us accountable for refusing to hear and heed the truth God has already provided.  When the tormented soul pleaded that Abraham send Lazarus from the afterlife to warn his five brothers “so that they will not come also come into this place of torment” and argued that “if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent,” the response was blunt.  “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  We are condemned for refusing to heed the prophets God sends.  

This lesson from the teachings of Jesus is especially meaningful as we worship on the first Sunday after Easter, and the first Sunday following the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of God’s most eloquent and forceful prophets to the world during the 20th Century.  Exactly one year before the day he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee while trying to help striking sanitation workers receive decent wages and working conditions, Dr. King called on our society to embrace “a radical revolution of values”  in a speech titled, Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence.  

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

 

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.  On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act.  One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.  True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial.  It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.  A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.  With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say:  “This is not just.”  It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say:  “This is not just.”  The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.  A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war:  “This way of settling differences is not just.”  This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men [people] home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

 

…There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. [/ext.]

Fifty years after Dr. King was slain, the United States continues to spend more money on national defense and homeland security than it does on education, eradicating poverty, fighting disease, feeding the hungry, and providing shelter for people who are homeless.  Fifty years after that prophet’s voice was silenced in death, the evils of racism, capitalism, and militarism have been joined by sexism (including homophobia and transphobia), imperialism (including religious nationalism), classism, techno-centrism, and xenophobia (fear of strangers).  

Fifty years after Dr. King was slain, politicians across the nation are working to dismantle the Affordable Care Act so that needy people will not have affordable access to health care.  Meanwhile, they brag that the US is the wealthiest nation on the planet.  Think about the rich man and Lazarus.

Fifty years after Dr. King was slain, wealthy people are using their influence with politicians to advance the charter school movement.  That effort is working to undermine free, affordable, and quality public education for all students and produce an education situation similar to what Jesus described about the rich man and Lazarus.  Children from affluent families will be favored.  Other children will be relegated to schools with un-credentialed teachers.  

It is not too late for our society to repent.  It is not too late for us to heed the clear call that Dr. King and other prophets of love, justice, and peace have pronounced.  But like the brothers of the rich man in this passage from Luke’s Gospel, this society has not repented from racism.  It has not repented from sexism.  It has not repented from its addiction to violence and war-making.  It has not repented from capitalism and its practice of rewarding the greedy at the expense of the needy.  

I am preaching about this on the first Sunday after Easter and after the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death on purpose.  This lesson applies to our society, and to its religion.  In the same thing that Abraham said about the five brothers of the rich man is true for our society. If the United States will not listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other prophets, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”   

Jesus has risen from the dead, yet this society refuses to repent about capitalist materialism.  

Jesus has risen from the dead, yet this society has refused to repent from its preference for violence and war-making (militarism).  

Jesus has risen from the dead, yet this society refuses to repent about racism.  Now we mourn Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22 year old black man shot to death by police in his grandmother’s back yard in Sacramento, California while holding a cell phone.  We mourn Saheed Vassell, a 34 year old black man shot to death by police in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, New York while hold a metal pipe which police officers and unidentified callers thought was a handgun. 

 

Fifty years ago, US Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith were stripped of their gold and bronze medals in the 1968 Olympics because they silently raised their fists in a black gloved prophetic protest about racism while the US national anthem was played during the medal awards ceremony.  Fifty years later, Colin Kapernick is not employed by any team in the National Football League because he knelt during the national anthem to show concern about how law enforcement officers get away with killing black, brown, and poor white people. Fifty years later, President Trump and other public figures – including some people who claim to be religious - mock and condemn Colin Kapernick and others for calling attention to the ongoing slaughter killing of black and brown people by law enforcement officers in the US while white people, like the rich man in this lesson, are by and large confident, comfortable, and privileged from danger from this injustice.  

 Even though Jesus has risen, the US leads the world in violence, leads the world in greed, leads the world, in spreading resentment towards immigrants, and leads the world in bragging about its wealth while ignoring the suffering of poor people in the US and across the world.  People in Puerto Rico know this.  People in Flint, Michigan know this.  Hungry and homeless men, women, and children know this.  

This lesson is a warning to this society.  Like the five surviving brothers of the tormented man, this society lives according to a religion that celebrates conscious and comfortable indifference towards vulnerable and marginalized persons.  Like those five brothers, our society has not yet reached the point where all is lost.  Like the five brothers, it is not too late for our society to turn from its addiction to injustice.  But to do so, we must heed the words that Jesus, Dr. King, and other prophets have issued while we have time and before we go too far.

 Now we have time to repent. Now we can receive grace.  Now we have time to be healed.   

But now does not last forever.  Jesus teaches that a time will come when grace is not available.  A time will come when chances are lost forever, when unrepentant people are doomed - and damned – because they refused to repent about injustice, refused to heed the words and warnings of God’s prophets about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly, and because they will have gone too long and too far to be helped.   

Amen.

 

©Wendell Griffen, 2018