(sermon note: 03-14 sermon note)
[Jesus said,] ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 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.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He 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.” ’
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a man named George who was lost and wandering in a desert until he finally stumbled upon an oasis. At the oasis there was a salesman with a table selling ties. As George approached the man, he held up a rack of colorful ties and said, “Well, hello, sir! May I interest you in purchasing a tie? They are normally ten dollars, but for you, sir, I will only charge five.” Having wandered for days without a drop of water, George promptly replied, “No, I have no use for a tie! But please, sir, do you have any water? I have been wandering for days without a single drop to drink.” “I’m afraid I don’t have any water to share with you,” replied the salesman. “But if you continue walking a few hours due east, you will find another oasis. At that oasis there is a restaurant and you will be able to get some water there.” George heeded the man’s advice and walked east only to return to the oasis of the salesmen a few hours later. “What’s the matter?” asked the salesman. “Didn’t you find the restaurant?” George frustratingly replied, “I sure did, but they wouldn’t let me in…I didn’t have a tie!”
And that, my friends, is a clever salesman! He knew what George needed before George knew what he needed. If only he had been a little more forthright with George about WHY he needed his ties then it would have saved George a lot of unnecessary walking. But then we wouldn’t have a chuckle at the poor man’s misfortune! And besides, salesmen aren’t particularly known for their ethical behavior. Withholding important information is par for the course I suppose…
But illustrating the shadiness of salesmen isn’t necessarily why I chose to lift up that joke. More interestingly, that joke lifts up the importance of listening, really listening. Oh sure, George was a listening man but he wasn’t listening to what he needed to be listening to. He was listening to his bodily thirst for water first and foremost. No doubt it was the loudest “sound” after walking through the desert for so long. It would have been difficult if not impossible to ignore it. And he finally stumbled upon an oasis, a known refuge and relief from the sun’s blasting heat. Naturally he sought water but was presented with a tie salesman of all people. Now the man should have asked himself, “why am I being presented with a tie salesman out in the middle of the desert of all places?” Everything in life has a purpose, even tie salesman! God was using that tie salesman to help George get the relief he so desperately needed. Yet George didn’t hear that message. He was consumed with the “sound” of an unquenched thirst and he chose to listen to that instead. If only he had asked and listened to the purpose of a tie salesman in the middle of the desert, maybe he would have saved himself further agony. Heck, maybe the salesman would have even told him!
Of course, asking the purpose of anything often leaves us without answers. There are many mysteries in this world that simply cannot be explained. Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? How about the questions raised by our reading for today: why are there wealthy people in the world? Why are there poor people in the world? Why are the wealthy condemned to eternal suffering for their ignoring the needs of the poor as our reading suggests? Why doesn’t God show mercy to those condemned to eternal suffering? Why is there eternal suffering at all?! Sure, we think we know answers to some of these questions, perhaps the ones about the wealthy and the poor, but even the most practical answers aren’t always universal. There simply is unexplained wealth, unexplained poverty, unexplained suffering. And not all people receive God’s grace, at least not the grace they’re hoping for or expecting. God’s grace is an amazingly nuanced gift! The wealthy man didn’t receive God’s grace by means of relief from his suffering but that doesn’t mean he didn’t receive his grace. The fact that Abraham spoke with him at all suggests he wasn’t outside of God’s reach. There is hope for even those condemned to eternal suffering. And we have to remember that Jesus told this parable before his resurrection…before he conquered death and showed there is life after death. The rich man was never beyond God’s grace even in death, he just had to wait for it a little longer than he expected.
Though there are a variety of unsolved mysteries in this world, we can be assured that God’s grace is for us all, however nuanced it may be. God loves each and every one of us and endlessly blesses us each and every day. This is what we need to listen to! We need to hear of God’s love and grace more than wrestle with unsolved mysteries. We must choose what we listen to. Good listening, fruitful listening involves choosing what to listen to. Deuteronomy says, “if you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessing shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God.” (28:1-2) The rich man chose unwisely to listen to the power of his wealth. It kept him from hearing the needs of those around him. It kept him from hearing the wisdom of the prophets and forefathers. Most importantly, it kept him from listening to God. That’s why he was condemned to eternal suffering, because of how he chose to listen in this world. Mark tells us, “and he [Jesus] said to them, ‘pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.’” (4:24)
True listening is more than choosing what to listen to though. True listening involves fully opening ourselves to receive all that God has to tell us. This is where repentance comes into play. All of our readings in the last few weeks, as well as our reading for today, have had a very definite call to repentance. And yes, repentance is a very Lenten discipline. But why? Because when we repent, we acknowledge our sins and seek forgiveness for the sole purpose of opening ourselves to receive from God yet again. Our sins add noise to our lives that distracts us from the wisdom of God. When we repent, we free ourselves to listen to the one voice that matters: God’s voice. God’s voice speaks nothing but truth and life and justice and love.
As we go forth through this season, let us choose to listen to his voice. Let us free ourselves of whatever distracts us from listening to his voice. Let us be open to receive his grace in whatever nuanced form it takes. Let us cry out with David as in his 25th psalm: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” (4-5) Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.