Rev. Alison Cornish Sermon on “The Rich Man and Lazarus”

On September 25, 2016, Rev. Alison Cornish, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, delivered the following sermon to University Baptist and Brethren Church in State College, PA.Alison Cornish

Luke 16.19-31
Today’s scripture reading, the parable often called ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus,’ gifts us with a perfect, albeit miniature, 3-act drama, so beautifully wrought that it’s not difficult to picture it in our minds in full and resplendent color – and, to translate it to our own times.

Act I: Our narrator describes the nameless Rich Man, living luxuriously essentially in a gated community, surely surrounded by others like him, and securely protected from others that are not. His very costume exudes wealth – purple and fine linen – and we can picture him sweeping by Lazarus, lying right at the foot of the gate. Lazarus is poor – he has no food – and unwell – he is covered with sores. He must have been a sight to behold – except, as far as we can tell, the Rich Man simply didn’t see him. It’s the narrator here that’s telling us the story, and as far as we know, there was never any interaction between the two men. A gulf, a chasm, between two people, living literally side-by-side, but in completely separate worlds. Lazarus was clearly aware of the Rich Man’s existence, as he ‘longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table,’ but, then – as now – it is a privilege of the rich to look past the existence of the poor. Different lives, nothing to do with one another.

Now we move to Act II – and the narrator informs us that both the Rich Man and Lazarus have died, but here is a bit of a twist. When Lazarus died, he was carried away by angels ‘to be with Abraham,’ which we know is the sign of the highest bliss, the greatest honor. The Rich Man was buried. Period. No angels. No Abraham.

On to Act III – a shift of scene, to Hades and Paradise, and now not just a narrator speaking, but dialogue, a conversation. Now we can actually imagine not just what these men looked like, but what they sounded like, too. We learn that the Rich Man, tormented by the heat of Hades, actually knows Lazarus’ name, and though he doesn’t address him directly, calls to Abraham to have Lazarus quench his thirst – as an act of servitude? Compassion? Could be either … And to Abraham falls the task to gently point back into the past – when the Rich Man had good fortune, and Lazarus suffered, and announce the ‘reversal:’ it’s now the Rich Man’s turn to experience something of the agony Lazarus once lived. The Rich Man seems to quickly accept his fate … but then appeals to Abraham again, this time imploring Lazarus to travel from the world of the dead to the world of the living, bringing to his brothers a message of warning, giving them an opportunity to repent and change their ways, so as to save them from the fate that has befallen him. Abraham again (patiently? Pointedly?) says all the information for his brothers to live faithfully is available to them – always, has been, always will be – but the Rich Man seems to know his brothers well, and nothing short of someone returning from the dead will get their attention. Abraham is unconvinced, and the curtain falls on what must now be a devastated Rich Man, consumed not only by his own agony, but with the specter of his brothers eventually joining him in the same fate.

A beautiful, elegant illustration of God’s favor not for those who expect it – the rich and successful – but the poor and sick. But also a provocative story for our times, in at least a couple of ways.

I see first the economic chasm that separated the Rich Man and Lazarus in life, of which Lazarus was so clearly aware, and the Rich Man had the privilege to ignore – and how, in the Rich Man’s mind, they could be so completely disconnected – so disconnected that the Rich Man may never need contemplate how the wealth he so enjoyed was in any way related to the poverty Lazarus experienced.   For though we don’t how the Rich Man’s wealth was connected to Lazarus’ poverty, we can surely conclude that it was, because it doesn’t matter whether we are all living equitably or with vast differences in wealth and poverty, we are all interconnected. Was the Rich Man one of the .1% controlling the same amount of resources that 50% of the poorest in his city had access to? Did he see any connection between their stories? Was there anyone ‘connecting the dots’ that extreme wealth is accumulated from somewhere: by not paying a living wage, by not investing in a public infrastructure to care for the poor and incapacitated, by systems of oppression and power that keep whole populations ‘in their place,’ dependent on scraps from the table?

And I see, too, in the drama – in the separation between the Rich Man and Lazarus – the gulf, the nonexistence, really, of compassion – the result of hardened hearts, of not seeing – of being insulated from – another’s pain, which is far too much with us still today.

But, given the work that I do today with communities of faith and climate change, I see another, perhaps less literal, way of looking at this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Looking through this lens, when the curtain rises on Act I, the personification of a certain (over) developed country – let’s just say the U.S. – is at the center of the scene. Its wealth is conspicuous, particularly in the powering of our economic engines with fossil fuels. Blithely we consume, combust, and spew forth more ‘absolute emissions’ in tons of CO2 than any other country on the planet, save China.

And who is it that sits at our gates, our ‘borders?’ Those countries who are far less developed, consuming, per capita, far less of the total ‘carbon budget’ – the oil, coal and gas that spew GHG into the atmosphere we all share. And, not inconsequentially, who are also the first to experience the effects of rising temperatures and sea levels, warmer oceans, changing weather patterns, intensified storms, and altered migration routes. Those at the gates are indeed suffering.

Like the Rich Man, the U.S. and other heavy fossil fuel users are going about business as usual, just living out their lives. Quips, like ‘we earned our prosperity’ and ‘we’re not hurting anyone, just doing what we do,’ and ‘no one is going to take away our way of life’ are heard coming out of that gated community. And we burn fossil fuels with abandon, as if there are no consequences, because we’re not connecting our way of life with those who are suffering. It takes connecting the dots to realize that our voracious appetite for our carbon-fuel-based economy is pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, allowing the planet to warm, and putting life for everyone in peril. It takes recognizing that those at our gates are real.

Just as in our parable/play, all the information is there. It’s been here all along. The scriptures that that tell us that Creation is a gift to be treasured and cherished and treated with care. The still small voice within, our conscience, that knows when we are in right relationship, caring for life, and when we have fallen short of the mark, sinned against God and fellow earthly travelers, including the flora and fauna. The science that documents the massive changes to our air, water and soil, directly connected with soaring GHG emissions from the age of industrialization. Just as in the parable, no presence returning from the dead is going to give us a stronger message than what is right in front of us, accessible each and every day.

But, somehow, we refuse to listen. Our ears are stopped up, our eyes closed. And our hearts are hardened. We are not getting the message.

Which makes me wonder if the parable-as-play needs a fourth act – always needed one, really, but today, truly needs another piece, another chapter. Because to leave us at the end of the story as it is, with the Rich Man bereft, and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, with the wide, uncrossable chasm between them, leaves us, where? What will change? What can change?

If I were to write another few verses, if the curtain were to rise again, I would give the next lines to the voices of the not-yet born, the future generations, the great great grandchildren of Drew Dellinger’s poem. They would perhaps appear and speak to the characters in their dreams – that’s a good biblical literary device – and speak to those both behind the gates and at the gates and perhaps even to the Rich Man’s brothers. And their voices in the dreams would be so compelling, so moving, that the separation of the gate would fall away as people recounted to one another the remarkable dreams they had – and wanted to share with everyone they encountered.

These dreams would carry the voices of future generations because I don’t know who else has the capacity to stir us to action. It would be in their voices because keeping their interests, their questions for us, before us, might help us keep perspective as we try to figure out, day-by-day, what it is we’re here for. For them, for their well-being, we might be willing to make the sacrifices we must make. If we remember that they are coming, we might find within us untold reserves of creativity and perseverance and stamina. Just thinking about them, hearts might be made less hard. Perhaps their voices would be strong enough for us to say, without equivocating, that what we face isn’t a matter of left or right or progressive or conservative or rich or poor or black or white but a matter of life and death like no other our species has ever faced. The dreams would be in their voices, because nothing else seems to be working. And the dreams would carry the words of future generations not because they will actually be alive on the planet – that’s something we can’t actually know but … because of how they might shift our own awareness.[1] In other words, we might, finally, get the message.

And, what would the message be? What could they whisper into our sleepiness to awaken us in all the ways we must be stirred?

They would remind us that we are God’s treasured and beloved people, gifted with such extraordinary powers – foremost amongst them, to be fully aware of the preciousness of life, to love living beings, and feel the call to protect and preserve them.

Those voices would recognized the times we are living in are so difficult – to live, every day, with the knowledge of the damage the planet is experiencing – the loss of species – the poisoning of air, water and soil. And their voices would offer compassion across the gulf of time.

Those voices would remind us of the strength, courage and perseverance that are a part of who we are – that we have brought to bear in other crises – that moved us past obstacles and discouragements – and are always available to us.

And, they would remind us that we are all interconnected, with one another, even with them – the not-yet-born.

And, before the curtain falls on this ‘new’ last act, I cam imagine the newly awakened – those from behind-and-at-the-gate – the Rich Man’s brothers – all together speaking this prayer, from Joanna Macy, as a chorus, as one –

O you who will walk this earth when we are gone, stir us awake. Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world. Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat. Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick. Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims, that we may honor the life that links us.[2]

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[1] Carolyn Baker, Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating the Relationships We Need to Thrive (Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2015) p.186.

[2] Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2014), p. 183.