This sermon was preached at Milford Presbyterian Church in Milford, Michigan and was focused upon Luke 16:19-31. The video recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
This morning, I would like to begin with a poem. It’s by Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet. It’s entitled, “The Guesthouse.”
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
My friends, this morning we are present for a time of worship. In this time and space of worship, we are welcomed fully as we are. And from this reality of worship, we are invited to see the world as it truly is –
God’s sacred world in all its need and pain,
God’s beloved world in all its worth and value.
Today, we are invited see our sacred story come alive.
That holy story is God with us.
This story – God with us — invites us to see the world as God dreams it to be.
Before this story, we make confessions.
We have fallen short of this dream.
This story – God with us — invites us to turn toward the direction of the Kingdom of God.
Before this story, we repent.
We are called to new directions.
This story – God with us — invites us forward from this place to participate in God’s mission, working to bring that world into being.
Before this story, we are sent with boldness and humility.
We are commissioned.
Today, we are invited see our sacred story come alive.
That holy story is God with us.
All of this is worship.
And as God is with us,
Today, in worship, we ourselves are with God.
We are like that Guesthouse.
Every time we enter this sacred reality of worship, we are like that Guesthouse.
We bring joys and concerns with us.
We bring memories.
We bring emotions.
They enter this space with us —
a joy, a depression, a meanness,
the dark thought, the shame, the malice.
We could extend beyond the language of the poem to name all the hopes and all the heaviness we carry into worship today.
We certainly find ourselves connected to a world reeling with need and pain.
Our nation has experienced a very painful week. We have heard news stories of violence and loss. This week began with explosive devices found in New York and New Jersey, and then, a suspect was detained by police officers. It continued with the news that three black people have been killed by police officers –
Tyree King, thirteen years old, in Springfield, Ohio,
Terence Crutcher, father of four, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and
Keith Lamont Scott, father of seven, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Our week concludes with mass protests, and they will continue beyond this week. There have been some instances of rioting, but most are protesting peacefully and fiercely, calling our attention to forms of systemic racism in our country.
We carry all of this into worship.
We bring it all here, and as we do so, we dare to live the sacred story we share,
which is God with us.
Today, Emmanuel, God with us,
sees the pain we feel,
sees the pain we know,
and invites us to see the pains of our neighbors,
including any pains which we have yet to recognize.
And that large, sacred story we share is found in the small, particular story before us today.
Once, while Jesus was teaching his disciples about money, some of the Pharisees began to ridicule him. So Jesus told this story:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. This man had all that he needed and more. He was marked with clothing which indicated that he had worth and value, and he ate a delicious feast every day – anything and everything he could want.
But meanwhile, 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. While this rich man feasted daily, Lazarus received nothing, not even a crumb. Perhaps he wished that his life was marked with worth and value too. Meanwhile, the dogs came and licked his sores. Lazarus had continual suffering.
The rich man never acknowledged Lazarus or his suffering. It seems as though Lazarus was mostly ignored. . . never seen. But Jesus indicates that Lazarus is seen, known, loved, and cherished by God. Jesus indicates that Lazarus has a life and identity marked by worth and value.
In the story, both men die and are brought to Hades, the Greek underworld of the dead. Biblical scholars believe that Jesus used an old Egyptian genre of storytelling to express this next part of the story – a genre where characters are separated in the afterlife in order to contrast their lives on earth. So this is less about the geography of heaven and hell and more about that great contrast and how it functioned. It’s about how that great contrast still functions in our world.
It’s also about a great reversal. This reversal is a major theme of the Gospel of Luke. “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” we hear from Jesus. In the first chapter of the Gospel, we hear from Mary, the mother of Jesus, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
This great reversal does not reveal a lack of love for the wealthy and privileged; God loves all people and the whole creation. But rather, it reveals God’s posture toward those who are suffering, deprived of what they need to live. It reveals God’s love and posture toward those who are robbed of the worth and value of their lives truly hold.
And with this reversal on display, we are confronted with questions: How will we live toward those who are suffering and deprived of what they need to live? How will we honor those whose worth and value are being maligned daily? What will our love look like? What will be our posture?
In the rest of the parable, we see that the rich man’s posture has not changed. Even in the afterlife, as he is being tormented, he cannot see Lazarus as a full person. He doesn’t address Lazarus but instead, asks father Abraham to send him as a personal servant. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in the water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” He still cannot see Lazarus as a full person of worth and value. Then he wants Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers about this terrible place. “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.”
And this is when Abraham speaks some intriguing and challenging words. Perhaps we are called to hear these intriguing and challenging words from the voice of Jesus today. Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” They have these holy words of worship which reveal God’s posture toward those who are suffering. They should listen and let these words change their own posture.
But the rich man protests. “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”
And this very day, Jesus says to us, “If you do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will you be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”
And those words grab me this morning. . . Those words challenge me. . . They nearly bring me to tears. . . Because we have seen someone risen from the dead. We hear that story. We speak to that reality. We proclaim its truth, and we gather around that sacred story – God with us, alive – week after week, Sunday after Sunday, but are we convinced? Are we convinced to the point that we shift our own posture toward those who are suffering? Do we love with the same love that a resurrected God demonstrates? Do we honor the worth and value found in the lives around us, recognizing the new life Jesus breathes into our world?
During a week of painful violence and loss, does this resurrection make any difference? Does it change us?
I’ll be honest. It’s always interesting to be the guest preacher during a week when we must address racism and all of that challenging work that is before us, not only because we are Americans, but most especially because we are Christians, followers of Jesus, our resurrected Lord. And I’ll tell you, I’m not an expert on race or the ways that racism functions in our world. I’m not fully enlightened as one who has risen above it. I have to ask myself challenging questions all the time.
But I do see the suffering. I do see that black people and people of color face indignity, discrimination, systems of mass incarceration, violence, and death, many times because of the color of their skin and the internalized ideas that those with greater power and privilege carry within them.
I see Jesus, one who was unjustly accused, imprisoned, tortured, and killed by state violence. And I see that it could not defeat him. We tell the sacred story – God with us, alive – for he is resurrected, among us, beyond us, and calling us to new things.
Does this resurrection make a difference? Will we be convinced to shift our posture and the collective posture of this nation?
Because this time of worship is the Lord’s Day. It is the sacred day of resurrection. We bring ourselves and all that we’ve been carrying to this time of worship. We are a Guesthouse of hopes and heaviness.
But we also encounter the resurrection. We encounter the resurrected Lord who calls us, and we are invited to carry that new life forward beyond this place.
So my friends, will we do it? Will we see our neighbors? Will we value them? Will we take the worship we have experienced in this building and bring it outside, so that the world around us is a Guesthouse of
Will we do it? Will we change our posture? These questions linger before us.
Let us follow.