Sermon
September 26, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Luke 16:19-31
“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.’ ”

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Sermon: The Top Ten R’s of the Great Hereafter

Does your mind ever get going on an idea and then you can’t let go of it. This sermon had its genesis in the thinking about the 3 r’s.

You know, in traditional education the three r’s were – Reading, 'Riting & 'Rithmetic.

Of if you were a music educator it might be Reading, Writing, and Rythmn.

Or if you were a teacher of ecology it might be – reduce, reuse, recyle

Or as an advocate for special education your concern would be - Rights, Resources, Results

Of if you’re responsible for character education you might want to teach children to be responsible; do the right thing; respect yourself

Or, sadly, if you’re a school administrator dealing with threats of violence your three r’s might be - readiness, response, recovery

There are the three r’s for all kinds of tasks and vocations, but I was wondering what would be the three r’s of heaven. And I couldn’t let go of that thought and stop at just three, so instead of three I came up with ten – the top ten r’s of the great hereafter from different religious traditions. And here they are in no particular order:
Release, rest, return, renewal, resurrection, repose, reincarnation, reunion, reward, and reversal.

I said they were in no particular order, but the truth is that today, in light of the Gospel lesson, I want to look at one of these r’s and so I put it last on the list –that is reversal.

The theme of reversal occurs at almost every major point in the story of Jesus, so it’s no wonder that it becomes one of the top ten R’s of the great hereafter.

In the Gospel of Luke, even before Jesus is born in a manger in Bethlehem, Mary is visiting her older cousin Elizabeth; Elizabeth, after many years of thinking that she would never have children, is now, like Mary, miraculously pregnant. As Mary comes near Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and greets Mary with these familiar words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

And Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

The mighty have been brought low and the lowly raised up - this is theme of reversal on the lips of Mary in praise of what God is doing through her and for her and for all people.

Remember also the baptism of Jesus by John. In our service of baptism this morning we recalled at that moment the heavenly voice was heard saying “This is my beloved child.” What we did not mention in our sacrament was the objection John first raised to baptizing Jesus at all.

We read in Matthew’s Gospel: Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus does not follow an ethic of elevating himself or claiming privilege – he follows an ethic of reversal, and so he says to John – it is proper to do this, to fulfill all righteousness, and John consents.

This morning for our call to worship we spoke some lines from what Matthew presents as Jesus first major teaching, the Sermon on the Mount. And as the first part of that first major teaching, we hear the theme of reversal put forward in beautiful, soulful phrases:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

This is all about reversal – nobody thinks the poor can call anything their own, let alone a kingdom. Nobody see a large inheritance coming down the road to the meek, and everybody thinks that those who dream of justice and peace are unrealistic and setting themselves up for nothing but frustration – their dreams will never be fulfilled. And certainly those who mourn will find God’s eternal silence a cold reminder of their loss – yet Jesus proclaims they will be comforted.

And of course, if you go to the Gospel lesson we read today, Jesus puts this theme of reversal in a very stark form in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In this life Lazarus was a poor man who lay at the gate of a man so rich that he feasted sumptuously every day. And Lazarus was so poor that he would have been more than satisfied with the table scraps from the trash of that rich man. And then they both died and the big tenth R of the great hereafter took over – reversal.

Lazarus was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man went to Hades, where he was tormented. Then he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side and 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.

Who do we identify with in that story? What task does the moral of that tale put on our “to do” list today? What would the big R of reversal, mean for us?

I feel a personal stake in these questions. I’m against Pastor Mike burning in hell for eternity. I know that Jesus saves, but Jesus also teaches, and I take this story to be a warning telling me to resist the temptations of a consumer crazy culture which raises up the rich and shames the poor, which loves to focus on the American dream in stories of wealth and turns its eye from the American nightmare in stories of hungry children, destitute elderly, and families fractured by the pressures of work that does not provide a living wage.

And beyond our doorstep lies a world that would be satisfied just to eat the scraps from the garbage of our poor.

Now I wish I had an exciting ending to this sermon – some innovative thought that would open new doors and offer a way out of our dilemma. But I must simply repeat something I know you’ve heard before, a teaching well put in the words of Jesus to his disciples when they argue over who is greatest among them. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The reversal here is to take the focus off self and put it on service – to think of the riches we have not as a reward to defend, but as a resource to share.

After church today some of our youth will go to the Harris farm and pick pumpkins. Then for the next few weeks they will sell these pumpkins and set the money aside. Then in December they will travel to that great temple of consumption, the Danbury Fair Mall, and purchase gifts for the town Santa Fund, so that every child in our town will wake up on Christmas Day with some gift to open, some sign of their inclusion in our community, some little way to celebrate the joy of the season. That’s something the rich man did not bother to do for Lazarus. It doesn’t solve the whole problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

But wait, now I realize I’ve gone from the three r’s to the three s’s – sharing, serving, being good stewards of God’s gifts. That almost sounds like another sermon – let’s save it for another day.  Amen.

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