In the Bible readings of the last month we have been presented with some stark choices about ourselves:  Do we want to be “Lost or Found”? Do we want to be limited by the “Possible” or freed for the “Impossible”?  What is your priority “God or Money”?  And, today, where are you headed,  “Heaven or Hell”?  So let’s take a reading of ourselves.  What are you thinking when it comes to Heaven or Hell?

[a]  I try not to think about it at all, it’s all in God’s hands.

[b]  If heaven is only for perfect people, most of us are  doomed!

[c]  Every day in the things I do I am aiming for Heaven, and consciously turning away from Hell.

[d]  The very idea of Hell scares me, and this fear is my motivation to be a better person.

[e]  I’m not worried about Hell, because we worship and serve a loving God who offers an abundance of forgiveness.

[f]  I believe in heaven and hell, but I do not have a clear picture of what these will be like.  Is Heaven really angels with harps flitting among the clouds?  Is Hell a deep cave filled with flames?

[g]  I frequently wish that some people would end up in Hell, but of course I will be going to Heaven.

So, “Heaven or Hell”?  and what does Jesus have to say about this?  We’re listening!  We need to know!  A lot more!  Amen.

WHO NEEDS HELP?  Does anyone here need help?  You better believe we do, lots of help and right away, please!  What kinds of help do you need?  It’s not one thing, it’s the accumulated effects of all the choices we’ve made.  Finally, we hit bottom, We get stuck. And too many others have been hurt.  So a lot of help needed from Jesus to grab onto a new direction?  Amen to that! Help us, Jesus!

HELP ON THE WAY  Peter claimed to be a sinful man, but Jesus called him to discipleship. Mary Magdalene stepped away from seven demons to follow Jesus. Jesus called his name and Zacchaeus climbed down from the tree to repair the damage he’d done.  And Lazarus, diseased, down-trodden and demeaned is the one who finds himself in heaven.   There is a way for you, and Jesus shows us how to find it!  Amen!

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.’”

MESSAGE      “Po’ Laz’rus”                                       Rev. James R. Renfrew

Last time I went to buy a pair of shoes I found a store in Henrietta that serves people with special footwear needs, people like me because I am diabetic.  So the shoe store guy who approached me introduced himself as “Lazaro”, and I immediately responded by saying, “Ah, Lazarus, from the Bible! You were given a wonderful name!”  He beamed with pride that an Americano understood his Puerto Rican name and its connection to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As I study Lazarus’ appearances in the Bible, I think “Lazarus” is a catch-all name, of sorts.  He appears twice in the Gospels, the first time in Luke’s Gospel in this parable Jesus told about heaven and hell. Lazarus, the desperately poor man who was lifted up to heaven, while the rich man who had not even noticed Lazarus starving outside of his door ends up in the flames of hell.

The second appearance of Lazarus is in John’s Gospel as the dead brother of grieving Mary and Martha. Then, three days after Lazarus died, Jesus goes to the tomb and commands Lazarus to walk out of the tomb alive, the burial bandages trailing behind him.  It is a startling prelude to the Easter story that soon follows.

There is no evidence that this is the same Lazarus in both stories.  It could simply be that it was a common name. But I think that the  name of Lazarus has become an archetype of sorts for a forgotten “Everyman” who draws God’s miraculous attention.   If Lazarus made it to heaven, so can you.   If Lazarus could walk out of the tomb alive, maybe you can follow his footsteps back to life?

If you saw the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou”, you will remember that the film opens with a prison chain gang dressed in white and black singing as they are laboring in the hot sun under the watchful eyes of the guards.   As they swing their sledge hammers to break up rocks they are singing the song “Po’ Lazarus”, the words of which capture the intensity of their plight.  Po’ Lazarus, in the song, is wanted dead or alive, and is shot by the police.  a victim of grave injustice.  Yet, it is not a song of defeat at all, as the members of the chain gang sing it, it has become a song of resistance and hope. God knew Lazarus, and maybe God knows me too.

The song “Po’ Laz’rus” was first recorded by Alan Lomax, the famed ethnomusicologist  in the 1930’s as he traveled the American south looking for authentic roots music, and one of his stops was to record a chain gang singing.  However, the song Lomax recorded, “Po’ Lazarus”, like many folk songs has undergone many changes in its lyrics over time, with new verses added.  One verse, that you can hear in a Bob Dylan recording of “Po’ Laz’rus” from 1961, explains that Po’ Laz’rus’ sister has to attend her brother’s funeral in bare feet because she has no money to buy shoes.  I had to say “wow” when I read that, connecting Po’ Laz’rus’ poor sister without shoes to Lazaro at the shoe store in Henrietta eager to sell me a pair. I love how Bible stories come full circle like that.  It’s the best part of Bible Study, when something totally unexpected drops into your lap and connects you with all that is holy.

Some of you attended Tuesday’s Bible Study that examined this story.  What a sharp group of people there were around the table as we discussed Lazarus and the rich man, poverty and wealth, and heaven and hell.

One place to start is to start is to figure out where you are in this story.  After all, it’s a parable, not just a story to entertain, but a story that is meant to draw you in, shake you up, and maybe turn your world upside down.  If you feel shaken, or challenged, or disturbed by this story that was exactly what Jesus intended when he told it long ago.

Where are you in this story?  Do you identify with Lazarus or with the rich man?  It would be hard for most people in this room to identify with Lazarus, he’s desperately poor, begging for crumbs, and his festering sores are licked by dogs.  It’s a horrible, disturbing image.  The time in my life when I had the least money, and not enough food, was a time in college, but it was nowhere close to what had become of Lazarus!

Yet one night long ago I was doing a Bible Study on this text with many neighborhood people who were living in poverty.  They felt God’s love and vindication as they heard about Lazarus, someone who had been mistreated and impoverished, but who in God’s unexpected justice and grace was lifted up to heaven.  The story matched exactly their yearning to be lifted out of poverty, too.  The story wasn’t just about Lazarus; it was about them, too.

I have also studied this text with people whose lives are far more comfortable.  Most are quick to condemn the rich man for ignoring Lazarus dying on his doorstep, but they usually explain that Jesus’ story is not directed against wealth per se, only this particular rich man’s inability or unwillingness to see the poverty that was right in his face.

So, same story, but different reactions, depending upon where you are in life.  The reactions of the two groups are telling. The people living in poverty are excited that Jesus knows of their misery and is coming to lift them heavenward.   People of means can be frightened in reading this, resisting the idea that wealth could be a factor in deciding heaven or hell.

It’s hard to identify with the rich man, dressed in the best clothing and enjoying sumptuous meals every single day. At the Bible Study Jim Moore noted that many people in the world live on less than $2 per day.  By that standard all of us here are very rich. We have places to live, we have food, and certainly no dogs are licking our sores.

You could say that the rich man was mainly in the wrong because he refused to help Lazarus as he lay dying, but we began to see that maybe his greatest crime was that he simply didn’t see Lazarus.  Lazarus slept in his doorway, but, somehow, he managed to walk over him and around him every day without seeing him.   Is that us, too?  Are we blind to the need that is right in front of us?

I asked if you more closely identified with Lazarus or the rich man.  You could also identify with the brothers of the rich man, whom the rich man feels compelled to warn, of the consequences of not seeing, or not helping.  Maybe that’s you, one of the rich man’s brothers, and what you need from Jesus is a big nudge to open your eyes a little more to see the needs around you.

Lazarus arrives in heaven carried by angels.  It is striking that Lazarus expresses no article of faith or belief, there is no mention of his good or bad behavior in life, only that he is destitute.  We usually think of heaven as the reward for solid faith and many good deeds.  Lazarus’ welcome into heaven seems to be based solely upon God’s grace.  This in itself as remarkable, as rigid as the story seems to be about who gets to heaven and who goes to hell, grace seems to be in play even here at the moment of judgment, and it gives me a great deal to ponder.  If God lifts Lazarus heavenward on the basis of his great need, instead of great faith, maybe my whole understanding of heaven needs to shift, if I have underestimated the power of God’s grace.

Maybe the point of this whole parable is not heaven or hell, and who ends up in those places, but the astounding idea that someone like Lazarus becomes such a focus of God’s love and grace.  Does anyone here need help?  Amen, God knows all about us, our weaknesses, our mistakes, and God responds with love … just like with Lazarus!  Knowing this about God, what does it change in you?  That’s the question that a parable leaves us with.