The God Who Saves

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September 25, 2016

The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

I speak in the name of God, the one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.

In 1615, Étienne Brûlé left New France and journeyed down the St. Lawrence River and on westwards through the Great Lakes. They say he reached Lake Michigan and, I like to imagine, that he gazed longingly and romantically over to the beautiful Algonquin land on the other side which would one day become the great city of Chicago.

So as one who flew from the Province of Quebec over the Great Lakes to be with you today to offer you my thoughts this morning, let me thank you and Dominic for your very kind invitation. We at Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal send our greetings to all of you at St. James Cathedral in Chicago, and I know that Bishop Mary Gibson sends her personal greetings to Bishop Lee as well. May God bless all your ministries.

But that being said, my heart sank as I looked at the readings for this morning: Amos berating the complacent rich, the writer of the epistle to Timothy warning us about the dangers of money, and Jesus himself emphasizing the great chasm fixed between the rich man in Hades and the poor man Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, a chasm that no one can cross even if they wanted to.

As I packed my suitcase for Chicago, I looked forward to a few days of lounging decadently on the Dean’s ivory couches listening to idle songs, of feasting sumptuously on the Dean’s Sunday roast of finest lamb from the flock, and drinking from bottles of the finest wines, and I wondered where I would be able to find Good News is in all these scriptures.

But we deans are not really more decadent than other Christians. In a world where 71% of the world’s population live on less than $10 a day, I think we are all of us the world’s rich, comparatively speaking. So where then, my friends, is the Good News today for any of us?

Well, do not be afraid. The Good News is right there in those readings — Good News which will make us leap and dance and sing for joy as we leave the cathedral this morning; Good News, rarely spoken, about Hades, Judgment, and Salvation; Good News to make us all glad.

So let's begin with Hades. Hades is not Good News if you have been taught in the past that Hades is Hell. If you believe that God condemned the rich man to eternal torment in Hell, then this looks very much like Bad News to me, not Good News. That kind of God is hard, unforgiving, and, above all, is apparently powerless to save people, even if God wanted to. Bad News. But do not be afraid. Jesus did not say Hell and St. Luke did not write Hell. The Scriptures do not say Hell (there are other words for that, like the wordGehennain both Hebrew and Greek).  Jesus, Luke, the Church councils, chose their words carefully.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, n the Rabbinical writings, and for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, Hades and Hell are quite different. Hades is the place to which all the dead go — the good and the bad alike, the righteous and the unrighteous together. They go there to be sorted, as it were, to be judged. Read the text very carefully. The poor man is carried up to Abraham's bosom and the rich man died and was buried. And then, we are told where the action of the parable takes place. We are told it with a new sentence, and it takes place in Hades. In Greek, this new sentence is marked not by punctuation but by the conjunction “and” — καὶ ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ.  It says, “and in Hades”.You see, the action of this parable is not in two different places, Heaven and Hell. It all takes place in one place, Hades. Abraham may well be a long way away, and he is. And there may well be a great chasm between them, and there is. But they are both in the same mysterious place. They are both in the wonderful, awesome, and perhaps terrifying presence of God.

So, let's turn now to that great and troubling chasm which separates the tormented rich man from comforted Lazarus, a chasm which no one can cross even if they wanted to. It’s starting to look like bad news again.

But — this is really Good News — look again at the tenderness with which Abraham speaks to the rich man: “Child.” This is not vindictive; this is not cruel. This is compassionate, empathetic, kind.

There is no doubt that the rich man has lived a rich and selfish life. He has feasted lavishly and sumptuously while the poor man Lazarus has lain sick and hungry at his gate. We do not know whether or not the rich man even noticed Lazarus day by day, or whether he had become invisible to him; whether he stepped over Lazarus to get into his house, or whether Lazarus was pushed out of the way by the servants like one of dogs who licked his sores.

But when the rich man died and the thoughts of all hearts are opened, and when everything is revealed, and when the rich man finally looks at his own life not through a glass darkly but sees clearly and knows himself even as he is fully known by God, then what did he see? What did Hades and the wonderful, awesome, and perhaps terrifying all-revealing presence of God mean to him then?

Did he not realize, I ask, under God’s loving care, the real meaning of what he did every time he stepped over the suffering Lazarus without noticing this child of Abraham before him?

Did he not suddenly realize the meaning of his own life — wasted, meaningless perhaps, in riches — and his sin in not caring for the poor and hungry at his very own gate? And under God’s loving and compassionate care did not this new revelation, this new understanding of his life as it really is, did it not finally break his heart and make him weep? And did he not long to be able to go back for just one day so that he could put right just one small part, however small, of his wrongdoing and so assuage his soul? Did he not long to go back for just one day and hold Lazarus in his arms and feed him, and love him, just once? Would that not have been for him like a finger dipped in cold water to cool his tongue? But, of course, it cannot be done. Time, not God or punishment, is the great and uncrossable chasm, for what has been done has been done, and what has not been done has not been done. This is not punishment from a vindictive God, rather this is a terrible truth.  God, even God who is infinitely compassionate, and kind, and loving and forgiving, cannot rewrite this rich man’s history for him. What torment. What pain. What burning fire.

But Good News, because now he can be forgiven, now he can find reconciliation to God and with himself and even with those against whom he sinned. The torment and the flames of self-realization are painful, but they are his healing and a necessary part of that healing. For reconciliation without truth is no reconciliation. And true and deep healing, whether emotional, psychological, physical or spiritual, hurts, as we know from our own experiences here on earth.

“The healing of the soul will be purification from evil and this cannot be accomplished without suffering,”wrote St. Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th Century.

“The encounter with Christ is the decisive act of judgment. Before Christ’s gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with Christ, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves,” wrote pope emeritus Benedict XVI in the 21st Century.

I throw the quotes in, by the way, to show that this sermon is not some liberal revisionist nonsense I have just made up! It is normal 2000-year-old orthodox teaching, displaced in the West by a legalistic atonement theory of salvation.

And so I hope you see that this story, rediscovered, is Good News; hard news, yes, but Good News, because God heals, and because, unlike the rich man, we still have time on our side, time to go back to our gate; time to hold the poor and the needy in our arms; time to be a new creation. Although we cannot undo the things we have done in the past which we ought not to have done, or do the things we ought to have done and yet did not do, nevertheless we still have today and tomorrow where we cando good,where we can be rich in good works, be generous and ready to share;where we can store up for ourselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future. How lucky we are then to have prophets like Amos and the Gospel. This is true for us personally, and it is equally true for our violent and racist societies, and true for a world where great nations and ideologies are destroying the Middle East and killing people in their hundreds of thousands.

How lucky we are then, if we have the courage, to have tomorrow when we can speak differently; tomorrow when we can, without shame, say that we were wrong in the past, that our old certainties were mistaken, that our political decisions were misguided, that our laws need changing, that we have changed. What Good News this is: cold water to refresh our burning tongues!

But there is more, for Father Abraham is wrong. Well, not exactly wrong; he was right when the parable was spoken. But he is wrong now, for Jesus has crossed that gulf. The great Easter icon shows Jesus straddling a great chasm and drawing Adam and Eve from the lower regions of Hades.

Now I will be the first to admit to you that throwing Good Friday atonement theology at you on page eight of my sermon is a bit hard going for a Sunday in September, and perhaps not good news. But I pray you to give me just a few more minutes of your time because we cannot throw the name of Jesus into the chasm of time without attempting to say how Jesus is able to do the impossible.

No, I do not believe that God can rewrite history or change what any of us have done or have not done as people, as nations, as the world. But I want to suggest to you that the wonderful mystery of our Christian faith is that God, who declares that the rich man's sins are forgiven, has earned the right to pronounce those words by God's own experience as Jesus who sat broken and hungry at the gate with Lazarus.

This wonderful, awesome, and terrifying God of love who burns with a healing fire is the same God who knows the true cost of forgiveness and can speak with personal authenticity. For a God who has not lain poor at the gate hungry and covered with sores has nothing to say to Lazarus, and cannot forgive the rich man. A God who has not been abused, mistreated, tortured, and murdered, a God who has not known the despair of feeling forsaken by God on the cross, cannot speak to the abused, mistreated, tortured, and murdered child, woman, young black man, senior, male adult, to every human being who feels that God has forsaken them. A God who has not descended to the very depths is not a God who saves —Yeshua.

As Scripture says, “What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe,” (Ephesians 4:9-10) until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

This is Good News!  Go and live it, starting today.