“Preparing for Finals” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, September 25, 2016 titled “Preparing for Finals” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.

 

I know it’s still September.  The semester just started. Why bring up finals already? I hate to be a buzzkill, but finals have a way of sneaking up on you.  They will be here sooner than you think.  And just so you can’t say you never hear anything useful in church, here is a foolproof guide I found online for acing your exams.  You might want to write this down:

  1. Create your own study guide.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Attend the review session.
  4. Start early, and prepare as you go.
  5. Organize a group study session.
  6. Study things not on the study guide.
  7. Take breaks.
  8. Stay well-rested.

You know, that’s almost like a description of the Baptist church project, with our emphases on individual responsibility, mutual support, and hope for grace:

  1. Create your own study guide.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Attend the review session.
  4. Start early, and prepare as you go.
  5. Organize a group study session.
  6. Study things not on the study guide.
  7. Take breaks.
  8. Stay well-rested.

Even those of you who aren’t students might want to write that down, because we all have a final coming, if you know what I mean, and now is the time to start getting ready.  This is known as “teleological thinking” from the Greek word τέλος, which means both “end” and “goal.”

Teleological thinking means planning backwards from the end you so the choices you make along the way will get you where you want to be.  As one of my favorite saints, Yogi Berra, put it: “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”  All our scriptures today urge us to prepare for the final with teleological thinking so it doesn’t catch you by surprise.

Jeremiah is in prison for being a troublemaker.  The Babylonian armies are marching on Jerusalem to lay waste to the land and drag the people off into exile.  And what does Jeremiah do?  He buys an expensive piece of real estate that has been in his family for years! We all know, you don’t buy real estate when the tanks are rolling in.  But Jeremiah plans for the future of his family with a prophetic act of faith and hope in God beyond what is seen.

Our epistle reading urges us to be not to fall into the trap of idolizing money.  In our culture, we should remind ourselves every day: money is a means and not an end.  It is a tool for doing good things, for shaping our character as generous and loving people, for investing in a future that is better for all people. We have a tendency to forget that, and make money our whole goal, which is like thinking you’re prepared for finals just because you’ve sharpened your pencils.

And the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel reading today emphasizes the same point.  Similar parables were told in the Egyptian and Jewish traditions before Jesus.  They also present a dramatic reversal of fortune in the hereafter from the life people knew before they died. In the Jewish book of 1 Enoch so popular in Jesus’ day, deceased souls wait in caves for the final judgment.  The cave of the righteous souls has a bright fountain flowing while the souls in the cave of the unrighteous are tormented.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus also fits Luke’s typical prejudice against the rich and favor towards the poor.  But the parable itself transcends the easy moral judgments most preachers read into it. Is it a picture of life after death?  Its images don’t fit the rest of the Bible, but then, the Bible doesn’t give us a single unified picture of the life beyond this life.  Does it want to say all rich people are evil and all poor people are good? We’re never told what the rich man has done to deserve torment or what good Lazarus has done to deserve grace.

It is the only parable Jesus tells containing a personal name: Lazarus.  This is not the Lazarus of John’s gospel, a man who owns a house where he lives with his sisters Mary and Martha, who dies and is raised by Jesus, “the resurrection and the life.”  This Lazarus is an indigent beggar.

Lazarus is the Greek form of a common Jewish name, Eliezer, which means “favored by God.”  In the Hebrew Bible the most prominent Eliezer is mentioned in Genesis 15 as Abraham’s heir before Isaac was born.  Luke may be reading this parable as the reversal of fortune where the Gentile descendants of Eliezer become Abraham’s heir rather than Isaac’s descendants who have refused to follow God’s ways.

That spiritual theme of reversal was common in ancient times, and continues to this day.  No matter what your present situation, there is both hope and warning in remembering “it won’t always be the way it is now.”  That’s good news for some people and bad news for others.  If you are going through hard times now, remember “it won’t always be the way it is now,” but trust God’s grace and follow God’s ways into better days.  If everything’s going great for you today, remember “it won’t always be the way it is now,” but prepare for a future that belongs to God and follow God’s ways into it.

The rich man has it good.  He is dressed in purple, which indicates power, even royalty.  He feasts sumptuously.  Meanwhile, just outside the gate, Lazarus lies in misery, hungry, sick, indigent.  But the final comes – death being the one thing we all have in common, rich and poor alike.  Their situations are reversed.  The rich man is in misery.

Lazarus now rests in “the bosom of Abraham,” a lovely image which appears here for the first time.  But Luke 13 pictures heaven as a great banquet where the people of God will dine with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets (Luke 13:28-29).  Lazarus moves from isolated misery to joyous community.  The rich man moves from privileged power to misery and isolation.

Bernard Brandon Scott thinks the key to understanding the parable is the gate where Lazarus lies begging, a common site in the ancient world.  Gates and doors are symbolic in every spiritual tradition.  They’re where journeys begin and end, where we set out and come home, where we shut out or let in.

In the parable the gate is open and at any time the rich man could go out to acknowledge Lazarus’ existence and obey one of God’s many mandates in scripture like Deuteronomy 15:6:

“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor.” 

But he doesn’t do it.  And now it is too late.  The gate is closed and an uncrossable chasm has replaced it.

The message is clear: there comes a time when it’s too late – too late to prepare for the final, too late to change your ways, too late to be something other than what you’ve become.

The rich man had his chance.  But he created the chasm himself, long before the great reversal happened.  He ignored the plight of Lazarus and even now, in torment, he doesn’t get it.  He sees Lazarus as less than himself, tells Abraham to order him to bring him water or go warn his brothers.  Even now, he is not fit for the dominion of God.

Makes me wonder.  Who do we ignore?  Who do we refuse to see?  The homeless?  The poor?  The refugee? The server who waits on us at a restaurant?  The girl in the room next door struggling with her studies?  The person of another color or religion or political party?

What kind of nation are we becoming with the chasms we create between every “us” and every “them,” exploited by the fear monger?  Said Mother Theresa “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”  Who is waiting by our gate we need to invite in?  Who is waiting by our gate we need to go out and help?

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think these texts today are giving us a quick prescription, some list of simple steps to take or rules to follow so we can ace the final.  I think they’re asking about formation.

What kind of person are you becoming?  Are you the kind of person who belongs among the people of God?  What kind of chasms are you creating to separate you from people God loves?  Will you be shaped by God through our sacred story into the image of Christ?  You can’t do it without a lot of grace and support from a community heading together towards the same goal.

Whether we hear this parable as a word about life after life or just what impact we might make and how we will be remembered, we all have a final coming and it has a way of sneaking up on you.  It will be here sooner than you think.  Now is the time to start preparing.  When you get where you’re going, where will you be?  Who will you be?  Whose will you be?

Says the Spirit to the church in the “finals book” of the Bible, “Look, I have set before you an open door” (Rev. 3:8).  Seems to me, that’s the place to go.  Amen.  May we pray?

Abiding, guiding, inviting God,

You are always calling us to a deeper way of being that we might be more like Christ in gentle compassion, generous living, and joyful, loving service. But it’s so easy for us to fall into self-focused forms of insulated, isolated living where we confuse the means with the end.  Open our eyes to see you in each other and our hearts to respond to the ways you would make us more like one of your own.  We know we aren’t there yet, but by your grace, we will get there in the name of Christ.  Amen.

 

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