The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Preached at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Wilmington, DE
on September 29, 2013

Weekend Conference: Learning The WAY

Most of Jesus’ parables present us with a problem to be solved or at least a puzzle to be pondered.


But this one seems like a slam dunk, doesn’t it?  How is this rich guy going to get himself into heaven? How is he going to get himself into heaven after a lifetime of treating Lazarus – and I bet a whole lot of other people with whom he came into contact – like a third class citizen?  And if he’s not going to get himself in heaven, then how is he going to keep his brothers from suffering the same fate as his own?


End of story.  Moral:  be kind to poor people.  Generous.  Show a little compassion.  In return Jesus will love you, carry you home at the end of your life, and keep you from an eternal fate of heat and thirst.


Except one thing.  Well, except a couple of things.  That easy-peasy solution doesn’t really fit with our idea of who God is and how grace is poured upon unconditionally.  What’s that Lutheran Reformation slogan – saved by grace through faith apart from works of the law.  So there’s problem number one with the be-nice-to-the-poor-and-you’re-sure-to- get-into-heaven problem solver for this parable.  And it doesn’t really fit with our understanding of a God who loves us all the way to the cross and has given us his all in Christ for the sake of a new Creation.  And third.  Well, third it just seems way to simplistic.  You do this. God will do that, and in the end you’ll get your reward.  I just don’t buy it.

Most of Jesus’ parables present us with a problem to be solved or at least a puzzle to be pondered.


Here’s the deal with this one.  The rich man just won’t die.  He doesn’t get it.  Jesus tells it this way, “The rich man also died and was buried.”  But nobody told the rich man.  There is lays in the grave, still trying to have everything the way it always was.  He still thinks he’s in charge of Lazarus and can boss him around just like in the old days of purple and fine linen.  More – now he’s trying to be in charge of Father Abraham.  “Do this, do that.  Send him here send him there.  Make this happen, do what I tell you.  I want what I want when I want it.”  The rich man just won’t die.


It kind of reminds me of us.  Actually, not just kind of.  It reminds me a whole lot of us.  It is so hard for us to leave the past in the past.  To let go of the way things used to be.  It is not an easy thing for us to lay down the patterns and the habits and all that control that have worked for us for so long…  kept us going…  kept us on top…  the things that really allowed us to live in the illusion that we were really the ones in control.


We don’t get it.  We do not want to die.


And yet – and yet…this is exactly what a life of faith calls us to.  I’m not talking about a casket kind of death, now.  Not the kind of death where we end up being five pounds of ash in an urn.  I’m talking about the kind of death that allows us to let go of ourselves and the illusory, perceived control we think we have and be raised up by Christ to a new life of promise and possibility.  This is what baptismal living is all about.  Dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.  Each day.  Every day.  Luther of all the reformers was the one to most richly discover the wonder of baptismal grace.  Every day is a new day of promise in Christ.  Every day, God washes us clean all over again.  Every day we are called to lay down our old sinful self and all its cumbersome, purple and fine linen sumptuous burdens in the waters and be born again.  We are called to die to all that is holding us back, and to be reborn in the warm, watery womb of baptismal promise.


Here is the Gospel truth – we are dead in the water.  Dead.  But like that rich man, we just don’t want to die.


Writing in the fourth century to Christians for whom he was responsible as their bishop, Cyril of Jerusalem said, “the waters of baptism are at once your grave and your mother.”  Isn’t that a troubling image?  And beautiful.  “Your grave and your mother.”  Interwoven images of death and new life – just like it says in Romans 6:  inextricably connected, “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”


But first, dear rich man, but first, dear rich woman: you have to be willing to die.  But first, Paul Hoffman: you have to be willing to die.  But first, brothers and sisters in Christ at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Wilmington, Delaware, 29 September in the year of our Lord 2013, you have to be willing to die.  All of us, God’s people, dead in the water.  And from that grave our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ can and will mother us into a new and glorious life of forgiveness, promise, possibility hope.  His love for us will cool our parched and thirsty tongues and soothe the agony of the flames of sin and sorrow that surround us.  God’s baptismal grace will do this.  Yes, it will.


I don’t know what it is in me, exactly, that needs to die.  Pride, perhaps.  Self-reliance.  Control.  An endless lust for doing things right – which for me, of course, means doing things my way.  So if I don’t know for sure what needs to die in me, then I certainly don’t know what needs to die in you.   But I bet there’s something.  Something that this very day you need to leave dead in the water.


What I do feel a little more certain to speculate about is what you and I together need to leave behind in the waters of the font.  As Christ’s body at work in the world, I am pretty confident that there’s a whole lot of business-as-usual in the way we “do church” that Jesus would be awfully happy if we just let be washed away.  Our instincts for institutional survival over a passion for the Gospel. Fear.  The biases and prejudices that bind us up.  Our fascination with the familiar.  Our need for socializing with others like us rather than our advocacy for social justice for those least like us.  Passivity.  Apathy.  These are just a few of the things that I notice afflict us as I move from place to place around the Church.


These are the things – and many others – that make us the living dead rather than the living resurrected.


And really, isn’t that what Jesus calls us to be?  Those living as resurrected ones, having left the fear of sin and death behind in the waters.  The living resurrected ones, who daily dripping in the waters of new life have nothing – nothing – left to fear.


For the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the world, die!  And by Jesus Christ, be raised to new life.


In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.