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The Rev. Dr. Nate Phillips The Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Phillips
The Rev. Dr. Nate Phillips is co-pastor at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE, and the author of the book "Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church."

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, DE


Nate Phillips: A Monster at the End of This Sermon

Luke 16:19-31

19th Sunday after Pentecost - Year C

September 25, 2016

 

I remember the time I tried to introduce my daughter Lily, then two years old, to one of my favorite children's books, "There is a Monster at the End of this Book" starring lovable, furry, old Grover. To begin with, Lily was excited about Grover--even if she thought he was Elmo--and allowed me to read her the book. About halfway through the book, though, she grabbed it out of my hands and slammed it shut.

"That's a scary monster," she told me. "I don't want it." As disappointed as I was, I said, "Ok, we don't have to read it," and I put the book back on the shelf.  The next day I found the scary monster book in the refrigerator freezer--at Lily level.

Lily was just a child and she could still get away with putting the scary story in the freezer. In fact, it was kind of cute, and it won't be long before she, like the rest of us, has to look far too many scary stories right in the eyes. The titles range from "Goodbye My Love" to "Why Me?" The characters are named illness, tragedy, poverty, and hopelessness. I thank God every day that Lily doesn't have to meet these characters just yet...Grover was too much for her.

My guess is that you don't have to look far to read your scary story. My guess is that your scary story can't be hidden in the freezer; but if you can't think of one, perhaps you might take in your hands the scary story of today's text.

Once there was a man named Lazarus. Your scary story might not have anything in common with that Lazarus. Lazarus lived outside of a gate. This is scary enough, but Lazarus didn't just live outside the gate--he lay outside the gate, Actually, the text says, literally, he was thrown outside the gate. The Greek verb used here is built from the verb meaning "to throw"; this is important to note because, while it is a common verb, it is only used a handful of times in the New Testament in reference to a human being.

Inside the gate a rich man wore purple cloth to cover his skin; outside the gate Lazarusʼ skin was covered with sores. Inside the gate, a rich man rejoiced with great vigor every day; outside the gate, Lazarus hungered for even the droppings from the table of the rich man. Inside the gate, the dogs laid claim to those droppings; and for dessert, they went outside the gate to feast on the sores of Lazarusʼ. Eventually Lazarus died, and an angel carried him to heaven.

Your story might not have anything in common with that of Lazarusʼ, but if your characters have been thrown aside like a piece of trash, if they've been disregarded as something less than human, then yes, your scary story might have something in common with that of Lazarusʼ.

Once there was a man named Lazarus. Your scary story might not have anything in common with Lazarusʼ, but the paralyticʼs did. The gospel of Matthew tells us that the paralytic lived on a bed; actually I should rephrase, the paralytic lay on a bed, or more literally, like with Lazarus, the paralytic was thrown down on the bed. We don't know much about the paralytic, but we do know that he was desperately ill. So desperate, in fact, that he insisted that his friends take him to see Jesus; and when they couldn't slip him through the crowd, they hoisted him up on a roof and lowered him in. Your scary story might not have anything in common with that of Lazarus', but if the characters in your story have been thrown down, like the paralytic, thrown down with an illness, if they've been thrown down with something that they can't shake, something that won't let them back up, then yes, your scary story might have something in common with that of Lazarus'.

Once there was a man named Lazarus. Your scary story might not have anything in common with that of Lazarus, but a certain slave's did. The gospel of Matthew tells us that the certain slave lived in a jail; actually I should rephrase, he was put in jail, or more literally, like with Lazarus, he was thrown in jail. As Matthew tells it, there was a king who forgave the debt of one slave only to have that very same slave imprison our certain slave for failing to pay him back. It didn't take long for our certain slave's fellow slaves to carry word of this injustice and convince the king to set things right. Your story might not have anything in common with that of Lazarusʼ, but if the characters in your story have ever been thrown away, like our certain slave, left behind for something they didn't do, cast aside for something outside of their control, then yes, your scary story might have something in common with that of Lazarusʼ.

Once there was a man named Lazarus, once there was a paralytic, once there was a certain slave. The characters in your story might not have anything in common with these, but they have at least two things in common with one another. 

First, they were all thrown: they were thrown aside, thrown down, and thrown away. 

Second, they were all carried: the certain slave was carried by his fellow slaves, the paralytic was carried by his friends, and Lazarus, Lazarus was carried by an angel. 

Which leaves us to wonder, why ... did Lazarus have to wait for an angel? 

Which leaves to wonder, how much scarier was his scary story on this side of heaven ... without friends?

And as we wonder, a question emerges....  

Amidst the scary stories, do we live out the story of the rich man--or do we carry the story of the church?

If we live out the story of the rich man, well, Lazarus bleeds alone....

But if we live out the story of the church, Lazarus will never have to wait, never have to wait all the way until the angels bring him comfort, never have to face the story without a friend, a special kind of friend, the kind of friend that knows what my childhood friend Larry Cain knows.

Larry Cain was famous in my hometown for his God-given ability to catch good-sized trout from a mud puddle and bag a healthy buck on the first day of hunting season.

I can remember, as a teenager, going brook fishing with Larry Cain. He loved to take me along because in Maine you can catch a limit of only five brook trout per day, and I usually didn't catch any--which meant he could catch ten. I didn't mind; he would usually hook one for me and let me reel it in.

I can remember one sunny day while fishing with Larry, I got my line caught so badly in a tree stump that I lost my hook and bait. I threw down my rod, sat down on the bank, and watched the water go by. He came over to help me get set up again. I pulled my face out of my hands and looked down at his hip where he had a bounty of four beautiful trout hanging on a stick through his belt-loop. I finally asked him, "Why can't I catch any fish? I don't think the fish like my bait." He laughed and looked down at the water. "It's not the bait, it's not the fish, it's where you're standing ... look, you're casting your shadow right into the fishing hole and it's scaring them. The fish are there and they are hungry, but it matters where you stand."

I didn't know it then, but while Larry was giving me a fishing tip, he could have just as easily been introducing the teenage me to a new, broadened definition of friendship--the kind of friendship that the church needs to learn. 

In friendship, just as in fishing, it matters where we stand.

This is how it's happened before, anyway. 

Once upon a time, when the Hebrews were scared of a ruthless Pharaoh, God threw up a burning bush and sent Moses, not to lament from afar, but to go and take a stand. 

Once upon a time, in the Promised Land, they got scared again and ran to other gods, so he sent prophets like Elijah and Ezekiel, not to shrug from the sidelines, but to go and take a stand. 

Even once upon a time after exile, wouldn't you know it, the pressure of the political and religious system brought another kind of scary story, so this time he came down himself, in the person of Jesus, and set his own feet--even his whole body--in the mud and dust. 

This is the sort of friendship that Lazarus needs, meaningful, sincere, bodily friendship that takes a stand. 

This is how God responds and invites us to respond to the scary story.

There will always be those thrown down, thrown out, thrown away. There will always be the ones left to the dogs. There will always be the ones left outside the gate. There will always be the ones left for dead. There will always be the rich man who sees them as nothing and does nothing about it. There will always be those that are encountering scary stories....

Eventually, my wife took the scary monster book out of the freezer and, harmlessly enough, put it on the kitchen table. The next morning, when Lily saw it, she was overwhelmed with disgust, "What is that doing there? I'm taking it to the freezer." She took the book and put it back, slamming the door behind her.

We don't have that luxury.  

The scary story is out, it has been plucked from its hiding place, and it is as in front of us as our kitchen tables ... our smartphones ... our doctor's offices ... our mailboxes ... our social media ... our 24-hour news cycle. 

We can see the scary story from our pulpit; we can see it from our pews.

And yes, we know that those thrown around in this world are carried by angels to the next. 

And we know that those degraded to a status lower than dogs in this world are raised up to Abraham's bosom in the next. 

And we know that those that beg for crumbs in this world are the first to feast at the table of God in the next.           

We know that there will always be an eternal hope for Lazarus ... but it is a shame that he has to wait so long.

At the end of the children's book, lovable furry old Grover realizes that it was only him all along,

"Well, look at that," he says, "This is the end of the book, and the only one here is me. I lovable furry old Grover am the monster at the end of this book. And you were so scared. I told you and told you there was nothing to be afraid of."

And so it is with us. 

There is no monster at the end of this sermon ... only us, only the church.

And while we are not always lovable and furry, may we every day, even this day, be a church of friendship to the ones who are thrown out, thrown down, and thrown around ... the kind of friendship that rises to take a stand through the whole story ... the kind of friend who can legitimately say at the end, "I told you and told you there was nothing to be afraid of." 

Amen.

 


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