Stump The Rector: On Being Overwhelmed

Overwhelmed

A parishioner wrote to me because she was feeling overwhelmed and guilt ridden. Her feelings are understandable. She says as she looks at the big picture that she sees a corrupt government with the media as its accomplice, which leaves her without hope that things will ever improve. She sees Christians around the world being persecuted, churches being burned and Islam extremism on the rise. She sees the horrors of abortion (928,000 this year to date in the US) and the tragedy of homelessness with people begging on our very streets. On the local level she sees people in our own parish facing joblessness, health issues and untold other struggles. Her guilt comes from feeling so blessed but not knowing what to do and how to respond when the needs are so monumental. She prays continually about it but she insists that all of us need to do more than just pray.

I will respond with several suggestions but first I want to acknowledge that her struggles come in part because she has a heart of love and she is to be commended for that. The very real pain that she feels is part of the cross that she carries for being compassionate. However going in the other direction and learning to be insensitive to the needs of others is not an option for her, so in part she must learn to live with the pain. Still there are other things that she can do to lighten the load.

First, it is important to remember that this is God’s world. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof and all that dwells therein.” We are His servants. The Bible even calls us His coworkers. But we must not take on more than is ours. I make this mistake all of the time. Years ago when planting a church I could not sleep and worried constantly about the future of the parish. As I battled to find the right perspective I decided to call the Bishop and ask how he coped with the burdens of being a spiritual leader overs scores of churches. He said, “I do what the Pope does.” I asked, “And what is that?” He said that the Pope at the end of the day says, “Well its your church Lord, I’m going to bed.” I figured if the leader of over a billion Christians can have this perspective, then a vicar in Tennessee ought to able to sleep. I still have to remind myself frequently that it is His Church but when I do it works to take ease my burden. So remind yourself that this is God’s world and don’t try to carry God’s burden.

Second, the Bible is clear that we are to walk by faith. The Apostle tells us that which is not faith is sin. So in discerning what you are to do in response to the needs that you see, you must not be driven by guilt or fear. You are to walk by faith. We are to have what the Scriptures call “the peaceable fruits of righteousness.” I have learned to follow that “peace of God which surpasses all understanding” when discerning what the Lord would have me do about something. When I sense God’s peace then I move. But if I am wrestling with guilt or fear, I wait because that is not of God.

Additionally you should not feel guilty for what you have because all that you have has been given to you by God. “All things come of Thee O Lord, and of Thine own have I given Thee.” Imagine how you would feel if you saved up to give your child a bike for Christmas but your child would not ride it because she felt guilty that your neighbor did not have a new bike. We must be mindful of the needs of others, and we should share from our resources through tithes and offerings, but it is false guilt when we feel guilty about how much God has blessed us. In a sense, when we do this, we are saying that God does not know what He is doing and we certainly don’t want to go there.

Third, have hope. The Scripture says that hope is the anchor of the soul. Without hope we descend into worry, fear and despair and none of these are fruits of the Spirit. Jesus very practically asks us if we can accomplish anything through worry and the answer is of course that we cannot. But hope is something quite different and we can have hope because we are in the Beloved. Jesus said, “In this world you will have much tribulation, but fear not, I have overcome the world.”

While these are very troubling times the truth is that there have been far worse times in the world and even in our young nation. I would not have wanted to be around during the times of the plagues in Europe or during our own Civil War. It may seem like all is going to hell in a hand-basket but we must remember that ultimately God is in control. The Bible says that He looks at the plans of His enemies and He laughs. If there were ever a people who should be given to optimism it is Christians. As the old preacher once said, “I read the back of the book, we win!” We have enemies but we have a Shepherd who prepares a table for us in their presence. We serve a God who is sovereign and who is able to work all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Jesus has promised us that the gates of hell will not be able to prevail against His Church. So there is reason after reason for us to have hope.

Once we have established that this is God’s world and that we are to walk by faith and be people of hope, then we are in a better place to discern our role. AA has a great expression, “Do the next right thing” which I submit fits well with Jesus’ many teachings and parables about being faithful servants. Rather than being overwhelmed by a mountain of needs, we discern how to respond to the need that is right in front of us. Then we do the next right thing.

There is an old story of a boy walking on a beach after a storm that has washed hundreds of starfish on shore. Every now and then he would bend down, take up a starfish and throw it back into the sea. An older gentleman was watching him and overtaken by the futility of the boy’s actions decided to confront the boy. “What do you think you are doing son? Given the hundreds of starfish still on the shore you are not making one bit of difference.” The boy leaned down and grabbed another starfish and just before throwing it back into the sea said, “It makes a difference to this one.”

Sermon – Lazarus and the Rich Man

Lazarus and Rich Man

Luke 16:19-31
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30“ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

Today we come to the end of a series of Jesus’ parables in the Gospel of Luke. We started out with the Parable of the Great Feast where we are told to go out to the hedges and lanes to invite people to the feast. Next we had the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin and the Lost Son. Last week was the Parable of the Shrewd Steward and this week is the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. But I am going to argue that this is not a parable per se. I believe that this is an actual event presented in the form of a parable. Why do I say that?

Right after Jesus gave the parable of the shrewd steward the text says. “The Pharisees who dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him.” Jesus tells this story in response to their scoffing. But notice a very important difference in this story, which I believe suggests that it was an actual event. What was the name of the man who threw the banquet? What was the name of the shepherd who lost the sheep or the woman who lost the coin or the father who lost his son? What was the name of the lost son? We are not told are we? But in this story we are told that Lazarus was with Abraham, an historical figure. And we have Abraham in discussion with the rich man. The identity of the rich man was hidden to protect the guilty. I believe that Jesus told this story to give us a peak into what it going on behind the very thin veil that separates this world from the next and if this story was not enough to scare money-loving Pharisees into doing what is right, then nothing will. So let’s look at some of the details behind the veil.

The first thing that you notice on this side of the veil is how unfair life is. The guy in this story is Donald Trump kind of rich. Purple was considered the color of royalty and it was very expensive in that day. His clothes were linen and he lived in the lap of luxury. Just outside of his villa was the beggar Lazarus. He is sick, (he clearly didn’t have Obamacare). And since we are told that he was “longing” for the scraps from the rich man’s table, then we know that he wasn’t receiving any. Not even scraps!

But when we look on the other side of the veil, we see their fortunes reversed. This tells us that while things are not fair or just in this life, it will be made right in the life to come. As Jesus put it, “God is not mocked, what a man sows, he will reap.”

Next they both die. It is interesting to me how differently their deaths are described. We are told that the angels carried Lazarus’ soul to Abraham while it simply says, “the rich man also died and was buried…” No mention of angels. I can see St. Peter looking like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld. “No angel for you.”

A priest friend told me of an incident in the hospital. He had given last rites to one his parishioners and since death was immanent he decided to stay with him. He was leaning against the wall at the foot of his parishioner’s bed. Then very distinctly an invisible hand touched his shoulder and moved him out of the way. At that very moment the parishioner sat up in bed, breathed his last and died. The priest said that he had no doubt whatsoever that it was the parishioner’s angel coming to escort him home. He said to me, “Why he had to move me out of the way when he could pass through a cinderblock wall, I’ll never know, but I know that it happened.”

I find it to be a very touching thought that angels come to guide us home. It is yet another way that the Good Shepherd cares for His sheep. But it get’s better. The angels took Lazarus, as the Greek reads literally, “to Abraham’s bosom.” This indicates a banquet where you recline at table and close friends would rest their heads on one another’s chest as John did with Jesus at the Last Supper. So the angels took Lazarus to the Messianic banquet, the very banquet that we celebrate now in union with them.

The text says that the rich man was in Hades. This is where the unrighteous go until the general resurrection and the Day of Judgment. They do not gather at the banquet table.

While there are many other texts that point it out, you would think that this story alone would once and for all put any end to any idea of universal salvation, that is that all are saved. This is a wicked, pernicious heresy that has made its way into many mainline denominations. It sounds current and pc to say that every one is going to make it to heaven; that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere in your belief. But one guy at a banquet and another suffering in Hades tells us very clearly that is not the case. All dogs may go to heaven but all people don’t. Allow me to give you a very personal illustration of why this is so.

If someone were to ask me if I have ever lied, after saying “No” I would probably admit that I have lied. Question. To be brutally honest, what does that make me? A liar. Liars do not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus said that if a man lusts in his heart, he has committed adultery. I have not always been a priest and I am a guy so I am guilty there too. What does that make me? An adulterer. Adulterers do not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus said that if you hate then you have committed murder. Since I have had to talk myself out of shooting someone I am guilty there too. So what does that make me? I am a liar, an adulterer and a murderer…… and I think that I am not alone.

So next we need to ask how a liar, adulterer and murderer can get to heaven. One religion would suggest by meditation. If I become one with myself and one with the universe then all will be peace and joy. But even to someone who is not religious that sound unimaginable. God is going to overlook lying, adultery and murder if I sit in a beanbag chair every day and get quiet? What kind of justice is that? And what would be the recourse for the guy who didn’t just think about those things but actually did them? Do they need 30 more minutes of meditation every day?

The bottom line is that it takes the blood of Jesus to take away my sins of lying, adultery and murder. If anything else could do that then why would our Heavenly Father have required the death of His Only Begotten Son? My forgiveness does not come by the sincerity of my belief; it comes from a bloody cross and an empty tomb! This story tells us that universalism is not only wrong it is blasphemous.

But fairly recently a famous pastor wrote a book suggesting that people only go to hell for a brief time and once they see the truth then God accepts them into heaven. It is a kind of Protestant version of Purgatory. As appealing as that sounds, this story does not allow us to go there. Abraham says to the man, “And besides all of this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” The study notes concerning this passage in the ESV Bible put it so succinctly. “A person’s state after death is permanent.”

Let’s keep moving. When I was in college and attending a non-denominational church I never, and I mean NEVER, heard anything about the saints in heaven. There was no mention of them praying for us. There was no suggestion that we should or should not ask for their prayers. There was no concept of being surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses as we are told in Hebrews. We didn’t even wonder if they had a clue about what was going on with us “down” here. I imagine that if you asked me I would have said “No.” Folks who had died in the faith were with the Lord and that was the end of the story.

But in this story we have a man in Hades asking for help from a saint in heaven and this saint is very aware of what is going on, much like when Moses and Elijah came to talk with Jesus about His impending death. This introduces all kinds of interesting ideas about the relationship between the saints on earth and the saints in heaven but we will save that for another time.

I want to spend some time considering with you Jesus’ main point for telling this story. Remember, He was addressing the Pharisee’s idolatrous love of money and He was warning them where such idolatry would take them.

This story also addresses a topic that needs continual clarification, particularly to those who would consider themselves to be evangelical Christians. That topic is the relationship between faith and works. Jesus is pointing out here, as would be later articulated by the Apostle James, that faith without works is dead.

Two years ago Beth and I took a wonderful anniversary trip to Italy. To get around the country we took the train. It was a very simple process. You found out when the trains were running, purchased a ticket at the station and then boarded. Eventually a conductor would come through the train asking for tickets and after he punched your ticket, you just sat back and enjoyed the scenery.

Sadly, this is how too many Christians see their faith. It’s just a matter of getting your ticket punched. “How’s your soul?” “Great, I’ve been baptized.” Punch. “How’s your soul?” “Great, I’ve been confirmed.” Punch. “How’s your soul?” “Great, I’ve had the Sacrament this week.” Punch. All you have to do not is to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Don’t get me wrong. All those things are necessary and important but they are meant to launch us into love and good deed, not stand in as replacements. What is the summary of the law? We are to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and our souls and our minds and what else? We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We cannot day after day walk past a beggar at our front door, who is only asking for scraps from our table and think that it will be okay because “I love Jesus.” How we prove that our love for Jesus is not just talk is to “do it unto the least of these my brethren.” Why? Because when we “do it unto the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me.”

We finished the last class in Financial Peace last week. I was sad it was over. This is the most transformational class that I have ever taken. If I were the Pope then I would order all of you to take it when it is offered again. But since I am your servant I can only beg you to do it. It gives you hope, it strengthens marriages and as Dave says, it will prepare you to live and to give like no one else.

In this last class Dave made an obvious but important point. He said that God is a giver. We know that is true. The most famous verse in the Bible tells us so. Well if we have been created in His image, and we are, then we are created to be givers also.

While Jesus pointed this story at Pharisees, I don’t believe that we as God’s children have to receive it the same way that He intended for the Pharisees to receive it; that is unless money is your idol as well. It’s not a matter of running out of here and giving money to the first poor person you come across so that you don’t end up in Hades. It’s more of a matter of realizing that as children of our Heavenly Father it is our responsibility and our joy to be concerned about the needs of others. Good works do not save us but as the Articles of Religion state, they “do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith.” (BCP p.870). In reminding us of our responsibilities to the poor, Jesus is offering us an opportunity to grow and mature in the faith. He is offering us an opportunity to grow in godliness. Then in the end, we too will have our angels come to escort us home. Let’s heed His words.