The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s193g10  Sunday 21  26/9/2010 

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

‘Father Abraham .. send Lazarus’  Luke 16.24

It is interesting that these words come after the passage we read last Sunday and the conclusion of that strange story about the dishonest manager.   Jesus concludes with the words: ‘make friends for yourselves’.   And these words seem as appropriate as an introduction to today’s more familiar (and perhaps less puzzling and confronting) story, the story of the rich man and his brothers and the poor man at his gate.

I note that in today’s gospel, twice the rich man, tormented in Sheol, asks Abraham to get Lazarus to do something - and twice this is refused!   First, the man asks Lazarus to be sent with some water to cool his tongue, and then for him to be sent to his brothers.   So the thing that strikes me is that this man considers both Lazarus and Abraham being there to do his bidding.   Lazarus of course is a mere minion - and perhaps the rich man thinks that he is properly acknowledging Abraham’s authority, by getting him to get Lazarus to do his bidding.   It would be below the rich man’s status to ask Lazarus to do either of these two things himself.   Even in hell, this man hasn’t lost his delusion of pre-eminence, and I suggest it is a pre-eminence even over Abraham, who is really only there to do the rich man’s bidding, ordering others around.

And my mind goes back to some other persons who asked Jesus to get someone else to do something.   There was the man who wanted Jesus to get his brother to share his parents’ estate with him, and Martha, who wanted Jesus to get Mary to help her.   Again, both requests are declined.

So if our prayer to Jesus is to get someone else to do our bidding, no matter how hard we pray, no matter how vital our ongoing contribution or ministry to the church is, no matter how frequently we read the bible, go to church, put money in the collection, no matter how much of a ‘mover and shaker’ we are, how much ‘faith’ in prayer we think we have - our prayers will be declined.  Sorry about this ..

And sometimes we can use our minister in much the same way.   The minister is there to get others to do our bidding.   I remember, last century, in another country, there was an Anglican ‘Expo’, and the various parishes and groups joined in to showcase their activities.   During the day I was talking to a vocational deacon, a very good friend, and someone who had a very vital ministry.   After I finished talking with her a person from the ‘Cursillo’ movement came and engaged me in conversation, specifically to get me to get the deacon  I had just been talking to, to come to a ‘Cursillo’ weekend!   The ‘Cursillo’ person had no idea of who (s)he was ‘inviting’ to ‘Cursillo’.   Needless to say, I declined.   I suspect that the Cursillo movement would have had something to learn from the ministry of this deacon rather than the other way around.

This attitude is rather more pervasive than perhaps we care to admit.   In my parish experience, some folk want the minister to get other people to join the parish really so that the future of the parish is assured and that continuing generations will continue to admire their contribution and ministry.

One of the main reasons I was glad to leave parish ministry, when the few for whom this was true got their noses out of joint, is that this is not a ‘Christian’ dynamic.   We need to heed the words of Jesus from last week’s gospel - ‘make friends for yourselves’.   Do not expect God or the minister to do this for you.

And, of course, if this is true on the personal level, it is equally true on the denominational level and the faith level.   Our task is not to get other people to agree with the precepts of our denomination or the articles of our faith, with the help of God, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, our bishop, or minister; either by promising eternal rewards for those who do, or condemning those who don’t to eternal punishments.  Our task is to ‘make friends for yourselves’.   It is not the first time I have wondered how many marriages have been ruined by clergy urging wives to get their husbands to come to church, and how much domestic violence this has sparked?   It is not surprising that this sort of ecclesiastical culture has often turned a ‘blind-eye’ to child molestation.

And, as an aside, there are some who have suggested that the recent earthquake in Christchurch (New Zealand) is God saying that people must come to (our) church!   In today’s local ‘Press’ there is a letter to the editor which says: ‘Manchester St was the focal point for destruction within the city centre - Manchester St that is the street for prostitution.   The den of iniquity is the area of greatest destruction.   This is a warning from God to the people of Christchurch to repent and change their ways, as I believe the next time the earthquake comes we will not be so fortunate.’   I wonder what this says about the rural area of Darfield, which was the epicentre of the initial earthquake and many of the subsequent 600+ aftershocks.   (Darfield was where my wife was the former vicar, and where she still has many friends.)     God will not use earthquakes to allow us to avoid that injunction: ‘make friends for yourselves’. 

Hijacking planes and flying them into tall buildings is not making ‘friends for yourselves’ and nor is burning the sacred scriptures of others who are not ‘christian’ like we are.  

And Jesus was noted for associating with the tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners.   He was making friends for himself amongst these people, the despised others - in contrast to the religiously devout who avoided these other people like the plague.   To make friends for ourselves is the essence of incarnation.

As I say (again and again :-) ‘We are called to be born again – into society – not out of it.   We are to be incarnated into the world, fully as Jesus was – not into a holy huddle.  We are to repent, to rejoice that others are found, that others are included – not challenged, marginalised and alienated - as the correspondent to the local ‘Press’ does.   A theology, whether it be biblical or traditional that removes us from the masses of people with whom Jesus associated has gone seriously awry.   I suggest that Jesus was killed precisely because he was social and not theological.’

And it seems that this text: ‘Father Abraham .. send Lazarus’ has important implications for our prayer life.   I have been reflecting recently on the fact that Jesus picked up on the grumblings of those who opposed him.   The prayers that are most important are not those the minister or priest says up the front, but the ones, seldom verbalised, but deep within our hearts, either for good or for ill.  

It may be that we are worried about what we will have for Sunday dinner, or the welfare of this or that person.   These are the things to which God is attentive; what we might term the mundane, the un-spiritual, the things that make us human; the things that we hesitate to bother the Almighty with.   I’m sure that God has selective hearing.   God doesn’t need to hear the words of the liturgy.   I’m sure that after countless times, God could recite the words him or herself.   What God hears are the real thoughts we have, and often they are not earth-shatteringly important, but the trivial things that concern us.   God knows when we disagree with the preacher, and perhaps God might well agree with us rather than the preacher.

But God also knows when we would wish to act uncharitably towards another, and use the name of ‘god’ in doing so.   God is quite able to say ‘no’ to our prayers, even if we are ostentatiously ‘christian’.  

Getting the minister to get someone else to do something destroys the possibility of friendship between the persons themselves and destroys the possibility of friendship between the minister and any in the congregation.  So being ostentatiously ‘christian’ can hardly exempt us from making friends of others, that would indeed be a delusion of grandeur, hardly different from the rich man in our story.   Christianity tells us to be friends with others, it inspires us to be friends with others, and it empowers us to be friends with others, so much so that it is less important that we are known to be ‘christian’ than it is that we are known to be friendly.

‘Father Abraham .. send Lazarus’.  No, God has already sent Jesus, not to forgive people when they fail to see Lazarus at their gate, not to rid the world of poverty so that we do not have to worry anymore, not to get everyone else to agree with me so I don’t have to consider the feelings of others, and certainly not to get others to admire my contribution and ministry, rather than making their own.   God has sent Jesus with this simple message: ‘make friends for yourself’.

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