Harrowing Of Hell
September 25, 2016

Looking for Lazarus

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

There is a lot in this parable that is interesting. For example, I wonder why Lazarus is carried away by angels and the rich man is buried. I wonder why this is the only parable in which Jesus gives one of the characters a name. I wonder about that chasm between heaven and hell, and why it is needed to keep people in heaven from visiting people in hell? I wonder about the cryptic warning that no one would listen to a man raised from the dead.

Those are things I wonder about. That is the beauty of parables, you can unpack them in so many ways. But what I believe we are meant to talk about today is Lazarus, and who Lazarus is in our lives?

I titled this sermon “Looking for Lazarus,” and that is what we are going to do. But first, I’m curious as to why Lazarus was ignored by the Rich Man. Maybe he was so self-centered he’d never noticed Lazarus? Though the story indicates otherwise. When talking to Father Abraham from the pit of hell, the Rich Man seemed to know Lazarus’ name.

Maybe the Rich Man was too busy. He was important, after all, and important people are busy. But one thing I’ve noticed, and maybe you have as well, that the more important a person, the more control they have over their time. Busy in the life the Rich Man was about priority, not availability, and clearly the priority in his self-set schedule was not Lazarus.

Maybe the Rich Man was afraid that Lazarus was just a money pit. I mean, I image he could afford the financial burden. I imagine he already supported a fleet of people and he was still far from bankrupt. One more probably wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. But, and here is the worry, what if Lazarus told a friend, who told a friend, who told a friend? Where would it stop? That could be a lot of money.

But worse than a financial sinkhole, maybe it was an emotional sinkhole the Rich Man was avoiding. Can you imagine how needy Lazarus might be? Where would that stop? Maybe the Rich Man’s pool of empathy was already running dry.

Maybe he was a hypochondriac. Lazarus was a mess, after all. Who knows what he had?

Or maybe it had something to do with his identity, and deep down inside he was feeling like a fraud. What if Lazarus got to know him, and found out they weren’t all that different. What if the Rich Man found out, in getting to know Lazarus, that Lazarus is every bit as smart than he was. Or worse than that what if Lazarus found out that he was every bit as smart as the Rich Man. Or even worse than that, what if Lazarus found out that the Rich Man was just lucky in making his money, or that he married into it, or that he was born into it. Yikes. To be in relationship with Lazarus puts the Rich Man at risk of having to be really honest about the circumstances of his life.

Given all of these things I’m not sure why anyone would go looking for Lazarus. Time, money, emotion, disease, and identity: there are a lot of reasons to walk passed Lazarus; but Jesus gives us one important reason not to… Hell. Walking by Lazarus, it seems, sends us to Hell.

And that is a pretty good reason to not believe in Hell. No hell, and we are free and clear to walk by Lazarus.

In the parable heaven and hell are places one goes after death. That may be true; I don’t know. Haven’t been there. But as followers of Jesus we do believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, this near. And if heaven is here, maybe hell is as well. We may agree hell is seen in the ugliness of this world; we also may agree that hell looks like that which isolates us; we may also agree that hell looks like that which causes us shame and guilt and anxiety. Hell may look like whatever it is that causes us to pass by Lazarus in the first place, pretending not to notice.

So here is the paradox of the parable, Lazarus becomes our key to the Kingdom of Heaven. He becomes the teacher that moves us beyond anxiety, guilt and shame. So let’s look for him. As we do, keep two things in mind: He is closer than you think, and he is in a place where you can be in mutual relationship with him. Proximity and mutuality are necessary if Lazarus is to become our key to the Kingdom of Heaven.

I learned this from my friends in the Mormon Church. I use to work in a factory in Medina, Ohio. After a year of being there I came to see that there was a significant Mormon presence at that factory. The plant president was Mormon, and when jobs opened up, I suspect, he let his network know. I don’t think there was ever any preferential treatment in the hires, if there was I never saw it play out in job performance. The point is, there was an ethic in that Mormon community, committed to having no Lazarus’ in their midst. So they were always on the lookout for who Lazarus might be, and how they could be in relationship with him.

It is important to note that the Lazarus we’re looking for most likely isn’t the beggar on the street corner, nor a friend from our intimate social circles. Mutuality is hard to find with the street corner beggar, and God is more subtle than to make Lazarus our tennis partner.

So where might we look for Lazarus? Maybe we should take a page out of the Mormon playbook. Church is a place to start. Church is about the only institution left in this country that allows, if we let it, for authentic relationship outside our socio-economic prescription. The beauty of church friendship is that it finds its foundation in our common belovedness and mutual desire to grow up in our souls.

Superficial things like vacations and cars and remodels and stock portfolios and schools fall away from the conversations and are replaced with stories from our spiritual journeys. And that can be scary because we have to go through the fraud, then own the providence of our luck, before we get to the deep joy of our belovedness. But getting there is liberating. To know Lazarus and his belovedness and to see our own belovedness in his eyes is what erases the shame and anxiety and guilt exacerbated every time we walked by Lazarus pretending not to notice.

Now true relationships can get sticky, especially around money and helping a needy person. I’ve been there before with a woman in Uganda named Frankie. At first I felt like I was a real hero, helping her financially, but then I felt trapped and used and uncomfortable. It kept me awake at night, and finally, after years she stopped bugging me. And she was in Uganda. Imagine if she had gone to my church? But had she, it might have given me the chance to be Lazarus to her as well. That is mutuality in proximity. That is to say, when we are looking for Lazarus the gift we may give to another is the realization that they found their Lazarus in us.

So I invite you to look for Lazarus. He or she is nearer than you think, and they might not look like what you expect. Their need is more likely of the soul, than of food or money or medical care. In fact in this city, it is way more likely we will find an emaciated soul than an emaciated body.

So take the risk. Step more deeply into the community God has set you in. Stop at the threshold of your gate; listen to someone’s story; tell your own.

Lazarus is here to spring us from the confines of hell; Lazarus is here to be our key to the Kingdom of Heaven; so we can grow up in our souls. So look for Lazarus. Look around.