HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 91
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 16:19-31
SERMON: “Is Anything Missing from Your ‘To-Do’ List?”
Today’s reading from Luke gives us one of many biblical insights to the “afterlife.” We like the scriptures that tell us that the Kingdom of God is at hand; that it is like a mustard seed that grows into an amazing tree; that the poor are blessed because it will be theirs. We like the prophecy in the Book of Revelation that tells us that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and that there will be no more suffering or crying. This reading we don’t like so much because it paints a harsh picture of a rich man in torment while the poor man that had to beg for a living at his gate is comforted and soothed.
I did a search of the preaching journals and helps for an opening story, and most of what I found were stories we’ve all heard before about arrivals at the pearly gates. Only this one was new to me: Three women die and all three reach heaven at the same time. There they meet St. Peter. He tells them he has some other important business to transact and asks them to wait outside. Finally he returns and calls the first woman into his office. He apologizes for making her wait so long. “Oh, I don’t mind at all,” the woman says. “I’m so thrilled just to be here in Heaven.” St. Peter is delighted by her attitude. “Well, then, if you can just answer one question for me, we can finish processing your papers. Now tell me, how do you spell ‘God’?” The woman spells it for him, then she goes on into the celestial realm. St. Peter calls in the next woman and also apologizes to her for making her wait. “It will be worth it, I’m sure,” she answers. “I am willing to wait one thousand years if necessary in order to see God face to face.” St. Peter is very pleased. He insists, though, on asking her one more question for the Records. “Tell me, dear lady, how do you spell ‘God’?” The woman spells it perfectly, then enters the pearly gates.
Finally, St. Peter calls in the third woman. He also apologizes to her, but she refuses to accept his apology. “It was quite rude,” she says angrily. “All my life on earth I had to wait in lines. Wait at the checkout counter, wait at the bus stop, wait for the kids to get home from school, wait for my coffee break. And now you expect me to wait to get into heaven? Well, I just won’t stand for it!” St. Peter said, “I’m so sorry. If you’ll just answer one more question for our records, then you can go on in. Tell me, how do you spell “antidisestablishmentarianism?”
That story, like the one we read from Luke, is not so much about what heaven is like, as it is about what it takes to get in, and how a person behaves, what a person does before arriving there.
Is there anything missing for your “To-Do before arriving at the pearly gates” list?
Popularized by the 2007 film of that name starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, the phrase “bucket list” refers to a list of things people yearn to do or see or accomplish before they die. Marvel at the Taj Mahal, skydive, hike up to Machu Picchu, shake the hand of the president, cook the perfect soufflé, watch a game at every Major League ballpark -- the lists are as varied as the people who assemble them. The goal is to accumulate memorable experiences, as one would fill a bucket with strawberries at the pick-your-own berry farm.
What would a Christian bucket list look like? Well, let’s start with the bucket. Would it be turned upright, to accumulate the most desirable experiences possible? Or would it be turned upside down, to pour out goodness upon the world? A deeply Christian bucket list focuses on making others happy.
It appears that Jesus directs the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). Just before telling this story,
13 ”No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
A video of Max Lucado preaching can be found on youtube. His plea: What if, we said that’s enough, this is the generation that the church responds to world hunger? This is the generation that says we’re going to make sure that people at least have clean water to drink. What would it do to our people to invigorate them with the joy of compassion? reaching out around the globe, changing people’s lives, and what would it say to people who are watching the church, who tend to be so cynical and cross-armed and cross-eyed about everything we do? Isn’t compassion our finest apologetic? You can’t argue with compassion.”
Lucado reminds us of Acts, chapter 6 in which we learn about a problem with an uneven distribution of food, and the first thing they do is gather the whole church. They get the whole church involved. “What if we said, this just isn’t right. We can do better about this? Let’s get ticked off for Christ’s sake.”
A friend posted something on Facebook a couple of weeks ago that I almost put it in the yellow pages, but had some difficulty verifying part of the statistics. The post said that the money required to eradicate hunger for everyone in the world has been estimated at 30 billion a year . . . about as much as the world spends on the military every eight days. I didn’t have any trouble verifying the military spending, and even if 30 billion isn’t the right amount to eradicate hunger . . it surely would be enough to help countless of God’s children.
Lucado confesses to having been neglectful when it comes to compassion. He says he has been serious when it comes to Bible study and pasturing, and leading. We can identify. We’ve acknowledged the problem, many of us give to missions, North Kent Community Services, and Kids Foodbasket. We’ve supported the Hugerfast for World Vision. Many of us have made other gifts as well. There are some 2,000 verses in the Bible tell us to care for the poor.
The rich man wears “purple and fine linen,” signs of royalty and power (v. 19; cf. Esther 8:15; Daniel 5:7, 16, 29; likewise when the soldiers mock Jesus as “King of the Jews,” they dress him in purple [cf. Mark 15:16-20]); meanwhile “at [the rich man’s] gate lay a poor man named Lazarus” (v. 20a). Admittedly, Luke doesn’t describe Lazarus’s apparel, but given his status -- a beggar outside a rich man’s house -- it’s likely his clothes are tattered rags.
This story isn’t just about food for the hungry or care for the world’s poor. While it probably should not be taken as the definitive description of the afterlife, it does tell us what God’s priorities are for us in this life. Jesus reminds his listeners, including us, through this dramatic parable, that we need to pay attention to Moses and the prophets’ message “to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). That is the enduring challenge.
So what would the regrets be if you didn’t get to do things on your list?
A nurse specializing in care of the terminally ill has recorded the most common regrets of the dying. There are no regrets about missed business deals, no regrets about skipped bungee jumping opportunities or even about marriage -- despite the many jokes that link regret to the choice of a mate. (According to one, a woman inserts an ad in the classifieds: “Husband wanted.” Next day, she receives a hundred letters. They all say the same thing: “You can have mine.”)
No, the top five regrets discovered by the nurse include:
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier. People admit that they feared change in their lives, so they pretended that they were content. In fact, they wish they had laughed more and allowed themselves to be sillier.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. People feel badly that they were so caught up in their own lives that they let important friendships slip away.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Many people suppress their feelings in order to keep peace with others.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. This regret was expressed by every male patient. Every single one of them.
And the number one big regret, discovered by nurse Bronnie Ware and reported in The Guardian (February 1, 2012):
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This is the most common regret of all. “Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams,” says Ware, “and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”
As the rich man pleads with Father Abraham to let him warn his brothers, and if not him, then send Lazarus to warn them, Abraham says, “ ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Abraham is talking to us, right along with the rich man and his brothers. Are we convinced? Are we persuaded to change our ways if someone actually rises from the dead?
Jesus has risen from the dead. Are we convinced?
Now, let’s be clear: None of us is perfect, and we will all come to the end of life feeling that we have made mistakes along the way. There are choices we feel bad about, alongside opportunities we wish we had seized. But what would it mean for us to die with no big regrets?
The top regrets of the rich man can teach us the lessons that we -- like his five brothers -- need to learn. We don’t want to arrive at our deathbed saying:
I wish that I had cared for the people around me.
I wish that I had listened to Moses, the prophets and Jesus.
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, in which my actions were in line with my beliefs.
Is there anything missing from your “To-Do” list?