A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Sermon 5 of a 6 sermon series on mercy
Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Luke 16:19-31
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We come today to the fifth of our series of six sermons on the subject of mercy. For those of us who have not been here for the first four, we have already explored Mercy and Forgiveness, Money, Conflict. Today we come to a really tricky one: mercy and judgement.
If you have sat with someone who is ill or dying, or who has suffered a trauma of some sort in their life, as many priests and indeed lay Christians do, or if you have been at those types of dinner party where after the coffee port comes out and the talk turns to religion and politics, or even if you’ve just been chatting with friends, perhaps who know that you go to church, you will probably at some point have had “that conversation”, which goes: If God is really so good…kind…loving…, merciful, then why does he allow…insert terrible thing here. Why does he allow suffering, war? Why would he send people to hell? Surely God isn’t like that. Surely he wouldn’t want anyone to go to such a horrible place?
Judgement, as a Christian concept in theology, is a tricky one to square with belief in a God of mercy. But we believe both. We believe that God is merciful, and that he is our Judge. So how can that work? What is the relationship between them?
I chose the Gospel passage we have just heard because I think it helps us into this conversation. The passage, traditionally called “Dives and Lazarus”, because the Latin word for “rich” was mistakenly translated in an early version of Scripture as a personal name, describes the varying lifestyles of two men – one rich, one poor -. It then describes their deaths, and their post-mortem fates. Lazarus, the poor man with oozing sores that local dogs liked to lick, dies, and, “is carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.” The rich man, who has “feasted sumptuously”, as the passage puts it, while Lazarus lay at his door, “also died, and was buried” and, as we read, ends up in “Hades” – the place of the dead, where he is “in torment”. Not with Abraham. Indeed separated from Abraham by “a great gulf.”
Now, assuming that we do want to assert a belief in an afterlife of some sort, there will none the less be some here this morning who would simply want to discount the possibility of there being any such place as Hell, or Hades. Those who would want to say that there is no place of torment which corresponds to heaven, or paradise, the place of eternal blessedness. And that is a legitimate theological position, and we could talk about that over coffee. But the overwhelming weight of the tradition says that God does exercise some kind of judgement over people, some kind of determining as to what our eternal destinies might be. How does that square with a God who we describe as merciful?
As you have got used to hearing me say, there is a lot I don’t know about those questions, but there are some things I think we can say. One of those is that fortune and circumstance in this life is not necessarily, indeed is almost certainly not, an indicator of God’s measure of our worth. The rich man has it all. Lazarus has nothing. But that does not mean that the rich man has his destiny sewn up. Remember elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, the passage that says, “he who says to his soul – soul, you have goods laid up for many years – eat, drink and be merry…you fool, this life your life will be demanded of you.”
I know you have already heard a sermon about money, but this is why some of the Gospel writers, and indeed honoured parts of the Christian tradition, are so adamantly against richness of possessions – because they very quickly become a substitute for, an easier route than – richness of life. Money really can be dangerous, because it leads to complacency.
But that is not to say that money is bad, or of course that poverty is good. Poverty is not good – it is horrific and crushing and needs to be addressed. The rich man sinned by not noticing and addressing, this man who lay daily at his gates, while he feasted sumptuously. It is simply to say that God’s judgement upon us is of a different order entirely from the way in which we often judge each other and ourselves.
I, like many other clergy, occasionally get called upon to conduct what gets called a ‘Social Services Funeral’. This is a funeral where there are no mourners, and it’s just you and the coffin and, if you are lucky, the undertakers. Sometimes it’s just you and the coffin. These funerals are usually for people who have died entirely alone. You don’t know the story, you have no idea who they are, really, and what led them to the point of being able to die without a single mourner. When I do one of those funerals, alone with the anonymous coffin, I always read this passage – Dives and Lazarus. Because you just don’t know. Chasms, torment and paradise, Abraham and Lazarus, and the Rich man in Hades. But what we do know is that the judgement of God is merciful.
A way of making sense of this is to remember that mercy precedes judgement. Mercy precedes judgement. It is theologically prior. It comes first. So God doesn’t say – ‘what I need to do is judge my people. Now, how shall I do that judging? I know, I’ll do it mercifully’. It’s really not that way around. What happens is that God is merciful, and because God is merciful, judgement flows from that as a necessary part of how it is to live in relationship with God. And that is because judgement is, in the end result, love.
That might sound quite, quite bizarre. But we have to remember that God is love. And really that is all that God is. No matter what we do, no matter what happens in the world, no matter what else is changeable and unpredictable and frightening and unsure, God is love. And because that is constant, then there are times when we experience that love as comfort, or as encouragement, or as blessing, and there are times too when we can experience that love as anger, as disappointment, or indeed as judgement. God’s judgement of us is his love laying bare our humanity in the face of his divinity.
So does the Rich Man go to hell because God judges him to be ungenerous, uncaring? Too rich, while Lazarus is too poor. No, I think Judgment is deeper, more profound than that. The Judgement comes because of the fundamentally disordered nature of this relationship. We are judged because we have received mercy. Mercy comes first. We are gifted the promise and the possibility of a grace filled life. A life brimming with the hope and the foretaste of the kingdom of God. A life in which the rich man and the poor man are equal in God’s eyes, and stand together as brothers. A life of gift and generosity.
But part of mercy is freedom. So we still have the freedom to say no to that life, to reject it. To challenge God, and to put ourselves back on the throne.
Do you remember the ending of CS Lewis’ “The Last Battle”, where all the animals, at the end of time, are streaming up the hill towards Aslan as he stands there? They all, individually, gaze into his eyes. And most of them, at that final moment of judgement, love him, and turn into the stable, the symbol of salvation. But some, a few, even then, stare into his eyes, and hate him. See the Lion, see the King, and reject his Lordship, fear the surrender of selfishness that loving him will entail, and they harden their hearts, turn left, and disappear into the shadow.
Mercy first. The loving eyes, the loving embrace of the King. And then, yes, Judgement, because this is all optional, this is a choice. My choice, your choice. Lazarus is still lying there, at the gates of our society, representing the invitation to be generous, compassionate, merciful. To open up the parameters of our lives. To climb down off the throne, and open the gates, to notice our brother or sister, to clean their wounds, rather than leave that task to the dogs.