This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1.3-9, John 20.19-31). Joanna is an elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Eastertide, Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs, the H-word, shorter sermons, tour bus preaching, other gods, bad church marquees, icky verses, the harrowing of Hell, DBH, and death breath. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tips of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
The man was running out of room in his garage for all of his stuff. His wife thought it was extravagant for them to have five cars to begin with, but now the jet skies and the boat were simply making things unmanageable. And though he was supposed to figure out whether or not they could grease the hands of the local government enough for another building permit to let him but yet another addition to the back of his house, his mind was consumed by a far more stressful matter.
Larry stood outside his house everyday, walking back and forth over his grass – the grass he paid a small fortune to keep maintained. Larry had his little cardboard sign asking for money or for food and people would slow down and pass him a few dollars, or a spare muffin. And everyday Larry would return from sunup till sundown, and it was driving the rich man crazy.
He had done everything he could think of – he called the police, but they explained the property upon which Larry walked actually belonged to the city and there was nothing they could do about it – he proposed a new city ordinance banning the panhandlers like Larry from asking for money within the local municipality but all the local churches fought against it – he even tried playing extremely loud and annoying music through his expensive stereo system to try to drive him off.
But nothing worked.
Day after day Larry showed up and the rich man couldn’t stand it.
And yet, one day, the man woke up and began his normal routine only to discover that Larry, the nearly permanent fixture out his window was gone. The man danced around in his kitchen sliding across the marble floors. He drank his imported coffee and was thrilled to discover that Larry’s obituary was in the newspaper.
The rich man’s problems were over!
He was so excited that he ran through the kitchen to share the good news with his wife, but as he rounded the corner into his indoor movie theater he felt a stabbing pain in his chest and he fell to the ground dead.
Sometime later the rich man realized he was in hell with flames of fire lapping all around him constantly. He even had to admit to himself that this torment was worse than seeing Larry outside all day. But then he strained his eyes and he saw Larry just on the other side of the fire, and he was standing there with what looked like an angel.
“Hey!” He shouted, “Send Larry over here with a Campari on the rocks – it’s getting hot in here.”
To which the angel replied, “You had good things your whole life, and Larry here, Larry had nothing. Here he is comforted and you are in agony. Also, notice – you can’t come over to us and neither can we come over to you.”
The rich man promptly fell to his knees, “Please! Send Larry to my brothers, that he might warn them about this place so they don’t have to suffer with me in agony.”
The angel said, “They have the scriptures, they need only trust what they read.”
“No,” he said, “You don’t understand. That’s not enough. They need someone to return to them from the dead for them to believe.”
And the angel finally said, “If they don’t already trust, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Thanks for this one Jesus.
The wealthy and powerful in this life will burn in torment forever and ever, and those who are weak and poor might suffer now but will be comforted in the beyond. Therefore, do what you can people – give away your wealth and life like Larry/Lazarus such that your reward really will be a reward.
It’s easy for this scripture to become a lambasting sermon about the poverty of wealth and the riches of near-destitution. Plenty of pastors have stood in their pulpits and held this one over the heads of their people in order to pad the offering plates, or guilt people into signing up for different ministries, or embarrass the well to do for their ignorance about their impending flames.
And there’s some truth to it. It’s a challenge to read the whole of the gospel and not read it as an indictment against the wealthy. But, as usual, there’s more to the parable than the parable itself.
Living well and accumulating lots of possessions and deep bank accounts might be the world’s most overpowering ideal lifestyle, but in the kingdom of God they matter little. We, wrongly, use those categories to describe both the saved and the lost, the winners and the losers.
Winning equates to wealth and losing equates to poverty.
And yet in Jesus’ eyes its living badly – being poor, hungry, and covered in sores – that turns out to be the mechanism by which people are apparently saved.
We can hardly blame ourselves for missing this divine reversal – we have it so repeated into our brains from our infancy even until this very moment that who we are is based on what we have earned. One need not flip through the channels on the television, or see the billboards covered in potential lottery earnings to have this proved over and over again.
We elevate the powerful and the wealthy both purposefully and subconsciously. We like to elect politicians who have done well for themselves, we read the books from the self-made millionaires, and we look up to our wealthiest family members.
And here’s the kicker – for all of our fascination and worship of those with money, they’ve done little good with it. Think about it: if the world could’ve been fixed by what we might call good living and good earning – then we would’ve fixed everything by now.
But we haven’t.
Instead, it’s the winners of this world who, more often than not, achieve their earnings off the backs of the least, last, lost, little, and dead.
They are the ones thrown to the curb while new homes, with new families, and new cars fill the neighborhoods.
But because we admire the wealthy and want to be like them, we blind ourselves from seeing how the ones with all the stuff use Jesus’ favorite people as the mechanisms through which they achieve and maintain all that they have. It has been their ignorance of the poor, their locking up of the marginalized, their segregating by skin tone, that has brought about a very particular end in which it sounds like good news to those on the top, to those who actually have something to lose.
And still, even with all their earning, and trying, and striving, and politicking, and maneuvering, the world is still a mess! The rich just keep getting rich and the poor keep getting poorer.
Here is where the parable stings the most – the rich man, with all that he has, his being first, most, found, big, and alive, he is not able to delay or avoid his death any more than Larry is with his lastness, leastness, lostness, littleness, and deadness.
The bell tolls for us all.
Do you see it now? When it comes to the Good News, success defined by the world merits us not one thing.
The rich man might start out and seem like a real winner. But he can’t even see the truth in his death – he refuses to accept that he has died! He bargains with father Abraham to make the most of his situation and he loses.
It is because he was so convinced that good living, having all the right things, was the instrument of salvation that his death is simply unacceptable. And, to make matters worse, Father Abraham frightens all of us to death, pun intended, with his final declaration – not even seeing a dead person rise from the grave can change our minds.
We are quite stuck in this worldly worldview of ours.
However, lest we hear this story today and leave with the impression that we are being called to go out and live like Larry – hanging out by the gates of the rich until we develop sores all over our body – that’s not quite what Jesus is saying.
This is not a story of imitation. It’s not a “go and do likewise.”
It is just a story of the truth.
And the truth is this: The game is over.
No one, certainly not God, is keeping score and tallying up all of our good works against our bad. There is not a divine ledger with little tallies every time we misstep or we bring about something good in the world. And there is definitely not a test by which the accumulation of our wealth will determine whether or not salvation is in fact ours.
The truth is a much harder pill to swallow precisely because everything else in the world tells us the contrary.
Do all you can, earn all you can, achieve all you can, save all you can, invest all you can, those are all slogans of the world.
But the truth is that the game is over. We have nothing left to earn, really, because the cross comes to all of us and all of us die.
And if we can accept that we are already dead, right here and right now, because of our baptisms, well then we can actually start living because we already have all we need.
Jesus came to raise the dead – nothing more, less, or else. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or to improve the improvable, or even convert the convertible. He came to raise the dead.
Heaven, whatever it may be, is not the home of the good, or the wealthy, or the powerful. It is simply the home of forgiven forgivers.
Hell, whatever it may be, contains only unpardoned unpardoners.
Everyone in heaven has decided to die to the question of who’s wrong, whereas nobody in hell can even shut up about who’s right.
And that’s precisely the rich man’s problem – he has been so conditioned and convinced that his earning should have earned him something that he can’t stop thinking about how he did everything right.
But who gets to define what, in fact, is right?
Notice, Jesus does not begin his story with a disclaimer that this is precisely what will happen to the rich and to the poor when they die, nor does he command the listeners to go and be like Lazarus in their living until the day they die.
He simply tells a story – and a frightening one at that.
But in the end the parable tells us one thing – The game is over.
Whatever we think we need to do to get God to love us or forgive us or save us, it’s already been done. All of our sins, those of the past, present, and future, are nailed to Jesus’ cross.
The question isn’t “What do we need to do to get saved?”
The question is, “How are we going to start living knowing that we are already saved?” Amen.
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
Of all the questions I get asked, the one I hear the most is: “What’s heaven like?” I’ll be down in the preschool when one of the children will saunter over and randomly ask the question with their eyebrows askew. Or I’ll be sitting with a grieving family planning a funeral service when a new widow will ask the question as if she’s never really thought about it before. Or I’ll be working on a sermon in a coffee shop with my bible open on the table when a stranger will walk up to ask the question out of nowhere.
“What’s heaven like?”
If Hallmark, the Lifetime channel, and uncles who tell bad jokes have anything to say about it, then heaven is a mysterious place in the clouds with fat little cherubic babies floating around playing harps, golden arches keeping certain people out, and Saint Peter sitting with a ledger.
If one of our preschool parents has something to say about it, then heaven (as she told her daughter) is a place filled to the brim with her favorite candy.
But if scripture has anything to say about it, then heaven is like a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sadly, sounds more like hell than heaven.
However, the bible is forever making connections between the worship of the Lord here and now, with the worship of the Lord in the New Kingdom. And not the announcements that always take to long to list at the beginning, and not the logistics of sitting down and then standing back up for hymns, but the beauty and wonder of encountering the beauty and wonder of the Lord.
The psalmist says the one thing worth seeking after is to live in the presence of the Lord each and every single day, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to wonder and inquire in the house of God. In weekly worship, when we experience God’s faithful presence through a choice phrase in a prayer, or a melodic move in a hymn, or even a powerful sermon, we are catching a glimpse of heaven on earth. For when we gather in the house of the Lord, when we are confronted with God’s majesty, what could be better?
As Christians, we do well to seek out the presence of the Lord here and now as foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. We do it on Sundays when we gather together to proclaim and respond to God’s Word. We do it when we are invited to the table for communion. We do it when we sit with a friend and earnestly pray together. We do it when we hear God speak to us in the still small voice. And when we do, we receive an answer to the question, “What’s heaven like?”
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The couple had recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary when they tragically died in a car crash. They were in relatively good health at the time, mainly due to the wife’s dedication to their diet and forcing them to both get exercise, but when the crash occurred they were immediately brought before St. Peter and the pearly gates.
After a quick check-in, much like the first minutes at a tropical resort, St. Peter volunteered to give them a tore of their heavenly abode. The mansion they would be calling home for eternity was filled with more rooms than they could count with a beautiful kitchen, swimming pool, and movie theater in the basement. As the wife squealed in delight with every passing accommodation, the husband grew skeptical and finally leaned over to Peter and asked, “So how much is this going to cost?”
Peter, flabbergasted, replied, “It’s free, this is Heaven.”
Later, they toured the endless golf course that started in their backyard. With perfect rolling hills that they could only have imagined on earth, they took in the beauty that was available whenever they wanted. The old man, again, asked Peter, “So what are the green fees?
Peter replied, “This is Heaven and you play for free.”
Finally Peter brought the couple to the clubhouse that was filled with people from their lives that they had loved and lost. The joyful reunions went on for some time until Peter motioned for the couple to go through the lavish buffet that had been prepared. The old man, still skeptical, quietly asked Peter how much the food would cost.
Peter, now growing frustrated, said, “Don’t you understand yet? This is Heaven, it’s all free!”
The old man stood still and then asked, “Well where are the fat free and low cholesterol tables?”
Peter then began to lecture, “That’s the best part. You can eat as much as you like of whatever you like, and you never get fat or sick. This is Heaven!”
Immediately the old man went off with a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping out of the clubhouse.
Peter and the wife both tried to calm down the old man and asked what was wrong. The old man looked at his wife and said, “This is all your fault! If it wasn’t for your diet and exercise, I could have been here ten years ago!”
What’s heaven like? I get asked this question on a pretty regular basis. I might be in my office with a grieving family who just lost someone they loved and someone will ask what the person is now “doing” in heaven. Or I’ll be here in the sanctuary teaching a lesson to the preschoolers when the subject of heaven comes up and one of them will say something like: My mommy told me that heaven is full of your favorite candy, and you can have as much of it as you want!
What’s heaven like? There are a decent number of times when scripture is descriptive about the beyond, but it is a far stretch from the jokes and movies many of have experienced on the subject. John caught a glimpse of the heavenly glory of God’s presence in a vision and described it like the grandest worship service to have ever occurred. Countless beings that have made it through the great tribulation surround the throne of the Lord where the Lamb is in the center. They sing with full voices and praise the Lord unceasingly for his majesty is beyond comprehension.
The problem with talking about heaven is that whatever we say, it is speculative at best. We can point to scripture where it is described, but the descriptions are made in such a way that heaven is beyond our comprehension. The whole point of heaven after all, is that it is totally other from earthly life. It is beyond life. It is glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might in a way that is impossible for us to understand during our earthly lives.
And even though we can only hint at what heaven might be like, it has become the pinnacle concern for many churches and Christians. What do I have to do to make it to heaven? Or what do we have to do in order to get other people to heaven? These questions dominate our thoughts and we grow anxious about whether or not we, and the people we love, will go on to our heavenly reward.
When talking about heaven, there is a strong temptation to make it so appealing with comparisons to earthly beauty that we neglect to think about the fact that we are called to exist here on earth until our deaths. But this text, this worshipful understanding of heaven, lets us know that God never promised we would not suffer. In fact the opposite is true. Suffering has always been part of our story, and even we here in the blessed region of Western civilization are not immune.
Only in death can we receive the gift of resurrection. It was only through Christ’s crucifixion that he could one day be raised again. The same holds true for us. Only when the bell tolls for us will we share in Christ’s victory over death.
And yet we still talk about it all the time. It is good and right for us to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, but when daydreams about our everlasting reward later prevent us from serving the needs of others right now it becomes cheap grace.
In many churches, like the ones most concerned about whether others are going to heaven or hell after they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now. Here in scripture John is confronted with the suffering of the great multitude before they arrive at the throne. They are granted a peace they did not have on earth: they will not hunger, nor thirst, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat because the Lamb of God has shepherded them to the springs of life where God wipes away all tears. But before we can rejoice with the Lord in his divine kingdom, we will endure tribulations in our earthly lives.
Imagining that our lives will be free from suffering is what often leads people to leave the church when something goes wrong. I know too many people my age who were forbidden from attending funerals as children, and then when they finally attended a funeral for the first time when they were older they fell away from the church. I also know too many people who lived such perfect and sheltered lives that when they encountered true poverty for the first time they were overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world and have been unable to return to church.
The church is supposed to be the alternative to this overly rosy view of the world. We have the church to help us remember exactly what God has promised, and what God has not. The church is the place where we confront the hardships of life and rely on the people in the pews next to us to help us through the great tribulations we experience. We are not here to prance around pretending that we have perfect lives without suffering, but instead to proclaim that in trusting the Lord we will find the strength and courage to sustain us until that time when we will join Jesus in the victory over death.
The church is the means by which we combat the hells we experience on earth by attempting to give people hope and faith in something greater than earthly life can offer.
In this church, at St. John’s, we strive to help guide and nurture one another through a variety of means. We have bible studies for the young and the old to help us wrestle with how scripture can speak into our everyday experiences. We collect food and clothing and money for others who are desperately in need. We send people on mission trips to build and plant new foundations and relationships for people who really feel like they are living in hell right now.
But we also have a woman here in the church who has made it her calling to help nurture people in the midst of suffering in the best way she knows how. I believe that Dianne Wright is keeping Hallmark in business through the countless cards she sends out to the community. If you’ve been coming to this church for any regular period of time, and have had so much as a cold, you’ve probably received a card from Dianne Wright. They are always thoughtful, they are always written with purposeful words, and they are always filled with love.
I have the added benefit of not just receiving cards when I need them, but I visit enough of you and our shut-ins to know how prized these letters have become. I was visiting someone at King’s Daughters recently when I saw the familiar script sticking out of the cards adorned in a row on the window sill. The woman I visited described them as the most precious gift she had received since she went in to rehab.
Time and time again I will find myself visiting someone and the subject of Dianne’s cards will come up. They might appear to be a simple and casual gesture, but they speak volumes in the realm of how we are sustained by God’s grace through our neighbor Dianne.
As Christians, we are called to combat the countless hells on earth that plague people through our love and presence. For Dianne Wright, this has meant a ceaseless commitment to communicating through cards the love, depth, and peace of God.
Each of us, in some way shape or form, has gifts that we use to share God’s love with others. Perhaps we have the freedom to visit with people who can no longer visit us. Maybe we, like Dianne, have a penchant for penning letters. Perhaps we have been blessed with lucrative careers that allow us to give charitably to help others. Maybe God has molded us with a spirit of prayer and we can lift up the world through our clasped hands. Perhaps we have become familiar with a particular need in the world and all we need is a little nudge to start serving God by serving others. Maybe we have toyed with the idea of a calling to the ministry and we just need to take a step in faith that God can use us to spread the gospel. Perhaps we have the gift of carpentry like Jesus only we’ve been too nervous to ask someone we know if they need any repairs. Whatever our gift might be, God is calling us to use them to draw people into moments of heaven on earth.
When our time comes God will do with us what God wants. In God’s infinite wisdom and glory we will surround the throne and join in one voice with the saints who came before us, and with the saints who will come after us. We will be washed with the blood of the lamb and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
We know not when we will gather with the great multitude, but each day God gives us is a gift. A gift we should celebrate by being a gift for others. Amen.