Our gospel story for today presents what is called an apocalypse – a wake-up call, revealing in a disconcerting way what we need to see with our own eyes before it is too late. During his life the rich man did not even see the poor, suffering man who was at his gate each day. Now, in the afterlife, he sees Lazarus – but it’s too late. The parable portrays a permanent chasm fixed between the rich man and Lazarus, with no way to cross over. The exaggerated apocalyptic contrasts are many: the lavish meals of the rich man’s table in life, contrasting with his unquenchable thirst after death; the deathly poverty of Lazarus, contrasting with his rest in the afterlife with Abraham.
An apocalypse often uses such exaggerated imagery to offer an urgent warning to those who can still change before it is too late. The parable reminds us of the dream sequences of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’A Christmas Carol. But in that case Jacob Marley was able to warn his old partner Ebenezer before it was too late. The best part of the story is the new Ebenezer, who completely changes his life by cultivating relationships he previously scorned and sharing instead of hoarding his wealth. But in this story it is too late for the rich man to warn anyone. Three times Abraham refuses to send Lazarus to warn his siblings. (The Greek word adelphoi can mean both brothers and sisters.) Abraham is not harsh with the man; he calls him “child,” indicating that even a child of Abraham is not exempt from eternal judgment. But Abraham stands firm in his refusal.
In this parable the audience seems to be placed not so much in the role of either Lazarus or the rich man, but in the role of the five siblings who are still alive. They still have time to open their eyes, and see the poor people at their gates, before the chasm becomes permanent. “Send Lazarus to them, that he might warn them,” cries the rich man on behalf of his brothers and sisters, “so that they do not come to this place of torment.” Jesus tells this terrifyingly vivid apocalyptic journey to hell in order to awaken a sense of urgency on the part of those who are listening to him. Through Abraham he offers a chilling prediction – “If they do not listen to Moses or the prophets, neither will they listen even to someone who rises from the dead.”
Although this story may not be intended to offer a picture of what the afterlife is like, it serves us well to pay attention to the image of Abraham with Lazarus. The NRSV has cleaned up the language, made it less intimate, more modern – the man looked up and saw “Abraham with Lazarus by his side.” But it doesn’t carry the same pathos as the language in the old RSV – Lazarus was “lying in the bosom of Abraham.” There is an old well known African American spiritual, “Rock-a-my soul in the bosom of Abraham” which was based on this parable and brought great comfort to slaves suffering under the brutal treatment of their masters.
Jesus paints a comforting picture of Abraham offering the kind of tender care that Lazarus needed but never received in life. Day after day he lay in the dusty street, sick and starving, with no human touch, no person who bothered to care for him. Only the dogs, who in the Middle East were not much better off than he was, offered him some comfort and companionship. What a difference a little bit of kindness would have made to him. Jesus is warning us to keep our eyes open to the suffering in the world, and instead of shielding our eyes and looking away; we are to respond by offering care and comfort.
Today we are formally welcoming Deacon Mary to serve in our congregation. Historically the task of caring for the poor, the hungry and those who are suffering like Lazarus has fallen to the deacons of the church. We are first introduced to the role of deacons in the Book of Acts. In the very beginning of the church, there was tension between those Christians who were Jews from Jerusalem and those who were Hellenists, or Greek Jews, who had converted to the new religion. The Hellenists felt as though the needs of their widows and orphans were being neglected. So the leaders of the church, appointed from among the Hellenists seven men, who would be in charge of distributing food and managing pastoral care. Stephen, who would become the first martyr for the faith, was the best known among them. We consider them to be the first deacons, although they were not actually given that title in the story.
Interestingly enough, the only person in the New Testament to actually be called “Deacon” is Phoebe. So we know that not only was the office of deacon one of the very first positions to which people were set apart in the early church, but women as well as men served as deacons. The role of deacons expanded and flourished during the first four centuries of the church. Both men and women served in that extremely important calling of providing care for those in need. They coordinated distribution of food and clothing to those in need and cared for the sick and dying. Deacons offered the kind of care that Lazarus needed but did not receive until he entered heaven.
Deacons also fulfilled other functions, they taught, helped to prepare catechumens for baptism, and they assisted at worship, both in distributing the Eucharist and reading the Gospel. Deacons have always served in the Eastern Orthodox Church; but in the Western church, the diaconate gradually became less prominent until it pretty much disappeared by the twelfth century. Eventually becoming a deacon was a requirement on the way to the priesthood, so there were no longer permanent deacons. The recognition of the important role historically played by deacons and a desire to form a permanent diaconate was part of the reforms of Vatican II. As a result The Roman Catholic Church established a permanent diaconate once again, but this time limited to men at least 35 years of age. Interestingly enough, even though women are not permitted to be deacons, the wives of candidates for the diaconate must approve of their vocation and attend all the classes with them. In some dioceses, the women are not permitted to ask any questions or speak during the classes. Pope Francis has now established a commission to determine if women can once again serve as deacons in the Roman Catholic Church.
Recognizing the long and inspiring history of the ministry of deacons in the church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America revived the order of deacons about twenty five years ago. Our own Metropolitan New York Synod, under the leadership of Stephen Bouman, who was then Assistant to the Bishop, was the first synod to establish guidelines for training, internship and the ritual of setting apart deacons for service. We have been privileged to have had four deacons in our congregation. Before their retirement Gary and Lynn Weiler served us faithfully for several years, and now we are blessed with Deacon Charlene and Deacon Mary. Their service is voluntary and they coordinate their ministries with me and the leaders of our congregation. We can count on them to be there when they are needed, whether for leading worship, teaching, congregational life, bereavement and pastoral care. Just this past July both deacons took care of members who had health crises while I was on vacation. It is comforting to have familiar faces visit when we are hurting and offer prayer and a sympathetic ear. Our deacons each have specialized training as well, Charlene as a bereavement counselor and Mary as a chaplain.
We ask God’s blessings on Mary as she formally begins her ministry today and on Charlene as she continues in her service to our congregation and the church. The deacons who serve the church do not need the urgent wake-up call of our gospel text; they are the ones who care for the Lazarus of today’s world. Amen.