In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ. Beloved in the Lord, don’t we all enjoy a good story like this one in which the forgotten and downtrodden beggar becomes the exalted hero? And where the former persecutor becomes the fearless advocate of the oppressed? They are both examples of dramatic reversal that makes us wonder about the world– its true nature and the paradox that seems to govern all despite outward appearances to the contrary.
The rich man in this morning’s gospel lived the lifestyle of someone rich and famous. He had everything going for him: the best clothes, sumptuous meals, and the reputation that preceded him in the world. But while he was well known to the world, his name was unwritten in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Note carefully what the parable does not say: There is no intimation that he received his wealth by any means that were dishonest or criminal. No, here is someone that was living the American dream; when it came to business, he was killing it. Yet in the midst of his success lurked one great missing piece.
The poor man Lazarus who lay at his outer gate begging daily did not ask for very much: a single crumb from the table of his neighbor. Yet the unnamed rich man could not spare even that wee bit. His worldly status had blinded him to his true home in heaven, and he did not see the Lord in the distressing disguise of the sore-covered, dirty Lazarus. When the rich man finally met his maker, he begged for the small relief from suffering which he himself did not give, and he was refused in the same way that he himself refused his neighbor. In the end, he had failed to understand the true purpose of riches — that he was not the real owner but only the steward for the Lord who the Psalmist says, “… owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” (Psalm 50:10)
But we do not know this rich man too well, for only one verse describes him. Yet there is another fictitious rich man who cannot so easily escape our imagination and who might better lead us to repentance. I speak of our dear old uncle Ebenezer Scrooge, an equally shrewd man of business who in Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol also finds a way to completely ignore the poor:
Oh, but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! Squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! And sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained and solitaire as an oyster.
Though his closed hand refuses even a crumb to a beggar boy, three spirits from the life to come work on him and finally lead him to repentance through beholding his own future, dead body. The remembrance of death unbinds his greedy hand when the author reflects:
Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion. But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike. And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal.
We in the Church celebrated the memory of such a generous man last Thursday evening and Friday morning, the perfect foil of these two covetous rich men, a person who gave more than candy to people in need: Our father among the saints John of Kronstadt. In the service we sang for him, it compared him to the great ascetic John the Baptist as the:
…namesake of the preacher of repentance unto men who, appareled in soft clothing, was not softened in his soul. Ascetic, through whose hands unmeasured riches passed, but in whose holy heart no love of money dwelt. Wondrous was all that thou didst in Christ, more wondrous still thy humility, while working all with the Fisherman’s simplicity. (Lauds verse, St. John of Kronstdat, remembered October 31/November 1)
This is the first dramatic reversal this morning: poor becomes rich and the humble are exalted. The second dramatic reversal we can find is in this morning’s epistle from Saint Paul. He writes about, “… my former conduct in Judaism how I persecuted the Church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” And as he describes himself elsewhere, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, but I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” (I Timothy 1:13)
So what happened to this man whom all people feared? He became paradoxically the Apostle of grace. Like the rich man, he had everything going for him being, “advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries.” We would say he was first in his class at Harvard. The world applauded when he killed Christians who had become both the scourge of Rome and the rock of stumbling for Jews. He was the last person on this planet that anyone would have predicted to become an Apostle. But the Lord knew him. And he was calling him even while Paul, called Saul, was wallowing in disobedience. His conversion to Christ and subsequent preaching to the gentiles set the stage for many of our ancestors to come to faith.
But what of our own times? Does our God still perform dramatic reversals of grace in our own age? Abby Johnson was a woman who held the world in the palm of her hand. Successful, intelligent, and beautiful, she volunteered, worked at and eventually directed a whole clinic for women’s reproductive rights in Bryan, TX. The 2019 film Unplanned tells her story: how she began to hear the call of God from the testimony of pro-life activists at the gate of her Planned Parenthood clinic. After receiving the employee of the year award for her work, she subsequently resigned because of the big push to perform abortions. The movie is careful to show the humanity of people from both sides in this great debate of our times, but Abby emerges at the end of it like another Apostle Paul who began the hard work of repentance from the 20,000 lives she assisted in terminating. This month marks the 10-year anniversary of her decision to defend life.
Who this morning is feeling oppressed? Or perhaps like Saint Paul or Abby Johnson you feel in a compromised position of power from which escape would bring great ruin or destruction of everything you hold dear. Know this. Ours is a God of dramatic reversals. That his grace can transform the lowliest of beggars and the most compromised of persecutors into comforted people and apostles of love. And if you don’t believe me, ask anyone here to tell you the story of how their life was touched and even dramatically reversed by His grace. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.