By way of a beginning, I want to tell you about something that happened to me on the flight out to Australia, when our family migrated in 1965. We weren’t well off, we only had a few pounds for a family of four children. I was eleven, the eldest, and for my first time on an aeroplane I was dressed in my very best clothes—my school uniform. I was well aware that most people who flew on international flights could afford something better than a school uniform. But there I was—English school cap, tie and blazer, shirt, long pants and socks all thick enough to cope with the Yorkshire cold. And I was walking down the steps of the plane onto the tarmac at Kolkata Airport. It must have been around 40 degrees.
It was the first time I’d known what ‘hot’ could mean. I had stepped out of the air-conditioned then-state-of-the-art Boeing 707—and right into a blast furnace.
I don’t know how far away the airport building was. It felt like half a mile. I was walking with my dad, and I saw some of the local people. If I had felt that wearing a school uniform on an international flight was a sign of poverty, I was now staring real poverty in the face for the very first time. These people were in rags, leaning into the fence, on the outside, looking in at us. They needed new clothes and a good feed.
The distress in my voice must have been clearly obvious when I mentioned them to my dad. He was a good man; but all he said was ‘Don’t look at them, there’s nothing we can do for them.’
For me, it was too late. I had already looked and I had seen.
1 Timothy 6.6–19
All of us have heard stories about getting to the Pearly Gates and meeting St Peter. Stories like this one:
A young couple were killed in a car accident on the day before their wedding. They arrived at the Pearly Gates. St Peter felt sorry for them, and asked if there was anything he could do to make being in heaven even more pleasant. So they looked at each other and asked if it would be possible to be married in heaven. St Peter looked a little thoughtful and said, ‘It’s never been done before. But leave it with me.’
About a hundred years went by. One day, they ran into St Peter and asked about the wedding. ‘Everything is being arranged,’ he assured them.
Another hundred years passed, and they saw St Peter again. They reminded him about the wedding and said, ‘We know that in heaven, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, and time is of no consequence…but we’ve been waiting over two hundred years.’ St Peter replied, ‘I am truly sorry. All the arrangements were made the day after you arrived but there’s just this one problem.’
‘What’s that?’ they asked.
St Peter said, ‘Have you ever tried to find a minister up here?’
And just to show that ministers can get into heaven—
A minister dies and finds himself in the queue at the Pearly Gates. Just in front of him is a scruffy bloke who’s dressed in sunglasses, a T-shirt, torn denim jacket, and scuffed sandshoes.
St Peter addresses this bloke: ‘Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?’
The bloke replies: ‘My name is Mohammed Hassan. I drove a taxi in Sydney.’
St Peter glances at his list. He smiles to himself and shakes the taxi driver’s hand. He says, ‘Welcome! Take this robe of silk and staff of gold and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’
The taxi driver goes into heaven with his robe and staff, and it’s the minister’s turn. He can’t wait to see what he gets, if a cabbie gets that treatment! He stands erect and says, ‘I am Fred Foghorn, a minister of the Uniting Church in Australia for the past fifty two years.’
St Peter consults his list. He flicks through it for a while. Finally, he vigorously shakes the Book of Life and a scrap of paper floats down to the ground. St Peter picks it up, and finds the minister’s name scribbled in small letters in one corner. He says, ‘Take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’
‘Hang on,’ says the minister. ‘That man was a taxi driver, and he gets a robe of silk and a staff of gold. How’s that?’
St Peter says, ‘Up here, we work by results.’ ‘While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed.’
Stories like this are sometimes just fun; but often there is a sting in the tail. They are great stories; they tell us something about who we are before the ultimate questions of death in a way that we can bear.
Yet we don’t suppose they tell us anything about what actually happens when you die; we don’t imagine there are actually queues of people lined up outside huge gates made of pearl, with a bearded man in a nightdress smelling vaguely of fish, who is checking names off a list.
The story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus in Hades, the place of the dead, is similar. It appears that Jesus didn’t make this story up; similar stories were doing the rounds, like stories about the Pearly Gates. People may well have heard it before, or a story like it.
It’s important to realise that straight off, because it helps us to see that the truth of this story is about standing before the ultimate questions of death in a way that we can bear. It’s not about what ‘actually happens’. It is not telling us that people really recline at a feast, leaning back on Abraham himself. There is no great gulf fixed between those who are feasting, and those in torment; and people don’t have conversations across that gulf.
In this story, the beggar Lazarus had nothing; he sat by the rich man’s gate, not even crying out for justice, but merely longing for scraps. He hoped for grace and mercy while the dogs licked his sores.
He didn’t receive it from the rich man. I suspect that the rich man hardly ever noticed Lazarus, or even gave him a moment’s thought.
It’s worth our while to consider if there are people in need whom we don’t notice, or think about.
Of course, here we have people’s needs brought before us all the time. And this congregation responds with generosity. Lisa will go to India in the new year with Servants of Asia’s Urban Poor. She will live and work in the slums of Kolkata. She has told Karen and me that she has been ‘so blessed by people and their generosity the last few days’.
Lisa will keep these people before us over the next three years. We will pray for her and a good number of us will financially support her, and ‘buy Lisa a cup of coffee a week’.
Next week, at our second offering, we shall give money for people in Mwandi in Zambia, Chennai in India, and for the work of Michelle and James in Mapoon. We remember these people.
Sometimes, it seems that many Aussies would rather not remember asylum seekers. But whatever we think of the government’s policies in this area, we cannot forget them. We can’t ignore the suffering lazaruses just outside our gates.
Yet there are some whom we don’t hear much about. We may be excused for forgetting the garment workers of Savar in Bangladesh. Who are they? A reminder: on 24 April this year, an eight-story building collapsed and over a thousand workers died. These people produce cheap clothing which is sold in shops that we go to.
They are very poorly paid and work very long hours. I only have English figures for this, but I understand that a T-shirt made in Bangladesh may retail for about £6 in the UK. The workers receive only 2p out of that £6. Let’s say that a $10 T-shirt here would give a worker 4c. Their wages are a very small portion of the price we pay, and I suspect we would happily pay a few more cents to give these workers some justice. But they are hidden from us, as Lazarus was hidden from the rich man.
We need the grace of God to see them, and to keep our eyes open. We need grace to pray and to support the justice agencies of the Uniting Church when they challenge situations like this.
We can’t ignore the suffering just outside our gates.
All his life, Lazarus looked for mercy and grace outside the rich man’s gates; in the bosom of Abraham, he finds it. All his life, the rich man lived as a stranger to grace and mercy; in Hades, he is a stranger to it still.
In global terms, we are the wealthy ones. We are wealthy just because we have clean water, good food, education and health care. We may well wonder if there is any hope for us. And yet there is Good News: life and death are fundamentally about God’s mercy and grace. We are given the grace of life, and the grace of new life in Christ. As recipients of grace, we live by grace; we are meant to notice the ‘lazaruses’, to see those in need of mercy and grace from us. Grace is meant to be the air we breathe. If we breathe it ‘down here’, it won’t seem too strange ‘up there’.
Ultimately, it’s all about the grace of Jesus Christ, received and given. Let me finish with another story:
A man dies and goes to heaven. St Peter meets him at the pearly gates. St Peter says, ‘Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to get into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.’
That sounds easy, the man thinks to himself.
‘Okay,’ he says, ‘I was married to the same woman for fifty years and never once cheated on her, not even in my heart.’
‘Very impressive!’ says St Peter. ‘That’s worth three BIG points!’
‘Three?’ the man says. ‘Well, I went to church all my life and supported its ministry with my time, talents and money.’
‘Terrific!’ says St. Peter, ‘that’s certainly worth another point.’
‘Only one? Well, how about this: I started an op shop and worked in a shelter for street kids.’
‘Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,’ St Peter says.
‘TWO POINTS?!’ the man cries. ‘At this rate, I’ll only get into heaven by the grace of God!’
St Peter beams and says: ‘Now you get it. Come on in, my friend!’
Grace—it opens our eyes that we may freely give to others in need. Let’s live with the grace of open eyes.