Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

The First Sunday after Trinity, 2011
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, West Lebanon

Let us pray: O Lord, who never failest to help and govern those whom thou dost bring up in thy steadfast fear and love; Keep us, we beseech thee, under the protection of thy good providence. And make us to have a perpetual fear and love of thy holy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

 

Several years ago, someone wrote a book called "All Dogs go to Heaven." The title answered a question that had troubled me as a child. Perhaps it was around the time I was preparing for confirmation that the question gained considerable urgency in my mind. My dog was also about my age, at least chronologically; but, given dog years - well, I could do the math. So, on one particular day, during confirmation class, I asked my parish priest: "Do dogs go to heaven?" This took him slightly aback, because we had been discussing fine points of the Trinity at the time. He was an old-style Anglo-Catholic priest and found questions about domestic animals to be somewhat challenging. But he honored the question and thought about it for quite awhile. Finally, after what seemed to be an interminable amount of time, he said, "Well, dogs do not have souls, so they don't go to heaven on their own." He looked over at the horrified faces on his tiny charges and he knew he had a problem. Lips began to tremble and eyes to water. "But," he said quickly, "if it will comfort us and make us happy, our dogs will join us in heaven." Then he quickly refocused our attention to cookies, punch and liturgics.

 

For the past two years, we have had a dog. "Archie" is, as many of you know, a Golden Retriever. His name is "Archie". No, he is not named for any archbishop, past or present. Rather, he is named for my grandfather, whose middle name was Archibald. Richard Archibald McClary was the youngest of five sons. He wasn't particularly fond of his middle name, but having four older brothers, he had little choice in the matter and was called "Archibald" or "Archie." The name stuck. It can't have been easy being so low on the totem pole. Archibald's older brothers did not suffer such a fate. His oldest sib, a man with the improbable name of "Thistleton," always went by the name of "Bill." And one daren't call him anything else.

 

Our dog, Archie, is a very compassionate dog. He is not particularly bright as dogs go, but he is compassionate. Awhile back, I stubbed my toe very badly. I hopped about for awhile, then limped for awhile more. Archie watched me sadly and, when I sat down to massage my bruised toe, Archie came over and did what dogs do to comfort the injured: he licked my foot. Now, on many mornings when I awake and come to the kitchen, Archie will greet me with some licks to the foot. At this point, it's a little annoying, but I understand Archie's compassionate nature.

 

There is a brief mention of dogs in the gospel message for today. St. Luke, that most compassionate of gospel writers, draws us a very clear picture of Lazarus, a "certain beggar" lying at the door of the rich man. St. Luke suggests that Lazarus is seriously ill, wanting only a tiny bit of sustenance from the rich man's table. And the dogs come to lick his wounds. The message is very clear; animals who have no souls have taken pity on this poor man named Lazarus. They do what they can. They show mercy in the only way they know how. Simple beasts who know of the suffering of a man. They can see Lazarus. They know of his suffering.

 

But the rich man does not see. Though Lazarus wants only crumbs from a richly-furnished table, he does not receive even the tiny portion he dearly wishes to have.

 

Well, both men die and receive their reward. Lazarus goes to heaven; the rich man to hell. The name Lazarus has a particular meaning. We might think it has something to do with resurrection, because we often think of that other Lazarus, the one who rose from the dead. But it really means: "he who was helped." Lazarus was indeed helped by God. He was known of God from the beginning of time and was welcomed into heaven. Perhaps in a world where he was invisible, God knew his name and had a place for him.

 

If Lazarus means "he who was helped," we might easily imagine what the rich man's name meant. But we must understand that he was not what we would call a "bad" man. No doubt he did everything correctly. He likely obeyed all the laws. He likely followed the Ten Commandments to the letter. His sin was the sin of pride. And it was his undoing. He had many things. He was rich in the way of the world. He had taken many things from God's world, but couldn't see the needs in God's children around him.

 

It is curious that, in the midst of his torment, he cries out to Father Abraham to warn his family. Send them a message, he cries.

 

Tell them of the torment that awaits them unless they get the message. But his appeals to Abraham fall on deaf ears. Because, says Abraham, "they have Moses and the prophets." If they cannot hear them, they won't be persuaded by anyone. Even, he adds telling, even if one rose from the dead.

 

The rich man had heard of Moses and the prophets. Why hadn't he listened to their words? Could it be that he ridiculed them, perhaps believing that they had no relevance for him? If so, the words of Abraham must have caused him excruciating pain. That is the pain of Hell; separation from God. And from his words. And, for the rich man, the understanding that it was too late for him – and likely for those he loved.

 

We might think that this is part tragedy. And, in a way, it is. The rich man had free will and he sowed the seeds of his destruction. But it is a reminder to us all to hear the word of God; to treat others with compassion and to realize that God knows our names better than we ever will ourselves.

 

Let us pray: Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things; Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name; increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.