a sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21C)
When the rich man died, he begged Father Abraham to send Lazarus down to comfort him. But a great chasm separated them. Where did it come from? How could anyone ever get across?
I did my final year in seminary at General Seminary, in the heart of New York City, just few streets up from Greenwich Village. It sits on a full city block on land that was donated by Clement Moore, the man who wrote, “The Night Before Christmas.” It is a walled garden of a place with beautiful sandstone and brick buildings, gorgeous old trees and a chapel right in the center. And it has beautiful wrought iron gates that go all around the block for security reasons. One night, a homeless man died right outside the front door of the seminary. It seems that he slept just outside those doors for years, taking shelter from the wind and rain. Some of the seminarians even knew him and bought him coffee or food. But on that particular night it got very cold, and the man died in his sleep, just outside our gates.
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.
When you think of a “chasm,” what do you think about? Most of us think about a deep gash in the surface of the ground or a jagged gap between mountains. Like the Grand Canyon. If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, you know what an amazing place it is. It’s 280 miles long, 18 miles wide and more than a mile deep, so deep that if a person was sitting at the bottom, he couldn’t see the rim. For millions of people, a visit to the Grand Canyon involves driving up to the some place near the rim, getting out of their car and taking in the majestic view. We might even ponder about how God could created such a beautiful place. But none of us would even think about crossing it on foot.
I tell you all this so that you might understand something of the size of the chasm that separated the rich man from Lazarus. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us another parable. Now remember that the parables of Jesus aren’t meant to be taken as literal descriptions of the afterlife; they’re not about “if you do this then such-and-such will happen after you die.” Instead, parables are meant to stimulate our thinking about the kingdom of God in the here and now. In this case, Jesus tells about a very rich man and the poorest man you can imagine, and the fact that they were separated by a chasm as deep as the Grand Canyon.
Of course, they weren’t always so far apart. In fact, before they died, Lazarus was the rich man’s neighbor. He lived just outside the rich man’s gate. He sat there, day after day, hoping that the rich man might fulfill his obligation as described by Jewish law, to feed and shelter the one who comes to our gates. But the rich man never saw him, or worse, if he did see him, he couldn’t be bothered to help.
Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.
A chasm is a metaphor about separation; there are all kinds of chasms. The rich and poor of the world are separated by much more than distance. Here in the US, the average food stamp recipient gets $133 a month, or $4.38 per day. They pay more of their paycheck for housing, and that housing is often sub-standard. They have far more disease, suffer more domestic abuse, and live far shorter lives than the rest of us. Their children seldom are able to break out of poverty, simply because conditions at home are so bad, that they simply can’t succeed in school.
There are other social chasms as well. This week, ninety miles up the road, the city of Charlotte has had terrible riots to call attention to the chasm of race.
So what does this parable teach us about the kingdom of God?
First of all, the chasm doesn’t have anything to do with what happens when we die. Its about what happens right here and now. The rich man’s sin was that he ignored Lazarus and his needs. He created the chasm by not lifting a finger to help him. Psychologists tell us that infants perceive only themselves and their own needs. They see themselves not as the center of their universe, but the whole universe in and of itself. It’s not that they ignore other people, but that they are simply invisible, unless they have something they need to survive. Fortunately, as we grow and mature, we begin see that the world is full of other people, starting with members of our family, and then members in our community. We see the people around us and their needs to grow and thrive.
The point of the parable isn’t that we’ll go to hell after we die if we don’t help poor people. It’s that we’re called to help make heaven on earth right here before we die. When we see the people in our community, who they are and what they need, when we do something to help them, we become part of God’s salvation project right here on earth.
Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.
The second thing this parable teaches us is that unlike the Grand Canyon, WE are the ones who make chasms between all sorts of people: Rich and poor, republicans and democrats, gays and straights, black and white. It’s not that differences don’t exist, or that we should never talk about our differences between us. How boring life would be then! It that the WAY we talk about our differences, or the way we fail to talk about them, can create chasms, if we let them.
When we choose to demonize someone else simply because of their political party, we are creating a chasm. When we choose to diminish the legitimate complaints of one group of people, simply because it is not our pain, we are creating a chasm. When our leaders stoke the fears of the people in our country against the those knocking on our country’s gates, seeking refuge from a brutal war, we are creating a chasm between us.
Last week, I met a guy who has actually crossed the Grand Canyon on foot. He’s a runner and a mountain climber – one of those Ironman types – and he had just returned from running a race called the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim. Basically, you run down one side of the Canyon, run across the floor, and the run up the other side to the opposite rim – and then you have to come back again. That’s more than 40 miles both ways. Depending on what kind of physical condition your in, the round trip takes 20-30 hours. This guy ran that race, he came back a new person.
After the homeless man died in front of the seminary door, General seminary also crossed that chasm. The decided to set up a homeless shelter in the basement of one of the dormitories. There are 8 cots, a hot shower and a small kitchen. And every night, one of the seminarians sleeps in the shelter to get to know the people who live on the streets around the seminary.
God has blessed this nation and this generation with more riches that any that has come before us. We have more food, more medicine, more open land and more money than any country on earth. Why shouldn’t we feed the starving people around us? Why shouldn’t we open our gates to those who need a place to live? Why shouldn’t we cross over the chasms that we ourselves have created, and help the invisible people in our world?
That is how we become part of what God is doing in Irmo. That is how become part of God’s holy mission around the world. That is how we cross the great divide. That is how we create our heaven here on earth for everyone, right here and right now.
Thanks be to God.