The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 21
September 25th, 2016
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Last week’s sermon addressed the parable of the dishonest manager, and we explored how Luke’s gospel has a penchant for contrasting worldly riches and the call of Christ.
You may recall that—starting from Mary’s Magnificat, through Jesus’ announcement of his public ministry at the synagogue in Nazareth, to the tax collector Zaccheus’ repentance in Jericho—the theme of economic justice is front and center for Luke.
And in today’s Gospel we hear the story of Lazarus and the rich man— a tale that isn’t found in Mark, Matthew, or John— and it seems that Luke’s favorite, disturbing theme is once again on stage.
The rich man, who “feasts sumptuously” in this life and is surrounded by comforts, finds himself in a torturous hellscape after he dies and is buried.
Lazarus, a poor man who sat day after day at the rich man’s gates, having his open sores licked by dogs, dies as well, and is gathered unto the bosom of his ancestor Abraham.
While the terrors of Hades torment the rich man, Lazarus at last enjoys comfort in the communion of the patriarch.
Two lives that do a 180 degree turn after death.
Two lives that were separate in this world we inhabit, and which remained separate in the life to come.
On the surface, it may seem that Luke is once again exposing the emptiness in the struggle for inordinate material wealth…the rich man’s purple, his fine linen, and his sumptuous meals are nowhere to be found in Hades…and likewise, Lazarus’ sores, suffering and hunger are also absent.
And this unique story indeed has something to say about wealth and its pitfalls.
But I believe it is not the rich man’s money that is on trial here.
It is his gate.
The role reversal of this story hinges upon the division that exists between these two children of Abraham…these two children of the same God whose experience of life could not be starker.
While all else changes regarding their situation, the divide between them does not.
In fact, the most frightening aspect of this apocalyptic narrative is that while the division between them in this life was potentially bridgeable, it seems to have become fixed and permanent in the next.
“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,” Abraham calls out to the tormented rich man in Hades.
I have spent the better part of my week thinking about this divide.
I think about all the times I have feasted sumptuously while others have gone hungry.
I think about the innumerable times I have walked down Via Nazionale and been asked for alms, and how so often I just keep moving forward determined to continue along my way.
I think about the various gates that surround me, and wonder if those gates are keeping me safe, or if they are preventing me from seeing the truth.
I think this story is supposed to scare the beejezus out of us, and if we push it to its limits, it asks us to take a long hard look at the core of our life to determine if we are investing in eternal or transitory things.
At its heart, I think this story is about the rich man’s choice to ignore Lazarus’ plight in this life, even as he sits right outside his gate in direst need.
His is a problem of seeing clearly, and acting in accordance with that vision.
Would the chasm, or the divide, still exist between Lazarus and the rich man in the next life had he been willing to bridge it in this one?
My heart says no.
Listen, I know almost all the arguments for why continuing to hand out money to certain beggars is a bad idea.
Creating dependency and supporting addictions is not a good strategy, and I don’t think the divide between the rich man and Lazarus would have been bridged by almsgiving alone.
The chasm is narrowed first and foremost by recognizing that the one at the gate who suffers is part of your family.
Instead of a servant who might be made to dip his finger in water and quench your thirst (a request from the rich man that betrays his continuing inability to see clearly), the “Lazaruses” we need to acknowledge are brothers and sisters, worthy of the same dignity, respect and care as are all children of God, and equal to the kind we’d give our own family members.
This is the soul of the new creation and the kingdom of God Jesus so passionately proclaimed.
How many verses, chapters and letters does the Apostle Paul spend talking about this new creation we have because of Jesus Christ?
How much scholarship on Moses and the prophets do we require before we believe that the justice and freedom of which they speak applies to inter-human relationships as well as communities and nations?
If you are like me, you may not need much more convincing that “loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself” is the way, the truth, and the life, and that Jesus revealed it to be so through his life, death and resurrection.
But applying that way to the various complexities of every day life…and wrestling with all the times I fall short of that glory…that is where the true work of discipleship lies.
So many divides seem permanent in this life…so many chasms that threaten to remain dark and impassable forever.
As an American and North Carolinian, I see that divide playing out in Charlotte as yet another African American man was killed by a police officer this week, setting off a wave of protests and counter protests.
As a resident of Rome, I see the divide between refugees and citizens threatening to breed more contempt and heartbreak.
The divide seems fixed between political parties, religions, the sexes, rich and poor…you name it…the majority of our problems could be traced to an inability to bridge the chasms that might be temporary in this lifetime, but which we often accept as fixed and immovable.
How on earth do we go about healing that rift so that we don’t keep that divide for eternity?
In a recent interview, the backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick (who has gained fame more for his recent protest stance than his football prowess) had this to say when asked about why he has taken a public stance about race relations and justice in the United States:
“At this point, I’ve been blessed to be able to get this far and have the privilege of being in the NFL and making the kind of money I make and enjoy luxuries like that. But I can’t look in the mirror and see other people dying in the street that should have the same opportunities that I’ve had and say, you know what, I can live with myself.”
Waking up to the reality of the various inequities that divide us, and being shaken enough to do something about it…that is the heart of Jesus’ ministry among us.
And on this Welcome Back Sunday, I have to say that coming to church, and being a committed part of the Jesus movement is the best way I know to remind myself and others that the chasms of this world are not meant to remain in place forever.
Hearing the scriptures and being challenged by them offers a counter-cultural narrative to the worldly one that either tacitly accepts the status quo, or worse, encourages the divide to deepen.
Sharing the body and blood of Christ…eating at the same table and sharing the same cup…despite all our differences of culture, language, opinion, and economic status…that is a powerful act of solidarity that propels us to find ways to share such communion in other spheres of our lives, both public and private.
Jesus the master said, after washing the feet of his disciples in one of the most radical acts of chasm-collapsing, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).
If we are going to be a faithful church and faithful followers of Christ in our day and age, we have to be about doing things that make divides disappear…on the macro and micro levels.
Otherwise, we run the risk of seeing that chasm become a fixed barrier which cannot ever be bridged.
Can you commit to that work and ministry this year my friends?
I welcome you back to St. Paul’s and the events and activities of this parish today, while also commissioning you to go forth and be doers of the truth.
Of course we will fail…I am all too aware of my own failings in this regard…but we can not allow the imperfection of our actions to keep us from acting in the first place.
Do not let a gate stand between you and your brother or sister.
If you have been blessed in this lifetime, share that blessing with those who too often know only suffering and separation.
Collapse the chasm, using Christ’s tactics and teachings as your model, and the kingdom which he proclaimed and incarnated will become more and more real, and the new creation, which is the heaven we seek, will be born among us.