St. PAUL’S CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
Luke 16 19-31; September 29, 2019
Close the Gap
Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Economists increasingly point out that the gap between the rich and the poor in our world is expanding: we’re hearing about that a lot these days, aren’t we, in these months before the 2020 campaign. But I think we’re all aware of the fact of this growing gap.
I always find it interesting how the lectionary touches our real world, real faith, so often. How timely and timeless these passages are! The powerful squash the weak. The rich keep getting richer. The poor keep getting poorer. Too many examples of those in power just plain not noticing these trends – or don’t care. There’s such a gap, a chasm, between these extremes – it does appear to be how our world works today I fear. This parable is so especially relevant today, isn’t it.
Remember when Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast and the evacuation clogged highways for days? Huge gridlock as thousands of fleeing cars, SUVs, RVs as people scrambled to get out of harm’s way. Well, some couldn’t evacuate - those who didn’t have SUVs, cars, RVs – the weakest and the poorest of the poor – the handicapped and sick – those without money to buy bus tickets much less flood insurance – those were the ones who lost the most – the ones who were packed into overcrowded shelters without adequate food and water. Those with resources were lucky – they benefited from them – those without paid dearly – even with their lives. And then Hurricane Maria – Puerto Rico still hasn’t recovered from that one. Most recently Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas – on some of the islands the damage is so complete, there are still people listed as missing. The news crews are pretty much gone in these places of complete devastation –poverty stricken areas that have no means to rebuild, and even if they could leave, there’s no place for them to go! No more emergency visas for these folks. And no place to go for families escaping poverty and violence and death in their native lands either.
The chasm, the gap, has never been more visible, has it. The poorest of the poor are still just that.
The parable this morning begins with a stark contrast: first we have an unnamed rich man dressed in purple and fine linen who lives feasting every day. Purple – the most expensive dye – the color worn only by those who can afford it – royalty, the very rich. Interesting that the rich man is introduced first – he’s probably well known in his community – everyone knows his name – except us. We never know it, do we – and that’s a clue to what’s coming as we remember that throughout the Bible names are critically important – in all of Jesus’ parables, only one character is named: the beggar Lazarus.
So we meet Lazarus – lying at the gate to this estate – the rich man is oblivious to Lazarus who is inches away, barely in rags, his skin ravaged by unspeakable infections, his only companions a pack of hungry dogs competing for the scraps of food thrown their way – the rich man continues to eat and drink inside the gate.
The end of life comes to both men – it’s not so much a surprise that Lazarus dies. He’s sick, starving, alone. Probably never even had a funeral. But when the rich man dies, likely buried with great pomp and circumstance – now the surprise comes. We’re told that only one is whisked away by angels into the bosom of Abraham – and that’s Lazarus. The rich man is the one who is buried and ends up in eternal, flaming torment. Here’s where the usual tables get overturned. Here’s some sort of justice.
The moment of their death is the great equalizer. And we’re told that the rich man is still oblivious to his humbled position but he does learn a lesson. Far, far away, across the deep chasm, he could just make out Lazarus in the arms of Father Abraham – so now he becomes the beggar, asking for just one drop of water.
“Not possible,” God answers – “you had your chance to bridge the gap in real life – it’s way too late now. You ate, drank, and were happy in your life on earth – now you can experience the kind of neglect you showed to my dear friend Lazarus.”
“Then, go warn my brothers,” the rich man pleads.
“Oh, they’ve had plenty of warning – just like you. They had the law of Moses and the warnings of the prophets – that should be enough.”
“Then send someone back from the dead. That will get their attention,” the rich man pleads again.
“No,” says God. “If they have not listened to Moses or the prophets, they won’t listen to someone who has risen from the dead either.”
I don’t know about you, but from our perspective of today, that comment from God is chilling to me. Do we listen yet? Do we learn from what Jesus is saying here? This parable is but one example of words from the One we know who in fact, defeated death, and continues today to teach us how to live the Way of the Lord.
Now is the time to pay attention to the gap – the gap between those who have and who have not. Our God has a special concern for those who are oppressed, in prison, hungry, sick, disabled, widows, orphans, strangers – anyone who is “the other.” Those who are not like us. And the way God proposes to care for all these people is for the people of God to reach out and welcome all these folks like Lazarus into the household of God and take care of them through the ministries of feeding, healing, and reaching out.
We have reminders throughout the Bible of all the rules of God’s household – and warnings if we don’t follow them. Woe to the rich who like to enjoy the fruits of their wealth, who eat and drink and sing and feed their pets better than they do Lazarus. Who ignore the ruin of all those who are without resources. Who ignore the tragic circumstances of all those people in the world who do not have a pair of shoes, have only one set of clothes, and are not assured of even just one meal today. Ignore all of that and you will be the first to be sent into eternal torment, says Jesus.
Now, we probably don’t ordinarily identify ourselves as being rich – but by global standards, if we have more than one pair of shoes, one set of underwear, and more than one meal a day, we are rich. And we’re called to pay attention!
We’re called to remember where everything we have comes from: a loving and generous God. And we’re called to be just as loving and generous with others as God is with us, especially poor, broken, marginalized others.
This is hard stuff, isn’t it. I know I’ve struggled with this passage all week – I’ve had to walk away from it more than once – especially once I made a connection between our southern border and a gate – this parable has hit so close to home.
But this story does suggest there is a way out – that gap need not be so great that we cannot ever get across it. And that way out comes at the very beginning of the story.
The rich man, we are told, has a gate. And Lazarus and all he stands for lie just on the other side of that gate.
Gates can keep people out. Gates can keep people in. Gates can be used to separate us from others. And we need to identify the gates in our community, in our nation, in our world. Gates can keep some children from ever achieving a third grade reading level, locking them out of some opportunities forever. Gates can be used to keep middle and low income housing out of our neighborhoods so that we don’t attract “those kinds of people” who might cause our property values to fall. Gates can be used to send homeless people living under highway bridges somewhere else in other communities just to keep them out of sight. Gates can be real at the end of the driveway, or gates can be policies that make entrance into our neighborhoods, our country impossible for the “other”.
But gates can also mark a point of connection. Gates can lead us from our own self-concerned, self-centered lives into the world of others. Gates can allow us to enter the bigger world around us. Gates can allow us to meet those people God in Christ cares most about: the children and grandchildren of Lazarus – if we will only open them so we can step out and the “other” can step in – to establish community where we’re all treated as God’s children.
And what God in Christ seems to be asking us today is to find those gates that can connect us to those who are hungry, who are oppressed, who are strangers. To identify all the kinds of gates that make the distance between us and the world’s poor greater and greater. And then once we have identified those gates, to open them and step out and see who we find there. To step out and see. And then to step out and care and share.
Laurence, Deacon of Rome centuries ago, had a ministry to the poor and abandoned people of the streets of Rome. He administered the diocesan treasury to feed and clothe and help these people. When the church was under persecution by the Roman Empire, Laurence was ordered by a magistrate to round up the treasures of the church and turn them over to the government. He returned before the court with all the poor and hopeless people to whom he had ministered and proclaimed, “Here. These are the treasures of the church.” For that witness to the faith he was martyred.
Jesus tells us this story for all who will listen. “Pay attention to the gap,” he says. In this story he issues an invitation to narrow the gap by opening the gates and stepping forth to minister to those people he loves and cares for; those people to whom he was sent in the first place, and who will minister to us in profound ways. Jesus came for all of us – no exceptions.
The mission of the church and our call as Christians is to foster love of God and love of neighbor. There’s an urgency in this parable – loving God and our neighbor will narrow the gap – imagine what the world would be like if we all do our part. What can, what will, we each do to bring justice to God’s people? To God’s world? What can we all do, what will we all do as community? Let’s turn the world upside down as Jesus has shown us. Let’s throw open the gates. Let’s build bridges. Let’s love our neighbor as ourselves. Let’s love God first. We have the gift, the blessing of hearing this warning from the perspective of history– the question is, what will we choose do with it, how will we choose to respond?
Let us pray: Lord, why did you have to pick the poorest and weakest people to be drawn to? What we would like to do is forget about them, but you bring them up so often in your Scriptures. You make it hard to enjoy all the stuff we have when we are constantly reminded of the hungry, the sick, the lame, the powerless. Couldn’t you just make our faith be about more “spiritual things?”
Yet we pray, O God, that every time we succeed in our attempts to forget about the Lazaruses of the world, you would cure our amnesia with your Word. Grant us courage to exercise mercy, to work to turn the tables on injustice, to fling open the gates, that your realm may come on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.