The Chasm Within, A Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Yesterday I went to the gas station at the HEB grocery store. As I pulled in there was a man under a tree in the corner of the parking lot sitting on a rolled up sleeping bag. He held a sign. It said, “Vet. Homeless and hungry. Will you help? God bless you.” Cars and trucks drove right past him without stopping. So did I. After all, I don’t know him. I don’t know what he needs or if his needs are legitimate. I don’t know why he is in the situation he claims or if it’s even true. Besides all that, I was in a hurry to go eat lunch and finish my errands.

You know how sometimes a thought sort of just comes to you? You didn’t think it on purpose. You don’t want to keep thinking it but it won’t go away. Well, as I was filling the truck with gas I started thinking about today’s gospel (the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31, Proper 21C). Then I began to wonder and even worry just a bit. Is that Lazarus? Am I the rich man? Will he one day be comforted in the bosom of Abraham while I am in torment? I don’t really think that’s what this parable is saying but, just in case, I stopped and gave him a ten dollar HEB gift card and said, “Here, you can go buy something to eat.”

So does that reserve me a place on Abraham’s lap next to this guy or will I see him from afar, separated by a chasm neither one of us can cross? Was ten dollars enough or should it have been twenty? Should I have invited him to lunch? Paid for a night in a hotel? Offered him a room in my house?

Those are the kind of questions that arise when we interpret parables literally, turning them into a story of historical fact. When we do that the questions are usually endless and unanswerable. Neither can we, however, treat parables as merely metaphor or symbolism that have no real life implications for how we live. So what about today’s parable? What is it saying to us and what is it not saying to us?

First, God is concerned about the poor and expects us to also be concerned. That is clear throughout scripture in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. We reveal God’s presence in our lives by sharing God’s concerns and by acting as God acts. That does not mean, however, that the poor are our ticket into heaven. We do not buy our way to heaven. We help the poor, feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for the sick, visit prisoners, and work for justice because that’s simply who and how God’s people are to be. The question isn’t what’s in it for me but what’s in it for them. What does our Christianity, our faith, our experience of Jesus Christ offer them?

Second, there is a relationship between this life and the next life. The choices we make, the words we speak, and the actions we take in this life have consequences in the next life. Now don’t push that too far with this story. Today’s gospel is not a systematic explanation or theological analysis of heaven and hell. The story is not a judgment that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven. This story isn’t so much about our future but about our present lives. It’s about how we live here and now. It’s a reminder that that our lives are connected and intertwined in this world and in the next world. In the words of St. Antony the Great, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor.”

Finally, maybe I was just a bit too quick, even arrogant, to judge myself as the rich man and him as Lazarus. Given what I saw those may be accurate labels or descriptions for today. What about six months ago? What about tomorrow? They may not have been accurate labels one, five, or fifteen years ago. They may not be accurate next week or three years from now. Circumstances and situations change. Stuff happens. At some point in our lives we have probably all been both the rich man and Lazarus. We can all name times when life has been good, full, and easy. Likewise we can name times when it has simply left us destitute, broken, and in sorrow and suffering. I don’t think this parable is asking us to make judgments about who is the rich man and who is Lazarus. Instead, it is asking us to acknowledge and deal with the gates and chasms that separate us from each other.

Throughout this parable chasms are the one constant. From beginning to end the parable is full of divisions and separations. Remember the gate at the beginning? On one side of the gate lies Lazarus, dressed in sores and dog spit, hungry, and unable to get up and walk. On the other side the rich man, dressed in fine linen and purple, sits at his table and feasts every day. Remember the chasm at the end? On one side of the chasm Lazarus sits comforted in the bosom of Abraham. On the other side the rich man stands tormented in the flames of Hades.

The gate and the chasm are the same thing. The chasm that separates Lazarus and the rich man in the next world is simply a manifestation of the gate that separated them in this world. The rich man carried it with him into the next world. It was a part of him. The gate that separates and divides us in this world is not a condition of circumstances or categories: rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, or any other category you might add to this list. That gate is a condition of the human heart. The gate that becomes a chasm always exists within us before it exists between us.

That means we must each examine our own heart to find the gates that separate us from ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, those we love, and ultimately God. What are those gates for you? For me? For this parish? For the United States of America? What gates do we live with? Fear, anger, greed, pride, prejudice, loneliness, sorrow, addiction, busyness, indifference, apathy, hurt, resentment, envy, cynicism. You get the idea. There’s a lot of possibilities for the gates within us. We all have them. That’s not how we are intended to live. That’s certainly not how Jesus lived. Gates destroy relationships. They unmake God’s creation.

I don’t know what gates you carry within you but I know this. Every time we love our neighbor as ourselves, every time we love our enemies, every time we see and treat one another as created in the image and likeness of God, gates are opened and chasms are filled. I can’t give you detailed instructions on how to do those things. It is something we must each live our way into. It’s a choice set before us every day. It can happen in our marriages and families, at work and school, on the corner of parking lots, and in our prayers for the world. It can happen in the most intimate of relationships, or with strangers, and even with our enemies. It is not easy work but it possible. Jesus demonstrated that in his life, death, and resurrection. Gates were opened and chasms were filled. Christ’s love, mercy, grace, and presence make it possible for us to open our gates and insure they do not become chasms.

Let your gates be opened and your chasms filled. This is our work and the salvation of the world. Its what the kingdom of God looks like. We already have everything we need. That was Abraham’s point in not sending Lazarus to the rich man’s brothers. Abraham was not denying them anything. Nothing was lacking. They already had everything they needed. The word of God that opens gates and fills chasms is the same word of God proclaimed by Moses and the prophets, the very same word embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the image of our opened gates and our filled chasms, the image of who we most truly are and who we are to become.

25 thoughts on “The Chasm Within, A Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

  1. Your sermon brings to mind James 2:20-24:
    20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

    Many of us bypass the opportunity to do ”good deeds” because we are weighted down by our own cares, worries, problems. How does one overcome this problem? You said it perfectly: “examine our own heart to find the gates that separate us from ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, those we love, and ultimately God”.

    Like

    • Thanks Darrell for your comment and bringing in the passage from James. I hear James saying that faith and works are mutually informative and revelatory. I wonder if our gates then are also somehow descriptive of our faith or where we place our faith. Maybe they can be diagnostic of our heart’s dis-ease and point us to healing that is necessary.

      God’s peace be with you,
      Mike+

      Like

  2. Awesome Sermon Fr. Mike. Very thought provoking. I wish you could post your sermons sooner so folks like us can use it as a meditation prior to the Eucharist Feast on Sundays.

    Like

    • Thank you, Alan. I too wish I were finished and able to post earlier. However, I really do not have a complete sermon until after it has been given. So what I post is often combination of what I planned to say, what I actually said, and what I wish I had said.

      Peace be with you,
      Mike+

      Like

  3. Thank you for this post.

    ‘The question isn’t what’s in it for me but what’s in it for them. What does our Christianity, our faith, our experience of Jesus Christ offer them?’

    You hit it right on the head.

    ‘Compassion’ and ‘passion’ were the buzz words yesterday morning at Sunday School. Sometimes it feels that, to us as a species, our brains and hearts are out of touch. They live in the same house, yet they hardly ever see each other. I’ve always been fascinated by the way Jesus zooms in, in His parables. That allows us to zoom in and out, as we feel appropriate.

    Yesterday, the children could feel the rich man’s fine linen and coat as we were dressing up one of our props, and then Lazarus’s hunger and pain as we covered him in sores and rags. I was looking at their faces and I could see that our enacting of the story touched a fine cord. ‘Spot on!’, I thought to myself.

    We made colourful, autumnal paper bags to fill for the Harvest Appeal 2013 in which both our church and the faith schools our children go to are tirelessly involved. They loved making them and I hope they’ll love filling them, too.

    Warm wishes

    Estera

    Like

    • Estera, I really appreciate how you made the story tangible. That has to also be true of faith and theology. It must also be tangible, practical, enacted, and with implications for daily life. Blessings on your teaching and ministry.

      Peace be with you,
      Mike+

      Like

      • Thank you. I must say teaching Sunday School is a challenge I immerse myself in every week. It’s not easy, but, luckily, I have come to know the children better now (my own nearly five-year old daughter is one of the very few we have).

        Warm wishes

        Estera

        Like

  4. But why do we erect the gates in the first place, and why are they so hard to see, much less tear down? I am afraid of being vulnerable, afraid of being swamped by another’s need. Perfect love casts out fear, but maybe imperfect love at least eases it.

    Like

    • Susan, that’s the question isn’t it? I suspect the answer is unique to each of us but that there are common themes, some of which you mentioned, especially fear.

      Peace,
      Mike+

      Like

  5. Beautiful considered post. If we always keep our hearts open and meet the need presented to us…we always meet the Christ in that person, and need have no concerns as to whether their ‘need’ is ‘genuine’ or not.

    Like

  6. This is a great post. People tend to like metaphors because they are safer than taking the words of Christ literally. Bonhoeffer believed that the Sermon on the Mount was supposed to be practiced and not just read, but some people thought he was too idealistic because, after all, living it is impossible and Jesus was just being poetic.

    I appreciate that you dared to believe He meant what He said. And yes, compared to the rest of the world, we are the rich.

    Thank you for writing your reflections with such clarity.

    Shalom,
    Olive Twist

    Like

    • Thank you Olive Twist. You raise some important issues. It seems to me that one of our challenges in reading scripture is to not literalize metaphors and to not “metaphorize” that which is literal. Another challenge is to always ground our beliefs, theology, and scripture in some kind of practice.

      Peace,
      Mike+

      Like

      • Since I can’t always tell the difference with my finite mind, I try not to second guess Jesus. So I assume that it’s literal unless He says it’s a parable to illustrate a principle.

        I love your writings and appreciate that you help me to reflect and act accordingly. Thank you!

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s