Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mind the Chasm

There is a rich man who’s near death. He’s quite attached to his wealth and he prays that he might be able to take some of it with him when he goes to heaven.

An angel hears his plea and appears to him. "Sorry, but you can't take it with you. That’s the rules." The man begs the angel to speak to God to see if he might bend the rules just this once. 

The angel speaks to God about it and reappears to the rich man, informing him that God has decided to allow him to take one suitcase with him. Overjoyed, the man gathers his largest suitcase, fills it with pure gold bars, and places it beside his bed.

That very night, the man dies. When he shows up at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter sees the suitcase and says, "Hold on, you can't bring that in here!"

So the man explains to St. Peter that he has special permission and asks him to verify his story with the Lord. Sure enough, St. Peter checks it out and comes back saying, "You're right. You are allowed one carry-on bag, but I'm supposed to check its contents before letting it through."

St. Peter opens the suitcase to inspect the worldly items that the man found too precious to leave behind and is totally baffled when he sees the gold bars. "You brought pavement?!!!"

We’ve probably all heard stories about someone dying and going to heaven where the rules are nothing like they expected. Often these stories make fun of rich people or lawyers. Apparently, this genre has been around for a long time, because Jesus uses it in Luke 16.

 The two main characters of the story are a rich man and a poor man. The rich man isn’t named, but the poor man is. His name is Lazarus. In all of Jesus’ parables, this is the only person who is ever given a name. He’s not to be confused with the Lazarus whom Jesus raises from the dead in John’s gospel. Same name/different guy.

Well, this Lazarus would give anything to eat the scraps that fall from the rich man’s table, so we know that he’s hungry. And we know that he’s not pretty to look at because he’s covered in sores that the dogs are always licking. We also know that he hangs out at the gate to the rich man’s house. So, apparently, there was some kind of a wall surrounding it, and the gate was the only point of entry.

What we don’t know is whether the rich man and Lazarus ever spoke to each other. We don’t read that Lazarus sat at the gate and begged. He was just there. Obviously, the rich man passed by him, and he did nothing to help him. But was he troubled by Lazarus? Did he ever tell him to go away? Did he even see him?

We later learn that he did know who Lazarus was, because when they both die and go on to the next life, the rich man refers to Lazarus by name. But notice that he still doesn’t speak to Lazarus. Instead, he addresses Abraham, also a rich man, someone on his own level. And while the rich man is tormented in Hades, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to serve him. 

“That isn’t gonna happen,” Abraham says. “Remember how during your lifetime you lived the life of luxury while Lazarus got the shaft? Well, now the tables are turned. Now, Lazarus’ lives in comfort while you suffer.” 

Abraham tells the rich man that God is making things right in heaven. But there’s an even greater reason why his fate is sealed. “There is a chasm that has been fixed between us and it can’t be crossed.” 

A chasm has been fixed between us. And here’s the thing about that chasm. It didn’t suddenly appear in the next life. It became deeper and wider every time the rich man passed by Lazarus at his gate and did nothing to help him, every time he failed to show an ounce of mercy, every time he passed Lazarus and held his nose so he wouldn’t smell the foul odor, every time he looked away in disgust. That’s how the chasm became fixed.

It’s hard to read this parable today without thinking about how the chasm between rich and poor in our world is ever with us. Do you remember how our fair city of Charlotte prepared for the Democratic National Convention last summer? We wanted to impress all the big-wigs coming to our town. So, what did we do with the homeless population of Charlotte? We got them off the streets. We relocated them. We shipped them off so none of the people we wanted to impress had to look at them. 

We took the opportunity to pretend like the poor don’t exist. For the most part, we do pretty well at this even when the DNC isn’t in town. We are fairly insulated from the poor and that’s the way we like it. The poor make us uncomfortable and the chasm brings us comfort. Why?

Is it because we believe people are poor because, basically, they deserve to be poor? They haven’t worked hard enough. Or they just don’t care enough. Or they’ve made bad decisions. Or they do bad things. If we’re truly honest, sometimes these judgmental thoughts about the poor cross our minds, even if we’re one of the biggest bleeding heart liberals who ever lived.

While we may pity the poor, it’s hard for us to have mercy on those we suspect could probably choose to do something to make their lives different.

Or, do we distance ourselves from the poor because we can’t deal with the guilt? We feel guilty for having so much while others have so little. We know it’s not fair. We know we have had advantages that many people can only dream of, like a family that gave us a good start in life. We were raised in comfortable homes with solid nutrition and went to good schools. We have the abilities and the opportunities to find jobs that offer us a livable wage. We have been given so much. And our inclination is to cling to it with all our might, rather than share with those who seem to have come out on the short end of the stick. We see the poor and pangs of guilt stab us around the heart.

Or perhaps, when we really look at the poor, we’re aware of the chasm between us and we want to do something to bridge it but the challenges seem too overwhelming. We wonder if our efforts can really make a difference. We know that it’s not just a matter of sharing what we have with others. There are systemic problems that continue to keep the poor in their place. It’s all so complicated that we don’t know where to begin. And so, we ignore the poor because they leave us feeling frustrated and powerless.

There are many reasons for the chasm between us and the poor. That really wasn’t Jesus’ concern in telling this story. Nor did he tell it to scare the hell out of us. He told it so we might change the way we’re living this side of heaven. We’re feasting sumptuously while Lazarus is starving. There are millions of Lazaruses in the world around us all longing for the crumbs that fall from our tables. Of course, most of them remain hidden from our view.

This morning, while I was preaching my sermon, 250 people died of starvation. And the thing that makes this so tragic is that it’s not like there isn’t enough food to go around. There is enough food to feed everyone in the world. And yet, some people are starving while others have way too much. The chasm between rich and poor is something we create through our actions here on earth. And if we don’t change where we stand with the poor, the chasm becomes fixed. 

How you have ever been to London? If you've been there and rode on the subway, what they call the tube, you heard a recorded voice every time you stepped through the door of the train that said, “Mind the gap.” It’s been over ten years since I was in London, but I can still hear the sound of the woman’s voice as all who pass through the door are cautioned to pay attention to the space between the train and the platform lest they fall in. Mind the gap.

  The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a cautionary tale for us to mind something much larger than a gap: a chasm. What if we heard the voice of Jesus saying that every time we climb into our cars that most people in our world couldn’t imagine owning? Mind the chasm. What if we heard the voice of Jesus saying that every time we walk into our homes where most people in our world couldn’t imagine living? Mind the chasm. What if we heard the voice of Jesus saying that every time we enter our walk-in closets jam-packed with more clothes and shoes than we could possibly need? Every time we enter a department store with plastic cards that give us the ability to buy whatever we want? Every time we attend a sporting event or a musical performance where the money we spend on tickets could feed a family of four for a month? Can you imagine the voice of Jesus coming over a giant loudspeaker every time saying, “Mind the chasm.” Would it change us?

In today’s parable, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to change their ways before it’s too late. Abraham denies his request saying, “If they haven’t listened to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

But here’s the thing for us. We do have benefit of someone warning us who has risen from the dead, don’t we? It’s the risen Jesus. He’s been resurrected to a new life that he wants for us, too. That new life is not limited to someday after we die, but it begins for us right here, right now. A key to experiencing it, Jesus says, can be found in how we mind the chasm.


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