Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bridging the Mega-Chasm

NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference, Fair Hills Resort

Pentecost 17/Year C/Luke 16:19-31

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

In verse 26, Father Abraham says to the rich man in torment: “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed…”

Between the rich man in Hades and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, “a great chasm”—the Greek says: a chasma mega, that is: a wide gorge, a “super- sized” canyon that separates heaven from hell. It cannot be crossed.

Death places you on one side or the other—and there you stay—forever!

Now, there’s an attention-getter if I ever saw one!

It’s an image we will not soon forget—an image, I believe, that helps us unlock what Jesus is driving at here.

For the chasma mega that existed between the rich man and Lazarus didn’t just open up when they died. That chasm, that gorge, that canyon between them existed throughout this story.

In fact, I believe that this mega-chasm spoken of toward the end of the story, is related to three other chasms, three other “divides” that exist in this parable and in our own world as well.

Here’s what I mean:

First, there was the chasm that existed between Lazarus begging at the gate and the rich man stuffing himself daily with fine food. Though they may have been only feet apart at the time, they might as well have been separated by light years—poor, ailing Lazarus with his cardboard hand-scrawled “help wanted” sign and the rich man at his 24-hours-a-day buffet.

Long before they died, Lazarus and the rich man were separated by a wide gulf—the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, between those who can help themselves and those who are helpless.

There’s a way in which death didn’t so much open up the chasm between Lazarus and the rich man—death merely revealed the chasm that had always been there. The parable takes us from seeing this chasm in the way the world pictures such things, to seeing how God views them. It’s a difference in perspective, a difference in “camera-angle” that is revealed at the point of their death.

This same mega-chasma exists in our world, in our day—does it not? It’s said that this chasm between rich and poor not only exists—but that it’s widening, that the “haves” are growing farther and farther distant from the “have-nots,” that many of the world’s troubles arise from the fact that those who can help themselves NEED keep their distance from, need to protect themselves from those who have not.

There is a way to bridge this gap, to close this chasm. It is the way of Jesus, Christ’s own life overflowing that helps us see life is not a zero-sum game, but rather it is life lived in the abundance of God. And I thank God that throughout our synod and our whole church, especially in this unsettled time, “feeding the hungry” is at least one thing we can all do together.

It all starts with noticing, not ignoring, the poor among us. Did you notice how only one character in this parable is named—not the rich man (whose biography surely was listed in the Who’s Who volume of his day)—but Lazarus. Lazarus alone has a name here. He’s not just another faceless, nameless beggar. We’re told who he is. His name is Lazarus which means “God helps.”

The rich man realizes this, the rich man calls the beggar by name—but only after his time has passed, only in death does he come to name the name of the beggar who had been at this door all those years.

In the moment of death, when the rich man finally “gets it”—then, then he also finally starts to care about someone other than himself.

He remembers that he has five brothers, still at home, still alive, still faced with an opportunity that the rich man no longer has. And the rich man—for the first time in the story—expresses concern for someone other than himself.

“Father [Abraham], I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

The rich man imagines that if a poltergeist came back from “the other side” and scared the liver out of his five brothers—sort of like the Ghost of Christmas Past visiting Ebenezer Scrooge—then, then they might turn their lives around and avoid the punishment the rich man was experiencing in Hades.

Sounds like a plan—doesn’t it? And again, if truth be told, there are all sorts of well-meaning Christians who actually buy into the rich man’s way of thinking.

That is: lots of people imagine that faith is chiefly about avoiding hell and heading for heaven, right? And how better to achieve that purpose than to use fear and warning as your primary tools.

“Do you know how hot it is in hell? Have you thought about how long eternity will be? If you don’t make the right choice and get your act together before you die—you’re going to find out, buddy!”

Notice how such preaching, such exhortation focuses on raw self-interest. Save your skin at all costs. Look out for yourself, lest you come to the same place of everlasting fire where the rich man was tormented—longing, longing for just one drop of cool water on his parched tongue.

But Father Abraham, speaking for God I believe, refuses to play along with the rich man’s request. He declines to send Lazarus back to earth to scare the bejeebers out of the rich man’s five brothers. No deal!

In so doing, I believe we see the second mega-chasm in this story. It’s the chasm between thinking that faith is about fear—fear of hellfire, fear motivated by self-interest—and understanding that faith means freedom—freedom from being all bound up in oneself, freedom to live the generous life that children of God live simply because they’re children of a generous God who abundantly gave us his only precious Son to free us from self-interest, to free us to pour out our lives willingly and generously, for others..

“They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them,” Father Abraham replies to the rich man regarding his brothers. The five brothers don’t need a spook from the far side of grave, they’ve got the Bible, right there in their laps. That is to say: they have the Book of Faith, the same Word of God that’s been given to you and to me.

But the rich man isn’t convinced. The rich man strongly suspects that his five brothers aren’t “into” regular worship and Bible study—that being too pedestrian, too tame, too ho-hum.

He says, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” The rich man knows his five brothers—he can read them like a book—and he knows that a book will never be enough for them.

They already have the scriptures. What they need is a spectacle. And so he repeats his request: “Please, Father Abraham, send them Lazarus, back from the tomb. Let Lazarus rattle his ghost’s chains in their faces—like the ghost of Jacob Marley confronting Scrooge right in his own bedroom.”

But Father Abraham isn’t buying any of that. Father Abraham recognizes what I’m calling the third mega-chasm here in his story—the chasm, the gorge, the valley between the spectacular, the razzle-dazzle and the sure, steady Word of God.

Father Abraham replies to the rich man, for the final time: “If [your five brothers] do not listen to Moses and the prophets, if they can’t make time for the scriptures they already have--neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’

God could, I suppose, dazzle us daily with pyrotechnics. God could amaze us with spectacles that take our breath away. God could overwhelm us, God could make us see—so that seeing, we’d no longer need to believe.

But our God doesn’t operate that way. Our God moves into our lives in strong, steady ways always, always with a Word that opens us up to believe—to live by faith, not sight.

We have that Word—and even better, this Word has us! It is the same Word that the rich man probably heard in his life—the same Word that his five brothers also had.

It is the Word of God who created an astonishing world of breath-taking abundance, assets upon assets—freely, recklessly given to us, God’s creatures.

It is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ who though he was rich yet for our sakes became poor.

It is the Word of the Spirit who catches us up in God’s tomorrow and makes us and all things new.

If that Word doesn’t do the trick for you and me—nothing else will.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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