I’d like to say a few words this morning on the subject of chasms.
More specifically, I’d like to talk about crossing chasms.
People seem to have a kind of fascination with the crossing of chasms. The wider, the better. I saw this one guy on TV last year who walked on a tightrope across Niagara Falls. He was like a slow-motion Evel Knievel. People came out in droves to see him. Personally, I think people like to put themselves in positions where they can be amazed at what the human mind and body can be capable of when they are put to good use. In a physical sense, people like this guy broaden the horizon of what is possible for the rest of us.
Now, that’s not to say that we should all be trying circus tricks, but we like to know that it can be done, that it’s possible: because it’s that possibility that gives us hope. I might never walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, but seeing somebody do it makes me wonder what I might be capable of in my life that I haven’t yet tried.
The crossing of chasms gives us hope for what might be possible.
I picked the subject of chasms because they factor rather highly in this morning’s reading from the gospel of Luke. The story is well known. It was a parable told by Jesus about an unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. Jesus tells us that the rich man “dressed in purple and fine linen and… feasted sumptuously every day.” Meanwhile, the poor man Lazarus was “covered with sores” and “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”
Jesus said that Lazarus’ usual panhandling spot was right by this rich man’s front door, meaning that the rich man had to walk by him every single day on his way to work (or whatever it is that people of his stature do with their time). Every day, he would walk by and see this man, this fellow child of God, living (not really), more like existing day to day in pain and poverty. Lazarus was within reach and this rich man certainly had the means to make a difference, but he did nothing.
Later on, after the two men died, Jesus imagines Lazarus being “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” while the rich man is being tormented in Hades, the mythical realm of the dead in Greek culture. And then Jesus imagines a conversation taking place, not between the rich man and Lazarus, but between the rich man and Abraham, one of the founding fathers of the Jewish people.
The rich man cries out for help, but Abraham says, “No, I can’t help you.” He says, “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.”
I don’t think Jesus, in this story, is trying to scare us with threats of hellfire and damnation. I think he’s trying to get our attention and draw it toward a reality that we all experience every day in this life. The reality I’m speaking of is the chasm.
In the story, there is a chasm between the rich man and Lazarus. Taken metaphorically, I believe this chasm was there between them while they were still alive. The rich man walked by Lazarus every day, but he never looked at him, never reached out to him, and never really got close to him. They were so separated (i.e. segregated) from one another so efficiently that there might as well have been a physical chasm between them.
When I look around this world we live in, I see chasms all around us.
I see chasms when I hear people say, “I don’t want my tax dollars going to pay for these poor people to get a free ride through life.” People who talk like that don’t know what it’s like to wonder where their next meal is coming from, how they’re going to make rent this month, how they’re going to get to their appointment, or how they’re going to pay for their medication. If they did, they might have more compassion for those who struggle economically.
I see chasms between nations when our country has a conflict with Syria or North Korea and somebody says, “Let’s just drop some bombs on ‘em. That’ll fix it!” That’s a chasm, right there. How about when people in one country are dying young from starvation while people in another country are dying young from obesity? That’s another chasm.
What kinds chasms do you see in this world?
I see chasms between black and white, men and women, gay and straight, Christians and Muslims, just to name a few.
Sometimes, I see chasms running through the middle of families: partners or spouses sitting next to each other in a pew who haven’t kissed or barely spoken to each other all week, parents sitting down to dinner and looking across the table at that empty chair where someone should be sitting, but she’s not because somebody can’t find the strength to say, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.”
These are the chasms we live with. Sometimes, they run between us so effectively that we are left feeling all alone, stranded on our own little island, out of reach and out of touch with everyone and everything. As Abraham said to the rich man, “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.”
People are cut off (i.e. isolated) by the chasms (i.e. the broken relationships) that run between them. What Jesus is trying to tell us in this parable is that we, as his followers, are called by God to use the time we are given on this earth to cross those chasms in whatever way we are able.
We are called to this because that’s exactly what God does. The God of Love is a crosser of chasms. Christians believe that God, in Christ, has crossed the great chasm between heaven and earth, between sin and forgiveness, between divinity and humanity. This crossing is a grace, a gift given freely to all. And if God has crossed such a great chasm to be near us, then who are we to refuse to cross the relatively small chasms that run between us? To refuse to cross these little chasms is to deny who God is and what God has done for us in Christ. We become like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, who refused to cross the chasm between Lazarus and himself. And, in doing so, he cut himself off, not just from Lazarus, but also from Abraham. Abraham: who symbolically embodied the essence of Jewish identity. Abraham: the Exalted Ancestor. Abraham: the friend of God. Abraham: the father of the covenant. In turning his back on Lazarus, the rich man turned his back on what it means to be Jewish. He was cut off from the meaning of life. He cut himself off from God. He was in hell.
Hell, I believe, is not a place where an angry God sends people after they die. Hell is a place that we make for ourselves in this life when we refuse to cross the chasms that run between us. But the good news is that the God of Love is a crosser of chasms, even the chasm between heaven and hell. Christians believe, as it says in the Apostles’ Creed, that Christ “descended into hell,” which is to say that God meets us where we are (even in hell). In the Bible, Psalm 139 says (in the King James Version), “if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.” Even in hell, God meets us.
Not only that, God refuses to let us stay in hell. Christ said he came to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. God in Christ is invading the hell we have made for ourselves on this planet and setting up a new regime. God is here. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.
And we are invited to be part of it. You and I are God’s secret agents: infiltrating enemy territory, crossing impassable chasms by night, and sabotaging the dominion of hell in order to make way for the reign of heaven. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to make peace with your enemies, to welcome the outcast, to forgive the sinner, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit those in prison, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to cross the chasms that run between us.
This is a lifelong assignment. There can be no retreat, no resignation. I promise you that this world, all the powers of hell, and even the lesser impulses of your nature will fight against you in this, but we shall overcome.
I believe that we shall overcome because our commander-in-chief, who started this operation (heaven’s invasion of earth), has promised to remain with us and see it through to its end, when: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our calling, our destiny, and our hope. I want you to go out from this church today and take part in it, in whatever way you are able. And remember that I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Be blessed and be a blessing.