Crossing Chasms

‘The Poor Man Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Door’ by J.J. Tissot (circa 1890)


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.

From Gate to Chasm

Here’s my sermon from September 26 at First Pres, Boonville.

It’s the third in a series of three on grace.

The text is Luke 16:19-31.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

We’ve spent the last few weeks talking about a series of parables that appear in Luke’s gospel.  Two weeks ago, we talked about the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, where the sheep and coin do not find their way home but are instead found by the one who was looking for them.  In the same way, we lost souls cannot find or earn our way back into God’s favor through moral living or right theology.  Instead, we are found by a loving God who comes looking for us and brings us home rejoicing.

Last week, we talked about the parable of the dishonest manager, where our desperate main character works “outside the law” to forgive debts and establish lasting relationships with others.  In the same way, our God works “outside the law” to forgive our debt of sin and establish relationship with us.

Each of these parables is told by Jesus during a particular “scene” we find in Luke’s gospel.  This scene is set at the beginning of chapter 15: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  The religious leaders are shocked and offended by the way that Jesus extends such a radical welcome to the most wretched and despised members of society.  Their strict moral and theological rules simply cannot cope with the idea of a rabbi who associates with such lowlifes.

The key concept that continues through all of these stories is grace.  Again and again, we get the message that the God who Jesus reveals does not hesitate to give out love and mercy to those who deserve it least.

Then we come to the parable in today’s gospel reading and we get this dark picture of hellfire and damnation.  What is that about?  We just spent all this time talking about grace and unconditional love.  Were we wrong?  Was all of it just a bunch of nice words?  I don’t think so.

This parable about the rich man and Lazarus takes place in the same section of Luke’s gospel as the other parables we looked at.  We can imagine Jesus telling this story to the religious elites as they grumble about him associating with outcasts and so-called “sinners”.  Just as the theme of grace was present in the stories we heard last week and the week before, we can expect to find the message of grace in this week’s story as well.

The religious leaders in this story, as we have already mentioned, were famous for drawing up long lists of moral rules and spiritual requirements.  They tried their best to know the Bible well and follow its commandments ‘to a T’.  Rather than the ten commandments that we are most familiar with from the Old Testament, the members of this group identified 613 commandments that should be obeyed.  Those who failed to live up to this standard were branded as “sinners” and excluded from the social and religious life of the community.  They had very clear ideas about us & them, in & out, black & white.  In telling this story of the rich man and Lazarus, I think Jesus was trying to challenge the hard and fast categories into which his opponents tried so hard to put people.

The parable opens with two characters: a panhandler named Lazarus and rich man, whose name we don’t know.  The rich man lives in a nice estate home with its own wall and front-gate.  Lazarus regularly perched himself by that gate, hoping to pick something edible out of the trash.

In the culture of first century Palestine, the difference in circumstances between these two people was understood to have spiritual significance.  Material success was taken to be a sign of God’s blessing while suffering was interpreted as a sign that God was punishing someone.  If a person was poor or sick, people generally thought, “Everything happens for a reason.  If this person is suffering, then he or she probably did something to deserve it.  Who are we to question God’s ways?”  This belief made it very easy for people to excuse themselves from helping those in need.  After all, why should I help someone who brought this trouble on himself or herself?

American society holds similar beliefs.  Conventional thought divides poor people into two categories: “worthy” and “unworthy”.  Children, senior citizens, veterans, and laid-off workers are generally regarded as “worthy” of help.  But people whose bad decisions or destructive habits have landed them in desperate situations are branded as “unworthy”.  People say things like, “Why should I give my hard-earned money to someone who’s just going to blow it on drugs?”

In the same way, the rich man in Jesus’ story probably felt morally justified in walking by Lazarus each day without lifting a finger to help.  This rich man, like the religious Pharisees, had his world neatly organized into categories of “us” and “them”.  Lazarus definitely counted as one of “them”.  The gate that stood between the rich man and Lazarus might as well have been an impenetrable wall.

Fast forward to the end of their respective lives.  The gate between these two has become an impassable chasm.  What’s odd is that their positions have been reversed.  Lazarus rests comfortably while the rich man is the one suffering.  The hard and fast social categories remain intact, except that the rich man finds himself on the wrong end of eternity.

When we set ourselves up as judge and jury over our fellow human beings, it will inevitably come back to haunt us, because none of us is ultimately perfect.  Jesus spoke about this phenomenon on another occasion when he said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  (Matthew 7:1-5)

I think Jesus tells this story as a warning to the religious insiders about the dangers of holding on too tightly to hard and fast categories of “us” and “them”.  This dark and disturbing tale of hellfire and damnation reminds us of the consequences of living in a world without grace.

The good news for us all is that we do not live in a world without grace.  In contrast to the story of the rich man and Lazarus, we Christians believe that the impassable chasm between God and ourselves has become a gate.  Furthermore, we believe that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has passed through that gate to meet us where we are in the messiness of our own poverty and suffering.  This is an act of pure grace and unconditional love.  We cannot earn it and we cannot pay it back.

What Christ asks of you and I is that we pay it forward.  Again and again in the gospels, Jesus instructs his followers to forgive as they have been forgiven.  According to Jesus, the only thing that can stop the unconditional flow of grace into our lives is if we refuse to pass it on to others.

Jesus says in the Beatitudes, 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  Later in the Sermon on the Mount he says, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  In Mark 11:25, he says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”  Finally, in Luke 6:37, he says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven”.

God’s will is that you and I should become agents of grace in this world that knows so little of it.  Jesus invites us to step outside our own gates, to go beyond the walls we have erected in our own lives, so that we might meet the “Lazarus” who lives in our own community.  What does this look like for you?  Who are those “despised outsiders” that you see?  It could be an individual in your family or community.  It could be an entire group of people in your society.  Wherever you find those “sinners”, that is where God is calling you to venture outside your gate as an agent of grace, to transform the world around you, and to be transformed in the process.  Amen.

The Impassable Chasm

The Olbiston Apartments. Image by Peter Franchell of the Utica O-D.

St. James Mission had a very invigorating Bible study this week on Luke 16:19-31.

Our space was a bit busier this week as First Presbyterian Church, where we rent our chapel, has opened its doors, in partnership with the Red Cross, to shelter the displaced residents of Olbiston Apartments, who found themselves suddenly homeless when a fire ripped through their elevator shaft last week.

The Olbiston has been one of my regular haunts during my time on the streets.  It’s famous as a haven for folks who are down and out.  It’s often the last stop for addicts and squatters on their way to homelessness.

Commenting on our gospel passage, someone noted that the rich man was in desperate need of conversion: not to a religious faith, but to a living faith that expresses itself in deeds of compassion.  “Faith without works is dead,” she said.

A homeless man from our group said, “The rich man looked up and saw that what he had ignored for his whole life was suddenly staring him in the face!”

I added that the impassable chasm between himself and Lazarus, which was so apparent in eternity, had actually existed all along in the social gap between rich and poor.

Someone else noted that, even in hell, the rich man still maintains an arrogant sense of superiority in the way he barks out orders to Lazarus.  He says, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”  (Luke 16:24)

It’s no wonder that a miracle would do no good to convince someone like him.  He doesn’t need a miracle to convert his head, he needs love to transform his heart.  Only then can the gap be crossed.

This is often easier said than done.  A prison nurse in our group told us how he saw someone die of AIDS this week, a rare occurrence these days.  He talked about how he felt paralyzed in the face of so much suffering.  I could relate to that.  I commented on how it took me almost a week to visit the shelter after the Olbiston fire.  “What the hell is wrong with me?”  I wondered aloud.

Before we departed, a woman in the back gestured to the shelter across the parking lot.  “Hey,” she said, “don’t we have a bunch of people suffering like Lazarus on our doorstep tonight?  Why don’t we do something to help them?”  We shrugged our shoulders and looked around at each other.  After a moment we decided that the entirety of our offering this week should go to the Olbiston residents through the local Red Cross.  After worship I took the offering over to the night manager at the shelter.  One member from our group spent several hours there the next day, talking and listening.  I hope to get there next week.

The Red Cross folks tell me that the big needs right now are for:

  • Large-scale showers
  • Laundry facilities
  • Transportation to get people there

If you have access to these services (not in private homes, please), then please call the Red Cross of the Mohawk Valley at (315) 733-4666.

Maybe that chasm isn’t so impassable after all…