Crossing the Chasm

rich_man_and_lazarus
A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Amos 6:1a,4-7Psalm 1461 Timothy 6:6-19, and Luke 16:19-31

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Do we notice the people we pass on the street? Would we notice a friend or a loved one?

Several years ago, the New York Rescue Mission teamed up with a foundation several years ago to conduct an experiment that was made into a video.  Several people come face-to-face with their relatives and significant others dressed as homeless people.  But not a single participant recognizes their mother, brother or wife.  Something stands between the family members.  There’s a distance and a divide that prevents recognition, much less compassion or empathy.  [The video can be seen at https://youtu.be/Q9Ed6-ztv6g ]

Today’s Gospel tells us the story of the rich man and the poor man named Lazarus is one of those biblical stories that finds its way into popular culture through music and literature.  Though the scriptures don’t tell us the rich man’s name, tradition often calls him, “Dives,” from the Latin word meaning, “rich man.” Whether the story comes to through Chaucer, an opera, or a reading on a Sunday morning, it is a difficult story for those of us who prefer happy endings and like all our questions answered.

Jesus tells the story to the Pharisees as a way of showing how they are misinterpreting great tradition handed down by Moses and the Prophets.  The Pharisees are twisting religion and using it for their own ends. And so, it’s in that context that Jesus tells them of a very rich man, a man so rich that every meal is a feast. But outside the man’s house is this person named Lazarus. Lazarus is always there, waiting for a little food, hoping for a little money, or maybe just praying for a break.

This Lazarus is a different Lazarus from the one who was the brother of Mary and Martha, the Lazarus who is raised, and is pictured in the stained glass window over our altar.  Today’s Gospel is about the lesser-known Lazarus, one who is poor, covered with sores, and lays at the gate of a rich man’s house. The two men die: Dives (the rich man) and this poor man, Lazarus. They both go off to the place that Jews and Christians in the first century believed the dead went.

There in Hades, Dives is in for a surprise. He looks over and sees Lazarus walking with Abraham—Abraham the father of the faith; Abraham, the greatest ancestor; and in this case, Abraham, the most important person at the party. Dives calls out, probably hoping to remind Lazarus once again of his place and maybe show Abraham what a bigshot Dives is.  So he calls out, “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.’”

Time for Dives’ surprise.  Abraham say, “Remember, Dives, that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”  And then, almost as an afterthought, Abraham adds, “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.”

A “great chasm.” A distance, an expanse, a void… it’s THIS that dooms Dives.  It’s this distance that keeps him from knowing much about Lazarus or about Lazarus’s life.

We should note that Jesus is not telling this story to paint a geographical picture of heaven. Nor is he offering a theologically accurate picture of heaven. Jesus is not for a minute justifying a miserable life on earth by saying that “one’s reward will be in heaven.” Neither is he suggesting that all of those who have known blessing in this life will see a reversal in heaven. But instead, I think Jesus wants to point out to those words of Abraham, to the chasm, the divide, the gulf—the problem of separation, that—if not dealt with here on earth—can follow us into heaven. If we don’t attempt to lessen the chasms in this life, they may be so deep as to keep us from entering heaven.

When Jesus describes the rich man on earth, he never says that the man is bad. The rich man is not an evil man, nor is he especially sinful. It’s never suggested that Dives gained his wealth by dishonest means, nor are we even told that he is stingy—it seems that he was at least generous with his friends, and he remembered the poor with his leftovers.

But he kept himself apart. He kept himself away, separated, and removed from the pain of Lazarus and others like him. Dives had kept to his side of the chasm. And he had been quite happy there.

What are the chasms that separate us from others?

There are the obvious ones. We gather this morning in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, where power, money, education and opportunity are concentrated. Some of us might be on one side or the other of this chasm of wealth and privilege, and it’s hard to know how to stretch a hand across to the other side.

Within religion and within the Anglican Communion, in many parts of the world—the separation has to do with race or gender; sexual identity or orientation. But we should never be so smug as to think that we have crossed over those chasms, even here. What eventually becomes a chasm might more often begin with a hairline crack–we notice the differences in income or fashion or speech pattern or intellect or age. But if we’re not careful, the differences we notice become distances between us. We drift, we become separate and the chasm widens.

But we have a means to navigate any distance, to stretch over any chasm, and it begin with baptism.

In just a few minutes, we will baptize Theodore Singh.  In the back of the Prayer Book, our Catechism reminds us that in baptism is more than water, prayers, light, and love.  There is an “inward and spiritual grace” that is “union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit” (“An Outline of the Faith,” Book of Common Prayer, p. 858)

I remember seeing the power of baptism to cross all kinds of separation when a young parishioner, during her senior year of high school, became pregnant.  At first, there were all kinds of divides—with the boyfriend-turned-father, with the boyfriend’s parents, within the family, with neighbors, and on and on and on.  Over the next few months, there were a lot of tears, a lot of talking, and even more praying.  The whole situation was not tidied up as neatly as some might have wanted it, but when a beautiful little girl was baptized in our church, everyone was there.  There had been chasms so deep and wide that people would not be in the same room with one another, but beginning with that baptism, there was healing.  There was movement.  There was new life.

When Jesus was baptized by John, he did so to show a way of cross all separation, of moving from darkness to light, from sin to forgiveness, and from death to life.  Baptism is the ultimate bridge from one place to another, and though we are baptized only once, we return again and again in our mind, in our heart, and in our prayer.  The ancient sign of the cross is just that:  a reminder and a return to baptism.  In the fourth century, St. Augustine wrote:

What else is the sign of Christ but the cross of Christ? For unless that sign be applied, whether it be to the foreheads of believers, or to the very water out of which they are regenerated, or to the oil with which they receive the anointing chrism, or to the sacrifice that nourishes them, none of them is properly administered” (Tractates on John 118)

Baptism is not magic.  But it is power—the power to remind us of our common humanity, the power to move us out of isolation and toward another, the confidence to leave the safety of “my side” of a chasm, and to move across—whether that be a step, a leap, or a lunge across.

Let this morning by Theo, may we remember our baptisms, may we recall the power of the Holy Spirit, and may we be moved with Christ to cross the chasms in our world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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