Crossing the Chasm

spanning the divideA sermon for September 29, 2019, the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Amos 6:1a,4-7, Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, and Luke 16:19-31

Listen to the sermon HERE.

A young person in the neighborhood asked me the other day if we would be doing our usual Thanksgiving project. (If you’re new to Holy Trinity, you may not know that through HTNC, volunteers come through the week leading up to Thanksgiving and prepare several hundred Thanksgiving dinners that are then delivered to homebound neighbors on Thanksgiving Day.) She wanted to know so that she could use us as a reason why she would be unable to join her family in New Jersey for Thanksgiving Dinner. She explained that she was looking for a good reason to stay here because last year’s Thanksgiving dinner with family—some of whom support the current President of the United States and some of whom cannot stand him—last year’s dinner was pretty miserable, she said. And she feels like this year will be even worse because her family is so divided. There was a big distance between them last year, and that distances is only growing wider by the day. Who knows where we will be, come late November?

Whether we’re divided by political beliefs, cultural differences, or who knows what… we can all probably think of areas of our lives in which we experience division—perhaps a great distance, a divide, a kind of chasm.

Today’s Gospel talks about such a chasm, one caused primarily by the expanse between rich and poor. The poor man is named Lazarus (the same name as Mary and Martha’s brother, the one who was raised from the dead, but a different Lazarus, altogether). We’re not told the name of the rich man, though tradition often calls him, “Dives,” from the Latin word meaning, “rich man.”

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.

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 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. “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.’”

But now it’s time for Dives to be surprised. 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.

And we have these difficult, painful chasms inflamed by politics and so-called “cultural wars.” We imagine chasms sometimes that are simply not there. I’ve met people in other parts of the country who are surprised to hear that even though I live in New York City, I grew up shooting guns and can often have fairly conservative economic opinions. And I’m sometimes surprised to meet people in other parts of the country who might have thick accents different from mine, but listen to Public Radio and live a vegan lifestyle. Our world is too wonderful and complicated to waste time and energy on prejudice.

We have several means of navigating the chasms. First, we can befriend the stranger. Spend time with the one we perceive as different and really try to listen without prejudice, without forming our response, without needing to be on the offense.

Second, we can pray for people who at a distance. Sometimes we give thanks for the distance, but we pray for them anyway and pray God’s best intention and love for them—even, for them.

And third, in this Sacrament of Holy Communion, we practice the simply sharing of food and drink that are the Body and Blood of Christ. Through the mysteries of Holy Communion, Christ’s Body and Blood become part of our body and blood, and so they empower us to grow into the prayer that asks,

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

May God help us to move closer to others across all chasms, real or perceived.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 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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