Just Be God’s: A Call to Continuing Conversion is a series of blog posts. You might want to start reading it from the beginning: Here.
Every Heart A Chasm
This sermon was preached at the Brookline Church of Christ, in Brookline, Massachusetts, September 29, 2013.
Preface to the Sermon
When I was growing up, preaching wasn’t exactly a vocational option, but it was something I always wanted to do. I wrote in my notes at church on August 11, “Maybe they’ll let me preach here someday.” Six weeks later, I was at the pulpit. This being the first time I preached, I wrote a preface for them that sums up my feelings. “There are two things I have to say. First, it’s important to let you know I believe this is the best Church of Christ in the world! I wish there were more people, barring today, to hear the great preaching here. Secondly, I don’t know if you realize how crazy this is to me, but probably not, because Brookline has had women preaching since before I was born. Thank you for this opportunity.
In preparation, I listened to D’Esta Love’s sermon she preached at a Sunday morning service at a Church of Christ. Other than a sermon she preached at Brookline with her husband, Stuart, it was the first sermon she had preached alone at a Church of Christ service. She was seventy-years-old! In light of D’Esta’s legacy, I simply want to acknowledge her and all women in the Church of Christ, particularly those in churches where there is gender inequality or discrimination. Today, I want to stand in solidarity with those women.”
Reading the Text: Luke 16:19-31 (New American Bible Revised Edition)
There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.”
Abraham replied, “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.”
He said, “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.” But Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” He said, “Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
Then Abraham said, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The Sermon: Every Heart A Chasm
When I was growing up I recognized that this was one of those “heaven and hell” passages. Just this week, I was going over this text with a small group, and someone recognized it as such. The good guys go to heaven; the bad guys go to hell.
While it’s arguable, I look at this passage and see it as a type of parable, so there really isn’t a clear lesson. And while this one isn’t as confusing as the lectionary gospel text for last week (Luke 16:1-13: The Dishonest Steward), this text can be pretty fuzzy.
At the same time, on the most primary level this is definitely a jab at the Pharisees (and really anyone) and their greed. The moral of the story is: Don’t be greedy. Just because things are good now, it doesn’t mean they always will be. But even the pagans know that.
Looking more closely at the passage, it doesn’t say the rich man did bad things, and the poor man did good things. It just says that the rich man was rich, Lazarus was poor, they both died, and they went somewhere else where their places were reversed. Not that I want to make Lazarus out to be the bad guy in the afterlife, but it was kind of similar. Let me explain.
Abraham says to the rich man, “Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours” (Luke 16:26).
In the first half of the story Lazarus and the rich man are close in distance, but you could say there was a chasm between them. What could the rich man do to cross over this economical or cultural gap to really put them on the same level? They didn’t know each other. They didn’t talk. They just were. And like Amos prophesies in the first reading for today (Amos 6:1-7), the rich man was simply enjoying his riches, enjoying the blessings he had been given in life, whilst consciously or unconsciously ignoring the suffering before him.
The picture is very similar after they die! There is a great chasm, but not so great that the rich man can’t have a pretty strange and lengthy conversation with Abraham, whilst dying for a little help! In their conversation across the chasm, the rich man pleads with Abraham so he can warn his brothers, but Abraham still says, “Nope. They won’t believe it.”
I wonder what the rich man would say to his brothers, because there are no instructions here. Abraham doesn’t tell the rich man what he should have done. It doesn’t say what the rich man did wrong, or what he should do to fix it. But really? They won’t believe it if someone is raised from the dead? This is definitely a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection. We’ve all known people so stubborn and so caught up in their ways, not even someone rising from the dead would make them change their minds. I know such people.
I’m not bragging, but my grandpa was a preacher in the Church of Christ. His son, my uncle, is also a preacher in the Church of Christ. There are more on my mom’s side of the family, but when I was a teenager my uncle stopped talking to my family because we started attending the wrong type of Church of Christ.
I imagine there are some here who have, to some extent, experienced something similar: a fear-driven community struggling to grasp the grace and compassion that the gospel story tells. I am striving to be a witness to Christ’s unconditional love, swimming in the chasm, full of discomfort and frustration. In painful moments such as this, while it’s difficult to see, we share a desire for healing as well as a certain solidarity with Christ and God in their frustration, their righteous anger.
My uncle probably wouldn’t be thrilled at my preaching this morning, and I don’t know if even someone rising from the dead would make him change his mind, or at the very least allow some space for grace and mercy. There is a great chasm between my family and my uncle.
Permit me another example. For my entire life my dad didn’t believe, while my family and his were believers. In reference to my dad, I was the rich man. I expected him to do something, to take care of himself spiritually. Also, I thought I could do something—pray or argue instead of simply being a witness, being uncomfortable, being grateful for him, and loving him. There was a great chasm between us.
I’m sure we could all think of endless examples of broken relationships, chasms that have been healed—or have not. These chasms are where we have not allowed love, forgiveness, grace, and mercy to enter and heal. These chasms, whether we are rich or poor, are created by pride and also by greed. Pride makes us think of others as somehow above or below us, and we expect something from them.
Now, I haven’t been entirely fair to this passage, because I’m not taking all of Luke into context. In Luke, the poor, the last, the lost, the broken, and the “other” always appear to come out on top. Even more so, they are always the conduits of Christ. Jesus is always working in and through them.
And in Luke, the rich are out of luck. They never give enough, and they never seem to care enough, and it’s usually too late once they do. Yet, we have an entire gospel dedicated to this binary of rich and poor—God lifting up the poor and reaching out to the rich.
Conceivably, we are the rich. If you are here, in this church, in Boston, we are the rich spiritually, economically, and intellectually. And it may make us feel like there is something we can do because of our status. There are all these things we need to do, in order to be more like Christ or become closer to God.
We may then come to the conclusion that our job, as the rich, is to take care of the poor, i.e., “Don’t be greedy,” and in some ways this is true. Perhaps we say to ourselves, “I, oh so high, rich, mighty, and spiritually deep and pious, have to somehow help you—the lowly, the lost, the poor.” But, I really have to be careful with that sort of language—the language of them and us.
I don’t think that was the point Jesus was trying to make. Not that I’m trying to shirk our responsibilities to take care of one another. It’s like the example with my uncle and my dad. We can all be the rich, and we can all be the poor. We ought to give help, and we need help. We are not giving to the poor out of our riches, but we give out of our poorness. We serve the poor out of our poorness, our realness, our vulnerability, and our humility. But sometimes that is easy, and it feels good when I cross the chasm to have a relationship with someone I want to reach.
So, then I couldn’t help but wonder, “What about those people, or groups, or institutions that I don’t want to serve, or relate to, or with whom I want to fix the chasm?” I am referring to those relationships where I justify the chasm, and I am perfectly happy with that chasm, now and in the afterlife. We all have those people whom we consciously ignore or avoid. Even someone rising from the dead to tell me I’m wrong, probably wouldn’t change my mind. I am stuck.
This is more real to the story of the rich man and Lazarus and the chasm that exists between them. The questions that I need to ask myself, as “the rich man,” are:
“What converts me?”
“What in the world jars me?”
“What compels me?”
“What gets my attention to the point of genuine action?”
The chasm is deep and the chasm is wide. Sometimes we reach across it for help, and don’t receive it. Sometimes someone reaches across the chasm for help from me and I don’t give it. Sometimes I ignore the chasm; sometimes I even like the chasm. But that is not the type of relationship to which we are called.
I, alone, cannot fix the chasm. And at the end of the story, we are left with more questions than answers. So what do I do? What do we do?
Now, this is where I’m going to try and drive a point home, but it’s not coming that easily, because this passage in Luke can feel pretty grim. We are called to hope and to love. In the simplest of terms, we hope that Jesus fills the chasm. We believe Jesus heals the chasm. Jesus closes the chasm. And we are compelled by Christ’s love to work together, to serve, to receive in the midst of co-creating the kingdom now and the kingdom to come.
With my dad, I prayed for years. I gave up. I was angry. I stopped caring. I didn’t give him an ounce of mercy. I cried because he was going to hell and I was going to heaven, and he is a super good dude. Lots of people would give anything to have my dad as their father. I went through all of these feelings, and eventually, as an adult, I stopped worrying. I just started loving—I became an uncomfortable witness in the chasm. And without my help, my father came back to his faith a couple of years ago. It seems weird. Was there ever even a chasm? Where there is such radical transformation, whatever I thought existed before is now difficult to remember. That is the power of Christ.
Honestly, there is a lot of discomfort with the relationship between my uncle and the rest of the family. It ought not be denied, but I have to hope that some day he will come to meet us in the discomfort, in the chasm that has already been healed. That is what Christ does. Christ fills the chasm between God and humankind, clean and unclean, rich and poor, Church of Christ and Church of Christ, gay and straight, man and woman, time and eternity…
It’s not our job to fix the chasm, because the chasm is fixed in Christ. I have to remain hopeful about the broken relationships in my life. If I don’t have the faith or the strength to hold onto that hope—if I feel helpless, then I should express my weakness. I ought to be able to confide in my community, where maybe someone else has enough hope and faith for me and for the transformations and healings that need to take place.
These passages, and all of Luke’s gospel, are about our inability to bring about transformation and healing on our own. Liberation comes with knowing this. It comes about by finding hope in our helplessness, and that hope is Jesus.
I will fail. I will be wrong. I will be rejected. I will reject. I will give up. I will ignore. I will deny. The list goes on. But I am only one person—we hope and we try and we have faith together. We do this—believing, hoping, suffering, healing, forgiving, and reconciling—together and in communities with Christ. We are uncomfortable together and we laugh and have fun together.
We shouldn’t keep the love and hope and riches to ourselves. And that way when I don’t have enough, I then can trust and have faith that someone else has it for me. When we walk together in the chasm, we experience Christ’s healing power, love, restorative justice, and forgiveness.
This sermon was published in Finding Their Voices: Sermons by Women in the Churches of Christ, ACU Press, 2015. Love, D. Editor.