You may listen to Mother Johnson's sermon here.
“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.”
Let me go out on a limb and say that the rich man in the Gospel story this morning got off easy. I don’t mean in the afterlife; that certainly does sound bad. I mean that what seems to have been asked of him in this life was pathetically easy. He was a wealthy man in first-century Palestine. Surely he had a house full of servants and plenty of square footage. There was a single hungry beggar at the gate who would have been happy for any scrap from one of the sumptuous meals that were consumed in that place on a daily basis. Surely this wealthy man, had he cared to think at all about the beggar at the gate, could have furnished him with a room, fed him until he regained his strength, and then employed him somewhere on the estate.
He needn’t have done any of this himself, mind you. He could have commanded that a servant see to the needs of Lazarus and then gone on about his prosperous life. He needn’t have labored over this act of kindness any more than Oprah Winfrey used to labor over giving free copies of the latest self-help book to her adoring studio audience. She had people for things like that. And the wealthy man in today’s Gospel had people too, to see to life’s little necessities. It would have been as easy for him to help Lazarus as it is for some of us to write a modest check: not enough to cause pain or second thoughts, but enough to get the charity to stop asking.
One suffering stranger at the gate? Clearly this wealthy man did not live in Philadelphia. He did not walk along the city streets as some of us do, witnessing displays of human distress outside fashionable shops and tempting restaurants. He did not show signs of being aware of social inequalities, or of worrying about whether he was implicated in them. He does not seem to have been called upon to cast his vote for politicians who won’t keep the public school system working or the national government open, no matter who gets hurt. He does not seem to have been asked to think about the uses of global power or the ethics of intervening in Syria. This imaginary wealthy man from first-century Palestine has just one task to fulfill, for all we know. Just one moment in which a kind-hearted response to human suffering would be called for. Just one shot to get it right or wrong forever. Nothing very difficult. Nothing very confusing.
And when I think of his story that way, I almost envy him. It doesn’t seem that hard to show up once and do the right thing, does it? Or to have your servant do it for you? What seems hard to me is knowing that today, if Lazarus appears at your gate, it’s possible that you might have the means to answer every one of Lazarus’s needs. And you may do so with an open heart and a willing spirit. And you may go to bed tonight feeling great satisfaction. But you will wake in the morning to the sound of another voice at your gate, another person or situation with a legitimate claim to your assistance. Like Bill Murray in that old movie “Groundhog Day,” you will wake up every morning starting over from scratch with God and Lazarus and whatever you have of time, talents, and treasure. The bosom of Father Abraham and the fires of Hades are for most of us a long way away, even if we are sure that we know what we are talking about when we gesture toward them. This encounter with the suffering of others will not be a one-time experience for us.
Harsh though the fate of the rich man may be, his life and his afterlife may look to us like some cartoon version of the complexities we face as followers of Jesus. Nor is it actually likely that living in first-century Palestine, under Roman occupation, was a simple thing for Jesus’s original audience. Surely they struggled too, to know whom to help, when to help, how much to help. “Who is my brother?” they asked of Jesus. “How many times do I have to forgive?” Like us, perhaps, they longed for a clear set of choices, a single task to complete, a yes or no answer. They longed for perfect moral clarity, perhaps, for perfect righteousness. They longed to feel that they had done what was required.
But no such perfect clarity would be forthcoming for them, and no perfect clarity will be forthcoming for us. In fact, the more I think about what perfect clarity would look like in the face of another person’s needs, the more I wonder whether clarity itself might be part of the great chasm we are always fixing between ourselves and each other.
Think about it: the wealthy man in this story knew exactly what to think about himself and about Lazarus. He knew, deep down in the core of his being, that he was important and Lazarus was not. It’s not a particularly admirable world view, but his consistency is absolute: not just a lifetime of stepping over the suffering man in his doorway, but a sense of entitlement that extends beyond the grave. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony.” “I beg you to send him to my father’s house.” And most astonishingly, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Can you imagine? “No, father Abraham!” “No, great biblical patriarch who trusted the Lord’s most baffling promises even to the point of being willing to sacrifice your own son. I know more about faith than you do! Tell Lazarus to give up his heavenly rest and look after my family.” Nothing is going to make him question his own superiority. Not even the torments of Hades.
Now, I don’t think many of us would formulate a statement so baldly self-serving, much less uphold it beyond the grave: “I am important and Lazarus is not.” We are mostly, thank God, disinclined to be openly contemptuous. We are not cartoon characters. But how often do we put up little walls of certainty that keep us from having to face the needs of other people? “They get what they deserve,” we may say, or “There is nothing that can be done for a person like that.” “Freedom and prosperity depend on the fact that there will always be winners and losers among us.” “It is the fault of the other political party.”
Even our best impulses can be part of the chasm we fix between ourselves and those whose needs overwhelm us: “I helped at the Soup Bowl last Saturday; I’ve done my share.” “I’m only one person.” “I give to people who can demonstrate that they will use my money well, but I never take a chance on the unknown or the undeserving.” We long to feel that we have done what is required. We long to have an answer. Clarity. Some chasm fixed between the rich and the poor so the rich can sleep at night. And we will unthinkingly reduce the suffering of other people to some cartoon version of reality that we can imagine handling in just the right way. We will over-simplify because we are afraid.
But note what happens to this wealthy man in the Gospel story. After a lifetime of reducing Lazarus to insignificance, this wealthy man becomes unable to escape his own cartoon. He spends eternity staring at that chasm he so diligently created in his lifetime. I think that may be why Jesus tells this story the way he does, as though it were such a black and white situation. He lures us into our own position of comfortable certainty. We are no fools! We know the rich man is wrong and the poor man will be received into the arms of God. I saw that one coming from the beginning of the story, didn’t you?
And then Jesus delivers the punch line: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Nothing, that is, not even the resurrection of our Lord, will move us if we have become too comfortable with our own simple story about who matters and who does not. What could be more chilling than to hear the voice of our savior, reaching forward in time and predicting that we will not have ears to hear? I can’t think of a more powerful image of being lost.
But perhaps we need not be lost, no matter how powerfully the suffering of the world threatens to overwhelm us. If Jesus calls to us for any single purpose, it has to be this: that we might be free to love abundantly. Jesus will not deny us the gift of giving to others. We can rely on his help, every day, as we start from scratch with Lazarus.
Keep a place in your heart for the creative power of Jesus when you turn toward Lazarus at your gate. Don’t get stuck in a cartoon version of good and bad. Don’t look for winners and losers.
On Monday, pray and tell yourself that you will give even if you aren’t sure whether you should. On Tuesday, pray and re-evaluate. Talk to someone who has taken a risk for the Gospel. Talk to Pauline and Don, our interns, and ask them how they made such a risky commitment to giving. On Wednesday, pray and be mindful of your own inherent limitations. On Thursday, pray that when you give you will be spared the curse of self-righteousness. On Friday, pray—pray hard—and forgive the politician of your choice for not knowing how to do what’s right any better than you do.
Do you see the plan? We can with God’s help make this the work of a lifetime, not the task of a single day. We can stay in motion. We can let the suffering of the world be the mystery that it is, and remain small in the face of that mystery. We need never sell our souls for the cheap cartoon luxury of feeling in control. Just for today, let’s chip away at the chasm that is established between the rich and the poor, in whatever way we can. Let’s see where it takes us, and let’s band together as we follow.
Indeed, chipping away at that chasm has taken this parish to some wonderful places like the Saturday Soup Bowl and Saint James School. And there is always more that God can do with us if we are willing to stay in motion.
Jesus has come from beyond the grave to give us words of life. And we really wouldn’t be here this morning if we weren’t willing to budge, to hear a little bit of what he says. That’s all we need to be sure of for today; that’s enough to take us into tomorrow with its challenges and blessings. That’s enough to keep us open to the reality of the world around us.
Let’s try everything we can, and see what works. In the words of today’s Epistle: “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness….[T]ake hold of the life that really is life.”
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
29 September 2013
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia