Sunday, October 27, 2019

Hypocrite in the Mirror

October 27, 2019 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Don’t you just hate a hypocrite? Is there anything more infuriating than a person who acts as if he or she is good and right and blessed while holding other people in contempt for not living up to the same set of moral standards that he or she fails to live up to? You can tell how the world feels about hypocrites because of the way the media savors stories about individuals who make a living by taking the moral high ground and then come crashing down when their secret sins are exposed. Pro-life politicians who encourage their mistresses to get an abortion. Clergy who decry the “fornications” of the world yet get caught in a sex-trafficking sting. No one likes a hypocrite.

Jesus, it seems, didn’t like them either. To illustrate that point, he told a beautifully stunning parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The former, standing by himself, thanked God that he was not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or like the tax collector who was praying on the other side of the temple. Rehearsing for God how exceedingly religious he himself was, the Pharisee exuded enough self-righteous smugness to choke us. The tax collector, on the other hand, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, instead beating his breast, naming his sinfulness, and begging the Almighty for mercy. And which one of the two went home justified?

If you have to ask, you’re probably in trouble. We don’t need Jesus to tell us that hypocrites are bad. We don’t need him to tell us that self-righteousness is a problem. We don’t need him to remind us that you don’t win friends and influence people by talking about how great you are and holding others in contempt. Perhaps it was somewhat startling to Jesus’ audience that the tax collector in the story was identified as a humble man who showed an attitude of repentance, but no one was surprised that the humble character was the one whom Jesus singled out for praise. The a-ha moment in Jesus’ parable doesn’t come when we hear that the tax collector was the one who went home justified. The a-ha moment comes when we look in the mirror and recognize how hypocritical we are for holding the self-righteous Pharisee in contempt.

Jesus told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. That’s how Luke introduces this parable. You don’t need to be a Pharisee in order to be a hypocrite. All you need is a little dose of “at least I’m not as bad as those people.” And don’t we all have a bit of that inside of us?

I have never met a person who didn’t regard hypocrites with contempt. “Thank God I’m not like that hypocrite,” we never actually say aloud, for to name it like that would be to recognize the trap we were setting for ourselves. But we all feel that in one way or another. If it’s not the Baptists for drinking beer, it’s the Catholics for using birth control. If it’s not the Methodists for skipping Sunday school, it’s the Jews for eating barbeque pork. When, in fact, it’s actually us for thinking for even a split second that we have it figured out any better than they do.

We believe that God loves everyone. We believe that everyone is welcome in God’s house and at God’s table. We believe that our sister and brother human beings all reveal the image of the divine, which means that we hold in high regard even those people who differ from us…unless they’re hypocrites. We can’t abide Christians who think they’re better than other people. We don’t have any patience for people who read the same Bible we read and pull from its pages justification for misogyny. We will not tolerate people who, in the name of Jesus, mark people as sinful because of who they love or what their gender identity is. Thank God we’re better than that. Thank God we’re better than they are. Uh oh.

If ever there was a parable that we need to hear, it’s this one. We are so faithful, so enlightened, so accepting that we forget how much we still need Jesus. The truth is that we don’t need Jesus to tell us that hypocrisy is sinful. We need Jesus to remind us that God loves hypocrites, too.

The tax collector in the parable isn’t perfect. He’s humble, and humility is honesty. His willingness to stand vulnerable before God reminds us that God doesn’t love us because we’re better than anyone else. And his plea for mercy reminds us that we’re no better than anyone else because God loves us. We believe that our interpretation of the gospel as good news of God’s limitless love is right. We trust that in every moment of human history the work of the Holy Spirit is to surprise us with the boundlessness of God’s love. And we are right to call out bigotry, misogyny, and prejudice as being repugnant to the way of God and to hold accountable those who preach a message of hatred cloaked in Christianity. We may vehemently disagree with them and denounce their theology, but we cannot hold other people in contempt because, in truth, they are no different from us—sinners who depend on God’s mercy. And, when we forget that, we’re the ones who are in trouble.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

What We See In Others

The thing that bothers you most about other people is actually the thing that bothers you most about yourself.

I can't remember when I first heard that, but I can remember how it felt to have my soul split open, my life diagnosed, and my weakness exposed when I heard it. Suddenly, the names and faces of the people who had frustrated me most over the years came flooding back as I realized that the part of them that hooked me was me. I'll save the content of that revelation for the sacrament of reconciliation, but I trust that you can identify in your own experience the ways in which your frustrations in others are a reflection of your frustrations in yourself.

This Sunday, when we hear the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14), we get several layers of gut-wrenching self-examination sandwiched together in a remarkably concise account.

First, there's the Pharisee in the story: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." What an ass! Jesus identifies him in terms that leave no room for sympathy. The parable sets up an incompatible collision of religiosity and arrogance. Because of the way he looks at the tax collector, you don't need to know anything more to understand that the Pharisee's piety is misplaced.

But there's also another character in the story, whom Luke brings in right at the beginning: "Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt." It's us. Or, at least, in theory it's us. Whoever is listening, whoever needs to hear this parable, whoever hears the parable and thinks, "What an ass!" is involved in the parable, too. We get hooked by the Pharisee's hypocrisy because we, too, are hypocrites.

Think about the parable. It isn't designed to teach us that we shouldn't say prayers like that of the Pharisee. And it isn't designed to teach us that praying, fasting, and tithing are futile. It's designed to draw us into the life of the tax collector--the humble, honest introspection that leads to a plea for mercy. And we can't get there as long as we're pointing fingers at other hypocrites.

Maybe I'm the only one who effortlessly points a finger at the Pharisee and says, "Thank God I'm not like that Pharisee who thinks so highly of himself and holds others in contempt." But I doubt it.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Justice Work

October 20, 2019 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 24C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples a parable, but, even before he gets a word out, Luke interprets it for us, letting us know that Jesus is trying to encourage his disciples “to pray always and not to lose heart.” Maybe Luke felt that tip was necessary because the story Jesus uses to get his point across relies on an all-too-familiar image that isn’t very encouraging at all.

“In a certain city,” Jesus said, “there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” How many times throughout the centuries have the children of God faced judges or rulers who have ignored their cries for justice? How often has a vulnerable person like that widow been powerless to get the relief she deserved because the person who could grant it didn’t care about her or about doing what was right? Yet, Jesus tells us, because of her persistence, because the judge was afraid of being worn out by her constant requests, not because he was persuaded by her but because he wanted to be rid of her annoyance, the judge granted her request.

And what is Jesus trying to teach us about God and prayer? That our God is nothing like that unjust judge. That even though God’s people know all too well the challenge of getting justice in this world, they should have hope because our God is a loving God, because our God is a faithful God. Even though the powers of this world may be stacked against them, God’s children who cry out day and night will be granted justice without delay because our God is a righteous God. We pray, therefore, not to convince God to help us or to annoy God until God grants our prayers but because we know that our God has promised to hear us and to deliver us. Jesus tells us this parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart, so why, O God, are your people still waiting?

If God is nothing like the unjust judge, then why haven’t the cries of God’s people been heard? If God yearns to grant relief to those who suffer, then why has God so often failed to act? Why are children starving? Why are people persecuted for their race, their gender, their sexuality, or their religion? Why are war and genocide flaring up yet again? Why do people suffer in every generation?

Maybe it’s because our understanding of God’s timing is limited—because we don’t know what “quickly” means in God’s mind. Or maybe it’s because the early Christian community didn’t know how long it would be before the Son of Man would come to bring all of God’s promises to fulfillment—because they thought it would only be a generation or two before all things would be brought to an end. But I think it’s mostly because Christians like us—disciples of Jesus who come from relatively privileged backgrounds—have the luxury of waiting on Jesus to come back and fix all of the injustices that plague God’s people instead of insisting that those who carry on in Jesus’ name do something about it themselves.

“When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus asks. Well, will he? What will our response to this parable be? What does a faithful response look like? We do have hope that Jesus will come back one day and bring God’s justice fully to the earth, but the hope and good news that we have to share with others is more than a far-off dream. If we believe in Jesus, if we will take him at his word, then we must be sure that God’s justice comes to those who cry out day and night more quickly than the Parousia. We must bear witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the assurance God has given us that we can afford to risk everything in order that the voiceless might be heard, that the oppressed might be set free, and that the suffering might be liberated. We can afford to risk all that we have because we know that nothing can defeat the resurrection power of God. We who have been born into privilege, who have access to the courts of justice, who are heard and respected by people in positions of power, who have the resources necessary to ensure our own security, must be stewards of that privilege by lending our voice to those who are silenced, our power to those who have been shut out by the powerful, and our resources to those who must endure without them.

Isn’t that the work of our church? Isn’t that what it means to be a part of what God is doing in and through St. Paul’s? We have been given a message of hope, and we have accepted Jesus’ call to carry that message out into the world in both word and deed. We know that God’s reign will come, and we have a hope that lies beyond this life, but we also know that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s reign of justice is coming through us here and now. Our Justice for All program is advocating for the fair and humane treatment of those who are in jail, and our sanctuary ministry is giving voice to the silent strangers among us, reminding the world that they, too, are loved by God. Community Meals not only provides food to those who do not have enough, but it looks with dignity upon those who have been marginalized by our society. Out of this congregation, 7Hills Homeless Center and Magdalene Serenity House were born because we believe that God’s loving promise of hope and justice belong to all people not only in the eschaton but also here and now.

And still God’s people are crying out day and night because the work of justice is not finished—because there is still more for God and God’s people to do. And what is Jesus’ message to us? Don’t lose heart. Don’t give up. Don’t stop praying. Jesus has given us a glimpse of what God’s reign looks like when it comes to the earth, and, in Jesus’ resurrection, God has given us the power to manifest that reign here and now. If you are a part of this church, you are a part of that work. Give yourself to it again and again until our savior comes. And, when he comes, he will find faith here on earth.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Parable Of Contrast

It's tempting to think of parables as if they are riddles to be solved. "If only we can figure out what character represents God and what character represents us," we say to ourselves, "then we can understand what Jesus really meant." Sometimes that works. Sometimes parables are designed to give us a clear and straightforward glimpse at who God is and what our relationship with God is like. The parable of the sower seems to fit a fairly strict structure--so much so that the gospel writers even include Jesus' own interpretation of it. But most parables, including the one we have this Sunday, are better read not as mysteries to be solved but as impression pieces--stories designed to have an impact on us without giving the whole picture.

If you try to read the parable of the unjust judge in order to figure out how the characters relate to us and to God, you'll be disappointed. "There was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people," Jesus begins. Right from the start, we should know that this isn't a story about God. In fact, the judge is portrayed for us as the opposite of God and of godly people. The judge refused to give relief to the poor widow but, because she harassed him, he finally gave in: "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming." Let the reader clearly understand: the judge is NOT God.

So why do so many preachers use this parable to describe prayer as something we must offer over and over and over again in order that we might wear God down and convince God to grant our request? Part of the problem comes right at the beginning of the parable, when Luke offers this introductory editorial comment: "Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart." Jesus didn't say that. Luke did. It's Luke's interpretation of the story that follows. What is the meaning? Why did Jesus tell this parable? In order that people would pray always and not lose heart. In fact, that's a helpful comment. It's nice to know what Luke understood to be Jesus' purpose in telling this parable. But, again, why do preachers try to get that point across by making the judge like God?

The judge isn't like God. The judge isn't anything like God. Jesus has set up a parable that hinges on the "how much more" or "on the other hand" logic. If a judge who does not fear God and has no respect for people is willing to grant the request of the woman, isn't it reasonable to expect God, the always-faithful, always-loving, always-merciful one, to grant the requests of God's people? Yes, we are called to pray always but not because God must be convinced to act. We pray because God is eager to act on our behalf. We pray without losing hope because, unlike the unjust judge, God has promised to help us because God is God. In the end, the result is the same: pray always without losing heart. But it's a very different thing to engage those prayers expecting an outcome because of our confidence in God instead of our confidence in our own persistence.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Layers of Healing

This Sunday, we will hear the story of Jesus healing ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19. In short, ten lepers cry out to Jesus from a distance, asking for mercy. Jesus responds by telling them to go show themselves to the priests. While on their way, all ten are cleansed, and one returns to give thanks to Jesus. Then, Jesus asks where the other nine are and notes that the only one who came back was a Samaritan. Finally, he pronounces to the Samaritan that his faith has made him well.

What is the story about? It's about healing. But why is this story in the gospel? What larger purpose does it serve? This is more than an episode about Jesus's power over leprosy. A preacher could focus only on the cleansing of the ten, but wouldn't the congregation feel like something was missing if the point of that sermon was, "Jesus is the one with power to heal even ten lepers at once!" Surely there's more to it than that.

I trust that this story was challenging for the first-century Jews who heard it. No one wants the hero of a story to be the kind of person we hate. Jews and Samaritans were enemies. More than rivals, there was a mixture of ethnic, political, religious, and economic betrayal behind the animosity. This is more than your child going to college at the rival of your alma mater. It may be difficult to write tuition checks to that other place, but the kind of betrayal that this story represents runs much deeper than that. And Jesus knows it, and he plays it up.

Doesn't the word "foreigner" sound strange coming from Jesus? He doesn't say, "Samaritan," which would have been a simple way to name the individual's ethnicity. Instead, he gives the man a label that literally means "other-generated." He comes from elsewhere. He is an other. The label "foreigner" that Jesus uses could have been said with a tone of derision--the same way it might be used today. Jesus uses that term--or Luke uses it on his behalf--to hook us, to draw us in, to goad us into addressing the prejudice we bring to the story and forcing us to confront it.

This could be a story with a happy, non-confrontational ending. This could just be a story about a Samaritan being healed--like the story of the woman at the well or the Roman centurion seeking assistance for his servant. This could be a story about Jesus crossing ethnic boundaries to offer healing. But's more than that. It's Jesus offering that healing and Jesus forcing us to confront our dislike of it. We can't get to the end of the story without hearing Jesus ask us, "What happened to the other nine? Was none of then found to return and give praise except this...foreigner?" It's as if Jesus is saying to us, "What are you going to do with that?"

In other words, the layer of healing that is offered here goes even deeper than that of a Samaritan being healed. This is Jesus asking us to allow our prejudice to be healed. The point of this story isn't that Jesus heals lepers or that one of them is a Samaritan. It's that we recognize that only one of the ten gets it--only one is made well, made whole, saved in the fuller sense. And the one who gets it isn't just a foreigner; he's a direct challenge to all we've ever known about how God works in the world.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Repent and Forgive

October 6, 2019 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22C

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here.

On September 6, 2018, after a long shift, Amber Guyger came home to find her apartment door unexpectedly unlocked. Her training kicked in. She drew her sidearm and entered the apartment, prepared to encounter an intruder. Instead, she found Botham Jean, sitting and watching television. Without realizing it, Officer Guyger had gone up one too many floors and had mistakenly entered Mr. Jean’s home. She fired two shots, killing her unarmed 26-year-old neighbor.

Last Tuesday, a jury found Ms. Guyger guilty of murder. The conviction itself—a white police officer held accountable for killing an unarmed black man—is itself remarkable, but even more so was what followed. During the sentencing phase, the victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, testified that he loved Ms. Guyger and forgave her. Then, at the end of his remarks, he asked the judge if he could give his brother’s killer a hug. Images of that embrace filled the news coverage of the event. Later, after the sentence was pronounced, Judge Tammy Kemp, who had presided over the trial, hugged the victim’s family and then hugged the convicted murder, gifting the former police officer with her own personal Bible. And then everything broke loose.

Protests sprung up because the sentence of ten years in prison was deemed to be too lenient. Many people celebrated the image of the victim’s brother and the convicted officer’s embrace as a powerful sign of forgiveness. Others decried the gesture as a sign that Guyger, the Dallas Police Department, and more generally, a culture that propagates police shootings had been given a pass. Pastors, rabbis, and theologians chimed in from every side. One noted that forgiveness can only be granted by the one who was wronged and that the emphasis in this case should instead be placed on the need for repentance.[1] Another criticized those within the church who would be critical of any offer of forgiveness, describing it as a sign of how far removed we are from acknowledging the mercy of God.[2] Yesterday, on NPR’s All Things Considered, the Rev. Michael Waters of Dallas said that most of the backlash has been a misunderstanding of those who stood not in opposition to Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness but to “how black forgiveness is often weaponized back against the community” by those who would rather celebrate signs of charity and healing that address the systemic racism that has led to so many black deaths.[3]

It isn’t easy to know what to feel or how to react in situations like this. As the Christian community, as followers of Jesus, what is our response? What do we do? When it comes to the role of forgiveness in the community of the disciples, in Luke 17, a few verses before our gospel lesson begins, Jesus gives his followers some very difficult directions: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!...Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” So challenging were these instructions that the disciples replied, “[Lord,] increase our faith!” I can’t tell if that was a statement of their inadequacy or a wish for supernatural assistance, but, either way, it was a recognition that Jesus’ command to establish a community of radical repentance and forgiveness was inordinately demanding.

Even if someone sins against you seven times a day, to be a part of the fellowship of Jesus is to forgive the one who turns back—who repents—as many as seven times. The number seven represents completeness, so Jesus command isn’t limited to seven instances of forgiveness but is understood to be limitless. For the sake of the community, we must limitlessly forgive the one who turns back and repents. Why is that important? Why would Jesus test the limits of human kindness with such a difficult commandment? Not because to forgive is the right thing to do but because to forgive is who we are.

I don’t like the image Jesus uses to get his point across—the image of a slave serving at the dinner table. Even though it did not carry the racial connotations that slavery carries in our own historical context, the image of servant and master is hard to separate from the issues of race and class that divide us. Jesus uses the image, however, to stress how unexceptional the act of radical forgiveness is for one of his followers: “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Not unlike when I expect Elizabeth to give me a congratulatory pat on the back when I change a diaper or sacrifice an hour of my time to watch our children, Jesus wants us to see that our call to forgive is not an invitation to exceptional behavior but a reminder of who we really are. In order to forgive like that, Jesus says, you don’t need any more faith. You just need to remember what it means to be my follower.

But, lest we think that those whose job it is to radically forgive are the only ones who have work to do in the Christian community, we cannot forget that forgiveness is not the only challenging command Jesus gives to his disciples in this passage. He also tells them of the need continually to repent: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea!...If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender; [then,] if there is repentance, you must forgive.” We may delight in celebrating a black man’s radical act of forgiveness, but, in order to live out our identity as the Christian community, we must accept the rebuke that our racism has infected society, and we must embrace the call to repent. As the Rev. Cornell William Brooks said in the same NPR interview, we must “commend the hug but not ignore the slap in the face of African-Americans in America, and that means holding these police departments accountable.”[4] If we are going to be followers of Jesus, if we are going to be the Body of Christ in the world, the call to repentance must be as much a part of our identity as the demand for radical forgiveness.

It isn’t easy. Admitting our participation in racist systems is very threatening, as is forgiving those who have hurt us over and over again. But both are necessary if unconditional love is the core of who we are. The hurt is real. The anger is real. And without radical love the end of that hurt and anger is vengeance. In words that should send chills through us, the poet in Lamentations surveys the complete destruction of Jerusalem, and the psalmist imagines with delight the murder of Babylonian children as retribution for how the people of Judah had been treated. Those feelings are real, but they cannot be the end to which we aspire. We cannot allow hatred and violence to define us. And so we must repent, and we must forgive—not because it is the noble thing to do, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is who we are, because it is what it means to belong to the one who has embraced us with his radical forgiveness and lavished upon us God’s unconditional love.

[1] Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) on Twitter, October 3, 2019.
[2] Keith Voets on Facebook, October 4, 2019.

[4] Ibid.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Faith to Forgive

Sometimes, when we say something to a friend or colleague, it touches a nerve we didn't know was raw. An innocent comment about a person or a circumstance can set someone off in ways that surprise us. This Sunday's reading from Luke 17 feels a little like that.

We start in verse 5, in which the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. At first, Jesus' response in verse 6 seems to track with our expectations: "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you." That's a hard but honest and reasonable exhortation to stop worrying about having more faith and celebrating the faith that they have. I'd love for someone to wave a magic wand and grant me more faith. I do believe that faith itself is a gift, but it seems to be a gift that is given through struggle and discipleship.

When we continue with verse 7, however, things seem to have shifted out from under our interpretive feet. Jesus continues, "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'?...So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'" What happened?

There are a few possible approaches. One, and perhaps most simply, is to divorce the second part of our reading from the first. Gospel writers were always stitching together pieces of the tradition, and sometimes things get fastened together that don't follow sequentially. In other words, maybe Jesus' instructions about having faith aren't being clarified by his words about serving as a slave and being content with having done your work without receiving praise for it.

Another is to try to fit them together consequentially. This is tougher. The second half of Jesus' response seems to be a correction. Because it uses the image of a slave serving at the table as its subject, it seems to be communicating to the disciples that they, too, should serve without wanting credit. They should think of themselves as slave-like. If that's Jesus' response to their request for more faith, why? Was their request for more faith in some way a request for more credit? Were they asking to be equivalent with their master? Does wanting more faith somehow imply rivalry for leadership? Maybe, but that doesn't sound right.

A third way requires us to go back a little earlier in the chapter and read Luke 17:1-4. In those verses, Jesus offers instructions to his disciples on how to handle sinners in their midst. If a disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender. If there is repentance, you must forgive. To get that latter point across, Jesus says, "And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive." That's a tough lesson. Following Jesus requires radical forgiveness--not only of those on the outside of their fellowship but even of those on the inside--those who should know better. Even if someone in your fellowship sins against you seven times in one day, if that person comes asking for forgiveness each time, you must forgive. How in the world is that possible?

"Lord, increase our faith!" Those words are the disciples' response to Jesus instruction about forgiveness. Jesus asks them to forgive, and the disciples immediately recognize their shortcomings, and they ask for faith. And what is Jesus' reply? "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you'd be able to say to a mulberry tree..." And what does he want them to know about that? "When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'" In other words, radical forgiveness may not be easy, but it's your job. Don't expect to get a cookie just because you forgive the way you have been forgiven.

It's Thursday, and I don't yet know where my sermon will end up. I'm drawn to the hollow ache of Lamentations and the bitter violence of Psalm 137, but the exhortation to radical forgiveness is important. I sense that they might all come together, but it's almost always a bad idea to try to preach on multiple texts that aren't explicitly linked together. Pray for me.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A Great Chasm

Proper 21C - October 2, 2019

Last week in staff meeting, a colleague wondered allowed what sort of chasm it must be in Luke 16:19-31 for Abraham to be able to converse across it from heaven with the rich man in Hades yet for no one to be able to cross it. What kind of divide, what kind of separation is close enough for people to speak across yet so deep, so wide that no one could reach from one side to the other?

On Sunday, Fr. Chuck noted that this parable isn't about the afterlife, and he's right. This isn't a story about heaven and hell. It's a story that uses heaven and hell to teach us something about this life. Death, after all, is the greatest attention-getter. And Jesus knows that it has a way of clarifying our perspective in this life. And so he asks us to imagine a scenario in which two men are separated by an uncrossable chasm, and he uses death to help us see it. But where did that chasm come from?

Every day during his life, the rich man, who dressed in purple and fine linen, feasted sumptuously at his own table. It must be exhausting to eat rich, luxurious, fatty foods every single day, never able to see beyond the next plate of decedent delights. At the same time, there was a man named Lazarus, so poor and hungry that he dreamt of eating even the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. He lay by the rich man's gate, waiting and hoping. So lowly and desperate was he that when those dogs who ate the rich man's scraps came by and licked his sores, it was a source of comfort. And, between the two, there was a great, invisible chasm.

The separation was large to begin with--the rich man on one side and poor Lazarus on the other--but over the years it grew deeper and wider. Though in plain-sight, the poor man by the gate disappeared from view, falling out of the rich man's consciousness. It is painful, after all, to be that rich and behold someone that poor. And so the gap widened. Years passed, and no one noticed. The way it was became the way it had always been. The gap grew until it never could have been any other way--the incomparably rich on one side and the unfathomably poor on the other. The chasm, which was no broader than the distance between the rich man's gate and his table, might as well have stretched across light-years.

Finally, when both had died, everything became clear. The rich man saw not only how far away he was from Lazarus but also saw on whose side Abraham and the angels were to be found. Now able to perceive the gap that had widened every day of his life, the rich man wished for his poor counterpart to come and help him, to dip his finger in a bowl of water and cool the rich man's tongue, but a gap like that--a gap that would look at another human being as nothing more than an instrument for one's own relief--is one that cannot be crossed.

Jesus tells this parable to open our eyes not in the next life but in this one. In Jesus, God comes among us not at the rich man's table but beside Lazarus at the gate. The world looks for God's blessings amidst the rich and happy and powerful, but God is to be found within the poor and the desperate and the forgotten. A great chasm exists between us, and you cannot cross back and forth. You must belong on one side or the other. Our sin is what keeps us from seeing the widening chasm between us. Our self-centered, self-directed need for security and prosperity and comfort makes us blind to those who are lying at our gate, desperate for crumbs. God has always been found on the other side. We have Moses and the prophets to tell us that. If we can't see the chasm, how will we ever recognize which side of it we are on? Jesus didn't come to excuse your greed. Jesus came to transform it. Jesus came to open our eyes and show us what side of the chasm God and God's people are on. And he sent the Holy Spirit to make it possible for us to live where God and God's people are to be found. Will we be transformed?