Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21 C Luke 16:19-31

“In all this, 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.”

You would have had to be secreted on a deserted island somewhere this week to miss that fact that the Episcopal Church was once again in the news. Whether you turned to NPR or BBC or the Boston Globe or the New York Times, the Episcopal Church was right there, as the House of Bishops met, in part to discuss the demands made by the Primates of the Anglican Communion a few months ago, demands that center on issues of sexuality. As you may have gleaned from the many (and sometimes contradictory) news accounts, the House of Bishops issued a statement reaffirming the resolutions passed at General Convention 2006 which stated that restraint would be exercised in consecrating bishops who might be a challenge to the rest of the communion and that no official rites for blessing same sex unions would be authorized at this time. That this is a consensus statement arrived at after much hard work is witnessed by the fact that no one outside the House of Bishops is really happy with it—neither the Primates and the conservatives who think it did not go far enough to conform to their demands, nor those who believe that it did not go far enough to affirm the place of gay and lesbian persons in the church.

In the midst of this I began to think about today’s sermon, and what first crossed my mind as I read and reread the gospel was the stark contrast between the message we’ve been hearing Jesus emphasize recently—discipleship in general and wealth in particular—and what the Primates seem most fixated upon—power in general and sexuality in particular. But as I continued to read and ponder, I began to see a thread in today’s gospel that might, just might, pertain to both.

This week’s gospel is another one of those hard messages. The parable Jesus tells is a rich one—no pun intended—with many layers to pull apart, but its meaning—its surface meaning at least—is immediately clear. There is a very wealthy man—we know he’s wealthy because he wears purple and linen, expensive commodities in those times, and lives in a gated home—a man who passes by the beggar Lazarus whenever he sets off through his gates. Lazarus is destitute—he’s looking just for the crumbs from the table, the meagerest of the leftovers. He’s so destitute that he’s covered in sores, and cannot keep the wild dogs that roam the city away. Eventually Lazarus and the rich man both die; Lazarus is gathered into the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man languishes, tormented in she’ol, the place of the dead. The rich man begs Abraham for relief, and then for a message to be sent to his brothers so that they might avoid his fate. His requests are for naught, however, and Abraham reminds him of the chasm that separates them, a chasm so wide and so deep that it cannot be crossed.

If we’ve been following the gospel of Luke closely we shouldn’t be surprised to hear this story. Jesus begins his ministry in this gospel by standing in the synagogue and reading a passage from Isaiah, which says,

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)

Later in the sermon on the plain Jesus preaches,

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God...
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation."
(Luke 6:20, 24)

And in recent weeks’ gospels we’ve heard Jesus say things like,

“You cannot serve God and wealth." (Luke 16:13)

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34)

Jesus’ message is consistent; devotion to money and devotion to God are antithetical. It’s not that having money per se is bad, it’s what you do with that money, and what that money does to your relationship with others and with God that is the problem. And in this week’s gospel we see the consequences of allowing wealth to be foremost—a separation from God, a separation so deep and wide that it cannot be breached.

Think about this: we don’t know that the rich man was a bad person; we don’t even know if he was generous in other ways. Perhaps he was a good employer and a kind person and gave alms to the poor—we just don’t know. What we do know that he walked past a beggar, someone who was invisible to him in his poverty—every single day. Lazarus was a non-entity to him, inconsequential, nothing. Lazarus was the invisible other.

We don’t know much about Lazarus either, beyond the facts of his destitution. Was he a good person—kind and loving and devoted to God? It’s impossible to say. But God’s love and mercy for Lazarus reached across that chasm—the chasm that Lazarus himself did not have the power to bridge—to enfold him, to cradle him in the bosom of Abraham.

It might be enough to say that today’s story of the rich man who failed to use his wealth to reach out to the poor at his gate is another stark reminder that God calls us to hold onto our money lightly, that God calls us to share the abundance that is entrusted to us and to share it joyfully and generously. That message is certainly here for us to heed and it is an important one. But I think if we go a bit deeper we can reach that thread that connects this story to the Primates and the House of Bishops.

If we look more closely we can see that there’s more than wealth involved here. The rich man had wealth to be sure, but he also had power—the power to see beyond a filthy, dirty man covered with sores, the power to see the humanity of Lazarus and to reach out to him as another child of God. The chasm that separated Lazarus and the rich man did not open only after their deaths; that chasm was dug during their lifetimes. It deepened every time that the rich man walked past Lazarus, oblivious to his need. It widened every time the rich man relegated Lazarus to the ranks of the unseen and unwanted. It grew as the rich man forgot God’s commandment to love neighbor as self.

We in the church are called to be generous with our wealth to be sure. But we are also called to see those who are often invisible in society, to see the image of God in all our sisters and brothers—no matter how different from us they may seem, no matter if they are dressed in rags or the finest clothes, no matter if their skin is white or pink or brown or ebony black, no matter whether they are gay or straight or male or female or young or old—to see them and to include them fully. Jesus is really clear that this is our call, but let’s be honest here: the church has a really poor track record in following that call. All too often the church has put up walls, yes, has allowed chasms to open between the people like us, those on the inside, those with the power, and others who are perceived to be different, the ones we’d like to exclude. The irony of course is that today’s gospel tells us that the ones who ultimately will be excluded are the ones who allow the chasms to open.

It’s only been in the last 40 years or so that the church, and specifically the Episcopal Church, has begun to recognize those chasms and to work to close them, close them so that all of God’s children—especially people of color and women and gay and lesbian persons—can be fully included in the life and work of the church. It’s hard work and it’s radical work, and it’s controversial work, just like the gospel. And it’s necessary work if we truly want to build the kingdom of God.

The Episcopal Church faces a difficult task now—the task of balancing what it sees as its prophetic witness to ALL of God’s children with the demands of church leaders who see things differently. The statement from the House of Bishops this week, no matter what you think of it, is an attempt to do this, and we have to live with it for now. But that does not change God’s call to us to close those chasms, to really see and to really include all of God’s children as full and equal members in the church, in the body of Christ.

Like the rich man and his brothers we have Moses and the prophets, and we have the one who has risen from the dead, Jesus our savior who reminds us again and again that there is no one outside the bounds of God’s love. Will we hear this message? Will we—finally—heed this call? Will we work to close the chasm that keeps out the other so that we may all be enfolded in God’s love, cradled in the bosom of Abraham?

I pray that it may be so.


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