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This sermon was originally preached on September 25, 2022 at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Park, MN..
The service may be viewed here. The sermon may be viewed here.
Lectionary Texts: Amos 6:1a, 4-7 | Psalm 146 | 1 Timothy 6:6-19
Gospel Text: Luke 16:19-31
Beloved of God, it has been a week, capital A, capital W.
It began with the Queen of England’s fantastically opulent funeral, which dominated global headlines even as massive natural disasters hit both Puerto Rico and the western coast of Mexico, leaving millions traumatized, and without running water or electricity.
Then 48 Minnesotans were indicted in the largest-to-date COVID-19 fraud scheme, in which they are alleged to have stolen upwards of $250 MILLION dollars of federal aid that was meant to feed hungry families during the pandemic.
And over on Instagram, I stumbled on a luxury real estate gossip page that shares slideshows of the hundred-million-dollar mansions being purchased and sold, traded and swapped, between celebrities and billionaires in LA and Miami the way my cousins and I trade the same $15 dollars back and forth to whoever needs to buy gas or groceries with two days to go before payday.
And so as I read and studied today’s gospel, my claws were out, my hackles were raised, and I felt not a little bit of rage as I recognized the wildly different experiences of the Haves and the Have Nots here and now in the pages of this millennia-old parable.
Despite the hackles, some questions immediately came to mind:
Firstly, Who or what “fixed the chasm” between the Rich Man in Hades and Lazuarus in Abraham’s Bosom? And,
Secondly, Where or what is Hades, and what is the nature of the Rich Man’s “torment” there?
So I did some digging.
To the first question of what or who fixed the chasm, I’m sorry to say I found no precise answers from commentators. I even asked a seminary professor for some insight, and he confirmed the Greek itself isn’t very helpful since it translates to, “a great chasm has been fixed.” It is super vague, perhaps purposely so. And so I moved on.
The second question presented much more interesting loot. First of all Hades is not the “hell” I was handed as a child -- the everlasting pit of eternal conscious suffering to which I’d be forever condemned, without hope, if I did not pray the right prayer, live the right life, or affirm the right doctrines in my few short years on earth.
Instead, “Hades” is simply the realm of departed souls. It is, most fundamentally, not-here and not-life.
To the question of what it is to be tormented, and I just love this so much: “to be tormented” is simply “to be tested.” That’s right: The Greek here is illuminating. The word for “being tormented” is “basanois” and it stems from the word “basanos” which is a touchstone -- a black, silicone-based stone -- used for examining and testing the purity of metals like gold and sliver.
The Rich Man is in the realm of the departed being tested.
More specifically, he is being tested in the realm of the departed with the very same suffering that tormented Lazarus in the realm of the living. That is to say, the pain and suffering here matter, but they’re not the point, nor are they universal in application; they’re the process.
The point is that the Rich Man is being given one last opportunity to see Lazarus, right? And what does the text say he does? He begs Abraham to have mercy on him and….
Forgive him for having ignored Lazarus’s suffering in life, now that he knows what it’s like to suffer without aid? No.
Does he beg for a chance to confess, repent, and be transformed through reparation and repair, that he may be purified by the touchstone, and made whole?
When tested, The Rich Man does what the Rich Man has always done, what the Rich Man believes he is entitled to do, by virtue of being “The Rich Man”: He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his aid, because THAT is all Lazarus is to him: at worst, a nothing, a no one, invisible to all but the dogs who lick his sores; and at best, a servant who can be lent out like a slave either to do the Rich Man’s bidding, to end HIS suffering; or be sent back to the realm of his torment to aid his torementer’s brothers. The Rich Man begs for Lazarus’s labor because the Rich Man cannot fathom a world in which he is not intrinsically better than, superior to, or wholly different -- separate -- from the poor beggar man.
And so I return to my first question of what and where the chasm comes from, and I see now that the second question answers the first, albeit in a roundabout way:
The chasm is not created for the dead as some eternal punishment designed by God or the devil. The chasm already exists -- in this realm, in this life -- between the Haves and the Have Nots, between the Rich men and the Lazaruses, and it is here because the Rich build it, they sustain it, and they grow it with every flaunt and flourish of ill-gotten wealth -- and my friends, it is painful to say but it is true nonetheless, that all excess is ill-gotten, or at very least ill-kept. For “whoever has what a neighbor needs but does not help them, has not the love of God in them.” 1 John 3:17. “If a sibling is without clothes and food and you say to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but do nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:15-17. And “Alas for those who live in ease, lay in luxury, feast on the best foods, entertain themselves with the best music, but are not grieved for the ruin of their neighbors!” Amos 6:1-7.
The point is this: Chasms are fixed not by the gods, nor by the stars, nor by any external or eternal force, but by us. And they make THIS place and THIS life into hell, right now, for every Lazarus who begs on the corner but whose eyes we refuse to meet; for every unhoused family we allow to sleep on the street or allow to be swept away by police who are more interested in protecting our property values than preserving human lives; It is hell for every person who has need of what we possess but may as well be standing on the far side of a fixed and uncrossable chasm for all our unwillingness to share from our abundance.
The good news -- and, Beloved, thanks to God there will always be good news so long as we live -- The good news is that we still live. The chasm exists, to be sure, and the gulf between the ultra rich and the rest of us, and between the rest of us and the ultra poor widens every day -- but is not yet fixed! It can still be crossed!
And so we have this invitation, an opportunity to be tested right now, and I think the opportunity is summed up nicely by a person named Lexis on Twitter who wrote, “Nobody is trying to fix the problems we have in this country. Everyone is trying to make enough money so the problems don’t apply to them anymore.” And so I ask: What are we fixing? The problems? Or the chasm?
Or are we going to dismantle it with every connection we build between ourselves and those who either have what we need or need what we have? Are we going to live lives of luxurious individuality, or intentional mutuality? Are we going to store up for ourselves riches on earth where moth and rust destroy… or will we, like our ancestors of the faith in Acts 4, share everything in common, and heal the chasms of want and greed in communities of radical connection?
Friends, I have no idea what will or will not happen, where I will or won’t go when my life in this realm ends. It cannot be known, so I see little reason to speculate. What I do know is that what we do here matters. How we think about, talk about, and distribute wealth matters. Greed and possessiveness create chasms, and insulate us from the needs of those around us, making it easy to see those who have less as being lesser. But we can create connections, too. And every single connection, no matter how small, tugs at a thread to unmake the chasms between us.
Friends, I leave you with this: Earlier this week, my husband went to pick up pizza at our local joint, and before he left he grabbed some cash because he always sees a woman there asking for a buck to buy some pop. And, because he is that kind of guy, he thought of her before he left and he took with him an intention to cross a chasm and make a connection so she could feel seen. This kind of thing has been an ongoing conversation in our family as of late, as more and more corners are occupied by people begging for cash. What do we do? How do we perceive them? Do we judge them as lazy, or pathetic for working at a corner for $15 an hour instead of working at a desk for $12? What do we do when we catch ourselves replaying cultural mythologies about beggars, and quietly deciding not to give them money that they’ll only spend on things like booze… things we’d be just as likely to spend that money on, but with far less judgment? What would happen if we just give them some money, because we live in a world where living is expensive, and where every dollar shared in mutuality is an affirmation of our shared humanity, our innate dignity, and the deepest truth that all our liberation is bound up together?
So that is my challenge for all of us this week: Carry some cash wherever you go. And when you see a beggar on the corner at a stoplight, look them in the eye, smile to their face, and hand them the cash. May the doing test our hearts and unmake chasms. And may Christ go with you, that all of us may be saved in the sharing of God’s abundance.