Of Walls and Chasms

Primary Scripture: Luke 16:19-31

Here, for the third time, Luke recounts Jesus using a parable involving a “certain rich man.”   There was the story about the Rich Fool in Luke 12, which Jesus told as a warning against all kinds of greed.

And in the passage just preceding today’s reading, at the start of chapter 16, is the story of the dishonest manager, followed by this warning: No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

In all three cases, Jesus shows how the relationship between these “certain rich men” and their wealth got each one into trouble. And among those listening to the story of the rich man and Lazarus?  The Pharisees, whom Luke identifies as “lovers of money”.  

When combined with the teachings about the lost ones… the lost sheep and coin and sons… it’s easy to see that Jesus isn’t looking to confront them for the sake of argument. I can hear a mixture of frustration and concern as he says they may be able to make themselves look good in front of other men, but that God knows their hearts, God sees their motives.   

Even if the people had been  fooled into thinking the Pharisees had everything right, God saw it for the evil that was at its core. Not that the men themselves were evil, mind you, but their focus on money and power and influence… definitely.  

These beloved children of God were so distracted by these things of the world, they had lost sight of God. They were blind to the ways that God needed them to be about the same business as Jesus – bringing the Kingdom of God into the world.

Jesus was concerned for the leaders of the synagogue and the way that they would shape the life of the people in their congregations, as well as the broader community.  It was in that context of love and concern that he told the story of two men who experienced life very differently.

The rich man had all he could possibly need and more.
Enough that he feasted every day…
Enough to live in a house with a wall around it and gates.
Enough to wear the finest clothes
Enough to walk outside and not even acknowledge Lazarus.

Lazarus had nothing.  No home, no food.
No family, or at least none to take him in and care for him.
No one but the dogs, and their company told the rest of the community exactly how unclean he was.
Perhaps someone dumped him at the gate where he sheltered
Perhaps in hopes that this rich man would share from his abundance.
But he never did.
Not on this earthly plain.

And in one of the few times that Luke refers to life beyond this life, he describes the anguish in which the rich man exists in Hades. It is a sharp contrast from the comfort that Lazarus receives in death.  

While Jesus doesn’t mention it directly, this story echoes his sermon on the plain, specifically the section in which Luke records the beatitudes –
Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
20 “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

Lazarus, who knew sorrow and poverty, who experienced hunger and exclusion…
day after day after day…  
He was no longer alone.  He was not just sitting near Abraham, but was close as a son nestled into the arms of his father. Safe, secure.  Held.  Loved.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,  for you have received your consolation.

There would be no intimacy, no care, for the man who had been so coddled in this earthly realm.  In his arrogance, even in that tortured state, he thought himself above Lazarus.  Who but a servant would come with water? Couldn’t he see the inversion promised in the prophecies at this point?

Apparently, he was still blind…

This man has been so “blessed” materially in life that he was insulated from the realities of what was happening outside the walls of his compound.  His daily bread was the equivalent of the celebration held upon the return of the prodigal son.  An extravagance he could afford, but at what cost to his soul?

His wealth had become an idol… his possessions and position had become more important than loving his neighbor and caring for the community.

Every day that he allowed Lazarus to remain just outside the walls, alone and starving, the chasm between the rich man and his potential welcome into that great cloud of faithful witnesses grows wider.

Is material comfort worth the loss of right relationship with God?  Is it worth being counted among the lost souls?  

That is the question Jesus is raising with this parable. Really, it’s not a threat, but a question.
That is the question left for us to answer as well.

Not only as individuals, but as a church, as a community, as a nation.

We are a culture that prides itself on rugged individualism and the myth that each person can make it from rags to riches on his or her own.

I suppose that such a capitalist system would naturally lead to a consumer-driven belief system – one in which we believe that God blesses us with material comfort and wealth based on just how strongly we believe, how much faith we have.

It also leads us to believe that we and our things are of greatest value, which means we need locks, walls, gates, alarms… ostensibly to keep people out. But eventually they keep people in, too. They train us to replace relationship with privacy.  And we go from knowing our neighbors, to fearing them.  

We aren’t so different from the rich man, in that we become insulated by fear –
Fear stoked by news reports that focus on the crimes and the scariest stories that bring in the most viewers… meanwhile actual crime rates are falling

We become insulated by our ignorance –
Ignorance fed by the harmful and insidious myths that surround poverty. Harmful because they allow us – even encourage us – to build our walls of misunderstanding, of distrust and of separation ever higher

Over and over again, data shows our social safety nets are full of holes, with millions of Americans dropping through them, but anecdotes about the tiny minority of people who game the system drive policy decisions.

Incidence of fraud among those who receive welfare or housing subsidies is no higher than the rate of those cheating on income tax returns in higher income brackets.

In every state where drug testing is mandated to receive assistance, the percentage of those found using is lower than in many middle class suburban neighborhoods.

The reality is that most households or families – regardless of how many people of what ethnicity in what combination – are one medical emergency from financial ruin.  People you know, perhaps even people in this room who look to be doing ok, have had to make choices in the last 3-4 months between paying for food, housing, electricity or medications.  

There are more people renting in our cities than ever before, and most of them can be evicted for no cause or for actions and situations beyond their control.

I recently heard an interview with a woman who had worked two jobs for years so that she could mover her children out of a large apartment complex into small house in a safer neighborhood.  They were doing fine until her oldest son was mistaken for someone else and became the victim of a drive-by shooting. She came home from visiting him in the hospital to find an eviction notice on her door- for a crime that even the police had made clear to the landlords that her family was not responsible for,

Hospital bills ate up the savings she might have used for a deposit on a rental unit in the area.  She wanted to keep her younger children in their neighborhood school, where friends and familiar teachers could help them deal with trauma, but eventually had no choice but to move into a shelter.   

I wish I could say otherwise, but stories like this are not uncommon… In her case, the catalyst was a shooting.  In other cases, it’s a critical illness that leads to hospitalization.

But many people and families live right on the bubble… all it takes is one major expense.
A hurricane deductible for home repair,
Or frequent high copays after onset of mental illness.
Or the death of a wage-earner in the household.
Or the collapse of the stock market and the subsequent draining of retirement savings

And because we don’t broadcast these situations to strangers, it is really easy to miss them in all but our closest friends or relatives.
When we don’t know our neighbors;
w
hen they become nothing but visual white noise, like the stack of old magazines on my side table that never make it to the recycle bin because I’ve stopped seeing them

When we don’t know and can’t see our neighbors, we aren’t going to love them well.
In fact, we can’t love them.
And that, my friends, is the evil that Jesus is teaching against.

Not only because the pain and damage we do when we withhold love from one another and our neighbors, but also because of the damage done to our relationship with God.

The higher and thicker and stronger our walls get, the wider the chasm between our hearts and God’s heart.

And there is collateral damage.
There is collateral damage to the church and to the hearts of those who hear our claims to be followers of Christ, but see the widening gap between his teachings and our actions.

This is why wealth is such a dangerous idol….
It truly can render the church incapable of healing the world,
incapable of bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ,
incapable of loving and serving God.

We can’t love both, Jesus says, it’s that simple.

So… where does that leave me, you might be asking?
Where does that leave you, Pastor Laura?
Where does that leave us?

Well… I’m not sure I have a simple application for what is clear and simple truth.  Except for this.  

Many years ago, I was challenged by a talk about stewardship.  It was one among many I heard at a retreat.  It wasn’t about how much we ought to give or where and when to give.  

It was about the reality that every penny we have has been entrusted to us by God.  And whether they add up to barely enough to pay the rent or we have enough to live in the biggest fanciest mansion in town, all of those pennies are passing through our hands back into the world.

That part I liked… the idea that God provides for me, even if I’d prefer God provided a little more month to month. And I felt pretty good about the concept that God might even trust me enough to let me decide how to use that money.

But then they went on to say that the best window into what we prioritize in life is our check register… I wrote a lot more checks back then.  Now I’d probably challenge people to look online at their bank statement.

Anyway, the idea was that our financial activities can be a window into our spiritual health. We just needed to look at how that money gets spent each month.
How much goes to me, my comfort, my desires?
How much goes back out to the community?
How much goes toward glorifying God in some way?  

The idea wasn’t to shame me or anyone else in the room that day… or to make us feel guilty for being at a retreat when others couldn’t afford the day off.  Nor do I share this to shame anyone here today.

The idea is that we need to think about our spending and our wealth. We need to look at the habits or patterns in our relationship with money, and see if those choices reflect what we affirm in our faith.

Yes, we’re going to pay for housing and the utilities that make it a home.  And yes, we’ll be buying food and beverages.  But as we worked through the different categories of a typical budget, a question began to form in my mind:

If there is only so much money at the end of the month (which already includes my tithe and special offerings), how can my basic spending become part of building the Kingdom of God?

Which of course led me to wonder….

Is my household feasting or eating our daily bread?  Are there others suffering because of the farming and hiring practices that bring our food to the grocery stores? Can I make different choices that might even bring about change?

Is my household using electricity and gasoline wisely?  Knowing I am driving a lot for work, are there ways to conserve for other trips around town? Is it time to look at a different, more economical car?

And looking beyond my front porch, might there neighbors- right around me – that I could offer a meal or a ride to the store so that they can use that food or gas money for a prescription or other need?

I know for a fact that there are ways that I overspend, and frivolously spend.
I know this in part because I go back and do this exercise a few times a year.  Color coding and looking closely at how I am sending all those pennies out into the world.  

I do this because I need that regular reminder to re-orient my heart toward my neighbors and away from my love for Dunkin Donuts coffee…

But guys – here’s the deal – even if I did better every day… even if I set aside all the money I spend on extras and meals out and toys…  I couldn’t put a dent in the needs of this city, much less this nation or the world.

That takes all of us.
All of our checkbooks.
I mean ALL all of us.

That takes changes to our budgets in our churches, our cities, our states and nations…

And here’s the thing… right now in most every level of government, decisions about how our collective funds will be spent are being made.  And at almost every level of government, those decisions are being made by some of the richest people in what remains the richest country in the world.

The decisions being made about health care, mental health care, the health of waterways and oceans, the protection of wildlife and forests, the use of all of our natural resources…

Decisions about how schools will be funded, whether or not there will be social safety nets like SNAP, Medicare, and even social security…

These decisions are being made by people who have long been well-insulated and separated from their neighbors. They are being made inside buildings with very thick walls.

These decisions are being made at a time when leaders claim to be followers of Jesus.

They are being made in a time when there are very few real relationships being maintained across ideological lines.

And the world is watching.
But the world isn’t just watching the leaders making these decisions.
People are watching the church

People who might not ever show up in this building are reading the words of Jesus – our Savior. And they are comparing those words to the actions made by people calling our nation a Christian nation.

You can bet they will be asking some hard questions- of us.
I pray that we are ready to answer them.

Because just like the rich man, like the Pharisees, we can’t claim ignorance-
We have the witness of the prophets, and their calls to acts of justice and mercy.
We have the commands of God from the very beginning to care for the earth and to care for one another.
We have the reminders throughout the New Testament letters that we belong to one another.
And we have the teachings of Christ, who is indeed risen from the dead, revealing the power of God over sin and the brokenness of the world.

But unlike the rich man… we have time.
There is still time for repentance.
There is still time for forgiveness.
There is still time for relationships to be established, for reconciliation to begin
There is still time for us to to join in God’s work as the kingdom comes near and God’s will is done in this time and this place

If we are ready for the work, ready for the challenge, there still room for travelers on the road to resurrection.  

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