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Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 29, 2013

I was absolutely amazed to see a man at the gym jumping over a platform that was higher than a chair. I could never do that. I am also astounded when I go to the various weight machines and find the bar that tells what weight you are using put all the way to the bottom. I could never do that either. I have enough trouble with my top level weights. Those exercises represent chasms I just cannot cross.
In the movie “Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail”, there is also a chasm, this time between the holy and the everyday. After Indiana finds the grail, he is told not to take it past a certain point or the cavern it is in will begin to disintegrate. The greedy Nazi he is with, however, does not think that direction is for her, so she walks the cup of Christ past the barrier. Indeed the cavern starts to disintegrate, and a wide chasm opens in the floor. The grail drops in. Obsessed with getting this treasured relic, she reaches out to get it, but is unsuccessful. She falls screaming into the chasm’s open mouth.
And then there is the Grand Canyon. I have not seen it, but I have seen pictures of its awesome landscape, a great chasm that no one can cross.
Jesus tells another story about money today. He is talking to the Pharisees, whom he has called lovers of money. They have ridiculed him for saying that you cannot serve God and wealth at the same time. They know better. Receiving God’s blessings means you are approved of by God, they say, and they have scriptural evidence for their claim. But Jesus tells a pointed story about the rich and the poor and the great chasm that exists between them, in life and in death.
The rich man, whose name we do not know, is self-centered in the extreme. He wears purple, which indicates he may belong to a royal family, and linen, which is an expensive import from Egypt. He feasts sumptuously every day, not just on special occasions. He is not described as an evil man or one who treats his workers badly. He is just involved with his wealth to the exclusion of everything else. He is the epitome of someone whose possessions own him.
At his gate is the poor man Lazarus, the only person ever named in Jesus’ parables. Lazarus translates as “God will help”. Lazarus is an extreme portrayal of a poor person. He has no food, He has sores from an illness. He is unclean because dogs lick his wounds. Who would not much rather be the rich man than Lazarus? Lazarus is at the rich man’s gate because he hopes to get some little bits of food left over from the rich man’s meals, but he gets nothing. The rich man could have opened his gate and given Lazarus what he needed – food, clothing, shelter – but he did not do so. He stepped over him on his way into the house. He knew he was there – he even knew his name – but he was uncaring about his need. He may even have been blind to it. As the song “Everything is Beautiful” says, “There is none so blind as he who will not see”. The rich man would not or could not see Lazarus because of his focus on his wealth. The chasm between the rich man and Lazarus was enormous. The rich man could have changed that, but he did not.
The situation is reversed when Lazarus and the rich man die. Lazarus is carried away by angels to be with Father Abraham, and the rich man is buried. Lazarus has his needs met, and the rich man is tormented in Hades. This immediate judgment after death was one strain of thought in Jesus’ time. The other was that everyone slept in Sheol, the place of the dead, until God’s great judgment day (William Loader). The first understanding suits the parable better, so that is the one Jesus used.
The rich man looks up and sees Father Abraham and Lazarus. Still considering himself in a privileged position, he wants Lazarus to be his servant, to bring him some cool water for his tongue. He also wants him to warn his brothers about his fate. The rich man finds out the hard way that this chasm, unlike the one in life, is unbreachable, that no one can cross it. He had his rewards and his chance to close the chasm between Lazarus and him in life, and he missed it. Abraham is compassionate but firm. He is equally firm about sending Lazarus to warn the brothers. Moses and the prophets are enough for anyone to know what to do about the poor, whom God particularly loves. People won’t handle this truth any better even if someone rises from the dead – in this case Lazarus, but it is certainly an allusion to Jesus’ resurrection.
None of us is as rich as the rich man, and none of us is as poor as Lazarus. We live in a country where we are all considered wealthy by many who live in countries where poverty is a way of life. None of us wants to be poorer than we are – at least I don’t think so; we all want to get ahead in life. But the author of Timothy warns against the desire to be rich. It is a temptation that will cause people to be trapped by senseless and harmful desires that will cause nothing but ruin and destruction. Worse yet, some people are so eager to be rich that they wander away from their faith and lose the greatest treasure – the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Timothy is urged to be content with food and clothing and to pursue the virtues – righteousness, godliness and faith toward God and love, endurance (patience) and gentleness toward neighbor. That is all very well and good, we think, but we all need more things than food and clothing to feel secure. We need a roof over our heads, savings in the bank, perhaps medications to keep us healthy. Being in Christian community is one of the things we need, we think, but it is certainly not the only thing.
Jesus wraps up a series of stories about money and its dangers with this stark parable. As much as we don’t want to think it, we are on the edge of the same chasm as the rich man. We are the five brothers that the rich man wants to warn. He wants us rich people to know that when we are separated from the poor, we are separated from God. When we do not open the gates of our hearts and take care of the poor, we may receive all the comforts of this life and none of the comforts of the next. We will not inherit the kingdom of God. There is no redemption in this story for the rich man.
But there is redemption in Jesus, who is on his way to Jerusalem and the Cross. His death and resurrection makes it possible for us to be reconciled with God if we repent and change our perspective. The rich man did not apologize to Lazarus for his sins of omission, but still perceived himself as better than the former beggar. For us to be children of God, we need to view everyone in the world, even our enemies, as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. Timothy is given instructions on what we are to do in the present age. We are to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share, so we can have the life that really is life, eternal life with God. We are to open the gates of our hearts and give not just of the excess but generously. We are called to cross that boundary between us and the people most of us don’t even see. We are also called out of compassion to invite the poor ones to come through the gate, to help work for a just and equal society. We are to help save and change lives.
Your pledges are the life blood of this place, which has changed and saved the lives of so many, from the homeless and hungry to alcoholics, to the poor around the world to those in our congregation who find a community to welcome us and help us grow in faith. You have given to St. John’s generously in the past. Cross the chasm once again. Open the gate and give generously so we can help bring life and hope to our community, the nation and the world.

     - The Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
William Loader, First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary, Pentecost 19, blog post