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Monday, September 30, 2013

Bridging the Chasm to Seasons of Hope

          One week ago yesterday I was at a retreat. We began our morning with the usual self-introductions; so, we shared our names, where we were from, and all that, and then we were asked to share what our favorite time of year might be. Perhaps it was because we were all aware that the day on which this retreat fell was the last full day of summer, that most of the participants claimed autumn as their favorite season. Interestingly, almost no one claimed summer, and winter –well, you can imagine there were no takers for winter being their favorite season. I fell in with the majority, because fall really is my favorite season, followed closely by spring. I think it’s partially because I see the cycle of life so clearly represented within the cycle of the seasons, and fall and spring point to the hope of things to come.
          This week we certainly felt the beginnings of fall, didn’t we? With nights in the 40s and warm, sunny days, it was easy to believe that autumn had arrived. I have to confess that days like this make scenes from Thomas Kincaid paintings circle ‘round in my head – he so often painted the brilliant colors of fall into his “Paintings of Light,” and last week, I could just feel and smell them coming. I guess you could say that I embrace the fall with a kind of whimsical fondness.
Yet while some may be relieved that the hot days of summer are past, and now embrace the more moderate fall, many face these days not with fanciful thoughts like mine, but rather with dread, knowing that winter is not far behind, with its attendant hardships. While I look with anticipation for the return of color to the trees, note the return of pumpkin scented and flavored – everything in the stores, and witness the evidence of plentiful fall harvests at the farm stands around the area, there are many who search their lean cupboards and see the portent of a long season of hunger and cold ahead.
Even as I breathed in the heartwarming scent of wood-smoke from fireplaces in homes all around my neighborhood on the coolest of evenings last week, there were many layering on as many layers of garments as they could to warm themselves and their children, or searching for sheltered areas outside to make their beds, dread settling deep in their bellies at thoughts of coming months of uncertainty, cold and hunger.
In the midst of these reflections, come this morning’s assigned lectionary texts with a collusion of themes and issues – issues that illustrate the futility of relying on wealth, the reality that there will be an ultimate judgment for all of us, as well as a reminder, that gathering up wealth for ourselves while despising the poor and the outcast and ignoring their plight is a trap that leads to death.
Following Paul’s exhortation to set our hopes on God, who “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment,” and “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share….so that [we] may take hold of life that really is life,” we read Luke’s gospel that once again begins, “There was a rich man….” If it seems like we’ve heard that introduction more than once in the past couple of months, it’s because we have, as it seems to be a favorite topic of Luke’s.
While Luke’s gospel clearly illustrates God’s preference for the poor and the outcast time and again, it can make us highly uncomfortable to read these words. Especially when they describe this grand reversal that is in store when God’s ultimate judgment comes. Nowhere does Luke speak to this reality more clearly than in this parable which Jesus addresses to the Pharisees, whom Luke describes as “lovers of money”. These are the same guys who just sneered at and mocked Jesus for his warnings about attachment to wealth in his words following the parable of the dishonest manager.
Interestingly, the word “Pharisee” is descriptive; it means “to turn up the nose against.” And in Luke’s gospel, the Pharisees routinely do just that, don’t they? They turn up their noses against those most in need – the poor, the outcast, and the one who has gone astray. Their habits regarding wealth and hospitality run in direct opposition to the desires God has for how we treat one another, and those who are most in need of care and love, a desire in fact addressed repeatedly by Moses and the prophets. And therein lies the crux of the problem.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
The fact that this man (who is himself nameless) knows the name of Lazarus, means that he can’t claim ignorance – he knew the man’s name. He knew he was there, lying by the gate – actually, thrown by the gate. He made a conscious decision not to help him. His disregard of Lazarus’ poor estate was intentional. He turned up his nose against him – he treated him with the same kind of haughtiness and disregard, even hatred  that “the rich” in Luke’s gospel often display toward the disadvantaged – the kind of treatment that denies the very humanity of another person. Even the dogs, who ate scraps that fell from the table of this man were better treated and better off than Lazarus. But death comes to us all, and it comes equally to Lazarus and the rich man.
It is then, in death, that we see the great reversal that is the hallmark of the Kingdom of God. While Lazarus ends up sharing eternity with Abraham, where he receives comfort and relief and good things, the rich man ends up in Hades, where he is in torment, yet remains in denial of the full extent of his fall – he wants Abraham to send Lazarus to attend to him, to warn his brothers. He wants to be served in death as he was in life, by one he still deems subservient to him.
Paul writes, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,….” While both the Old Testament and the New teach us that the greatest commandment is to love God, and to love our neighbor, the love of money can distract us from both and replace them in our hearts. The concern here is our relationship to wealth and the chasm that it forms between the rich and the poor as it leads us to believe that money equals worth.
I think that as we each consider this text, we need to ask ourselves where we might see parallels to our own lives? Who do we ignore? Who do we turn our noses up against? I wonder if we are truly honest with ourselves, where do we find the chasm created in our lives? What is our relationship to our wealth, and where do we use it to ease the burden of one who might see the change of seasons as less a part of the cycle of life, and more as a threat to life?
In a reflection on this passage, Mary Simonson Clark wrote,
“The 2012 income gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of U.S. society reached the widest point since 1928 (Associated Press, 09/11/13). What was the economic gap between the parable's rich man and Lazarus? Was it as wide as today's gap?
Whenever economic gaps occur, they spawn physical gaps, including the rich man's gate, discriminatory neighborhood redlining and low-income housing in undesirable sites. As income and location increasingly separate us, we ignore, misunderstand and distrust each other. Our fear of the "other" intensifies; the chasm between us widens and becomes fixed. We do not share comfort of community. Instead, we experience agony of isolation from each other and God. We put ourselves in a "place of torment."
We can bridge chasms we built.” she continues. “We can choose to become aware of people on the other side. We can share our stories with each other. What an awesome God's family reunion!”[1]
As Simonson points out, the love of money and our attachment to it fixes a chasm between our dependence on God, our relationships with other people, and truly living the life that God desires for all God’s children. It is into this agony of isolation that we create for ourselves that Jesus speaks most clearly and most pointedly. While the words and images he uses may shock and confound us, they are meant to awaken us from the complacency of our contentment with the status quo. Because the truth of the matter is that there is much that is at stake here, and Jesus leads the way for us to follow, to bridge the chasm between us. Jesus becomes the way, for those who love him and patterns our lives after him.
I know that it’s not fun to come to church and hear the pastor talk about money. And yet Jesus talked about it all the time because the truth of the matter is that our relationship with money is fraught with danger. And yet, with the appropriate use, sharing and distribution of it, money can do a world of good. It can clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give warmth and shelter, and create bonds of love and care, sharing God’s love and God’s mercy with another. In using our wealth to do all these things, we are also giving witness to and honoring the humanity of another child of God.
Living, dying and rising again, Jesus himself crossed the chasm between heaven and hell. And Jesus invites us to share the same grace and mercy that we ourselves receive with others in our midst. As we gather together, God’s Spirit is among us empowering us, calling to us and encouraging us on in helping to bridge the chasms that still exist between neighborhoods, races, genders, and most especially, between classes.
As the seasons change, as winter draws near, may we be ever more attentive and responsive to the Spirit’s call to breach earthly chasms as we ever give thanks that Christ has crossed the chasm from death into life, for us all. Amen.

[1] From “God Pause” daily online devotional by Luther Seminary,

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