September 29, 2013
Lectionary 26; Luke 16: 19-31
Pope Francis decides to invite former Pope Benedict and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams out for a ride in his 1984 Renault. How else could three such prominent theologians actually have a private conversation about weighty matters? Unfortunately, the paparazzi get wind of this plan and chase the three across the Italian countryside until the whole things ends in a tragic fiery crash, and all three end up at the Pearly Gates together.
St. Peter welcomes them and informs them that due to their dedicated service to the Lord’s Church on earth, they will each be granted a private audience with the Holy One. They draw straws to see who will go first and Rowan Williams is the first.
It takes a while. . .longer than anyone expected, really. And when Williams emerges he hangs his head and shakes his bushy eyebrows muttering to himself, “How could have been so wrong?”
Well, the popes are a little encouraged by this, so Pope Francis volunteers to go next. He is in the inner sanctum for even longer than the Archbishop, and finally emerges looking puzzled and humbled himself. “How could I have been so wrong?” he exclaims.
Pope Benedict, not at all cowed by this, strides in last. And this time the meeting seems never to end. Hours and hours go by, and finally the door is flung open, and God Herself bursts out, hanging Her divine head in despair, crying “How could I have been so wrong?”
There are many things that have not changed in two thousand years. One is that we all love a good pearly gates joke. We know from ancient sources that stories about heaven and hell were told in ancient Egypt and among Jewish rabbis in Jesus’ time as well. Jesus’ own story this morning is a mash-up of Jewish and Greek concepts of the afterlife, not one that’s consistent with any one understanding.
But as we all know from our own jokes, these stories aren’t really about what we think of heaven or hell. You don’t have to literally believe in Pearly Gates with St. Peter at the front desk to enjoy a good story about popes or presidents or Lutherans or Catholics. Some of them, like this one, are great jokes because you can easily put in the people of your day; who among us doesn’t have a family member that could stand in for Pope Benedict in this joke? The point of these stories is never so much about what we think things will look like after we draw our final breath, but about how we live our lives here and now. They are about seeing what is on earth from the eyes of heaven.
Sartre said that the meaning of life is that it ends, and maybe that’s why we enjoy these stories so much. They are about the meaning of our lives from that final perspective: if the period were put on the end of a President’s life today how would we tell the story? If the period were put on the last paragraph of my life today, how would that story get told? There’s nothing like heavenly hindsight to put things in perspective. And perspective is exactly what the rich man and Lazarus get.
So don’t be distracted by things like flames and the lap of Father Abraham. They are like the bar when the rabbi and the priest walk into a bar. It’s not about the bar. Jesus is using his cultural means to make give us a little fantasy that helps us pay attention to reality. The image of this huge chasm between Lazarus’ condition in heaven and the rich man’s in Hades is a reversal of their life time conditions.
And there’s another thing that has not changed at all in 2000 years, and this is the part that is not at all funny. There is still a tremendous chasm between the condition of some in this life and the comfort with which the rest live. We all can still see Lazarus at the gate, though there are forces in our lives that also work to keep him invisible from us.
There is a great chasm, and we get a witness to it every day in the newspaper. Often it can be measured in dollars and cents but there are other gaps as well.
Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman
Between Congresspeople arguing about health care and those who actually don’t have any
Between we who have the means to recover from the affect of climate change to our communities, and those millions who will simply lose their livelihoods and homes.
This story calls us to pay attention to those terrible gaps that have existed in every generation and seem never to go away. It is only good news if you are the one who has not been on the winning side in this life. I do hope and pray that the Trayvons of this world are comforted closely by Abraham or someone equally wise in heaven, but I do not believe that should be the only consolation of all the people who find themselves begging at the gate, nameless and unknown to the haves of this world.
One of the first clues things are reversed in this story is that the rich man is the nameless one. You might sometimes hear him called Dives, but that’s only because that’s the Latin word for rich. Imagine the afterlife as a place populated by people who are finally known by their names, instead of “homeless” or “young black man” or “shanty dweller in a 3rd world city”. Imagine the afterlife as one in which everyone who has put their names on buildings and projects and fortunes simply known as “rich man.”
In heaven it is not as it is on earth.
When Lazarus dies, the scripture says, he is now “comforted” but the word is more like “encouraged” or even “called out” John Swanson translates it this way “
“Remember you received your good things in your life.
Lazarus likewise the evil.
Now, here he is called as a witness, but you suffer.” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke)
Lazarus is called as a witness. A witness to the chasm, one who after years of being silent and invisible and nameless is called to witness, to speak.
We need those witnesses to the chasm:
activists have sought to bear witness is through art, through simply making the
homeless at the gate more visible. In Boston graphic design students are
turning simple cardboard signs in to art-quality colorful media pieces. An
exhibit in Minneapolis a few years ago featured the work of homeless folks who
were using humor to break down the barrier. One man named David
Drew had a sign that read:
"Just a simple checklist of things you can do to ignore me: Check your seat belt, check your stereo, wash your windshield, call someone on your cell phone."
It would be funny if it weren’t so painfully true.
Jesus’ story doesn’t give us much hope that our human pattern of ignoring this chasm will change much. Indeed, it can seem as though our tools for turning away from poverty and inequality have only gotten more sophisticated over the years, to the point where we can now have politicians arguing that it will be good for the poor to drastically cut the amount of food assistance available to them. Mayors are rewarded for keeping the homeless off the street – not necessarily housed, but out of sight and often out of mind. We keep our own eyes fixed on moving up the ladder and thinking as little as possible about those who have no access to the ladder at all.
So what is to be done? From his heavenly hindsight the rich man at least moves from seeing Lazarus as the guy who will cool to tongue to thinking of someone besides himself – he asks for a witness, someone to go and warn his brothers, and Abraham responds that he already has witnesses
He has the witness of the law and the prophets. Words like Moses’ law of jubilee that debt not be allowed to create a permanent chasm in society; words like Amos’ lament for a people who lie on
No one can cross it – Indeed, it’s true that a man named Lazarus, risen from the dead, was not enough to convince even teachers of the law like the Pharisees to repent. But Lazarus was not the only one. Jesus was raised from the dead as well, and the fact that a man named Luke wrote this gospel, for a group of Gentile and Jewish Christians who included some rich people among them, who included male and female, slave and free in their midst – that Jesus did indeed cross the chasm. We have to get to the end of Jesus’ life to make sense of his story as well, and that story is one that ends with these words:
“ the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:46-48)
We are witnesses. But we are witnesses only as we let go of our identities as yet another rich person. We are witnesses when we are named at that baptismal font, stripped of everything but our identity in Christ, dead to the world’s evaluation of us, made alive only by our life in Jesus, next to the one who chose the place of the poor, we who bear witness to the chasm of this life but also to the power of Jesus’ ability to cross it, to make even the dead alive. When we are Lazarus, we are witnesses of these things.
The surprising end on the Gospel story is that someone does come back from the dead, and at least a few of us through history have decided to listen. People like St. Francis of Assisi, who threw off his identity as a rich man and chose to live among the poor and the animals.
People like Dorothy Day, who from her baptism sought to be close to the wretched and the nameless homeless of New York City, bearing witness through writing and hospitality.
People like Gordon Cosby, who started Church of the Saviour in Washington DC, really a cluster of churches, each of which identified with Lazarus in different ways.
The Washington Post wrote about him:
“Cosby, who has been preaching since he was a 15-year-old in Lynchburg (Va.), was raised Southern Baptist in southern Virginia. He went into the seminary and then became an Army chaplain in Europe in World War II, an experience that reshaped his faith perspective. He said he came back feeling that denomination and race were artificial constructs and that people should live in regular life as they would in war–willing to lay down their lives for their neighbors, viewing their faith as an urgent tool to change the world.”
Cosby died at the age of 95 recently, cared for at a ministry he had founded, Christ House, spending his final days next to homeless men who needed medical care and shelter.
In whose company would we like to be known? Just another boring rich person who like every other has thrown a few coins to Lazarus but never breached the gap, or the one who was among us like Lazarus, poor, homeless, not esteemed by the world but finally raised up by God to new life. It will not be in heaven as it is on earth, this story reminds us. But in Christ we see it could be on earth as it is in heaven.