“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’
But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’
He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Greetings to you and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
On Saturday, August 12th 2017, I watched a Facebook livestream as a few dozen counter-protestors walked the streets in Charlottesville, Virginia in silence. The counter-protestors were clergy who were only two or three degrees removed from me through a variety of collegial relationships. I watched them walk the streets in their vestments until they came to Emancipation Park and lined one of the sidewalks with their arms linked. Then they started to pray - just like we pray every week together as a church. One at a time they prayed for God’s peace to reign, for justice to prevail, for God’s healing presence to settle on the city. The space they created with their prayers felt eerily pristine as the city was frothing with tension. As they prayed, members of the Unite the Right protest approached them chanting ugly things. The last thing I saw before I turned off the livestream were two divergent groups of people facing each other over a sidewalk. An ordinary sidewalk. With green grass on both sides and trees lining the boulevard. Never had a sidewalk seemed as vast as that one did in that moment. I turned off the livestream because violence seemed likely if not imminent and I could not watch anymore. Those clergy were just like me, and the streets of their city, Charlottesville, were not safe that day.
As I turned my focus back to my life - to the beautiful summer day, to my beautiful, joyful children, to the comfort and safety of my home, I marked for myself that this was happening in a college town - not 10 minutes away from the University of Virginia. The thought that developed was that this year was going to be different, and I, as a campus pastor, had better get ready for it.
The question I placed before myself for the 2017-2018 academic year, the question that has come up again and again, is - How do we cross seemingly uncrossable chasms between one another? Jesus does my question one better and in the parable we just heard about Lazarus and the rich man we get to hear how these chasms are formed.
Jesus tells a story about a rich man, who wears luxurious, purple clothes, who hosts sumptuous feasts, and who seemingly never notices or speaks to the beggar named Lazarus who is just outside his gate, who is extremely ill, and who is hoping to get some sustenance from scraps from the rich man’s table. Both of these men die - the rich man ends up in Hades and Lazarus finds rest and comfort in the bosom of Abraham and “between them a great chasm had been fixed.”
It is then that the rich man belies the fact that somehow he does know Lazarus or at least knows his name when he is desperate for relief, and even in death, in Hades, requests that Lazarus be sent to quench his thirst as if he were a servant. Abraham, not unkindly, explains that the rich man got his good things in life and besides they cannot cross the chasm. So the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his siblings, again as if Lazarus were a messenger. Jesus ends the parable with Abraham asking this question - What is the omen of a ghost going to change? Your siblings already have all of God’s laws and the prophets to teach them how to embody those laws. If they have all that, what is one man rising from the dead going to change?
The situation that Jesus lays out is pretty dismal. God had made it abundantly clear that it is the responsibility of God’s people to care for the vulnerable in society - the poor, the widows, the orphans, the strangers among them, and the sick. This rich man didn’t do that - couldn’t even do that for poor Lazarus lying right outside his gate - obviously in need. Even though he somehow knows his name. Silence and fear and selfishness and ignorance and power lay between them until that gate ruptured into a chasm and they lost their chance to be reconciled.
It makes me fearful that there might be some point of no return. Some point when no matter how physically close we are that we cannot see or be seen, we cannot hear or be heard. Was the sidewalk I saw in Charlottesville, Virginia truly uncrossable? Was it a ruptured chasm right before my eyes?
My intuition that this academic year was going to be unlike anything I had seen before has turned out to be accurate. Students feel that the stakes are high right now - their actions and conversations have an extra urgency. Hate groups have raised their voices with more frequency. Vulnerable students don’t know who to trust to protect them from those who want to see them as less than a whole person. In the midst of living in a world on edge, they still have to manage all the normal young adult growing pains of first loves, first jobs or first real jobs, balancing work and family and friends and school, and figuring out how faith fits into all of this.
But thankfully Jesus doesn’t leave us considering a point of no return. When our sin takes on a life of its own and we are not only separated from God but separated from each other. A point when our communities lose the capacity to see and value the individuals in their midst. Thankfully Jesus ends his parable with this tongue-in-cheek statement - If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.
Instead, Jesus, the son of God, is sent to us, to the siblings of the rich man who are still alive and shows us how to care for the vulnerable in our midst. Not to see the label, not to see the hashtag or the propaganda that tries to fix chasms between us, but sit with and eat with and listen with curiosity to those people who are just on the other side of our gates.
When we fail at that, because we will, Jesus died and crossed the uncrossable chasm. Jesus sealed the rupture between the rich man and God, and the rich man and Lazarus. There is no point of no return because Jesus came back to us. There is no point of no return because God will not let silence or fear or selfishness or ignorance or earthly powers have the last word. Grace will be the last word.
Now back to the question that has been guiding my ministry at SCSU this year - how do we cross seemingly uncrossable chasms fixed between one another? You stick your hand out. You run your hands along your walls until the texture changes, until you feel something different, until you have touched one of your gates. You push open the gate, flinch a little at the squeaky hinges, and look to see who is out there. Amen.