The Great Divide

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
September 26, 2010 – Ordinary 26C
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

In 1996 I stood at the top of a snowy peak in Colorado looking off into the distance of the continental divide. The grandeur of God’s creation was overwhelming, and I felt rather insignificant in the face of it all. As a group of young men in their late 20’s might, we marveled how you could spit in one direction and it would eventually make it to the Atlantic or in the other to contribute to the Pacific. Then we got into a snow ball fight that would continue through the remainder of our snow mobile tour.

That’s what we do when faced with the magnitude of life in its fullest. We focus on ourselves, on that which we can control, and we find some way to distract and amuse ourselves. It is only natural. Think of it as a more generalized fight or flight response. We don’t want to know how much is beyond our control. We don’t want to think about how we are a part of something larger than ourselves; something with a will and a purpose that affects us more than we can affect it.

Of course the “it” is not an it, but rather the very presence of God. Sure, we comfort ourselves with the idea that God is with us. We love the Footprints poem that reminds us that there are times when God carries us because we cannot walk. None of us would deny that in times of trial it is God alone that gets us through. But there are those who do. There are those for whom the idea of God’s will, or presence, or providence is just wishful thinking. I believe the church has a great deal of responsibility in this situation.

For too long we have feasted sumptuously on the idea that God has some mysterious will or plan to dictate the hours of our day, while poverty continues and the church moves slowly from the center of our society to the margins. We have silently acquiesced or fully endorsed a society that wants division, praises the few above the many, and values tenacity and resiliency higher than faithfulness and interdependence. But don’t feel bad. This is nothing new.

The Jews of Jesus’ day also developed ways to cope and succeed in Roman society. There were those who were successful and those who were not. There were those who had purple cloth, and those who did not. Incidentally, the Romans set limits on how much purple cloth one could wear. So those who wore it were limited, but they were also in good enough graces with the power of the state to wear it. The purple cloth mattered to the one who would be stripped, beaten, and dressed in purple before offering his life as a ransom for all.

This parable was something of a formula in Jewish teaching at the time, which is why it probably burned the pride of the Pharisees he was rebuking all the more. It makes me wonder if the Pharisees themselves were not wearing a dash of purple when they heard this story of the rich neglecting the poor and receiving God’s judgment. What was different about this story is that Lazerus had a name, and his name had a meaning. His name meant, “God has helped.” There is no connection between this Lazerus and the brother of Mary and Martha, except for the meaning of the name.

Lazerus is received into Abraham’s care, literally translated “into his bosom” signifying a very close embrace. The unnamed rich man identifies himself as a descendant of Abraham, and he is recognized as such. He begs for mercy, and he receives none. This is not an image of God, who seems absent in this story anyway, that we really want. Yet, the reality this points to is that there are times and places where we have the opportunity to be merciful. There are times and places where we choose not to be. These choices are like rocks thrown into a pond. There are ripples that follow that can’t be taken back.

Now, you and I both know that there is more to the situation of need than meets the eye. Even people who are trying to be honest are probably lying to themselves at some point along the way. That is not the concern of today’s passage. There is nothing to tell us if Lazerus was a good man or if the rich man made his money by honest work. All we know is that Lazerus was left to the dogs and to whatever mercy might come his way by the will of God. Just like the guests in the parable of the Great Banquet, the rich man could have done something, but he chose not to.
One thing that we do know is that there are things we can do now. We do not have to give money to strangers, but we can care for them. We do not have to be able to fix the problems we see in others, but we can love them. In fact, I believe this is more than simply our duty. I believe, as some others have said, that our ability to see and care for others is intertwined with our salvation. I believe that our entrance into heaven or hell begins in this life right here and right now.

That is what the Pauline community was celebrating in the letter we received today! Life that is truly living means a life filled with the full range of human experience: joy, pain, suffering, and redemption. It means that the things I do as a response to the grace given to me are not things I want to do to please God. It means that the things I do as a response to God’s grace are often the things I don’t want to do, but I am compelled to do them because I know they will benefit someone else in a way that I will not see.

Come to think of it, standing at the Continental Divide does not give you a view of the ocean. But we know that the water is going to roll from the mountain to the sea. I think most of us would like to think about faith that way. Just like those commercials where someone smiles at someone and it starts a chain reaction of altruism. Random acts of kindness is a good ethical position, but it is not Christian theology. There is nothing wrong with it, but it won’t save your soul.

The parable of Lazerus and the rich man is a clear reminder that there is power in wealth and in poverty. It is also a clear statement that our salvation is not simply about faith statements, creeds, and doctrines. It is about the connections we make, break, ignore, and maintain with the powerless. We may hold the key to their opportunities now, but they hold the keys to ours in eternity. I don’t think that means that we have to give others everything they ask for. Experience also tells us that encouraging independence is far more helpful than simply giving hand-outs. Finding ways to depend on one another, creating interdependence, is a step further into the Kingdom of God.

What makes all of this even more complicated is that we are not, necessarily, the most wealthy in this town. Our congregation is small but strong, and I would imagine that there are quite a few of us on fixed incomes. Between a culture of living beyond our means, children and or parents that need support, rising medical costs, and living in a community that believes hospitality is as important as clean water, I doubt many of us feel very rich.

Well, have no fear the Global Rich List is here! I typed in my salary of just over $45k and found that I am in the top 1.59% of the world’s population. Now, I realize this is the same old “starving children” argument your mother used in 1952 to make you eat Brussels Sprouts. My point is not to make you feel bad. My point is to acknowledge that the reality of human existence and our position in it often makes people want to go throw snowballs because the big picture is just too big.

I think that is one of the reasons we get so anxious about the church being on the edge of the power structures. But I want to remind you that the greatest time of tyranny and oppression known to human existence took place under the watchful care of the church, as did the advent of modern slavery, and a whole host of other abuses. That’s why I think we are right where God wants us to be.

Just like Jeremiah, I think now is a good time to invest in some land! It is time to invest with our time, our talents, and our resources in ways that we have never done before. Why? Well, one common definition for doing the same things expecting new results is insanity. People thought Jeremiah was crazy, and people have called the gospel of Jesus Christ foolishness since it was first proclaimed.

Just like the Pauline community in Ephesus, I think now is a time for a more public witness. And just like the rich man I know that I resist the opportunity to truly be in community with others because I don’t believe that I can do anything for them anyway. But unlike the rich man in the parable, you and I have a chance to overcome the divides that exist between us. While we are here together in this earthly existence there is time.

There is time to make decisions that cannot be unmade. There is time to cross over the mountains that divide us before they drop away and become chasms that cannot be crossed. We believe and understand that nothing is impossible for God, but we also know that God has given us the authority and power to make decisions that have eternal consequences. Thanks be to God that we are not alone in making those decisions! Thanks be to God that we have one another to support and carry on! Thanks be to God that we have those less fortunate than ourselves who will offer us the opportunity to experience salvation here and now, and through all eternity!

Luke is very clear that our salvation is enacted through our relationship with the poor, yet I believe there is something more to it than that when we consider the whole cannon of scripture. Beyond physical poverty is the poverty of the soul, and the first poor person who needs our compassion is the one we see in the mirror. For until we see ourselves as God’s beloved it will be hard to view others in the same way. We must start within and move out, just as the waters move from the snow capped divide to the sea. God is calling us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. God does not mind if we need a break now and again. Snow, or something like it, will be provided for our enjoyment. But we must not neglect the poor within our reach, lest we increase the poverty within ourselves.

May God continue to guide and bless us on this journey we share. Amen.

References and Inspirational Reading

Achtemeier, Elizabeth. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Old Testament and Acts: The First Readings; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pp. 441-447).

Culpepper, Alan R. The New Interpreter’s Bible: Vol. IX; Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (pp. 314-320)

Shuster, Marguerite. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Third Readings, The Gospels; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pp. 418-421).

Wall, Robert W. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Second Readings, Acts And the Epistles; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pp. 438-440).
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