September 25, 2022
"A Great Chasm”
Rev. Scott Landis
The parable Kate read just a few moments ago may be one of the least familiar of Jesus teachings. The story known as “The Rich Man and Lazarus” is one of the easiest to understand – but also one of the hardest to hear. While it may be easy to grasp its meaning, it does have some pitfalls in interpretation that I’d like us to think about as we try and discern its message for today.
The most obvious pitfall, and that which can distract us from its deeper meaning are the various binaries described. Our minds are wired to think in terms of distinctions — divisions — either/or. Such neat compartmentalizations makes it easier for us to make sense of life but can limit our fuller understanding – this parable being a case in point.
It is true that there is a rich man and a poor man in the story. One has everything, fine clothing, a lovely home, and feasts every day. The other sits outside the gate of the mansion, longing for the scraps that might fall from the rich man’s table. He has nothing. A pathetic soul, Lazarus was attended to only by the dogs that licked his sores.
There is a definite separation or difference between the two - to be sure – or is there? Most of us sitting here today are likely living fairly comfortable lives – but how much would it take for that to change? Is this binary – this separation as distinct as we might want to believe?
The other troubling binary is the description of heaven and hell. Hell is depicted as a place of torment and stifling heat while heaven is a place of comfort and peace, where all needs are met. These descriptions may fit a rather simplistic view of the afterlife – but we don’t find much support for this notion in other parts of scripture. While it may seem only fair to us that all the bad people end up in hell and the good in heaven – that’s not born out in the bible – but that is fodder for an entirely different sermon.
In fact, our story begs a bigger and broader question, what is the sin of the Rich Man? What was he doing wrong? Is he at fault merely for being rich, living in a beautiful home, having the ability to take nice vacations? And what makes poor Lazarus virtuous? Simply being poor? Do you have to be poor to go to heaven? That seems like lousy penance. Will you be punished in the afterlife if you are rich? That doesn’t seem right either. [Pause]
Folks will interpret this story differently depending on their perspective and life experience. That is each one’s prerogative. But to fixate on these binaries, I believe, is a bit of a red herring. There is, instead, a phrase in the story that, I believe, is far more important to the story and may speak to our lives as well.
Regardless of your beliefs and understanding of heaven and hell, wealth and poverty there is a phrase in this parable that is telling when it comes to the relationship between the rich man and Lazarus, and one that seems synonymous with his relationship to God. “A Great Chasm” (it says) existed between them – one that was both physical, relational, and, I believe, spiritual.
The physical chasm is pretty obvious. The rich man rather enjoyed his gated community and lifestyle. It kept the riffraff out thereby protecting him from his surroundings. But there was another chasm – and that one was more problematic. You see, even though Lazarus sat on his doorstep day after day, the rich man never - consciously - noticed him. Lazarus was essentially invisible to him. [Pause]
The church I served in San Diego was much more urban than my experience here in Mākena. We had many street people living on our sidewalks – sleeping in storefront entryways (at night) nearby the church, and in the canyons that cut through various parts of the city.
One unhoused individual set up his little cardboard hut each night on our church doorstep (prime real estate) in the entryway to our sanctuary. The portico there protected him from rain and provided a bit of privacy for sleeping. Mr. John was a part of our neighborhood – everyone was familiar with him. And while he could become violent during his psychotic episodes – most of the time he simply went about his business, and no one paid him any attention. To most, he was … invisible.
One night Mr. John forgot to blow out a candle he had near him before he fell asleep. At one point he knocked over the candle which slowly ignited his sleeve severely burning over 40% of his body – an accident that nearly killed him. I realized it was not until I visited Mr. John in the hospital that I ever really noticed him as other than one of the inhoused in our community. Even though he slept on our church portico night after night – and I often had to clean up after him – there was a “great chasm” between us – our worlds were miles apart – not physically, but relationally and spiritually.
My conversations with Mr. John in the hospital and thereafter eventually opened my eyes to an angel that God brought into my life to show me just how often I can render others invisible.
Eventually Mr. John became a member of our church – insisting that we accept his tithes that he proudly placed in the offering plate. He would often come to my office on Monday mornings to wash up in our bathroom and then join me for a cup of coffee AND to critique my sermon from the day before.
Mr. John died not long after I left during Covid, and since the church had neither a graveyard or columbarium, I imagine Mr. John’s body was released as a ward of the state. That I do not know. [Pause]
This parable really speaks to me because, in a way, I have lived it. But I also know that the chasm between the rich and the poor are not the only ones that I have allowed to develop in my life. I suppose we have all learned some rather ingenious self-protection strategies to keep at bay those we would prefer to avoid.
For example, in this age of instant global communication I am amazed when I can – from our little island in the middle of the Pacific – speak to a friend or family member anytime I want and even see them on my phone. I find it remarkable that we can livestream our worship service anywhere in the world by a mere click on a computer. BUT, at the same time, I can screen an incoming call if I see the name and number on “caller ID” of someone I’d rather not talk to. Or I can click to another site if the worship service is dragging or the webinar I’m attending bores me. We have become rather adept at creating these electronic chasms for our own convenience – walling ourselves off from those we would rather not engage. I wonder, what effect all of this is having on us. [Pause]
There’s a wonderful commercial airing right now offered as a public service announcement that caught my attention the other day. It speaks to this huge chasm that is increasing in our country. A chasm well-supported by myriad divisions that can render others invisible as communication ceases due to ignorance, mistrust, and fear. The rationale behind the PSA is this: We’ve all had moments where we felt like we didn’t belong. But for people who moved to this country, this experience can last more than a moment. Whether we are talking about immigrants — like those currently being bussed and flown from border crossings to asylum states — or other homeless folks who have become invisible to us for economic or other reasons. The sin is in rendering “the other” as invisible.
Belonging Begins With Us is the new campaign dedicated to opening our eyes – to fostering a more welcoming nation where everyone – regardless of their background or how they “present” – are made to feel like they BELONG. We hope to embody that same message here at Keawala’i as our Mission Statement attests, “We welcome all, love all, and accept all into our ‘ohana.
The campaign’s hallmark is a very effective video while covering an old song by none other than Elvis Presly, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” Some of its lyrics:If I could be you, if you could be me
For just one hour
If we could find a way
To get inside each other's mind.
If you could see you through my eyes
Instead of your ego
I believe you'd be,
Surprised to see
That you've been blind.
Walk a mile in my shoes
Just walk a mile in my shoes
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Just walk a mile in my shoes.
We all carry prejudices in our lives. We can’t help ourselves. But we can work at them. We must first become aware of those prejudices. Notice the way they have separated us from others for whatever reason. As we become aware, we take the first step toward bridging the chasm. Drawing closer. Taking the risk of opening our heart. Perhaps learning from an angel that God has placed right in front of you.
I invite you today to pause for a moment and reflect – who are you overlooking? Who has become conveniently invisible? In whose shoes might you need to walk a mile to eliminate the huge chasm that separates? Taking those steps may be tricky, may even be uncomfortable – but in so doing we may begin an amazing journey that is absolutely essential to heal a broken world.
What happens to us after our earthly lives are over and we transition into the eternal is not for any of us to know. But what happens here and now may make all the difference in whether God’s kingdom will come “On earth as it is in heaven.”