Some people have noticed that I only wear glasses on Sunday morning. The reason is that I don’t like wearing glasses at all, but that recent changes in my eyes require me to wear them to see important close-up things like the words of my sermon. Most of the rest of the week, I wear contact lenses and depend on reading glasses while working on the computer or reading a book. The problem is that I tend to lose things, especially on Sunday mornings, and reading glasses are usually the first thing I can’t find. The other day I looked in every room of my home and in every drawer for my reading glasses before Leroy helpfully pointed out that they were pushed up on my head. They were right there all the time; I just didn’t see them.
In Jesus’ story about a rich man and a poor man, the rich man didn’t see what was right in front of him. Every day he left his palatial home and walked right past a man who lay at his gate. The man and his obvious needs never registered until the rich man found himself in an unexpected and unenviable place. Hades. Also known as hell. Flames danced against his skin and he was in exquisite agony. Suddenly he saw Lazarus at a distance, the poor man formerly at his gate and now enjoying a rich and rewarding afterlife. It’s funny how we can notice things when they serve our own purpose or are otherwise important to us.
This has to be one of Jesus’ most colorful and creative parables. It’s got everything: A rich man dressed in purple while feasting on delicious meals. A poor man eying those meals from afar while dogs lick the sores on his legs. Ick. Unlike most parables drawn completely from rural village life in Palestine, this one crosses time and space and re-animates the patriarch Abraham in an elaborate description of the afterlife. The story has parallels in earlier Egyptian folklore as well as Jewish Rabbinic tales.
It surprises people to discover that the Bible doesn’t present a clear or consistent picture of what happens after death. The Hebrew Scriptures allude to Hades, a dark and shadowy place, but the concept of an afterlife is not prominent in the Old Testament. There are references to heaven and hell in the gospels and especially the book of Revelation, but it’s hard to sift through what is intended to be literal and what is clearly symbolic. It seems to me that much of the commonly accepted understanding of bliss in heaven and torment in hell is based on these words from Jesus: a parable that is only found in the gospel of Luke.
Parables have a limited purpose. They exist to stir the imagination and support a moral teaching that describes life in God’s realm which is most often referred to in the gospels as the Kingdom of God. God’s realm is not limited to earth or heaven but exists wherever God’s influence is embraced and lived out. The emphasis of Jesus’ teachings is on life here and now and how our relationships can reflect the values of God’s Kingdom. To assume concrete ideas about what the afterlife looks like, based on a purposely fictional story, makes no sense to me. What does make sense is the description of a huge gap that exists between a wealthy man who lived his life on earth with no regard for the poor and a poor man, Lazarus, who lived a good life but was denied assistance and comfort.
Father Abraham is the mediator in this cosmic drama. The rich man is accustomed to ordering people around, so he has the gall to direct Abraham to send Lazarus to him as a servant. The man’s suffering is so great that all he asks is for the tip of his tongue to be cooled with water by Lazarus. Abraham responds by essentially saying “no can do.” The reason is that there is a fixed and uncrossable chasm that exists between the two destinations of the afterlife. Here in Colorado we have the Great Divide. No matter how much you might wish or will water poured to the west of the Divide to end up in the Atlantic, it’s just not going to happen. No matter how much the rich man wanted water above to end up below, it was impossible.
There are a lot of divides that seem uncrossable. It will be hard to watch the first presidential debate tomorrow night and not believe that our country is deeply divided in its values, assumptions, and priorities. We all want a good life, just like the rich man and Lazarus, but we have very different ideas about ourselves and others and what we and they deserve and what changes are needed to create liberty and justice for all.
We are deeply divided on matters of race. In the wake of the deaths of Terrance Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott this past week, I have been both scratching my head and agonizing over the very different perceptions about race and racism that exist in our country. The fact that anyone believes that there is a level playing field and that people of color simply need to comply better with societal expectations in order to succeed or not be shot, it appalling to me. I read this fictional but true-to-life conversation yesterday:
Black lives matter.
“All lives matter.”
“The Bible says…”
Unarmed black men?
“They should have complied...”
Poor people on food stamps or some form of assistance?
“I’m not subsidizing laziness…”
People of different religious faiths than yours or no religious faith?
“There’s only one true…”
It’s a dictionary. Before you say “All lives matter” again, look up “all.” It’s toward the front.
Yesterday, thousands gathered on the great lawn in Central Park for the Global Citizen Festival. Concert goers and some of the most popular musicians of our day supported the United Nation’s goal of eradicating extreme poverty by the year 2030. The gap between rich and poor is growing wider within our own country and certainly around the world. The rich man and Lazarus were separated by a chasm that Father Abraham declared was uncrossable. Is it? Is it possible for us to actually end the extreme and ultimately life-crushing poverty experienced by so many in our world?
Also yesterday, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. At the opening ceremony, President Obama said that "By knowing this other story we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are America, that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story. It is central to the American story." We cannot let the chasm that has separated us historically be uncrossable. Last Sunday here in worship, Kayla Ramirez reflected on the difference between what she learned about Native American history in text books and what she learned at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Many of our history books have scrubbed and sanitized the difficult, dark parts of our national legacy. If we don’t acknowledge that and learn the truth, we are less likely to overcome what divides us.
Also yesterday, the Bishop of the United Methodist Church for the Rocky Mountain Conference, based in Denver, was installed in an impressive worship service in Arvada. I was honored to represent the United Church of Christ at the service which was repeatedly referred to as “historic.” It was historic because Rev. Karen Oliveto is the first openly lesbian bishop to serve the Methodist Church. She was elected and consecrated and assigned to this area. I was thrilled to witness Bishop Oliveto’s installation. At the same time, I was fully aware of the rules within her denomination that prohibit gay and lesbian persons from being ordained let alone becoming a bishop. Her election was an act of defiance by progressive Methodists in the western United States. In a church already divided over human sexuality, many believe that yesterday’s event will result in a formal separation and the end of Methodism as we know it. The chasm seems too wide to cross. Or at least that’s how it looks right now.
I saw the movie “Everest” recently. It was hard to watch at points because of the suffering endured by climbers in the face of extreme altitude and climate. The biggest nail-biter for me was watching climbers cross the deep chasms of the Khumbu Icefall. Long, fragile-looking extension ladders are stretched across the crevasses to allow climbers to move toward the peak of Mt. Everest. Some consider the crossings to be the most dangerous part of the journey, and a few years ago an experienced Nepali Sherpa fell 150 feet to his death while using a ladder bridge.
Jesus’ parable about the great divide says that no one can cross over. That the gap is fixed and there is no going back and forth. A story is just a story, though. There is no pretending that the things that separate us from one another in the world and our nation and the Christian Church do not exist. The chasms are often wide. But I hope we never see them as uncrossable.
The rich man never saw the man who was lying by his door. He never talked to him. He never heard Lazarus’ story, and the gap that already existed due to economic disparity became even wider. What they had in common as human beings was never explored. Daily opportunities were missed.
What opportunities do you have to help cross the divides that separate people from one another? Who sits at your door that you can befriend? What bridge can you build over a chasm others deem uncrossable? You have the power to do so! May you be used by God this week in the important work of peacemaking.