by Ellen Sims
texts: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:6-12; Luke 16:19-31
I started the week writing a sermon I intended to title, “Poverty’s Real. Hell’s Not.” I planned to explain why today’s Gospel story—sometimes used to threaten people with hell fire—is not about hell. But somewhere in the middle of the week, with headline after headline coming right at me, my sermon swerved in a different direction. I don’t have words to waste today on explaining why I think hell doesn’t exist. For now it must suffice for me to say the idea of hell is immoral, and the eternal life we experience in God is un-map-able.
Let’s attend now to the story’s theme, which runs throughout the Gospel of Luke: God’s concern for the poor. But in response to black lives lost this week and protests that followed and presidential campaigns that persist, I want to stretch that theme to say what is consistent with scripture: God loves all but favors those sitting outside the gate.
It’s always advisable to understand a particular scripture in the context of the larger biblical story. Today’s Gospel reading is part of a larger unit of meaning. The Gospel of Luke, which we’ve been reading our way through, announces its thesis when Jesus’s birth is announced and when Jesus’s ministry is announced. In the first chapter of Luke, Mary sings about the child she’s expecting by praising a God “who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Years later her son announces his ministry reiterating her theme by quoting Isaiah: “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news –to the poor” and all who are oppressed. That mission statement becomes Jesus’s bumper sticker for his campaign, his sound bite, his key talking point, his meme. It comes through in Luke’s beatitudes, too. While Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes starts with “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke says, “Blessed are the poor.” Period. Then he follows with a list of “woes”: “Woe to the rich.” “Woe to those who are full now for you will be hungry.” Luke’s Jesus is concerned about hungry poor people and the powerless. Consistently, Luke’s Jesus promises that the plight of the poor and the powerless is God’s top priority. Today’s parable, once again, repeats this emphasis. Poor man Lazarus is embraced by father Abraham after he dies. The rich (unnamed) man is consigned to flames of torment.
Today’s story describes a chasm separating a rich man and poor man. A gate divided them in life; an abyss kept them separated in a mythical afterlife. The poor hungry sick man sat outside the rich man’s house longing for scraps from his table. Inside the wealthy man in fancy clothing feasted every day. This gap between them is the problem, and it’s a gap we recognize. Many today live in what are called gated communities. In our world there’s a growing disparity between the very very rich and the poor and middle classes.
Poverty is, of course, only one reason people are divided, but poverty was of special concern to Jesus. The tragedy of poverty is not simply the suffering that comes to those who are malnourished, sick, and dehumanized by it. The tragedy that is both cause and consequence is that we are separated from one another.
These social justice themes in Luke, in all the Gospels, in the entirety of the Bible now seem to me central and obvious and urgent. But this understanding of Jesus’s message sat for years on the fringe of my consciousness, like a beggar whose glance I avoided. It took a long time before I dared to face this theology head on. Perhaps you, too, were raised on a Gospel that focused so narrowly on a personal conversion experience that it squeezed out Jesus’s concern for radical social transformation and the idea that change of the individual and of the culture are bound up together.
Salvation, as I understand it now, is not just a private or individual matter. It is not a matter of having the right beliefs about God. It is not a matter of feeling really sorry for bad things I’ve done. It is not a narcissistic pursuit for my own soul’s security. Instead, I believe we are “saved” in and through and for relationships. We were created for communion. We are saved by and for communion with God and one another and with all creation. At the heart of the Gospel is the message of reconciliation that connects one person to another, connects us to God, connects us at some level to all life that thrums throughout the universe, can even reintegrate a disintegrated individual. This saving work is an ongoing process.
At one time I was so focused on my own private spiritual practices of praying and reading scripture and going to church and worrying if my little heart was pure enough—so intent on getting closer to Jesus in some individual sense—that I saw the cares of a hurting world as something I should perhaps pray about, that I might throw some offering money toward, but that seemed ancillary to my Christian experience. Now it seems that to live in the Jesus Way requires me to join in God’s work of bridging gulfs that separate human beings from one another, a ministry of reconciliation, as Paul calls it. Hard work.
And the onus is on those who most closely resemble the rich man. Even after he’s sent to Hades, he retains his sense of privilege and thinks Lazarus should serve him. But the rich man doesn’t speak directly to Lazarus. Not even from the gates of hell. He calls out to Father Abraham to tell Lazarus to bring him cooling water. The rich man does not completely lack compassion. He shows concern for his own kind, for his 5 brothers who need to be warned about what will await them if they don’t change. But the rich man still doesn’t recognize Lazarus as his brother, continuing to presume Lazarus is there to do his bidding. His sin is not that he’s rich, but that he has proudly erected barriers between himself and others. It’s up to the rich man to recognize brotherhood with the poor man.
Eternity starts in the here and now, but our present estrangement from others can persist–with hellish consequences. If we wait too long to restore or improve a relationship, wouldn’t that be hell? A compassionate God wants us to bridge these gaps not simply for the sake of the poor, or whoever is on the other side of our gate, but for OUR sake. When women, for instance, are freed from constraining gender roles, men also experience liberation, not diminishment. When I as a straight woman finally, after years of deep prejudice, repented my heterosexism and profound ignorance, I was blessed by new relationships and deeper understandings of God’s love. Somehow, in God’s realm, the privileged and powerful-–as well as the poor and powerless—live more freely and fully when those gates are removed and barriers broken. The tragic consequence of erecting a wall of pride or power is just that: we are cut off from our brothers and sisters who may look different than we do, but who are indeed our kin. To live in the Jesus way requires us not only to recognize the gaps, the gulfs, the gates of separation—but to do something about them.
It’s not enough for us treat everyone equally. If Jesus is right to imply in the story of poor man Lazarus that, to a certain degree or in a certain sense God has favorites, then I think we have to show favoritism to God’s favorites. As the mother of only one child, I have always been able to tell my daughter with a wink that she’s my favorite offspring. But a friend who has many children once told me her favorite child is whichever child is most in need at that moment, an attitude that seems God-like to me.
Of course, the wealth gap is not the only thing that divides us one from another. How painfully the current presidential campaign—and tragedies like the shooting of more black lives by police this past week in Tulsa and Charlotte—expose the fissures separating one America from another America. Friends, we are shouting at each other across the chasm. But we don’t hear one another. We use the same words. But they don’t mean the same thing. We see the same videos. But we come to different conclusions. We can’t even agree on who is the aggrieved, who are the ones being left out and therefore needing, like Lazarus, God’s special favor.
Identity politics can’t provide a formula to calculate privilege, and it really isn’t about reducing human beings to simplistic categories. I mean, is a black male or a white female the person with more privilege in our culture? Is a straight Muslim or a gay Christian more advantaged? A blind rich person or a sighted poor person?
Hey, we’re not tallying up the pity points.
But we are, I hope, growing in awareness that some factors give some of us in some circumstances an accidental and unjust edge.
So the Jesus-y thing to do is to pay attention, and when we recognize ourselves in a privileged position, we let others go first. Or when we recognize our lack of privilege, we assert ourselves. And we admit that we will sometimes miscalculate.
To bridge the gulf that separates one group from another, let’s try to remember that the onus is on the group that has more power. Which is why our predominantly white congregation will embark on a challenging and hopeful curriculum about white privilege in a few weeks. We will begin with generous and vulnerable hearts, willing to give away any privilege we may have—because after all, in the kingdom of heaven, the last will be first. Each of us gets to feel whatever feelings we have. Each of us gets the chance to tell our own stories from our lives. And within a trustful process, we just may experience God’s amazingly transformational work in our lives. I have seen this very transformation happen. It has happened to me. As your pastor, I have a role to play in challenging you and me toward spiritual growth. None of us has “arrived” spiritually. We are going to do some hard things together. And we are ready for it!
Friends, our heavenly Mother manages to love all her children equally. But her child du jour is the one less favored by others, the one at some disadvantage, the one the bigger kids left behind. As we continue to mature in faith, we’ll take on more of our mother’s traits, favoring the ones who’ve been left out, reaching across the divides. I started the week writing a sermon titled “Poverty’s Real. Hell isn’t.” I ended this week preaching a sermon called “Crossing the Chasms.”
God, you rule your upside down realm by different rules than ours. Rich is poor and poor is rich. The vulnerable love we saw on Christ’s cross can cross all chasms. May we cross divides to bear reconciliation and hope to all. Amen.