A Great Chasm

Last week, when we had the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, I mentioned to a few people that the readings don’t get any easier in the coming weeks. This week’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is difficult for us to hear, but it isn’t as difficult to understand. In fact, it’s rather straight forward. The question isn’t “what does this parable mean?”, but rather, “what will we take from it?”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The scene is laid out in stark contrasts. On one side of the stage, we have the rich man. You can imagine him, in his dining room, perhaps attended to by his servants. On the other side of the stage is Lazarus, in no room at all, just sitting by the side of the road. The rich man’s table holds a magnificent feast. Rich foods and wines, more than could possibly be eaten in one meal. Lazarus has no food at all, though his stomach bulges with signs of starvation. The rich man is dressed in fine silks and linens, dyed in expensive and ostentatious colors. Lazarus has only rags that do nothing to protect him from the wind and cold. The rich man sits in the midst of every comfort imaginable. Lazarus is left with only the dogs’ meager care and sympathy.

But then the scene changes, although the contrasts do not. Now poor Lazarus is the one who sits being comforted, being cared for, cradled in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man, though, is in agony. Tormented by his circumstances. He cannot stand it, and he calls out for help. From his position, he can see where Lazarus sits in comfort, as Lazarus could once see his fine meals. He begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to him, to quench his thirst and provide some relief. But he is told that the chasm that divides him from Lazarus is fixed, and it cannot be crossed.

This chasm, this great divide, between the rich man and Lazarus, it’s not a new thing. It’s not something that was put in place after their deaths. In fact, it was always there. It reminds me of a scene in A Christmas Carol, when Ebeneezer Scrooge is shown his future, the fate that awaits him. He has been a miserly man all his adult life, selfish and greedy. And the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him a vision of himself in misery, bound up in shackles.

At this point, Scrooge has already had his eyes opened to his sins, and has begun to think differently about his life, and he realizes: “these are the chains I forged in life.” It is his own actions which have left him chained and tormented.

If there is a chasm between the rich man and Lazarus, it is one that the rich man created during his life. He distanced himself from poor Lazarus. He literally had to step over this man sitting at this gate to get out of his house and go about his business, but he didn’t really see him. He allowed himself to be closed off from the pain and suffering of others, so much so that he ignored Lazarus, and he ignored his daily opportunity to make a difference for Lazarus. And that distance is his sin. We don’t hear that the rich man had done anything particularly wrong. It doesn’t say that he is responsible for Lazarus’ position. He didn’t personally cause this man to be poor and suffering. But he doesn’t help him either.

His indifference continued even after death. He still sees Lazarus as someone beneath him—someone to be ordered around, someone to serve him and his needs. He doesn’t even talk to Lazarus—he just talks about him to Father Abraham. And even then, only to ask that Lazarus be sent to alleviate his suffering. Something he never did for Lazarus in life.

He refused to see Lazarus for what he truly was, which was someone made in God’s image, a child of Abraham. A fellow human being created and loved by God. When Archer is baptized this morning, we will hear once again that we are all God’s children, we are all made in God’s image and created as holy and blessed things. When we look away from our fellow human beings, when we ignore their plight and step around them, we are stepping around the presence of God in our lives.

Who is it that we do not see? Who are we stepping around? Perhaps it is the person dealing with homelessness that we encounter on our commute. The nameless faces we see on the news or in the papers of war victims, of refugees and asylum seekers. The neighbor that we know is all alone and struggles to care for themselves. The children going to school hungry and returning home to empty cupboards. The animals being driven from their habitats by climate change. The need is all around us. And often, like the rich man, we look away. In the face of so much need and pain, we can be overwhelmed. Looking away, choosing not to see, is our defense mechanism. It’s easier, sometimes, than facing the pain we don’t know how to fix.

The story of Lazarus and the rich man doesn’t end on a very uplifting note. The rich man, as troublesome a character as he is, wants to help his brothers avoid his fate. And Abraham says that “even if a man comes back from the dead, they will not listen.” And that is where it ends. But, for the community for whom Luke originally wrote, and for us, we hear those words said with a little wink and a nod. “Even if someone comes back from the dead.”

Well someone did come back from the dead. Jesus did. We know the resurrected Lord Jesus. We are the ones who have the law and the prophets and have seen God’s compassion embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus. We are the ones who gather each week to celebrate his victory over the grave, forgiveness of sin, and the possibility of living in light of God’s grace, mercy and abundance.

Jesus invites us to take hold of the life that really is life. Life not marked by indifference and selfishness but marked by community and love. Seeing one another—really seeing each other–and seeking to ease each other’s burdens and pains. Life that is marked by riches…not in material ways…but richness of spirit, generous and ready to share. Jesus invites us to take hold of this life that really is life.

Jesus crossed the great chasm and embraced our humanity to open the way for us to grasp that true life. In his death and resurrection, we experience the truth that God never turns away from our need. Instead, God draws ever closer, taking our pain upon God’s own self, that we might be made whole in that mercy and grace. And we called to draw ever closer to each other, in brokenness and compassion, in love and in hope. That we might be part of the life that God intends for us, and for the whole world. Amen.

The Lost Ones

Yesterday’s Gospel reading was some of Jesus’ best known parables: the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. When we’re so familiar with Bible passages, it can be interesting to try and think about them from a different perspective. In this case: who is really lost in this stories?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Did you know the Lutheran church has a calendar of commemorations? I don’t call it a saints’ calendar, per se, because it commemorates lots of people, from your typical “saints” to musicians, to social workers. Sometimes, if their day falls on a Sunday, they are mentioned in our prayers.

Tomorrow is the feast day of Cyprian of Carthage. Most of us have probably never heard of Cyprian. He was born in Africa, along the Mediterranean Coast around the year 200. He eventually became bishop of the region. While he was the bishop, the church underwent a period of intense persecution. People were required to make sacrifices to the emperor of Rome, and carry a certificate proving that they’d done so. Many Christians were tortured and executed because they would not obey this law. But just as many simply made the sacrifices and got their certificates.

When the persecution ended, these Christians wanted to come back to the churches they had denounced. And that’s where Cyprian gets famous. Those who had suffered through the persecution thought that what they called the “lapsed” Christians didn’t deserve to get back into the church. They definitely didn’t deserve to be welcomed back to the communion table.

As bishop, the situation ended up on Cyprian’s desk. And he insisted that the lapsed be admitted back into the church. They may have sinned, but where else should sinners go? The question at stake was this: is the church a museum to enshrine saints, or a hospital for sinners?

Who gets to be included? Where it the line drawn? It’s the same question that prompts Jesus to tell these parables in the gospel reading. Jesus’ ministry, his teaching, his healing, is attracting people from all different walks of life. The Pharisees and the scribes are interested in what Jesus is saying. So are the tax collectors and sinners. Gathered around Jesus, we find a strange group—people who wouldn’t normally be in the same company. Pharisees and scribes were good, religious, upstanding people. They were the regular church goers of first century Judaism. The people who followed the laws and tried their best to live the right way. Descriptions many would apply to those of us gathered here today.

And alongside these good, upstanding people are those whose conduct flies in the face of social norms and rules. Those who can’t even be bothered to pretend to follow the rules and laws. Prostitutes. Tax collectors. Rebels. Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom has attracted them, too. They’ve come near to listen to the rabbi teach, to hear about God’s righteousness and justice which brings new life and sets people free. And Jesus is willing to break bread with them. He welcomes them to the table.

And the Pharisees and scribes can’t fathom why Jesus would be acting this way. Sharing a meal with someone meant being associated with them. Jesus is willing to be associated with tax collectors and sinners. Although Jesus has also shared meals with Pharisees, they don’t want to be associated with “those people.”

Who gets to be part of the group? –I don’t want to be part of any group that they’re in.– This isn’t just a problem for Jesus’ time or for Cyprian’s time. It’s a human problem. How do we draw boundaries around who is in and who is out? Who is included in our gathering today? And who is excluded, either by intention or through ignorance? We still draw lines, not just in church, but everywhere, by race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, education, economic class, political affiliation. Many of us have experienced exclusion for some reason in our lives, just as we have perhaps been those doing the excluding at times.

And in response to this kind of thinking, this boundary-drawing, Jesus tells these two parables about lost things. God is like a shepherd, Jesus says, who does everything he can to find one lost sheep, leaving the ninety-nine for the sake of the one. God is like a woman who sweeps her house and a desperate search for one coin. And when that one small coin is found, she rejoices. God is a God of lost things. Sheep, coins, and people. The ones that, for whatever reason, find themselves cut off from the rest of the group. God has a heart for these things, for these people, and seeks them out. Seeks us out.

And who is lost in this story? Who needs to be found? The tax collectors and sinners are already eating with Jesus. They’ve found him already, drawn by the new life he brings. The ones who are truly lost, the people who need repentance in our story, are the Pharisees and scribes. The ones who believe they’re in charge of who’s in and who’s out. The ones who would seek to put up barriers to other people accessing God.

Sin can be defined as anything that separates us from God and from our neighbor. In this case, that’s exactly what the Pharisees and scribes are doing. They want to be separated from their neighbors, and in doing so, they are separating themselves from God. Whenever we try to put up barriers to other people, to draw lines and make distinctions, the only thing we accomplish is to block our own relationship with God. Because in Jesus we find that God is a God of outsiders, of outcasts, of lost things.

A God who seeks after those who have been excluded, cast aside, and turned away. But also, a God who seeks after those cut themselves off through hatred or fear. A God who wants to reconcile all people to Godself. Because the party is not complete unless everyone is there. When we are able to come together, and to see each other not as sinners or righteous, not as rich or poor, not as insiders or outsiders, but when we see with Jesus’ eyes, there is rejoicing in the presence of God’s angels.

And God will continue to seek after every one of us until that is a reality. Because that is what the kingdom of God looks like: a group of unlikely companions, gathered around a table together. We get a glimpse of it every Sunday morning, when we gather together around this table, and share God’s meal. A glimpse of the kingdom where the lost are found, where every last person matters, where distinctions fall away. And all of heaven rejoices.

We take that glimpse with us as we leave this place, making it a little bit more real every day, until it is no longer just a glimpse, but truly, God’s kingdom come. Amen.

The Fine Print

When’s the last time you read the fine print for something? Just now, setting up this blog, I got a pop-up that said, “Our website and dashboards use cookies. By continuing you agree to their use. Learn more by clicking here.” Well, instead of “clicking here” I just clicked the button that said “Got it!” and moved on with my day. I don’t really know what I agreed to. Our Gospel lesson today focuses on Jesus’ frustration with people doing this very thing–but with discipleship. Just signing up, without paying attention to what it actually entails. Read the sermon and think about it with me for a minute or two: how does being a disciple make your life different than if you weren’t?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Customers at a British coffee shop were offered a special discount one morning. All they had to do to activate it was to sign their name on the back of their cup. But, once they signed, they were told that in addition to their discount, they had also activated their coffee club membership. They were now contractually obligated to buy coffee at this shop once a week. They couldn’t believe it; they were livid. But the manager simply pointed out to them the small print on the cup they had signed. The terms and conditions of the discount were all right there. Not one of them had actually read what they were signing.

The good news is this was all a hoax. The people were being filmed for a practical joke show. The bad news is it’s a hoax I would have easily fallen for. It seems like I’m always being asked to sign something, to agree to something. Every time you want to use a new website or app, you have to agree to their terms and conditions. When you want to enter the raffle for cheap Hamilton tickets, terms and conditions apply. If you’re like me, you just check the box that says “accept” without really reading the fine print of what you’re agreeing to. If I was offered discounted coffee—I’m not sure I would have asked too many questions about the terms before signing up.

And it’s that kind of behavior—the sign up now, worry about the details later mindset—that has Jesus so fired up in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus has some pretty harsh words for us this morning. If you do not hate your mother and father, brother and sister, even your very life—you cannot be my disciple. Hold on, Jesus, this isn’t what you’re supposed to be saying. Aren’t you the same guy who said that you should love your neighbor as yourself, you should love your enemies? So why would he tell us to hate those closest to us?

There’s a hint of what’s going on right at the beginning of the passage: “Now large crowds were following him.” Jesus, who started with this tiny following of twelve disciples, has started to see the crowds around him grow. And grow. A lot. They’ve heard about Jesus healing and doing miracles and they want to see what all this is about. But what has Jesus upset is he knows they haven’t read the fine print. He doesn’t want followers who don’t know what they’re really signing up for.

Like the builder who makes sure they have everything they need before starting a tower, like the king who calculates all the costs before going to war, Jesus is saying: you need to read the fine print on this discipleship thing, or you’re going to get halfway in and realize you had no idea what you were in for. The crowds don’t understand. They’ve just checked the “terms and conditions” box without reading them and are ready to move on.

But that’s not good enough. Jesus is being upfront with them.  He wants them to know that being his disciple is not going to be an easy thing to do. It’s not for the faint of heart. Jesus knows its hard, so he advises his listeners to stop and count the costs before they sign up. Discipleship isn’t a weekend hobby or a vacation destination. It’s a full soul, full body, full mind endeavor that involves a reordering of our identities and our priorities.

Like the reading from Deuteronomy, discipleship involves a choice about what is most important. Choose what is going to be your priority, Moses tells the people. God and God’s commandments, or idols and false gods. I heard it said once that idols aren’t really bad things. Instead, idols are good things that we misuse and mis-prioritize. Money, careers, good grades, even our families can all become idols when we value them for the wrong reasons and seek to control and possess them.

Becoming my disciple, Jesus says, will mean we reorder those priorities. This discipleship agreement comes with warnings. Because discipleship involves death. It means death to the temptation of false gods. It means death to all that tempts us away from complete reliance upon God. We are to die to all the things that stand between us and complete commitment to Christ. Jesus names them: family, possessions, even life itself. Discipleship is death to the way we used to live. Better to count the cost of following me, Jesus counsels, and know what you’re dying to.

Living as disciples means changing how we do things. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, which we read all of today, he tells Philemon to accept his slave, Onesimus, back. But not as a slave, as a brother. Because they are brothers in Christ. If Philemon listened to Paul and did this—we don’t actually know what happens to him and Onesimus—but if he freed his slave for the sake of their oneness in Christ, can you imagine how the people around him would react? They’d laugh at him, call him stupid and crazy. Anyone who is not willing to be laughed at and shunned is not able to be my disciple.

Being a disciple means letting what we read and hear and say and do in church on Sunday affect how we live our lives the rest of the week. It affects everything: how we do our jobs, how we care for our families, how we spend our money, how we treat everyone we encounter. And be prepared for raised eyebrows and questions.

Count the cost, says Jesus, because the cost of discipleship is nothing short of your whole lives. But if the discipleship contract comes with these warnings, it also comes with amazing promises, too. And they’re not hidden in the fine print. In following Jesus, we find true life. In losing our lives, we find them.

The way of discipleship is the way of life, real life, life that doesn’t deny the reality of death but instead overcomes it with the power of the resurrection. Life that transforms us, that challenges us, that calls us to live in hope and love with one another. And there’s no catch. There’s no fine print. Just a promise. This is the life that God wants for each of us. That God gives to each of us through Jesus. In Christ, our lives are transformed so that we get to experience God’s life.

So yes, read the fine print. Because discipleship isn’t easy. But it’s part of God’s great gift to us: a life of love and redemption, of healing and wholeness, for us and for the world. Without any pesky terms and conditions. Amen.