Pentecost 19/Proper 21(C)
A Great Chasm
When Lewis and Clark explored the Louisiana Territory and first came across the Dakota Badlands, they were temporarily transfixed at the deep and wide chasm between them and the other side. It was beautiful, other-worldly, and looked impassable. Prong-horn deer and antelope bounded effortlessly up and down the shear Limestone cliffs, bison grazed the grassy level plateau’s, and coyotes ambled down to the Little Missouri River for a drink. But only with the Lakota-Sioux as their guides, were Lewis & Clark able to cross the chasm. And when the white settlers, with their Conestoga wagons, were deciding on best routes to the west, based on Lewis and Clark’s exploration, a Pass was found through the Rocky Mountains, but they avoided traveling through the Badlands altogether. It wasn’t called the Badlands for nothing!
“Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” said Abraham in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. “Those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.'” And so we get the picture! In this life, the rich man passed by Lazarus every day, but now in death, their fortunes have been reversed, and because of the chasm, there is no way to get there from here. Beware!
Most of us have heard, or told, a joke about the "pearly gates" before. There are stories about Irishmen, or, a Priest a Rabbi and an Imam, who go to meet St. Peter at heaven's gate somewhere in the clouds. Well, this kind of literature is actually nothing new. There were folk stories about the heavenly hereafter at the time of Christ too, at least in the Greek and Roman story-telling cannon. And Jesus likely borrowed one of these in telling the parable about a rich man and a beggar, Lazarus, who met Abraham in the afterlife.
It’s clear too, that Jesus uses the folktale style, not to try and inform us about what the afterlife looks like. But his point is centered on who we are, and what kind of people God’s people are to be, here in this life.
It’s also clear that something is going on about the polarities of rich and poor. “Usually one’s own economic situation helps determine ones’ opinion about the poor,” says Gail Ramshaw. “Are you yourself poor? …Were your ancestors poor, or were they wealthy benefactors? [Were you taught] that hard work brings [with it the reward of] money? Are your [peers] successful in achieving the economic gains due their labor, or is society stacked against you and yours? Whom exactly do we mean by the poor?”
Jesus lived mostly among the poor, though he didn’t shun the rich. He accepted invitations to dine with prominent people of power. But with them, he usually took up the cause of his birth which his mother Mary sang about in the song we call the Magnificat, in the very first chapter of Luke: that God will, “scatter the proud… and has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…” Down in the valley, in the city of Jericho, Jesus inspired a tax-collector, Zacchaeus, to give away half his wealth, and to repay 400% to anyone he defrauded, and become a follower.
And it was St Paul, after responding to the risen Lord’s call to stop persecuting him and become a disciple, that picked up this theme, in a metaphorical way. In 2nd Corinthians he says that Christ became poor for us, so that we might be rich, but not literally, of course. Probably Paul meant to refer to Jesus’ willingness to relinquish the divine throne and come down in order to live a human life, which is beautifully captured in his letter to the Philippians.
This too seems to be what Jesus was after, in bridging that chasm between rich and poor. It’s both metaphorical and real. And the chasm can be wide, as we know, even here in this life, for we are often like the rich man, aren’t we, who practically stumbled over Lazarus as he lay at his gate, all covered with sores and hungry. And what is there to make him stop and give a care? How close, and yet, how far, are they? Unless we, like Jesus, we like the prophet Amos, we like St Francis of Assisi, we like Mother Teresa, we like Martin Luther King, we like Dorothy Day, we like Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, we like the Night Shelter, we like Care for Real, unless we will stand up and organize for bridging the chasm, how will the realm and kingdom of God that Jesus announced be enacted? Clearly Jesus was telling this parable, not to teach us the ins and outs about the afterlife, but to offer us a way to re-enter this life, and with prophetic justice, bridge the chasm of our lives.
This week I was able to go to a training with friends from ONE Northside. It was run by a national organizing group, and was called, Dismantling Structural Racism. And we learned one thing that relates well here. None of us can do it alone! The just and peaceful community that Mary sang about when she magnified God, and, bridging the chasm, that Jesus declared was our mission as his followers, does not come about by itself, by good intentions, or even through faithful prayers alone.
For as Jesus knew, there are forces working against the realm of God every day, some of which are seen, and some not. But we see its effects on the poor, if we have eyes to see, and we see the devastation of our society, by those who are perfectly willing to grow the chasm to benefit themselves, the very few, and disproportionately oppress the rest of us. The effects of this oppression, like the effects of racism, we learned, are of course, horrible. But we cannot change them alone. To help one, is not to address the evil that is, and will continue, to build up and deepen the chasm. But only when we organize together as people of faith in partnership and common cause with others of like mind, and aim past the individual to the larger structural evil, the Chasm, can we say we are working for the kingdom of God. Jesus was an organizer. His kingdom was based on God’s desire to tear down the Chasm between us. And he didn’t forget about those on the bottom.
Those on the bottom, the poor, mostly never have a voice. We see that increasingly happening again today. It is not easy to include all, and it’s too easy to forget, or let go, those who cannot speak for themselves, those we stumble over, like poor Lazarus, whom Jesus never forgets. But Jesus is in it for the long haul, and so must we be. Our prayers and faith life are important foundations for organizing, and essential for remembering who it is we serve and live with. The chasm has become deep and wide, and each time we come to the precipice, it can look mighty scary.
I can tell you this about the chasm, though. First of all, Kim and I loved to go camping in the North Dakota Badlands! We did it for many years. Like the nomads, the Lakota-Sioux tribe before us, who loved the land and were unafraid of living with, and bridging, the chasm, we too found it a beautiful land to live and hike in. The valley’s – or chasm’s from a distance – are surprisingly possible to traverse, one step at a time. Of course, we had to depend on one another as we traveled. We had to be organized, to bring water and meals along, for example.
But the chasm is nothing more than a journey we embark on with the blessing of our God, who promises us that “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”
As so we Gather each week to hear the Word and share in the Meal, we are reminded what we are Sent for. To bridge the chasm. Our identity in worship is our prescription for living every day, for the long term. We ‘celebrate and proclaim and organize,’ that the chasm has no place in the realm and kingdom of God, which we are called to enact. As a people baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we have nothing to fear – in Jesus, the Chasm has already been bridged. So, let’s go hiking!