Sunday, March 14, 2021

Phil Kniss: What to do at the edge of a great yawning chasm

Lent 4 - How far does love reach?
Luke 16:19-31

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Today’s Gospel story is about a chasm.
Several chasms, actually.
Great, wide, yawning chasms
that separate those on one side
from those on the other.
And the perplexing question of this story is,
“How far does love reach?”

A physical chasm, of course, means a break or crack
in the earth, or some other physical surface.
But the Oxford English dictionary further defines it as,
a profound difference between people, viewpoints, feelings, etc.
And the primary example of that usage is,
“the chasm between rich and poor.”

So Jesus’ parable in Luke 16 is the quintessential use
of the word chasm.

And to call it a “yawning chasm”—a common term
I used in my sermon title,
is actually to be redundant.
The root word for yawn and chasm are the same.
A “yawning chasm” is saying it twice
to emphasize how wide this opening actually is.

And this story is obviously not about a particular rich man,
and a particular poor man, Lazarus.
It is a parable with multiple levels of meaning,
and universal implications.

So we are entirely justified in using our imaginations here,
and seeing where this story takes us.

Where we could go wrong,
is to take the story too literally.
It’s not meant to be a description of the afterlife,
or even a glimpse of heaven and hell, per se.

Paradise and Hades are like characters in this story.
They create a context to weave a story and lesson
that has everything to do with our earthly lives here and now.

The scene is this yawning chasm.
On one side is the formerly rich man in Hades,
in torment, in agony,
suffering from the lack of everything,
even a drop of water to cool his tongue.
On the other side of the chasm is Father Abraham,
pictured embracing, with affection,
the formerly poor man Lazarus,
once oozing with sores, and malnourished,
now awash in abundance and love and comfort.

And this yawning chasm cannot be crossed or bridged.
It’s a chasm created, essentially, by the rich man,
during his life of luxury on the earth.
He is now simply reaping the predictable consequences,
of a lifetime of making and maintaining chasms on earth.

Did you catch Jesus’ brilliant description of the rich man’s earlier life?
He dressed in purple and fine linen.
He lived in luxury.
He ate from a sumptuous table.
Outside his gate, lying in the dust, was Lazarus,
who the man paid no attention to.
Likely, Lazarus went altogether unnoticed.
He was simply not part of the rich man’s world,
and the rich man chose to keep it that way.
The poor man’s dream, his longing,
was only to be able to reach some of the crumbs
that fell off  the rich man’s table.
But that did not happen,
by choice of those in power.

The chasm was created, reinforced, and kept in place
by those who decided this is the way the world is meant to be.

God has a different vision for the world.
God’s vision is justice, equity, a world of enough.
Where all are fed and clothed and sheltered,
and allowed to thrive,
allowed to develop into the full and flourishing life
for which God created them.

The point of this story, it seems to me,
is that the chasms of life on this earth
are ones that we can address.
There are ways to face them.
There are choices we have about how to live life
at the edge of a great, yawning chasm.
We have not yet become eternal victims of our own cruelty,
as the rich man did,
when the damage had already been done,
and could not be undone.

This is much easier said than done, of course.
Because the chasm is yawning.
It is too wide to cross with good intentions.
It cannot be bridged with greater effort,
running faster and jumping farther.
But just to name it a chasm, implies a possibility.
A chasm is created
when something that once was together,
has opened up for some reason.
The physical chasms on the surface of the earth
tell the story of a long ago togetherness.
You can trace the contours on one side of the chasm,
and go to the other side,
and trace the same contours in reverse.

It raises the question of whether
the one who once held it together,
might be able to bring it together again,
might be able to heal the rift.

So here is the task of the living—
to turn toward the Great Creator, and Great Reconciler,
and ask how we might join in the work.
To ask God, “Where are you going next?
And how can we go with you?”

God knows there are a sufficient number of rifts that need healing.
The gulf separating the rich from the poor is still with us.
In fact, not only still with us,
but the chasm is getting wider.
As is the chasm between oppressed and oppressors,
the elite and the masses,
royalty and commoners,
those with formal education and those without.
Many other chasms divide us—
politically, culturally, racially, theologically.

This fanciful vision of Abraham and the tormented rich man,
having a conversation back and forth
between the two edges of the chasm
separating Hades and Paradise,
is maybe not as fanciful as it seems.

This is precisely the kind of dialogue
that we Jesus-followers are invited into now,
standing on our edge of the chasm.
The role of the community of disciples of Jesus
is to first notice the ones we are separated from.
The rich man probably could honestly say,
I never noticed Lazarus lying there in the dust outside my gate.
The very reason the rich man had a gate,
was so he wouldn’t have to notice people like Lazarus.
Gate preserve the status quo,
preserve social blindness.
I wonder what gates we have knowingly or unknowingly put up,
so that despite our best intentions,
despite our most noble and righteous commitments,
we need not notice, or ever take in,
the real lives of those on the other side of the chasm.

If we were truly intent on crossing the chasm,
we would not just keep re-stating our noble intentions,
as we so often do.
We would invite God to lead us to fresh encounters
with the ones standing on the other side of the chasm,
who may well be looking at us
with longing, or suspicion, or just confusion.

We stand at the edge of not one, but many,
great yawning chasms.

What to do?
We ask the great reconciler for help.
God, grant us the courage simply to notice—
to see those we are separated from.
God, give us the humility to name
the fences that protect us,
that reinforce our privileged position.
And God, instill in us a deeper desire for communion,
with those on the other side of our chasms.

Friends, it is now yours to discern
where this parable touches your lives.
It is yours to discover which chasms are keeping you
from the full and flourishing life you were created for.
And then to ask God for help.
Now, before the chasm becomes uncrossable.

Pray with me, will you, this simple prayer of confession,
found in your order of service, taken from Voices Together.

May the Love of God
     which overcomes all differences,
     which heals all wounds,
     which puts to flight all fears,
     which reconciles all who are separated,
be in us and among us
     now and always.

—Phil Kniss, March 14, 2021

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