Sermon, Proper 21, Year C 2022 Season of Creation
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the dramatic story of poor Lazarus, starving and covered with sores, and the rich man who ignores Lazarus in this lifetime.
Both men die, and the tables get turned. Lazarus ends up resting comfortably on the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man finds himself in Hades, where he is tormented in the flames.
Barriers play an important part in this story.
The first barrier is the rich man’s gate. The rich man kept his gate shut. Inside his house, he led a life of luxury, ignoring the needs of the world right outside his gate.
The second barrier is the great chasm fixed between heaven and hell.
This barrier keeps the rich man who is now in Hades from receiving any relief from his agony—Abraham tells him that “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” My mind conjures up a huge dark space, so deep that I can’t even see the bottom, and so wide that the other side is invisible because it’s so far away.
In Bible study, we talked about this chasm. Is there a point at which God fixes a chasm that cannot be crossed? Was the rich man doomed forever? We know that God is a God of mercy and forgiveness. But is there a cut off point to God’s tolerance of our shortcomings?
But this story does not say that God put this chasm in place. The chasm has been fixed, but by whom?
In hearing this story again this year, I think this chasm has been fixed by the rich man. The rich man’s closed gate became a chasm which no one passed through to help Lazarus and Lazarus could not pass through the shut gate on his own. Too sick and hungry to do anything else, Lazarus lay outside the closed gate and died.
And now the gate, which has become a chasm, unsurprisingly remains in place in the next life, (you reap what you sow and suffer the consequences of your actions). The rich man no longer has control. The gate has turned into a chasm that he can’t cross. Now he experiences the side of the chasm he wishes he weren’t on, one of deprivation and torture.
Since this is the Season of Creation, we certainly could apply this story to our own relationships with the earth, and how we tend to shut ourselves off from the earth around us. In our day to day lives, we go out of our houses, get into our cars, drive to where we are going, and go into another building. And then repeat to get back home, often never even setting foot on the earth itself. Often, our eyes are closed to what is going on in the natural world. Our hearts are shut to its agonies, many which we have caused.
We forget that the earth has a life of its own and that we belong to the earth.
The Church itself teaches us that we are part of this earth. Our most profound Christian symbols are earthly—as we come into the Church we are baptized in water, we share bread made from ingredients that came from the earth and also from its creatures. The bees make the honey that BJ mixes into our communion bread. Our wine comes from grapes that grew on vines planted in the earth.
At our burials we hear these words, “We are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Jesus described himself with these earthly things—saying “I am living water,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Jesus belonged not only to God, but to the earth. And Jesus himself reminds us that we are connected to the earth, and how essential that connection is in our relationships with God.
I don’t even need to go into detail about the myriad ways that we are in the process of creating a chasm between us and the rest of life on this earth, one that we will someday no longer be able to cross. Like the rich man, who wouldn’t open his gate and then found out that he couldn’t cross the chasm of his own making, we are in the process of creating something that we can no longer undo. Even if we someday decide that we want to open our gates to the earth, many of the things that we have destroyed are gone or will be gone forever. One example we are all aware of is the decline of the monarch butterflies, now on the endangered list, along with many other creatures that are endangered or already extinct.
When my daughter Catherine and I went to Hawaii several years ago and visited a botanical garden, we saw a native plant of Hawaii that is being kept alive only by human beings, who must pollinate it by hand, for the moth that once pollinated this plant is now extinct. And someday the plant will go the way of the moth, when human beings decide to stop pollinating it.
I find myself easily discouraged by what is happening to the earth around us, wanting to look away, as the rich man looked away from poor Lazarus, lying at his gate. How much more pleasant it was for the rich man to step over this problem in his path, to go inside and shut the door, and never give the tragedy at his gate another thought. How easy it is for us to shut ourselves away from the ongoing environmental tragedies around us.
Today’s scripture reading from Ist Timothy provides some guidance for us on to how to keep our gates open, to avoid putting impassable chasms in place. We will do well to keep these reminders in place, not only in our relationships with God and with one another, but with the earth itself.
The first thing to remember is to rely on God rather than on ourselves. We are to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness rather than to focus on the what the writer calls “the uncertainty of riches,” for loving money more than God leads, in the end, to ongoing pain.
To live a life of faith is a challenge. The writer describes taking up this challenge as fighting a good fight—“Fight the good fight of the faith.” For if we fight the good fight of the faith, our relationships with God and with one another will grow stronger.
And as we live faithfully on the earth, we find ourselves fighting good fights—taking the time to engage with the earth and to be proactive in our care for it, and to admit the ways that we benefit at the expense of the earth and to try to correct the things that we do that are ultimately hurting the earth and the creatures around us.
The last paragraph of the reading of today’s lesson from 1st Timothy also has some great advice, not only for our relationships with God and with one another, but with the earth itself.
The author says that we who are rich are to do good, to engage in good works, to be generous and ready to share, so that we can take hold of “the life that really is life.”
For us Christians, the life that really is life is a life open to God, open to one another, and open to the earth. Open gates, open hands, open hearts.
At the end of the story that Jesus tells, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to the house of the rich man’s father to tell his brothers what has happened to him, so that they can be saved from the torment that the rich man is experiencing.
But Abraham says that the brothers already have the message—all that they have been taught through Moses and the prophets.
What ever happened to the brothers? Did they somehow figure out what they could do differently, based on the information they already had? We will never know, because like so many of the stories that Jesus tells, we are left hanging. The story is open ended.
We are like those brothers of the rich man.
What will happen to us?
Like the brothers, we need to be warned.
But we’ve already been warned!
Can we and will we do things differently, based on the warning signs already surrounding us?
Can we and will we do things differently, based on what God tells us to do in our relationships with one another?
Can we and will we do things differently based on how scripture tells us to care for the earth of which we are only a part?
As followers of Jesus, how can we be living water, the bread of life, and the vine, sustaining and bringing forth new life around us?
And we must remember that we are but dust, and think of what we can do to contribute to the lives of one another and of the earth which will go on long after we have died, but in what condition?
What will we leave behind for our children and our children’s children? Open gates, open hands, open hearts, bringing new life and bridging the fissures that we’ve already started creating?
Or will we leave behind a chasm that has been fixed, so that even those who might want to pass over it cannot do so?
God has provided us with all the information we need to keep our gates, hands, and hearts open to one another and to the earth.
What we do with that good news is up to each one of us.