Sermons That Work

Mind the Gap, Proper 21 (C) – 2004

September 26, 2004

A lot of older immigrants routinely offer table scraps to a happily waiting dog under the table. When asked why they don’t simply by dog food they frequently will answer something like, “This is how we fed pets in the old country. We didn’t have an entire industry devoted to manufacturing food for pets. Look what you people have: dog food for young dogs, dog food for old dogs, diet dog food, organic dog food, designer dog food! In the old days we would just toss a bone out in the alley behind the house and it was every dog for himself.”

Jesus says that just outside some rich man’s gate is a poor man named Lazarus, just hoping that the rich man might share a few scraps with him. But Lazarus is so sick, he cannot compete with the local dogs, who no doubt eat whatever is tossed out the gate, and then, we are told, lick the poor man’s sores.

When the end of life comes to each of these two men, one is whisked away by angels into the bosom of Abraham, and the other is buried. The intended shock of the story is that the rich man is the one who is buried and ends up in eternal, flaming torment. This is not what the Pharisees, the religionists to whom Jesus is speaking, would expect. The Pharisees, in fact, spent lots of time warning people to avoid poor folk like Lazarus or risk ending up in eternal torment as someone like that would surely end up.

The rich man learns a lesson. Far, far away, across a deep, deep chasm, he could just make out Lazarus in the arms of Abraham. So now he is the beggar, asking for just a drop of water.

“Not possible,” says God. “You had your chance to bridge the gap in real life, it’s way too late now. You ate, drank, and were happy in your life on earth, now you can experience the kind of neglect you showed to my dear friend Lazarus here.”

“Then go warn my brothers,” pleads the rich man.

“Oh, they’ve had plenty of warning, just like you. They had the Law of Moses and the warnings of the prophets. That should be sufficient.”

“Then send someone from the dead, that will get their attention,” pleads the rich man.

“No,” says God, “if they have not listened to Moses and the prophets, neither will they listen to someone who should rise from the dead!”

Now there are any number of interesting things in all of this. And one is that whatever the resurrection is all about, it is not at all necessary to understanding how to live the Way of the Lord. The Lord God of Israel has set before Moses and the people of God the rules of the household in the Law and the Prophets: reader beware—and be aware. Now is the time to mind the gap: the gap between those who have and those who have not.

If one reads Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy at all carefully, one notices that things are the way our Psalm (146) says they are. That is our God has a special concern for those who are oppressed, in prison, hungry, sick, disabled, widows, orphans and strangers: that is—The Other. Those who are not at all like us. And the way God proposes to care for all these people is for the people of God to reach out and welcome all these folks like Lazarus into the household of God and take care of them through the ministries of feeding, healing and reaching out.

Then read the prophets like Amos whom we have before us this morning and you get nothing but reminders of all the rules of the household. Reminders and a warning: Woe to the rich who like to enjoy the fruits of their wealth, who eat and drink and sing and feed their pets better than they do Lazarus. Who ignore the ruin of all those in the land who are without resources. Who ignore the tragic circumstances of all those people in this world who do not have a pair of shoes, have only one set of clothes, and are not assured of even just one meal today. Ignore all of that and you will be the first to be sent into exile, says Amos, or eternal torment, says Jesus.

And there were still those, evidently, in the early church after the time of Jesus who understood all of this. Witness the First Letter to Timothy declaring, “As for the rich of this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches in this world, but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed!”

That is, remember where everything you have comes from: a loving and generous God. Be just as loving and generous with others, especially poor, broken, marginalized others.
And remember what Jesus taught us: if you believe in the resurrection just so that you will get into heaven and avoid hell, you are missing the point big time. And it is going to get a lot warmer before it gets cooler.

Now we do not ordinarily identify ourselves as being rich. We find it difficult to identify with the rich man in this story. We do not know rich, we tell ourselves. This warning is obviously meant for someone else.

But that is precisely what the rich man thought. By global standards, however, if you have more than one pair of shoes, more than one pair of underwear, and more than one meal a day, you are rich. By North American standards, if you live above the official poverty line, you are a part of the overconsumer class. If I order my extra pair of boots from the L.L. Bean catalog, I am rich. If I make purchases from the Victoria’s Secret catalog, I am rich. If I have time to call in and make purchases from the Home Shopping Network, I am rich. If I have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I am rich like the man in the story.

But if I think I earned all these boots and underwear and food, that I deserve it all, that it is mine to do with as I please, then, says Jesus and 1st Timothy and Amos, I am poor indeed. I am living in exile; in exile, far, far away from my sisters and brothers who are in real need. In exile, far, far away from all the brothers and sisters and children and grandchildren of Lazarus throughout the ages for whom our God has a special love and concern. It is like the Scripture says: there is a deep gap between us. And the economists and the newspapers and your own experiences and your own eyes will tell you that the gap is getting deeper and deeper every day.

In London as you ride the trains there is a mechanical voice that says over and over, “Mind the gap! Mind the gap!” A warning to passengers to take care lest, on leaving the car, they fall between the platform and the train.

What Jesus is saying to those good religious people who gathered for worship week by week to listen to the word of the Lord and say, “Thanks be to God,” what Jesus is saying to these upright and good citizens of his day, what Jesus is saying to those who maybe had not much more than three square meals a day themselves, is, “Mind the gap! It is widening every day! What are you going to do about it? The gap has become so great that there is no middle ground. It’s so deep you can’t get over it. So wide you can’t get around it. If you want to “rock-a-your-soul in the bosom of Abraham” then there is no time to wait. If you do not narrow the gap in this life, it will be too late in the next! You throw scraps to the dogs. You have developed a multi-billion dollar industry to feed your pets. You have catalog after catalog of designer underwear. Closets full of shoes. Pantries groaning with food when I taught you to pray for daily bread. What about my people? What about all those people in Psalm 146 my father loves and has entrusted to your care?”

Mind the gap. “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed.” That gap in the next world is set in this world. And our story suggests there is a way out. That gap need not be fixed, nor become so great that we cannot ever get across it. And that way out is in one little word at the beginning of the story.

The rich man, we are told, has a gate. And Lazarus and all he stands for lie just the other side of that gate.

Now gates can keep people out. And gates can keep people inside. That is, gates can be used to separate us from others. And we need to identify the gates in our community. Gates can keep some children from ever achieving a third grade reading level, thus locking them out of certain opportunities forever. Gates can be used to keep middle and low income housing out of our neighborhoods so that we don’t attract “ those kinds of people” who may cause our property values to fall. Gates can be used to send homeless people to motels in other communities just to keep them out of here. Gates can be real at the end of the driveway, or gates can be policies that make entrance into our neighborhood impossible for the kinds of folk we would rather not see day to day.

But gates can mark a point of connection. Gates can lead us from our own self-concerned, self-centered lives into the world of others. Gates can allow us to enter the bigger world around us. Gates can allow us to meet those people God in Christ cares most about: the children and grandchildren of Lazarus; if we will only open the gate and step out.

And what God in Christ seems to be asking us today is to find those gates that can connect us to those who are hungry, and those who are oppressed, and those who are strangers. To identify all the kinds of gates that make the distance between us and the world’s poor greater and greater. And then once we have identified those gates, to open them and step out and see who we find there.

August 10th was the feast day of Laurence, Deacon of Rome. His ministry was to the poor and abandoned people of the streets of Rome. He administered the diocesan treasury to feed and clothe and help the poor. When the church was under persecution by the Roman Empire, Laurence was ordered by a magistrate to round up the treasures of the church and turn them over to the government. Laurence returned before the court with all the poor and hopeless people to whom he had ministered and proclaimed, “Here! These are the treasures of the church!” For that witness to the faith he was martyred.

Jesus tells a story for all who will listen. “Mind the gap,” he says. In this story he issues an invitation to narrow the gap by opening the gates and stepping forth to minister to those people he loves and cares for; those people to whom he was sent in the first place.

“Inside the gates,” he says, “will be all the treasures of this world in our closets, our pantries, our garages and attics, and even in our pet’s food dish”. Ultimately it is a lonely place of eternal exile and torment, walled off from the love of God.

Outside the gates lie the treasures of the church, his body, the true treasures of the Kingdom of Heaven, the daughters and sons and grandchildren of Lazarus. Between us and them will be a great chasm. So deep and so far that none shall cross from here to there.

Unless we begin to open the gates today and get to work narrowing the gap. Those who do will be carried by angels into an eternity spent with God. Those who don’t will be buried. And they will be very, very thirsty indeed! Mind the gap! Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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