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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Closing the Chasms

Key Passage: Luke 16:26

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: discipleship, disciples, poor, rich, chasm

Saint Paul's Within-the-Walls, Rome  •  Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Luke 16:26a: “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed...”

I have a question for you: Which side of that chasm do you think you’re on? As you listen to that story about the rich man and poor old Lazarus, where do you think you fit in the story?

What Jesus says seems to be pretty stark: There is a chasm. And not just that: It is a chasm that cannot be crossed. You can’t build a bridge across it, you can’t fly over it, you can’t jump across it. You are either on one side, or the other.

Which side do you think you are on?

Don’t think for a moment that this is just some sort of cosmic chasm. This isn’t Jesus giving a prediction about the black hole ripping apart an unlucky, high-flying star that learned about karma the hard way.

Jesus says that the chasm in heaven is the reflection in our spiritual life of the chasm that exists in the life we have right here, and right now.

It’s the chasm between people who have opportunity and the people who live in despair.

It’s the chasm between people who are hopeful, and people who are without hope.

It’s the chasm between people who have access to health care, and people who have no hope of seeing a doctor.

It’s the chasm between people who have families, and communities, and colleagues, and classmates, and those who are alone, and have no connections to others at all.

It’s the chasm between people whose rights are protected by laws, and people who are trafficked like property.

It’s the chasm between the rich and the poor—between the extreme concentrations of wealth in our day and vast areas of poverty in every corner of the world.

When Jesus told this parable to the people around him, the rich people he was thinking of lived—do you know where they lived?—they lived right here in Rome. They were the richest, the most powerful, the most unapproachably wealthy people on the planet.

The very wealthiest Romans in the days of the Empire woke up every morning to find a crowd of people in their front yard, hoping to receive a little handout at the start of the day. If you could afford it, you gave out a little bit here and there to everyone who had gathered, and when you did they became your entourage as you walked through the streets of the city.

The larger your entourage, the greater your influence. The greater your influence, the more power you had—and the wider the chasm between you and the people who had no money, and no home, and no name.

I’m sure that wealthy Roman, who was probably in the senatorial class, thought what he was doing was providing for the welfare of others. After all, at least they got something. Wasn’t that better than nothing?

But does that sound to you like the way a Christian should behave? Do you think just maybe in what Jesus was saying, there might have been a little bit of a critique of how wealth worked in the most powerful city of the day?

Now, we could read this lesson and think that the purpose Jesus has in view is to teach us that what it means to be a Christian is not to be poor, but to be rich in the right way.

That is surely what some preachers in America will teach about this lesson this morning.  They are the preachers who have their own private jets at the airport.

Or we could read this parable as the people around Jesus likely heard it—as a kind of reversal-of-fortune story that held out hope in the hereafter to the poorest of the poor.

The only problem with that is, that reading also gives us a way to be a little too easy with the world around us. After all, if the whole awful business of chasms and divisions is just going to be flipped upside-down in God’s kingdom, why should we bother fixing everything here?

I think it might just be possible that Jesus had something else in mind in telling this parable to us disciples this morning. I think just maybe we are supposed to understand that deep within this story is the job description for Christians. Within this story is a message for what the purpose and work of a disciple actually is.

That is no small thing. It is especially appropriate for us to think about this morning, because this morning we are bringing on board a new disciple—Elizabeth. Elizabeth is about to be baptized. She doesn’t know it, but she is about to take on a new job—actually, the most important job she will ever have. But it’s going to be up to us to teach her just what that job is, and how to do it.

So what if the message Jesus is offering to us this morning isn’t about the hope of being on one side of the chasm, or the danger of being on the other? What if the message is about what disciples are meant to do? What would that be?

I think it’s this: Christian people, all of us, all of us who claim the name disciples, do you know what we do? We have the job of closing chasms. To be a Christian means to be a person who devotes as much as you can of your energy, your talents, your gifts, your skills, your time, and your substance to closing the chasms that separate people from each other.

Our job is to close the chasm between hope and despair. Our job is to close the chasm between poverty and wealth. Our job is to close the chasm between doubt and faith, between disease and healing, between loneliness and community, between the pollution we create and our planet’s health, between nationalism and our common humanity.

Our job is to work to change the structures of power and the systems of consumption that humans build that end up creating these gaps. If we are Christians, then we have signed up for the job of using every resource we have to close the chasms around us.

And what if we can’t close them? What if the systems that open those chasms seem too powerful, or too entrenched, or too stubborn, or just too stupid to give us a chance of changing them?

Well, when that happens, we could give up. We could just say it’s too much for us. We could just put list it in the prayers of the people and hope God will somehow be alerted that there’s something we God to do.

But I don’t think that’s the message of the parable Jesus teaches us this morning. I don’t think that’s what Bishop Curry would say. You know what I think he would say?

I think he would say that when we run up against a chasm we can’t yet figure out how to close, our job then is to fill it—to fill it with love. To risk jumping right into the middle of it proclaiming that God is alive and at work in the world, and that the work that God is doing is the work of bringing together, of binding up wounds, of closing the chasms that separate us.

Our job as disciples is not to make sure we end up on the right side of an unbridgeable divide. That wouldn’t benefit anyone other than ourselves.

No, our job—Elizabeth’s job—is to work, and to struggle, and to laugh, and to pray, and through all of that to change the systems that open those chasms that separate us, one from the other.

And when we can’t, then our job is to fill those gaps with the love of the God who loves us enough to close the gap between us by entering right into this life of ours with us.

That love, God’s love, transforms everything it touches. And we, Jesus’s disciples, are both the beneficiaries and the bearers of that love in this broken-apart world.

So come on, Elizabeth. Let’s get to work. Amen.