Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2016

Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 25 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jer 32:1-3a,6-15; Ps 91:1-6,14-16; 1 Tim 6:6-19; Lk 16:19-31

In some ways, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is very typical of Luke—it has Luke’s characteristic focus on the poor and the outcast, the clear insistence that it is with these whom God’s presence and favour lies, that God’s kingdom is the great reversal of all the world’s values, that those who are made to suffer now will be blessed, while those who live well in this world will find that they have not done well in their souls, a message echoed as well in today’s epistle. And to that extent, it is a story which can be very appealing to those who are struggling, hungry and lost and broken, on the margins of our society, and to all of us who long and hope and work for justice.

But there’s also a hint of Matthew’s worldview in this particular story—the sharp division between the saved and the lost, the imagery of eternal fiery punishment for the wicked, the inevitability of it, the apparent impossibility of turning around. Between Lazarus and the rich man there is a great gulf fixed, and no one can cross it; it is not crossed in this world because of our own failures, and it cannot—or so it seems—be crossed in the next. And that is troubling because, though we are not clothed in purple and fine linen and eating fancy banquets every day, very few of us are entirely Lazarus, and most of us are at least a little bit of the rich man. Most of us, it is true, have known our own deprivation, have suffered, have been in some way the hungry and lost outsider; but most of us have also, at some point, walked past another human being who needs our help, and done nothing. Most of us have, at some point, failed to see the suffering in front of us. Most of us have held onto that little bit more than we need, when we had an opportunity to share it.

And it’s not only other human beings we have ignored, though that is the core of this story, and our most immediate summons. We also turn away from, deliberately fail to notice, the devastation of the earth. We hear and forget—perhaps because it is too frightening to bear—that we have lived through nearly two years of consistently record-breaking heat, that parts of the world are already becoming too hot to sustain human, or much other, life, that crops are failing. We take some tiny steps to reduce our fossil fuel consumption, but we have not yet deeply changed the way we live, and we have not demanded that our industries and governments change their own ways. This land here, which we settlers stole from the Indigenous inhabitants in any case, we have damaged now almost beyond repair. The wounds of the earth are real, too, and if we ignore them for much longer, there may well be a future of flames ahead of us.

There is a difference, certainly, between those of us here and the super-rich, the one per cent, the people who have not only more than they need, but more than they can even really grasp, the people whose wealth is often accumulated at the direct cost of the desperately poor or the planet itself. But in some ways, at some times, the difference is only relative.

So this parable is frightening; and it is meant to be. But it could seem to leave us in a place without hope, the great gulf fixed against us. Some days I feel like that is true; some days it is hard to find hope, hard to believe that this sad world and our sad selves can turn around.

And yet—Jeremiah. The armies of Babylon are besieging Jerusalem. The people are hungry and terrified, and Jeremiah is in prison for saying, accurately, that the city will fall, that the people will be murdered or starved or scattered into exile. And at this time, at the end of all things, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah and tells him to buy a piece of land. To do it now, in this bad time. To buy land which he himself will never be able to plant or tend or harvest. To do it because there is hope, to do it as a sign that one day the people will be returned to their land, will plant and harvest again, will live on their territory again. To do this impossible, foolish, pointless thing, because God never declares an end to all things, because there is always the possibility of hope, always the possibility of turning.

So we must believe in hope. We must hold onto the hope, foolish and impossible as it is, that we can change, that the rich and powerful even may change, that the great gulf is not a final truth.

And, returning to Luke, we may notice something important—in this little story, as in most parables, God does not speak directly. The explanation, as it were, the statement of inevitable doom, comes from a sort of fantastical Abraham, a human character ultimately, fallible, limited. And there is something Abraham doesn’t know. That there is one who can, and will, cross over that great gulf. That there is one who will, in his own human body, accept the sufferings of Lazarus and carry them into the heart of God; and that one will also go down to hell, to use that imagery, and hold out his hand to the rich man as well, to offer him too the possibility of being lifted up, of reaching out his own hand and taking hold of the eternal life.

So we are called to hold onto the hope, that it is never the end, that we can still turn. That insofar as each of us is Lazarus, we can know that we are beloved and held and valued eternally, that when the world rejects, God will sit down with us at the gate, one of us, and know all our pain and our beauty. And that insofar as we are the rich man, we are not doomed. We can take that hand which reaches towards us through the flames. We can change, even when it seems too late. We can turn around. We can learn to release our tight grasp on our material goods, on our false emotional comforts, to live carefully and responsibly and lovingly, bit by bit. We can build lives of solidarity and compassion.

And, even more, we can and must be that hand which reaches out, we must do our work as part of the body of Christ in this world. We must continue to to speak prophecy and challenge and hope to the rich men of our day, in whatever form that takes. We can support the anti-pipeline protest camp at Standing Rock in the United States, we can support Vanessa Gray, a young Indigenous woman facing serious legal charges for nonviolent protest here in Canada, we can support the lawsuit against Line 9 being brought to the Supreme Court by the Chippewas of the Thames. We can act in our own lives to reduce consumer demand for fossil fuels, plastics, the tawdry and destructive toys of our consumer society. We can live on a piece of land and tend it, plant it, care for it.

We can call out the racist violence that is killing so many Black people in the United States and here. We can call out the great gulf of income inequality around the world, where some people starve while others have so unimaginably much more than they need. We can stand at the rich man’s gate and demand that he see, that he notice, the wounds of Lazarus; and we can tend those wounds ourself in the meantime. We can persist, always, with all the fierce care we can, in the hope that change is possible, that change will come.

We cannot know that our hope will be justified, any more than Jeremiah in his prison cell could have known for sure, and indeed never did know in his lifetime, that the people would come back to the land and tend it. But we hold on, not finally to the story of Lazarus and the rich man, instructive though it is in some ways, but the story of the wounded bleeding hand which stretched across the great gulf to grasp ours, to lift us, to bring us home. The voice which called to another Lazarus, which calls to us in our graves of selfishness and despair. The story which tells us that love is strong, that turning is possible, that even what seems to be the most final of all endings does not have to be the end. This is our story, this is our faith. And on this sad and stolen patch of land, we can still act, now, in this moment, and in every moment, even the very last, to make it real.