September 2019

A Great Chasm Between Us

16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 29, 2019
Luke 16:19-31
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas

The story Jesus tells concerning a rich man and Lazarus comes at the end of a series of stories about wealthy people, including the story about a rich person who attends a banquet and sits in the seat reserved for one of greater importance, as a lesson in humility; or the parable of the rich man and his prodigal son, as a lesson in divine love and forgiveness; or still another about a rich man and his dishonest manager, as a lesson of unwavering devotion. One gains the impression from these stories that Jesus was probably speaking to an audience of mostly affluent people in an attempt to convince them that material wealth often implies a poverty of spirit.

The story Jesus tells about Lazarus is most intriguing in that he is a poor and starving man who sits at the gates of the rich man’s property, a scene very similar to the poor who sit on the steps of urban churches, or the off-ramps of highways, or the entrances to subways stations. Any clearly visible location where they expect one cannot easily ignore them, you will find the likes of Lazarus.

The Bible also mentions expressions of poverty more suitable to our liking because they’re not constantly in our face, like Lazarus, but hidden among individuals too proud to beg, like the widow of Zarephath. The Prophet Elijah encountered her during a severe drought in Israel. She was down to her last handful of meal that she was about to prepare for her and her son as their last supper before they died. But the prophet assured her that God would not abandon her, and she and her son survived the drought. (1st Kings 17:8-16)

But what about the drought of spirit from which we all hunger and thirst? We wish we could end all forms of poverty among us, but find even ourselves barely making ends meet and burning candles at both ends, fearful that we too might unexpectedly face a crisis situation of health or unemployment that drains our financial resources and leaves us destitute.

How do you feel when you read or hear the story of Lazarus and the rich man recognizing that, by comparison, according to material possessions, we are closer to the rich man than Lazarus? The rich man was probably a conscientious philanthropist of his community and a respected member of his synagogue who fulfilled every measure of his religious obligation, which therefore entitled him, as he might have suspected, some distance from the unsavory elements of society, like Lazarus. And that distant is the great chasm we create between us and them – the unpleasant reminders of what we were, or never want to be, or possible could be.

While in New York I started a Toastmasters’ chapter as an outreach ministry of the Riverside Church to Harlem, which received several public speaking awards in just the first two years of its existence, which in turn, attracted the attention of the national body and the top Toastmaster speaker to make a presentation at the church.

During his speech, he told a story about a man he viewed as successful who, in his own words, “drove straight to his goal, looking neither to the left nor right, but pressing onward with only one purpose in mind. Neither friend nor foe could divert him from his path, and all who stood in his way did so at their own peril.” And then he asked, “What, my friends, would you call such a man?” to which a church member replied, “A New York City cab driver.”

The worldly view of success often involves single-minded reckless pursuits at the peril of all who get in our way. And those who get in the way are often far enough away to go unnoticed and unfelt by the rich and powerful who inflict the damage. A high gate and a great chasm have been created between them and us that only we, through the power of God, can destroy.

In high school I was part of a street theater troupe in which I played a guitar-strumming homeless man. Now I don’t know how to play the guitar; but while biding my time on a busy sidewalk, I decided to pluck a few strings and find the tune for “Amazing Grace.”

I intentionally closed my mind to whatever impressions my presence was having upon passer-byes to learn the tune. And as my fingers became familiar with the strings and notes that formed the melody, I suddenly heard money falling into my open guitar case. In just one hour I made sixty bucks.

However, mine was a luxury that could retreat from the role of poverty and homelessness that many other assume daily without an end in sight.

The Bible declares that God’s righteousness will turn the tables, and that the chasm we fix to distance ourselves from the poor, God will fix in their favor to distance them from us.

The world is rising up against unchecked capitalists who deny global warming and fuel our prisons with those they can’t stand to see; the callous capitalists who pollute our ground and water with poisonous chemicals and muster an army of legal experts to fix and maintain a great chasm between them and everyone else.

On what side of this chasm will the church stand? Christ has given the order and set the standard by which we must choose. “Come, you that are blessed of God,” he said, “and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you cared for me; I was in prison and you visited me…In that you did this to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36, 40)

This is the word of the Lord. Amen.