A(nother!) Sermon about Wealth and Chasm-Crossing

Augustana Lutheran Church
25 September 2016 + Lectionary 26C
Luke 16.19-31; 1 Timothy 6.6-19

One of my favorite scenes in the film adaptation of the popular rock musical Rent opens on an impoverished-looking apartment complex in Manhattan’s East Village, where we are introduced to two roommates, Mark and Roger, and their former roommate and friend-turned-landlord, Benny, whose upward marriage and new career in real estate brings the chasm between rich and poor to a head. Benny informs them that he plans to evict the homeless population from a nearby “tent city” to put in a state-of-the-art cyber arts studio.Rent

Plans that their performance artist friend Maureen intends to protest, which brings us to Benny’s point for this meeting: Convince Maureen to cancel her protest, and Mark and Roger can continue living rent-free in their apartment, which they can’t afford otherwise.

Friends betrayed. Relationships broken. Livelihoods and homes threatened. A great chasm has been fixed…

Words we hear, too, from Abraham in this parable from Luke. Words, I imagine, many of us have come to interpret as the “great chasm” between “heaven” and “hell.” Frightful imagery, indeed —  but intended not exactly to scare us into getting our act together with the threat or promise of where will wind up when we die.

I suspect the great chasm Abraham refers to has much more to do with life here and now.

If you feel like we’ve been hearing a lot about money and wealth this past year as we’ve been listening to Luke’s gospel: you’re right. Luke indeed spends a great deal of time on the topic:

In the Magnificat, Mary sings of the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty.

And in the so-called Sermon on the Plain, Jesus blesses the poor in one breath and pronounces woe on the rich in another.

The outlook for anyone with wealth, it seems, is pretty bleak.

lu16-rch-mn-in-hll-1-173In today’s parable, it seems even worse: Both the rich man, who goes unnamed, and Lazarus, the destitute beggar at his gate, die. Lazarus is taken to rest in “the bosom of Abraham,” while the rich man is tormented in Hades, the place of the dead. It’s certainly a great reversal from their time on earth, where the rich man feasted sumptuously and where Lazarus’s only company was a pack of dogs.

And it’s a bleak outlook for what looks to be a repentant rich man, as he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers who are still living so that they can repent before it’s too late, lest they too wind up in torment in Hades.

But I have to wonder: Is the rich man really repentant? And is it really repentance if his brothers only change their ways to avoid punishment in the afterlife?

Muslim saint and Sufi mystic Rabi’a writes in one of her well-known poems:

O my Lord, / if I worship you / from fear of hell, burn me in hell. / If I worship you / from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates. / But if I worship you / for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face. [1]

Rabi’a turns the notion of a reward-and-punishment system on its head. Heaven is not a place where “good” people go, nor is hell reserved for “bad” people. Whether or not such places even exist is not the point! (That’s another sermon…)

A great chasm has been fixed… implies that there are two polar opposites on either side of that chasm, but it has nothing to do with the afterlife. This parable comes on the heels of last week’s message about the dangers of serving both God and wealth and is addressed to the Pharisees who are subsequently called “lovers of money.”

The first-century world, even more than ours today, had a tremendous wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots. And that kind of chasm acts as an insulated barrier—keeping the destitute beggar Lazarus just outside the gate of the rich man, who probably never even interacted with him. It creates a kind of ignorance of what it’s like on the other side of that chasm.

But again, I have to pause and wonder: Is this really about the rich man’s wealth? After all, there are people with great wealth who do wonderful things. Just this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan announced their plans to donate $3 billion to help combat and even eradicate disease. [2]

So is this really a passage that claims wealth is inherently bad? Or is it more of a indictment of wealth that so insulates, that creates such a chasm, that it blinds those on whom it has a such a tight grip from seeing the suffering of the world around them?

Now, it’s easy for me, as a seminary student straddled with loan debt, and not a whole lot of disposable income, to simply ignore this passage: I’m not wealthy. It doesn’t apply to me. If anything, I should take the place of Lazarus in this parable. Right?

But when I start to think again about the kinds of chasms that exist in our world today, the tables quickly turn—and there I am, right alongside the rich man absorbed by all our stuff.

A professor of mine has put it this way, reflecting on one particular urban context:

When I walk the ‘Magnificent Mile’ in Chicago, with elegant shops on one side and gorgeous flowering boxes stitched down a street crowded with gas-guzzling SUVs on the other, I ‘walk the mile’ with scores of bedraggled and ill-looking people holding out their paper cups close to the doorways where vast amounts of money will be dropped daily (including some of my own bills, which I do not place in all the outstretched, empty cups). I am worried about how inured [how calloused] I seem to be becoming to the pain I see all around me; how adept at barely seeing even the things that are stealing life in sips; numbed by the consumerism…and unable to take action to close the distance between myself and others who are close enough to trip over. [3]


It’s not hard to translate that into our context in this city, where we have very real, literal chasms designed to separate “us” and “them.” Think Dodge Street. Or 72nd, or I-680.

A great chasm has been fixed… and it seems impossible to cross. But our text this morning is a wake-up call to see and be opened to our neighbors who suffer injustice.

Chasm-crossing seems impossible until we remember the one who crossed the chasm for us. Christ, who entered into our world, suffered, died, and rose again, all for our sake, and for the sake of saying this is not the way it has to be!

We, who have been freed by the things that trap us and bring ruin and destruction, are so freed to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

God, who gives life to all things, and who so richly provides, invites us to take hold of the life that really is life. Here, at this table, every Sunday. Take, eat, live. And be emboldened to go out and cross the great chasm.

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/55267

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/technology/mark-zuckerberg-priscilla-chan-3-billion-pledge-fight-disease.html?_r=0

[3] Kadi Billman, “Practicing Pastoral Care as a Theologian of the Cross”

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