Closing the chasm (sermon)

Proper 23C
Luke 16:19-31

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

So, I gotta tell you, I have really been enjoying the Roundtable Pulpit we’ve been doing between services.  Last week was our fourth time meeting to discuss upcoming preaching texts, and I’ve learned to expect some deep and generous and honest conversation.  The people who have come haven’t needed any prompting to dive right into the text, and to just stay there and see where the Spirit leads them.

That is, until last Sunday, when we tried to talk about this parable.  Not that the conversation wasn’t deep and generous and honest—it was!—but that as a group, myself included, we had a really hard time focusing on two of the central themes of this text: how we use our money, and how we treat the poor.  And what makes that really weird is that both of those topics have come up organically every other week the RTP has met!  But this time?  There was a wall.

I think it’s because we couldn’t bear, as a group, to look directly at the rich man’s fate.  We looked at just about everything else!  We talked about what happens after you die, we talked about nature vs. nurture, about whether or not there’s free will, we talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we even talked about whether homosexuality is a sin or not, but we found it really, really hard to talk about the rich man in a way that took his fate seriously.  The conversation kept slipping away from what the text actually says happened to what COULD have happened.  We wanted this story to end differently.

When I sat down to write this week, I found myself hitting the same wall.  I didn’t want to stand up here and tell you about everlasting torment being tied to unshared riches.  I wanted to mitigate.  I wanted to tell you that it wasn’t just that the rich man was rich, but that he handled his wealth irresponsibly.  I wanted to dwell on how ostentatious the rich man’s lifestyle was, and how even though he knew the need outside his door, even knew its name, it changed nothing about the way he lived.

I wanted this conversation to be less about the fact that the rich man went to hell, and more about how much or how little the text seems to require of us before we can squeak by on the righteousness scale.  I even had a sermon outline titled, “What scraps fall from your table?”

But it wasn’t good enough, and here’s why: I couldn’t hear the good news in a sermon like that.  It was about what we could do, not what God has done.  So I started over, wrestling with the text, demanding to know where the good news was.

And I realized that maybe that was the problem. Where IS the good news?  Where’s the grace?  Where’s the salvation?  Where’s the second chance?  Or, in one of the favorite questions of our RTP, “How does this show forth Christ?

I kept coming up empty, except for this one little suspicious glimmer of something vaguely Christ-like in Abraham’s last little dig: “If your brothers don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they listen even if someone rises from the dead.”

That little dig takes on a completely different shade of meaning if you take one step out from the parable itself and realize who’s telling it.

That these words came out of Jesus’ mouth–that makes a remarkable statement about God.  Because it means that God knew that resurrection wouldn’t convince us or change us.  And God came back from the dead anyway.  And in doing so, God did for the human story what the RTP and I were so desperate to do for this parable: God changed the ending.

It’s like God spent centuries trying to lead us or drive us to the path of righteousness: that’s where we get the Law from.  The Law we hear about in the OT is really a kind of grace, a sign of God reaching out, over and over again, handing us maps, a compass, trail marker, a GPS, smoke signals, anything She could think of to get us to that path!  But we still kept getting lost, wandering off, setting up camp in places where there is no water of life.

So finally God came down and offered his very self as a personal guide.  And when we rejected that, even to the point of nailing God’s Son to a cross, God still didn’t give up—but He changed the solution.  Instead of trying to get us to come in from the wilderness of sin and death, God sent the Guide there, even when that meant him descending into hell. And in the moment that God did that, suddenly there was no place where God was not, and just as suddenly, we were no longer lost.

God sent His only beloved Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it, to gather all the world into her outstretched, bleeding arms, and to crush hell underfoot.

One of the participants in the RTP shared an image she associated with this text: a picture in her grandmother’s house of people on the brink of a long, dark chasm, teetering on the edge. That’s so often how we imagine what right living looks like: striving to keep one’s balance out of terror of what happens when one falls.

“Purgatory chasm,” by Dale E. Martin.

It would be so easy to spend our time with this parable trying to stare down the long, deep darkness of the chasm and brainstorm how not to fall in, because it is always easy to make parables about us, but the very voice that speaks it invites us to take one step farther out.  And when we do, when we listen to the voice of our Redeemer, we realize that the chasm is no more than a chink in the wood of the cross.

We profess every week that Christ descended to the dead, and if we accept that as true, if we take that seriously, then it is also true that the chasm is gone, because there is no place where God is not, and no power that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

“Resurrection of Christ and the Harrowing of Hell,” unknown artist, 1550s.

Don’t get me wrong–we still need to hear parables like the rich man and Lazarus, and struggle with them.  We need to be reminded about what is pleasing to God, and how often we fall short.  We need to hear that the poor in spirit are blessed and the rich will be sent away empty, we need to hear that the first will be last and the last will be first.  And we don’t need to hear it merely for the sake of Lazarus and his kin. The Spirit is calling us through the scripture to be shaped by God’s astounding and eternal preference for the poor, the sick, and the abandoned, because it is in relationship with each other, and ESPECIALLY in relationship with the other, that we encounter Christ.

But first we need to hear that Christ’s love filled that chasm that separates us from God long ago. We need to be reminded that we have been claimed through the power of the Holy Spirit and sealed with the cross of Christ forever.

We need to hear, each one of us, that there is nothing, nothing, nothing that can separate you from the love of God; not your past mistakes, not your skin color or gender or the people you love.  And if anyone told you different, if anyone threatened you with a chasm, if anyone told you that you were beyond forgiveness and restoration, beyond the deep and wild love of God….then that was a lie.

And the difference between the lie of teetering on the chasm and the truth of being freed in Christ can make the difference in a life of faith between someone turning their back on the dangerous world or turning to face the deep need of a groaning creation, and stepping out with bold faith to be God’s hands and feet in this world.

Brothers and sisters, this is your blessed assurance: you have been claimed by Christ, freed for service, and called to love.

I hope you go out today sure in that knowledge, so that you can lean boldly into that gift of faith and be opened to the amazing work that God is doing through your hands.




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