Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Crossing the Chasm

Bible readings for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost include Amos 6:1a, 4-7; I Timothy 6:6-19; and Luke 16:19-31

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

That’s an odd way for a parable to end, in a religion that is known for its central claim that Jesus Christ rose from his grave. If we didn’t know better, we might think that St. Luke does not find the resurrection the single most compelling feature of Christianity.

But that’s not what we’re hearing. We’re hearing how hard it is to get the full attention of a cohort of people who are swept up in what the prophet Amos calls “the revelry of the loungers.” The rich, that is, who sing idle songs, anoint themselves with the finest oils, lounge on their couches, but do not care that the country is in ruins, and whole communities of people suffering from want of basic necessities.

It is very hard to get the full attention of the wealthy. They have people who do their bidding and insulate them from the workaday world. St. Paul, writing to Timothy, knows this crowd. Not just those who are rich, but “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

Trapped, says Paul. We all know that the poor get trapped. Miners in Chile get trapped when mine owners don’t care about safety precautions. Villagers in Pakistan get trapped when landowners don’t care if diverting floodwaters this way or that way sends water into this village or that one. America’s working poor and unemployed get trapped when our society has no finer gospel to preach than “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!”

It’s very hard to get the full attention of the well-to-do. And, to keep us from thinking that all those scripture lessons today are talking to someone other than us, let’s admit that it’s hard to pay attention to God when we’re feeling at ease in Zion and secure on Mount Samaria, however those phrases translate in our lives: Hard to pay attention to God when we’re undisturbed in the Purple Bubble of this quiet valley. Difficult to hear the divine voice when every moment of the waking day is scheduled and accounted for. Downright challenging to respond to God when one portion of ourselves is drugged and sated and all tucked into satisfaction with life, leaving available only our randomly jangling dissatisfied nerve endings to be attentive to the world, and to be coaxed into prayer.

I mean to suggest that we find some sympathy for the rich man in Jesus’s parable. We may be related to him.

He has lived his lifetime without giving his best to the world around him, without giving his best to God, and without giving his best to the many Lazaruses at his door. What this rich man called best he kept for himself, to himself.

Until he died, and there was no more keeping.

But isn’t it rather wonderful that, by the terms of Jesus’s parable, after death there is still more learning to do? I don’t believe that was the majority view in the religion of Israel, where the prevailing belief is summed up in Psalm 88:

“Do you work wonders for the dead? Will those who have died stand up and give you thanks? Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave? Your faithfulness in the land of destruction? Will your wonders be known in the dark? Or your righteousness in the country where all is forgotten?”

No, is the implied answer. So God must meet us in this life to set right what is wrong.

And God does that. Disguised, often, as Lazarus. Or coal miners in Chile. Or displaced villagers in Pakistan. Or our own neighbors in need of transitional assistance (at a time when we’re shutting down offices of transitional assistance because, well, other things matter more).

By the terms of this stunning parable, God doesn’t give up on us when we die. If you’re Lazarus, that’s good news: you discover that the heart of God is not what you’d feared from the inequities of daily life. You learn that there is a place set for you at God’s table, and you’re seated there, not on the floor beneath.

But if you’re the rich man, you might wish that learning did stop at the grave. You discover that abundance doesn’t pass through the eye of the needle with you. In fact, you discover that what filled you in your lifetime wasn’t real and lasting abundance after all. It was stuff, and your primary relationship to stuff, consumption, has fitted you not to be carried away by angels but to sink into the realm of consumption, Hades.

That there is torment there suggests that a lifetime characterized by consuming stuff prepares us to become stuff to be consumed. That’s a dramatic way to say that human beings have a higher calling.

St. Paul describes that calling twice in his letter today. First, “Pursue right standing with God, reach for faith, demonstrate love, practice endurance, show gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession…”

And later he describes the calling again: “Do not be haughty. Do not set your hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment… Do good… be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up the treasure of a good foundation for the future, taking hold of the life that really is life.”

Last Sunday, a portion of Luke’s Gospel prepared us to see a sharp distinction between the children of this age and the children of light. Different values distinguish them. Children of this age are known for keeping. Children of light are known for giving.

Their values create a firewall between the two cohorts, and it’s nowhere described more forcefully than in that verse today, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed…”, fixed by how lives have been lived.

In the after-death scene in our parable, that chasm cannot be crossed. Such bleak language is meant to drive home the message that in life, on this side of death, the deep gulf created out of conflicting values can be crossed, by choice; must be crossed, from keeping to giving, if we are to take hold of the life that really is life.

That such a simple basic lesson needs driving home by the prophet Amos, the apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus Christ must go to show that it’s hard to get the full attention of the children of this age. And, truth be told, it’s hard to keep the full attention of the children of light.

What is required is that we pay attention to the world, where God is at work approaching the rich through the poor, and—when we have truly listened to Moses and the prophets and Jesus and Paul—God then works through what is rich within us, freed so we may give our best.