Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
We are invited in to the fullness of God. We no longer need to take only crumbs.
A few weeks ago, Rev. Jeanette and I went to a learning event put on by the conference, where the speaker was Diana Butler Bass. You may be familiar with her work through the book study on gratitude the church participated in last year. Diana talked throughout the weekend on gratitude, especially in light of the things going on in the United Methodist Church right now, the restructuring and re-evaluations taking place. She taught us the immense opportunity we as a church have now, as a denomination, to restructure in a way that models Jesus.
Diana kept talking about this thing called the pyramid of hierarchy. We’ve all seen this pyramid in some way. The most powerful people or structures are at the top of the pyramid, and it goes down historically, where the further down the pyramid you go, the more people are at each level, and the less power they have in that structure.
We operate in this top down structure right now. The church in our minds might take the top spot, with a trickle-down effect of what comes below it. Or maybe if we think of the church itself as a pyramid, we’d see bishops at the top, then District Superintendents, then pastors, and down the line until the bottom, which maybe would be the non-churched.
This is a problem. This is an inherent problem about the way we are structured. The way we came into this church pyramid structure is not something we chose, but what was given to us when we entered it.
Diana challenged us to remember the ways that status and power are honestly pointless and incredibly harmful in the structures we operate under in the church. She asked us to think about Jesus, and his response to marginalized people, people who we may see at the bottom of the pyramid.
This story is a perfect example. Jesus tells of the rich man, who finds himself on top structurally, needing nothing, and also giving nothing to those below him. Then we have Lazarus in exactly the opposite boat. Lazarus would be found at the bottom of that pyramid of hierarchy, likely surrounded by many like him in terms of status. We learn, that after their lives are over on earth, it really didn’t matter what they had. It didn’t matter where on the pyramid they stood. Rather, what made a difference is who they saw and whose worthiness they did or did not recognize.
Jesus could not have cared less about who brought the biggest piece of bread to the dinner table, because Jesus already prepared more than enough for everyone.
All throughout the book of Luke, the author’s themes have been all about wealth, about the truths of money, and about the ways Jesus came to mix things up, as if to say, ‘This isn’t how it has to be. There’s another way’.
The gate described in the beginning of the passage represents a sort of chasm, a canyon-like divide of sorts. We learn here that this chasm wasn’t put here by Lazarus, or by God, or by anyone or anything other than the rich man himself, or rather the structures he operated within. The rich man’s chasm was one of separation, one of division, and even though the rich man may have thought he was on top, the chasm also represented where his final resting place would be.
The last part of this passage continues the themes of the first parable, this time with an exchange between the rich man and Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
The rich man is pleading to Abraham to send Lazarus to his home, to warn the other family members about what happened to him when he was so concerned about status. Abraham says no, essentially saying that if they really were interested in this kingdom of heaven, they would know how they were to behave. He makes his message clear to the rich man, but the passage ends before we know what happens to the brothers, whether or not they get the message. This is where we too are left, as hearers of this story. Perhaps our fate will not be so violent or extreme, but we are left to ask the question that those in the parable had to answer too, whether we will choose to live in a top down model, seeking status, or whether we will write a different ending to the story, the one Jesus is urging us to venture on.
In this top down model we as the Christian church have engrained ourselves to believe is right, we can observe the gates being put up. Only certain people are allowed to pass through the different leveling we’ve set up, which leaves the rest, like Lazarus, left outside the gate, starving for what is perceived to be inside that gate. That has nothing to do with our ability to be welcoming or kind. Rather, it’s a structuring issue.
The truth, and the good news today, is that the kindom of God doesn’t have gates. In fact, the gates that were present before have been ripped up from the soil, torn down, and destroyed. We are invited to do the same.
We are invited as Christian people, as followers of Jesus, to no longer see one another as above or below, as in or out, but as children of God. We are invited no longer to see first or last, but as a collective group surrounding the same table as grace, a table that always has enough, and always has more room.
Doing this doesn’t require us to leave the things we love, to give up certain elements that are important to us. Rather, it means that we get to invite everyone in to those things, and we get to be invited into those things that similarly bring them life and love. Together, our community can live into the fullness of God, each one of us traveling on that same sacred ground.
I want us to practice that together. Without moving the rest of your body, I want you to move only your head and look around the room, trying to see everyone and look everyone in the eyes. See how far your neck will turn if you’re in the front, and see how far your sight allows you to look if you’re in the back or in the choir loft.
There are limits to our connectiveness, even based on this kind of silly example. Now, I want to invite you to try the exercise again, but this time, you can move your bodies. Your goal is for everyone to be able to see everyone, looking them in the eyes, nobody in the way of anyone else. Let’s try that together.
As you can see, this is a completely doable thing. We are so engrained to fit into the structures that were set in place, structures that serve a purpose certainly, but usually leave people on top or left out. Like Lazarus and the rich man, someone has to have more, and that means someone else has less. Jesus today, reminds us that there is no longer a need for top and bottom, for more or less, for haves and have nots. Because we’ve shown today, that there is a different way, a way where each of us can look each other in the eyes, surrounded by people of all kinds of difference, and we can meet one another in community.
When we are not worried about what we deserve in this lifetime, when we don’t need to see the people around us as ‘better’ or ‘worse’, we can sit among them at the same table.
That is communion.
We have been gifted the chance to grasp the fullness of God, and as a church, that should be exactly what our goal is. Allowing ourselves to let go of the hierarchy that is so often tempting, to know where we stand, that is a challenge, but one we are commissioned to strive towards.
Today, we are invited to continue that work of communion, to see each week we come here as another opportunity to commune with God and with one another, a communing that is free of status or earthly worth or power dynamics.
As we leave this place, may we work to no longer see ourselves or each other as the rich man or as Lazarus, or as anyone in between. May we always recognize our worth as children of God. And may we like Christ, do the work together to rid the bounds of Christian community, tearing down the walls to instead bring light, love, and justice to the kindom of God.
Let us pray.
God of hope and communion, we give you thanks for your word, for the challenges and the convictions you remind us to strive towards. Where our pyramids still stand, stand beside us as we work to bring them down. Remind us to instead stand among one another at your heavenly table, where we have already gained our worth. In love and peace we pray, Amen.