A Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost
One of my responsibilities growing up was mowing the lawn at my house. I grew up in a suburb of Seattle, Washington and lived on one of those streets with house after house after house. There wasn’t much room between the two houses that stood on either side of mine. It was easy enough to mow the backyard, which had a fence and so I knew the boundaries. The front yard was also pretty easy. It was the sides of the house where I had trouble. You see, my parents told me not to mow the entire divide between our house and the neighbors house. They’ll do it, the said. It’s their job. And so on either side of our house I mowed half of the divide, and waited for the neighbors to do theirs. Now, my neighbors were nice people, good people, but they had one problem. Neither one of them liked to mow their lawns! And so, as the weeks went by and our part of the divide stayed low, theirs grew high with grass and weeds. Don’t mow it, my parents reminded me. It was almost like they were trying to teach the neighbors a lesson.
We humans like to divide things up, don’t we? This is my part of the lawn, this is yours. This is what I do, this is what you do. I work hard, you should work hard, too. I take care of myself, you should take care of yourself. This is my part of the world, it belongs to me, and this is yours. It makes it clearer to us, doesn’t it, when we know where we stand. This is my land, not yours. This is my country, not yours. This is my life, not yours. We like our walls. We like everything to be in its place, and we think we are right to divide the world in this way, that we are ‘right’ and ‘they’ are ‘wrong,’ that this is the way it always has been so this is the way it always should be.
This is very clear in our parable from Luke this morning. There was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered in 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. From the opening of this parable we see the distance between these two men. We see the walls that have been built. We see the chasm that is before them. And we know this story. We know how it ends. The rich man dies, goes to the afterlife, and is in torment.
Now, if you read this passage you might think that this is about going to heaven or hell. But it goes deeper than that. This is a story about a rich man who finally, at the very end, realizes what’s gone wrong. He realizes his mistake. He sees that it’s too late to change his ways. What is interesting to me here is that even after death, he doesn’t seem to get it. He still is concerned with himself and with his own needs. He begs Lazarus to help him, to bring him cool water to cool his tongue. Realizing his mistake, he wants Lazarus, also, to go to his family to warn them to change their ways too, before it is too late.
It seems that in the afterlife, just as in his own life, he is more concerned with himself than with those around him. He is so focused on himself that Abraham tells him, there is a great chasm between him and Lazarus. This gate, this wall that was built up on earth is still here with him, still built up in his heart and in his mind. And while the rich man had so many chances to break down the walls in his life, to change his ways, to break the division that surrounds him, now it is too late. There are no more chances. It’s a difficult parable to hear because there’s not much to explain. Many of the parables we read have to do with repentance, with turning ourselves around. There is no sugar coating in this parable. This is the message Jesus comes to give us: turn now. Live a different life, now. Because someday, it will be too late. And between you and me I don’t always know if there’s a heaven or a hell, but I know that today, right now, I can make a difference in the life of another. I can change my ways. It’s never too late for that.
What are the walls you have built up in your own life? I’ve been thinking about how easily we say that we ourselves are right, and others are wrong. It’s like that conversation you have at home with your spouse after a long day at work. You talk about so-and-so at the office, how they did such-and-such, and you bring it up so often that you might begin to think that they’re truly is something wrong with that person. They’re so frustrating! Irritating! What’s their deal? We begin to separate ourselves from them, to build a wall against them without realizing it, with forgetting that they too are a human being just trying to make a living, just trying to get through their day without something awful happening. And we never know what someone is dealing with, can we? What someone is living through? It is these opportunities for compassion that this parable is speaking about. How can you extend compassion into the lives of those around you? How can you say, “I see you, I hear you,” when what you really want to say is, “just do it my way and everything will be fine!”
We are confronted these days with many opportunities to break down walls. There are the walls of society that we’ve built up: racial walls, economic walls, moral walls. It is so easy to judge one another. It’s much harder to welcome one another and say, “we’re in this together.” After all, why was Lazarus at the gate to begin with? He knew that the rich man had the resources to help him, and he waited, longing for help. And the rich man did nothing. Do you notice how, in this parable, the rich man is never named? Lazarus is named, we know who he is, but the rich man could be me, it could be you. In fact, it is us, when we judge our neighbor, when we judge those around us, when we say we’ve got it all figured out and they don’t, when we see those in pain and do nothing, when we are so comfortable with our comfort that we fail to see how our world is built to keep some of us up, and many of us low. We are the rich man when we forget that in God’s World there is no rich or poor, there is only a world where all have what they need.
It’s Matthew 25: Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? He answered them: Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. The least of these are all around us, and those gates that separate us, those walls we’ve built, that chasm between us… now is the time to tear it down. Now is the time. Before it is too late. We are the hands and feet of Jesus today, not tomorrow. This is our chance, it isn’t politics, it personal. It’s about doing what is right because it is right, not because we hope to get something out of it. It’s life lived in God’s World: where there are no divisions. Where you mow your neighbors lawn, too.
I don’t know what walls you’ve built in your life, only you know that. But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, when we see others for who they are: children of God, created, like us, in the image of God, then I see those walls tumbling down. And breaking down these walls might not happen overnight, I get that. But they happen brick by brick. By the little things we do each day to change the world around us. By the things we do that reach out to the least of these. One way we do this is by relying on God’s grace and love, by extending it to ourselves so that we can extend it to others. Realizing that we are a part of a world that wants to bring people low, that wants people to keep their guards up, their walls strong, their gates locked. Being a part of God’s world means opening the gates and making it possible for God’s love to be among us, among all of us. This is the work we are called to do, this is why we come to church each week, hearing the good news which is this: It’s not just for you. It’s for all of us. It’s love that belongs to all of us. And if there are things around us, systems and policies and group think that don’t work, that don’t let God in, then maybe it’s time to change what is around us. Maybe it is time to do the work of Matthew 25 and to see that we are all the least of these, in some way.
We all have needs, we all have something that needs healing. So we are in this together, we are not us against them, one side of the gate against another. We are one spirit, one body, one family in Christ. We are meant for so much more than what we see on the evening news. How will you be the change you want to see in the world this day? Think about it, really get clear on how your life will work from here on out. Because, like this parable teaches us, someday it will be too late, and we will have had our last chance. It’s hard to leave a sermon on such a heavy note, but it’s true. What can you do? What will you do? Those are big questions that God calls us to wrestle with today.