A sermon for Year C Proper 21, September 25, 2022
I remember the first time I stumbled across a ha-ha – almost literally!
A ha-ha is a deep and broad ditch with a wall at the bottom, creating a boundary in a park or garden – think grand country estate – that is invisible from a distance. Your eye skips over to the gap in the green grass so that it doesn’t interrupt the view from the great house, and only becomes obvious when you walk right up to the edge, but it is quite effective in keeping out deer and other riffraff. The name – “ha-ha” – comes from the surprise that it elicits from the one who stumbles into it.
In Jesus’ story, Abraham is given to say, “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed”.
This, unusually for Jesus, is not a parable but a straight up moral fable: a rich man ignores the poor man at his gate at his own eternal peril. The rich man had either never read Moses and the prophets, or he thought that the warnings we heard from Amos this morning simply didn’t apply to him. There are always those who believe themselves to be exempt from the usual consequences of their decisions and character. This rich man continues in his self-deception even after death. He attempts to recruit Lazarus as a servant, believing himself even now to be sufficiently superior to make demands even of Abraham.
The chasm that has opened up between the rich man and Lazarus was long in the making, and yet he didn’t see it coming. As patient as a glacier, Lazarus sat at the gate awaiting mercy, while the rich man accrued deposits and encrusted himself with accoutrements, until they were as distantly separated from one another’s experience as the estuary is from the mountaintop. It is, in a true sense, a tragedy.
As with any good fable, there is a multitude of applications that we could make of this morality play to our own lives and times.
At a global level, we could talk about the hunger of rich nations for more and more power and influence, consumption and growth, while others far and all too near pay the price with the symptoms of climate change: flooding and fire, the sores left on our planet by an impoverished diet stripped of green leafy forests and inadequate shelter from the ozone layer. Do we notice the suffering of Pakistan and Puerto Rico, or continue to pride ourselves on our own fragile and temporary comfort?
At a national level, we might talk about the chasm between those who consider themselves well insulated from disease, disaster, disability, gun violence, injustice, inequity, and those who carry the open wounds of grief, trauma, and the reprehensible poverty of Lazarus in the country of the rich man.
We could look at ourselves, church, and wonder whether we are doing enough to create relationships with those neighbours who are right on our doorstep.
All of this before we even get to the individual considerations of whether we, like the rich man, are isolating ourselves by our selfishness from those whom God has given us as neighbours, or whether we with Lazarus need the comfort of the angels and the promise of Abraham’s eventual embrace.
But the piece of the story that sticks to me like a burr is that chasm, how long it has been in the making, how deep and broad it has become, so that even Abraham no longer sees any way to bridge it. Like a ha-ha, the rich man doesn’t even see it until he is right up against it.
We read this story with a sense of dramatic irony. Jesus’ original audience, upon hearing the line, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead,'” did not know what Jesus was about to do, to accomplish on the cross, in the harrowing of hell, and by his resurrection. They had no idea how astounded the world would be by the telling of his new beginning, how the gospel would girdle the earth and cross unimaginable chasms of culture and time to bring us here, against the odds, to celebrate the one who was raised from the dead, who brought new life to the living and hope to depths of despair.
There is no chasm that Christ cannot cross.
In this I am of a mind with Paul, convinced that nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). There is no chasm that Christ cannot and has not crossed for us.
However, we can divide ourselves from one another pretty effectively, and in doing so create hell on earth for some. Will we build a ha-ha, gazing past the chasm, letting nothing spoil our view, or will we practise seeing Christ in all people, as our baptismal covenant puts it?
We see the choice starkly, on the news, in the decisions that are made on our behalf whether to isolate and separate and put away those who come to this country for help, or whether to embrace the stranger and relieve the refugee. Will we dig a chasm or build a bridge?
We make the choice each time a stranger presents themselves, perhaps with their hand out, or with their handmade cardboard signs; whether or not we have anything material to help them with, we make the choice whether to see them, whether to see them as siblings, as beloved children of God worthy and in need of a blessing, or whether to pretend not to notice them at all.
We make the choice each time we notice the old and new gashes and scars that racism, sexism, plain selfishness, all kinds of hurts and harms have opened up between us; each time we choose to repent, to return, to ask forgiveness.
Our Collect for today praises God for declaring power in showing mercy and pity, the treasures of heaven. The richness of grace, of mercy, is that which denies the economy of separation and defines the boundaries of God’s love, which is limitless. It shows us the way to fill in the ditches and bring down the fences and level the stumbling places between us, by following in the footsteps of Christ, who has harrowed hell to be with us and to call us into new life with him. There is no chasm that love cannot cross.