Conversation Across the Chasm

Sometimes it works out best for me to be in my office very early in the morning, before most of the rest of the City of Newcastle has begun the day.  If I look out of my window on those early mornings there is normally a man that I can see asleep not very far away from me.  I am not looking through his bedroom window to see him, I have to look down a few floors beneath me, because he is not in a building like I am, he sleeps in the door way to a shop on the other side of the road from the Diocesan Office.  He is there pretty much every morning when I am in my office early, it does not matter if it is raining or dry, that is where he sleeps.

Sometimes I also see him during the day when I am walking in the city.  I saw him very recently as I was out buying my lunch.  He has a thick beard, an old overcoat and only one shoe.  In my mind I have a conversation with him. I ask him about his life, and he asks me about mine.  But I have never actually spoken to him.  In an earlier part of his life he might have been a millionaire, married with children.  Perhaps he would tell me that alcohol or gambling overwhelmed his life and left him in the situation that he is in today.  Or maybe he would tell me that he became ill and lost his job and could not pay his mortgage.  I imagine this conversation in my mind but I have not got around to having it with him, so I do not really know anything about him, except for where he sleeps.

What I do know is that although there are relatively few homeless men and women in the City of Newcastle, there are millions of people living in poverty around the world, and in fact even he is relatively well off compared to some of the poorest people in other countries.

As I was reflecting on the story that Jesus told in this morning’s Gospel reading, this man was uppermost in my mind.  Jesus tells the story that we have just heard to religious people like you and me, which means that you and I need to listen to it especially carefully.

Jesus has been teaching the religious people that God looks beyond all of the exterior, the pomp and the show, the wealth and the religiosity and knows each one of us not according to how we justify ourselves to others, but according to our hearts.  He tells the story that we have just heard to illustrate this point.  In the story that Jesus tells Lazarus lays outside of the gate of the home of a rich man,  just like that man who lays across the road from my office.  Lazarus (the poor man) longs to be able to run over and collect up the scraps that are thrown out in the rubbish from the rich man who has much more than he needs.  But when he tries to do so the dogs lick the sores on his body, so instead he curls up to protect himself from them.  In all of this the rich man probably does not even notice that Lazarus exists.

Most of us have probably never sat on the pavement whilst other people walk past.  It took me a while to work it out, but when I have had conversations with people who spend their day sitting on the side of the road, those conversations have only actually become real when I have sat down on the pavement next to them.  One of the things that has struck me when I have done that – and I guess this is obvious but it had not occurred to me until I did it – is that the world looks very different when you are sitting down on the ground and everyone else is standing up.  As people walk by you see their knees, not their faces, and it does not take long to become a ‘nobody’ as the world passes you by.

Try to imagine for a moment these two men.  One in fine robes, having lavish banquets, the other sitting by his gate in poverty.  One given value by the society in which he lived, the other unnoticed and irrelevant.   It could be the story of me and the man who sleeps across from my office.  It could be the story of all of us as we walk past those on the margins of our local communities.

In the story, when poor Lazarus dies he is taken up to be with God, and there he finds that he is a second-class citizen no longer.  In God’s presence his hunger and his sores are gone, he is worthy to be comforted in the very bosom of Abraham the great hero of his faith.  The rich man dies as well, but he goes to another place where, whatever other torments he endures, he has to live with the reality that he is not in the presence of God.  All of the wealth that he has possessed, all of the standing that he has had in society are worth nothing now.  For the first time in his life he finds that he is not in the centre of all that is going on.  And so in the story he calls out across the great chasm that separates him from where Lazarus is, and he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to help him.  But when that request is denied, he asks Abraham instead to send Lazarus to his brothers, so that they might be warned to live lives which will not end in the same way.

As I hear this story I begin to imagine what it would be like if I was laying on the pavement outside that shop looking up at a man in his office, rather than looking out from my office window at a man asleep on the road side.  As I reflect on my life, and his, I wonder what this story of Jesus has to say to me this morning.

Some theologians have sought to find in this parable a blue print for what it will be like when we die.  They see in this story a literal reality that there will be a group of people who are not joined with God in the eternity of his love, and who will instead live in the torment of looking up at others who are.  I find that kind of an approach difficult to comprehend, not because it does not agree with how I understand how things are, but because it seems me to deny the reality that what Jesus is actually doing is telling a story, a parable.  He is using picture language to make a broader point, and the point is not about what will happen after we die at all, it is about how we live now.

One of the things that we will not know simply from hearing this morning’s Gospel is that the parable which Jesus tells is not his own.   The story which Jesus is telling – about how the fortunes of the rich and the poor will be reversed in the after life – would have already been familiar to the people who were listening to him, because it was told widely in Jesus’ day.  But when Jesus tells his version of the story there is a twist in it, which would have shocked the religious people who were listening to him.  In the more common version of the story told in Jesus’ day (the one which would have been familiar to those who are listening to him) the rich man pleads for a messenger to be sent to warn his family, and a messenger is sent so that his family members can change their ways and escape the torment which the rich man is facing.  But when Jesus tells the story the rich man’s request is denied, because for all the torment that he is experiencing there is one vital lesson that he has not learnt.

In both of his requests, firstly for Lazarus to be sent to help him, and secondly for Lazarus to be sent to his brothers he has failed to comprehend that God sees Lazarus very differently from how the world has seen him.  Lazarus may have been the kind of person who could have been passed by or ordered around in the society in which he lived, but the good news, the Gospel of Jesus, is that to God people like Lazarus are as precious, as loved, as valued as everybody else.  Which means that all is not as it seems now, those who appear to be on the margins in the structures of our society, are actually right in the centre of the Kingdom of God.

And yet, the irony of the story is that even in the pain of his situation, the rich man is unable to see Lazarus as anything other than a poor man who can be bossed around and told what to do by someone else.  The rich man understands that he is separated from where he wants to be, but he thinks that the solution is to continue to try to hold on to his status, and to treat Lazarus as someone who can simply be ordered to do things, and in so doing he misses the fact that in God’s eyes Lazarus is not less important because of his poverty at all.

Which is why the punch line of Jesus’ version of the story points to the heart of all that Jesus has been teaching.  It would not matter if someone rose from the dead to warn the rich man’s brothers about what could happen to them, if they remained blinded by the idea that the way to the presence of God is through prestige and power.  For the First Christians, who re-counted this story as they gathered together after Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension, the reality that Jesus had done exactly that, and still the religious people had not understood the good news that he had brought, would have been painfully clear for them.

At the heart of the vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission, which we are growing in to here in this parish, led by Father Glen and the Parish Ministry Team, is our awareness of God’s call to each one of us to share with him in pointing to the values of the Kingdom of God as we find them in the life and teaching of Jesus.  The primary task of our Parish Ministry Team is to help us to re-connect with the local community around us – rich and poor alike – and to make local mission (mission within our neighbourhoods) our first priority.

I do not think that I am alone in finding that task of local mission hard work.  I am more comfortable sharing what God has done for me with people who I will never meet again.  I am more threatened when I am called to do that with the people who live next door to me, and who have the opportunity to observe me every day – when I want to be observed and when I do not want to be on public show.

And yet this Church building stands as a sign for the wider community that there can be another way to live, and each one of us who are the Body of Christ are signs of what that can mean in practice, when we live as if we see the people around us just as God sees them.  That is why we gather here week by week, to be supported and cared for, to find strength in each other as we grow together, to become more confident in sharing this good news with others.  That is why we have a Parish Ministry Team in place here, to lead us intentionally, to help us to be focused on local mission, to ensure that we remain single-minded in our work.  That is why we celebrate this Eucharist here together this morning, around God’s altar of love, so that we may be so filled by the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, that we will have the boldness and strength to live out our baptismal calling to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.

We rejoice this morning, with the story of Lazarus and the rich man in our hearts, that God has called us to share with him in making this good news known to our neighbours and friends, confident that he is with us in this task.