Friday, September 28, 2007

Red Dirt Ramblings: The Great Chasm

Lectionary Inspiration from Cameroon

Week of September 30 -- The Great Chasm

Luke 16:19-31

Apologies to any preachers who may have visited this blog earlier this week desperately looking for sermon inspiration. My trip to the Southwest kept me away from the computer until today …

19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He 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.’ 25But 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. 26Besides 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.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He 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 first time I really wrestled with the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus was during a short-term mission trip to Zimbabwe. Our team spent the days working at an orphanage in Old Mutare. We held a devotional every night before bed, and this story was the text one evening.

I remember coming to the troubling conclusion that I was the rich man in the story. Not Lazarus, the poor beggar who ends up in heaven, but the rich man who ends up … elsewhere!

It dawned on me that, as an American, I am enormously privileged. I am rich! I have access to opportunities that simply don’t exist to millions of the world’s peoples!

I can’t easily escape this fact these days, especially since I can look out my back window and see the shanty-like dwellings of poor families dotting the hillsides and valley below.

When I drive through the middle of Yaounde, small children lead their blind or handicapped parents to my car window at the intersection near the supermarket, tapping on the window with a small plastic cup. A few men with shriveled legs paddle their way down the median on small, crude skateboards.

If Mr. Djibril is driving the car for me, he rolls the window down and shoos them away, complaining under his breath about the “foreigners from Niger.”

However, when I’m driving alone, often I will open my window and press some francs into their hands. I know that these gifts are small, insignificant, and easily forgotten. They don’t even qualify as “sacrificial giving.”

But do they make me better than that rich man in Jesus’ story, the man who wouldn't even feed Lazarus with the scraps from his table? Seriously … I want to be “better” than him!

When the rich man tries to do something to redeem his selfishness and greed, he is told by Abraham that there is a “great chasm” fixed between him and Lazarus now. No one can cross over from one side to the other.

The truth is that, even on earth, there is a great chasm; it doesn’t only separate heaven and hell. It’s fixed between the rich and poor. It’s fixed between the first and third worlds, the developed and the developing countries. It’s fixed between the educated, technologically literate and the undereducated, technologically disadvantaged.

And it is difficult to cross. Custom, tradition, language, self-complacency and apathy make it difficult for anyone to want to cross from one side to the other.

But it is possible. On this side of death, it is not impossible to go from one side to the other. It is not impossible to renounce one’s greed and luxury and step over into the shoes of the poor. It is not impossible to make the change, to try to put one’s self into the place of the disadvantaged.

It is possible to listen to the poor, to make a commitment to shifting one’s attention, to change one’s values.

No, giving alms is not the same as crossing the chasm. It is a small act of kindness, but it is simply not the same. Handing out coins at the traffic stop is probably no better than the rich man’s desperate plea to be allowed out of heaven in order to warn his brothers.

The greater challenge is to figure out how to get across that gaping abyss, the chasm between poverty and luxury … before it is too late.