The following is a sermon by the Rev. Lisa Anderson and can be found in the publication Women Shall Preach (available through the Cumberland Presbyterian Denominational Center). Lisa was the 184th Moderator of the General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. She also serves as pastor of Colonial Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN, leads the Memphis faction of Room in the Inn, and dedicated many years to St. Jude Children’s Hospital as a chaplain.
The Space Between Us
By Rev. Lisa Anderson
The Scripture: The Message – Luke 16:19-31
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19-21 “There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man name Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who cam and licked his sores.
22-24 “The he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’
25-26 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’
27-28 “The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warm them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’
29”Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’
30 “‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’
31 “Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.’” (From The Message Luke 16:19-31)
The Sermon – The Space Between Us
By Rev. Lisa Anderson
I was privileged to work as a chaplain in hospitals for 20 years of my ministry. In one of my first experiences as a companion to children who were dying at a local pediatric hospital I realized that whether I wanted it or not I was forever changed by the experience. I was keeping vigil with a family in the ICU one day. I walked to the window to glance outside of the dreadful suffering I found myself to be part of for just a moment. Out that window was a major interstate packed with automobiles and trucks on their way somewhere very quickly. I thought to myself, they have no idea what’s happening in this room and I used to be them but once you know suffering exists in such graphic ways you can never stop knowing it.
In another ministry setting I met a homeless women, her name was Gwen. She was a devout Christian, a gentle soul who came to our church to experience hospitality through food, clothing, a hot shower and a safe place to sleep. As I got to know her she would share more and more about her story and most of all about her relationship with Jesus. She always had her Bible with her and told me it was the only possession of the very few she had that she cared about. Gwen stayed with us at the church once a week for 5 months. Shortly after our Room in the Inn ministry stopped Gwen was murdered downtown on the steps of a church. She had told me that she would most often sleep on the porches of churches because it made her feel safe. I can imagine the busy flow of traffic on work days and on Sundays that passed Gwen without even seeing her yet she was there, clinging to her Bible and hoping that at some point the church doors would be open to her to easier her burdens. Yet she died on the outside, just within reach of the sanctuary protected by locked doors. Once again I had an experience that would change my life because once I knew Gwen and her tragic story I could never stop knowing it.
The story Jesus told to his followers in this passage has roots in a folk tale that seems to have its roots in North Africa and through that great oral tradition found its way into Egypt and into the villages where Jesus was teaching. The church that Luke was writing to would have been familiar with at least the gist of the story.
The description of the two main characters are very familiar to us today: The rich man lived in a gated community and wore the regal garb of a fortune 500 company, he lived the life of a person of wealth and privilege that gave him no time for even seeing the needs around him. The description of Lazarus is just as clear but oh my . . . we experience it more graphically. Starvation, sores soothed by the tongues of dogs . . . and now we are turning our heads away from the graphic suffering too.
These two guys never interact with each other which is the point this story makes about the enormous chasm crated by their economic differences. They were separated not by their location, not by their humanity and not even by their religion. What kept them from having a relationship was their place in the economic structure of society.
Somewhere in the sharing of this Jesus teaching Lazarus gets a name and the rich man just remains nameless, which is another way of helping us to understand that for Jesus, the poor are ALWAYS more real than those who do not see them. Lazarus looked longingly at this man, seeing that he has the ability to ease his suffering. The rich man never sees Lazarus . . . which is his ultimate sinful undoing, it lands him in a painful reality of his own.
The two men die and even in death they continue to be separated by this gap that cannot be filled at this point. It is interesting to me that after they die the descriptions of the two are reversed. We get a small sketch of where Lazarus is and how things have turned out for him but we receive great detail of the suffering of the rich man . . . unquenchable thirst, torment, agony. And now we want to turn away from him.
The emphasis on the story continues to be helping us to see what it is that brings about suffering, both in our immediate life and our spiritual condition.
Even in this after life misery the rich man cannot separate himself from worry about the very things that landed him in a pit of suffering. His wealth has isolated him in his earthly life and now even though he has a story to tell, it is for the most part still focused in a selfish way. His concern is focused in a narrow way on the members of his own family and on preserving for them a way of life that he could not give up.
Just let Lazarus go tell them, how could they not listen to a man who has come back from the dead. Well the answer is the same as it was for the rich man himself. They would never see him, in their world of wealth and privileged status Lazarus would still be invisible, eternity did not make him wealthy so his message would be no more heeded than the message of Moses and the prophets which clearly inform God’s people that we are instructed by the Creator of the universe to give preference to those who have less than we have.
So here is the scandal for today. God is biased toward the poor and in a society of injustice and preference toward greed and wealth we must ignore that to continue on our way and in our life of comfort. Who do we believe about the realities around us?
We believe stories of poor people taking advantage of the system, we believe stories that it’s the poor people who have made the system corrupt and broken, we believe stories that our help will only make the problem worse. We follow examples of charity that never builds relationship and structure that does not offer healing. So maybe if someone could just come back from the dead and explain it to us. Well I don’t want my friend Gwen to ever have to come back here and I believe t hat would be the reason for keeping Lazarus safe in the bosom of Abraham for God also.
But WE are the people of that very story. The tellers of the story of a God person, Jesus of Nazareth, who showed preference to the poor, the lonely, the sick and the oppressed and yet we are still waiting for that God person to rise from the dead as an avenger and warrior. We are often as deaf to the realities as those who have not heard. Thanks be to God we have a chance on this side of eternity to get it right and to bridge a gap between us and those who suffer because it is what God calls us to do.