March 26, 2017/ Lent 4: Narrative // First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Crossing Chasms”: excerpts “Staying Awake Through a Great Revolution” by MLK Jr.; Luke 16:19-31


We knew a Lazarus, in one of my previous churches. Only our Lazarus grew up in a Hungarian family and liked to cook chicken paprikash. And our Lazarus, by some grace of God, didn’t stay out at the gate. He came inside. I’m going to call him George today.[1] George had known homelessness. George knew how hard it was to find a safe place to sleep outside at night in Northeast Ohio. We met first at our church’s food pantry – first as a volunteer, then as a part-time paid employee. And to this day, I still smile every time I see him, in memory, patrolling the grand atrium of that still-proud downtown church, causing no small consternation for the funeral home directors trying to guide well-heeled guests to fancy and formal memorials up the stairs. Our church’s relationship with George wasn’t easy. He could really rage, especially if he suspected someone was working the system to an unfair advantage. And he did sometimes disappear for weeks at a time on an alcoholic bender. (George certainly caused his share of administrative headaches for me, as we tried to navigate good boundaries that honored him and respected other people’s needs.) But George’s presence – the whole mixed bag – was a gift to us – especially to a church trying to find its new story on the town square. George knew firsthand how to navigate the social services available in the county. We depended on his knowledge, his perspective, his understanding of what life was like for those who, like the Lazarus of our parable, sit invisible and hungry at the gates in this world, while the rich feast. And when George died, eventually, of liver failure, he left a hole. We missed him, a lot. George bridged the chasm that we allow to become fixed between the poor and the rich in this world. We knew George. And he reminded us, daily: You know Lazarus. (Pause)


We know Lazarus. That is the first uncomfortable truth of this parable that Jesus tells in our story today. Jesus names him, the only character named in any of his parables. Everyone one else is a lawyer or a landowner or a shepherd or a widow or a sower or a judge… but this sick, starving poor man is Lazarus. He has a name. I suspect Jesus names him in part to implicate his audience, to implicate us. We know by now to expect, if Jesus is telling a parable, that we’ll get knocked back on our heels somehow, we’ll feel like one of those lugers in an Altoids commercial about curiously strong peppermints that leave us wind-swept and mind-blown. Jesus does it again today. The parable begins naturally enough with some generic “rich man…” Amy-Jill Levine is inclined to think Lazarus’ name comes from Jesus, in part because it means “God saves.” For Lazarus, this is true, ironically because the rich man sure isn’t doing what all the law and the prophets say he should: helping the poor at his gate, literally. The other reason Levine thinks Lazarus’ name wasn’t added on later is because of how it forces us to notice this man at the gate: “He is not just ‘some guy’; He is Lazarus.”[2] There is more here to discomfort us, of course. There’s the grotesque contrast between a man who feasts, daily, like a king, and another man at his gate so sick the dogs lick his oozing sores. There is also, in the end, this disturbing reversal which finds the wealthy man suffering in flames for eternity while Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham (the NRSV daintily sanitizes the intimacy of the original Greek) for no named vice or virtue other than that he suffered in life and the rich man feasted. There is nothing there to tell us that Lazarus was one of the “good” poor guys. There’s nothing in there to tell us Lazarus was one of the kind and respectful homeless, not one of the ones who peed all you’re your flower bed. There is nothing in there about his character at all, only that now the tables are turned. Then, there is the maddening persistence of the rich man who even in hell thinks Lazarus is some slave he can send hither and yon. Abraham says, “No. A great chasm has been fixed between us, and both fates are permanent.” Abraham tells the rich man his brothers have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them. “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they listen even if someone rises from the dead.” What are we to do with this strange, uncomfortable parable?


What are we to do with this parable? Celebrate that a rich man suffers torment for eternity? How strange would that be? How heartless? Should we grouse and argue with God that a poor sick man gets to rest in Abraham’s bosom for eternity having no virtue other than his poverty? Should we celebrate that? What are we to do with this irritating little parable? (Pause)


It’s this parable that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., references in the sermon that includes that much-better known quote you heard just now: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an escapable network of mutuality… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be…”[3] That powerful passage comes from a sermon in which King interprets this parable. He helps us a little bit, telling his audience it’s not that the rich man went to hell just because he was rich. King says,

“a conversation took place between heaven and hell and on the other end of that long-distance call between heaven and hell was Abraham in heaven talking to Dives in hell.

Now, Abraham was a very rich man… the richest man of his day, so it was not a rich man in hell talking with a poor man in heaven, it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity… to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother, Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible.”[4]

In the end, what the rich man asks Lazarus to do for his brothers this parable does for us.[5] It warns us. We are the brothers – and the sisters. We are the rich man’s relatives, and we have the law and the prophets. We even have someone who rose from the dead. (Pause)


I’d love to spiritualize this parable, to make it about anything other than wealth and the chasms that it creates between us. But the preacher King and Jesus won’t let me. The gap between the extremely wealthy and the rest, the gorge between the 1 percent and the poor, stretches wider today than even in King’s day. In 1965, the average CEO made about 20 times what their average worker did. Today, that is often 300 times. There is a chasm that’s been fixed between us. Thursday night, I was walking with a friend near Lithia Park, where our kids had been playing on the playground. As we passed a real estate office down on the plaza, she talked about fantasy window shopping the properties posted in the windows there, you know, the next time one of us has a spare 350,000 dollars. And we laughed. What we would need for a down payment here in Ashland could buy a over 2,000 square foot rental house back in Akron. (In fact, I know one I could sell you if you’re interested.) A great chasm has been fixed between people in this country, and it got deeper in the Great Recession of 2008. (Pause)


Through this uncomfortable parable, Jesus says, annoyingly, “You know Lazarus.” You know great chasms have been fixed between us. We are caught up in this system. All of us are. I invite you to take a moment now to review this past week: the people you passed running errands to the grocery store, to the bank, out on a walk. Take a moment now to review this past week. See if you can visualize and remember the faces of people you passed by. Ask, when did you pass by someone who sits on the other side of that great chasm? Can you see them again this morning? Do you know their name? Because it wasn’t just that George, back at that church back in Ohio magically became our “good Lazarus” inside the gate. It was because someone who saw him at the food pantry every month struck up conversation and got to know him, learned his story. It’s because that same someone eventually approached me, telling me, “He’s working 20 hours a week as a volunteer restocking. He’s a good worker. We really need his help. Could we, as a Board of Outreach, sponsor a small part-time job?” Someone didn’t just see George. They knew him. (Pause)


In this parable this morning, Jesus insists: You know Lazarus. We are not in this world generic rich or poor people, we are human beings, each with a name. We are the five siblings of the rich man. We are people who can still cross the chasms in this world so they don’t become permanent for eternity. The question is: What chasms will we allow to become fixed, permanently, between us? Or will we listen to the law and the prophets – and for some of us in the Christian faith even the risen Christ present among us – Will we listen and can we see Lazarus?


God help us this week to cross the chasms in our world. Amen.

[1] Name has been changed.

[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, p. 278.

[3] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Staying Awake Through a Great Revolution.”

[4] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Staying Awake Through a Great Revolution.”

[5] Levine.