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Sunday, September 25, 2016 | 8:00 a.m.
Breaking the Chasms of Our World
Pastoral Resident, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 91:1–6, 14–16
I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters
to create many ripples.
This week I was riding home from work on the bus, internally grumbling about the world, asking “How long, O Lord?” After another week with multiple cases of police killing unarmed black men, after another week of listening to news cycles with trauma-inducing words from political candidates, after another week hearing examples of people who look like me refusing to believe the stories of discrimination and pain from people of color, I sat on that bus crying out to God, What has happened to us? Why is it so hard to notice the humanity in someone different from us? Why is it so hard to connect across difference?
As I sat there praying, I got distracted because I overheard a toddler near me laughing. He was sitting in a stroller giggling with his mom, looking around at all of us on the bus, and he spotted another little boy next to him in a stroller. This second little boy couldn’t speak English like the first—his family seemed to be tourists from another country—and I noticed this because the first little boy reached out to the second and asked, “High five?” The second little boy didn’t understand, but his family all turned to him and explained what was going on in their language, and then he reached out to the first boy with his hand, and they high fived. They both giggled and continued to play and laugh and respond to one another. The two families and the rest of us around them smiled and celebrated this beautiful and innocent joy. It was a brief moment of peace and hope and a breaking of boundaries that is rare in the adult world, yet so simple and pure in the world of a child. What happens to us that an assumed common humanity and connection becomes rare to us as adults? Why, when we grow up, do our different identities become boundaries of separation and mistrust? Why does this mistrust seem to only deepen our divisions instead of leading us to open our hearts and learn from one another’s stories?
Our scripture this week is another story from Luke highlighting this great divide—especially between the rich and the poor. Jesus speaks to the Pharisees and shares about a rich man dressed in fine clothing who ignored a poor man named Lazarus, who sat at the rich man’s gate everyday, looking for food, hoping for compassion and relief. Both men die, and Lazarus experiences relief and comfort and wholeness with Abraham, but the rich man goes to Hades, experiencing agony and despair. The social position of the two men reverses from the earthly world into the spiritual world, and the rich man finally gets it. He seeks redemption and wants to warn his family to change, to notice the humanity in other people like Lazarus, but it’s too late. Abraham explains, “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.”
Abraham’s declaration is not a defined prescription from God, but a comment on the social reality of the world. He names a systemic issue that impacts the decisions we make as individuals, the types of behaviors we learn from our families, our institutions, and our culture, and Abraham states that if the rich man’s family isn’t going to listen to the prophets in the Old Testament who declare justice for the oppressed, then they’re not going to listen to someone rising from the dead to warn them of God’s hope for the world.
Wow. Abraham’s words of resurrection remind us of Jesus and hit home. Clearly the rich man’s family is embedded so deep into the culture, enjoying the comforts of wealth and distaste for marginalized communities, that the signs that do exist in the world aren’t enough to wake them up. This passage hits home, because it’s so relatable. No matter who we are, our own comfort zone usually divides us from people different from ourselves. When we hear a scripture passage like this warning us of the problems with such deep chasms, it’s easy for the warnings to go in one ear and out the other because they can make us feel trapped, not knowing how to change, not knowing how to break the chasm. We might get so overwhelmed or defensive about it that we might just give up. The risk of taking an unknown and unclear step is just too much.
I relate. I too get overwhelmed by this. I hear what Jesus is saying—that the structures of inequality are grossly unjust and that we must change our life, we must notice the humanity in one another and orient our institutions to model the beloved community, reflecting justice, love, and equity. But how do we do this? How do I change my life when all I know is the world around me?
The passage in 1 Timothy gets this predicament that we face as Christians—actually doing what Jesus wants us to do. 1 Timothy warns us of the trappings and temptations of riches and material desires that plunge us into the great divide that we witness in our world and that we witness in Jesus’s story of Lazarus and the rich man. Yet 1 Timothy also provides some strategies, calling upon us to “fight the good fight of faith.” Step one: shun inequality. Can we do this? I think we can. Step two: pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. It is a lot, and it’s not always clear how to do this, but 1 Timothy doesn’t call for perfection; the call is for us to put our hope in God and try.
Over the summer I volunteered for a church seeking to break this great chasm. They’re part of the sanctuary movement, meaning they provide safe space for undocumented people trying to stay in the United States when Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) wants them to deport. The movement particularly hosts people and resists deportation when a legal case can be made that the people shouldn’t have to deport, that they are law-abiding people who love and care for their family, that they contribute positively to our country and community. How this works is that the person resisting deportation has to stay within the church 24/7 and someone also stays with them at the church 24/7, accompanying them. We had a number of accompaniment shifts throughout each day where we sought to provide hospitality, comfort, and community and to also be a witness in case ICE did show up and try to take them away.
I accompanied one particular man this summer for about four hours a week, and something so challenging about this is the clear divide between us. I’m a free person compared to him. I couldn’t speak Spanish, but that was his first language. I was showing up once a week, and he lived at the church constantly, trying to stay in the U.S. to provide for and be with his family. He was doing the most courageous and terrifying thing, and I had no idea what he was really going through. It was hard to know how to be there for him. There we were together, like Lazarus and the rich man, but we were trying to break the divide, desperate for God’s beloved community, for the kingdom to come down right now on earth.
One day I shared with him that I used to be a Zumba instructor, which is a Latin-based dance fitness program. I was embarrassed sharing this with him, because, come on, I was a white girl teaching salsa dance and he was from Mexico himself. But I thought, what the heck; he’s got to be bored and looking for a chance to exercise, so I asked if he wanted to try it out. Surprisingly, he said yes. So we started dancing. He followed along with the dances I knew, and let me tell you, it was incredibly awkward for both of us. Yet as I made fun of myself dancing to Latin-based music—where I didn’t even understand the words to the songs—and he made fun of himself not knowing the dances, we had fun. We bonded. We danced song after song and moved into this spiritual space where I knew God was there. We were trying to break the chasm, where so much of our world divided us, yet for a brief moment we were in sync, dancing for justice, dancing for wholeness, dancing for God’s hope. I learned there the power of just trying, of allowing the grace of Jesus Christ to empower us to break the chasms of our daily life.
In a world of chasms—racial chasms, gender chasms, sexuality chasms, class chasms, physical ability chasms, mental health chasms, age chasms—we need to know why the chasms exist in the first place. We can’t shun systems of inequality if we don’t open our eyes and see them and study them. The prophets are crying out warning us; Jesus has risen and has named the powers and the principalities. We have no excuse to stay clueless like the rich man in our Luke text of the day. The ground has been set, and we can step out in our community, seeking to break the chasms, noticing the humanity in others, and seeking connection and solidarity across difference. Maybe it takes a little bit of dance. Maybe it takes the spirit of a child’s high five. Maybe it takes risking that we might actually change ourselves and that, maybe, that’s exactly what God wants.
I bet there are amazing ways that all of you are taking these steps already to break the chasms of our world. I mean, you’re here, seeking to follow Jesus and playing some kind of role in the ministries of the church that are breaking chasms. I bet, like me, you are trying but still have many more questions and hold similar fears of the unknown and how to do this? How long, O Lord, until your kingdom comes? And I bet you witness brief glimpses of God’s glory like what I witnessed on the bus among children who haven’t learned how to perpetuate the chasms yet or you’ve risked feeling a little awkward in order to have a moment of peace and joy. So let us fight the good fight of faith again and again and prove Abraham’s declaration wrong that the chasms just exist. Let’s continue to open our hearts. Let us try our best to break the chasms that are so real and defining in our world. Let us take the risk of tasting God’s kingdom. After all, we might just be doing what Jesus wants us to do.
In the name of our Lord, in the name of our Savior, in the name of the One we so desperately want to follow, Jesus Christ. Amen.