Spacious Places ( A Message Based on Luke 16:19-31)

Okay, so quick question. By a show of hands who looked up the Scripture for this morning’s message before coming to worship?

Yeah…. So…. You’re stuck now.

You didn’t know. I get it. I’ll be honest. I didn’t know when I picked it months ago. I think I saw the name Lazarus and thought “oh, cool, everyone loves a resurrection story,” only to revisit it this week and realize that, surprise, ten years into ministry, there is more than one story in the Bible about Lazarus.

So, sorry about that.

The Scripture definitely provided a looming sense of dread to my week. Like that lump-in-your-throat feeling of having to tell a hard truth.

I was trying to think of a good example of a time I had to tell someone something that I didn’t want to …yeah, don’t think about those things. It just makes the dread level worse. Like, great, now it’s not just this Scripture that I feel dread about, but every single uncomfortable conversation I have ever had over the past thirty-five years.

So, after only a few short hours of intense physical exertion rocking in a dark corner, I was able to regroup and here is what I came up with for ways to approach the Scripture this morning.

A) I could read directly from the commentary as fast as I can and then run off the stage and catch a flight to Mexico (I hear it’s nice this time of year) OR

B) I could tell you what Jesus is revealing to me and present it in my typical “me too” manner that makes everyone legitimately embarrassed for me. You totally know what I’m talking about; it’s cool.

Little Aside: tickets to Mexico are not as cheap as they used to be and I picked Option B.

“Oh great,” you’re thinking, “another painful Option B message.” Don’t worry. I have a Plan. See, I have created an Option B message with a caveat. And here it is, I openly offer you the permission to disqualify. To diffuse, reject, or simply ignore anything that I share that you deem uncomfortable. Use me if you need to; I’m super young, freakishly short, known to talk to fast without ar-tic-u-la-ting enough, the sound person could potentially turn my mic off at any time during the message, and if none of those technical issues do the trick, please remember, the woman standing up here is highly likely to have no idea what she is talking about – she didn’t even know this Scripture existed before Monday….

At any rate, be creative, I’ll take the blame. And to every “Me Too” you hear, you can hold tight to the certainty of “Not Me.”

You know what the “Not me” is, right?

(That’s okay I totally just made this up).

It’s like the Free Parking of Christian Spirituality. You get to say without guilt or condemnation, this Scripture, this message, is not about me. You can sit in the midst of spiritual self-disclosure untouched, unchanged, and totally unoffended.

You get like one card a year, and don’t tell Pastor Don, but I am handing them out this morning.
It only seems fair considering the circumstances.

Trust me, I thought of giving a “Not Me” sermon but they take those cards away at Ordination. When we are sleeping. Prying them out of our self-centered, death grip.

Even without the official “Not Me” playing card, I strongly believe I could have pulled it off because, confession, I almost did.

For like five seconds I sat righteously in the scriptural safe zone. I don’t have a lot of money so I can easily disqualify myself from the Rich Man column and let’s be honest, that dude is in a lot of trouble. Not only do I not want to be him, I don’t want anyone I know to be him!

If the point of this Scripture is a 1st century scared straight re-run; consider me scared and pliably straightened. Like a live version of a Blair Witch Style Hide and Seek, I stand up straight, back against a tree. Do not move, or whisper, or breath, He’s coming for me.

I hope at this point we can all agree that we want to avoid the scenario of the Rich Man. Given the context of the story, it would seem appropriate then, to take whatever wealth we have away and rest comfortably in the Lazarus category. This is the fear-driven reactionary in me. Suddenly money becomes the hot potato I do not want to be caught with in the end, throwing the cash out of the car and screaming, “Not it!” right as I crash into the pearly gate.

Except all the smarty-pants scholars that write about this scripture seem to say it’s not about money. I would like to say they are wrong. That would be dishonest. For the purpose of my own self-interest.
See, if you thought the topic of agape economics was going to be a tough sell this morning, consider the price of Abundant Life which is actually what this passage is all about.

Sure, Abundant Life sounds like a really great thing. We throw it around a lot and sometimes we (just me) expects confetti and balloons to drop as the choir starts clapping and singing “Abundant life! Hallelujah! Abundant life!” In my opinion, this is false advertising. Nothing motivates me more to pull out a pen and ask, “Who do I make the check out to?” than the call to Abundant Life.

On the actions of the Rich Man, ‘Debbie Downer’ George Buttrick writes, “The story offers no support to the glib assumption that the Rich Man would have fulfilled all duty had he dressed Lazarus’ sores and fed his hunger. True charity is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not spasmodic or superficial. Ameliorations such as food and medicine are always necessary, but there is a more fundamental neighborliness.”

This is not something I want to hear; I hope you were not listening. I should have given you a warning. It’s not about money. At its core this scripture is about the worldly things we worship that disconnect us from ourselves, from others, and therefore from God.

My “Not Me,” get-out-of-jail free card, just went out the window with all my money.

The “Good News” it turns out is, not that this passage isn’t some literal new age financial management program, but that we are neither the Rich Man nor Lazarus, we are the five siblings of the rich man. Our fate is not sealed and in some sort of Edgar Allen Poe Christmas Carol re-write we are all invited to intimately reconsider every aspect of the way in which we live our lives. Fun, right?

First thing that puts us in this unfortunate predicament, we are still alive.

Second thing, now that you have, like me, been involuntarily exposed to this Scripture, we have been warned about our urgent situation. Unless you are planning on putting your “Not Me” card in the offering plate after this in which case as far as I’m concerned, you’re good.

Third thing (oh yeah it gets worse) we have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures, we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, stories of God’s care for the poor and hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead, even though, again, not the Lazarus story we are talking about today. We have all of these living resources swirling around us to define for us the undefinable invitation to Abundant Life.

The question is: Will we — sisters and brothers – see? If your answer is no please raise your hand as the ushers will now be coming around with blindfolds.

Archbishop Richard Trench writes that, “The sin of the Rich Man in its root is unbelief: hard-hearted contempt of the poor, luxurious squandering on self, are only the forms which his sin assumes. The seat of the disease is within; these are but the running sores which witness for the inward plague. He who believes not in an invisible world of righteousness and truth and spiritual joy, must place his hope in things which he sees, which he can handle, and taste, and smell. It is not of the essence of the matter, whether he hoards or squanders, in either case he puts his trust in the world.”

To live abundantly is to have confidence in God; I promise, I’m not making this stuff up.

A fairly conservative Christian website that I found on Google states that, “Although we are naturally desirous of material things, Romans 12:2 reminds us that as Christians our perspective on life must be revolutionized. Just as we become new creations when we come to Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), so must our understanding of “abundance” be transformed. True abundant life consists of an abundance of love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), not an abundance of “stuff.” It consists of life that is eternal, and, therefore, our interest is in the eternal, not the temporal.”

So, how then, did the Rich Man go wrong?

Cue, nervous-knowing laughter from the congregation.

The life of this Rich Man and that of Lazarus seem to be entirely separate, divided by a table and a gate, it hardly seems fair that one should be held accountable for not meeting a need he was never aware of.

How could the Rich Man be expected to respond to such a need when he knew nothing of it?
I imagine the Rich Man was aware of the sick homeless man residing outside his gate, but I am convinced he did not know Lazarus. I do not think he knew Lazarus or his place in God’s story as he took up space outside this strategically developed gate. It seems he neither allowed himself to be seen by Lazarus nor risked the challenge that seeing Lazarus would have brought to his own pre-scripted narrative.

In doing so, he denied himself the invitation of Abundant Life; an invitation requiring us to acknowledge the Christ within ‘The Other,’ ultimately, unveiling that of Christ which resides within us. Instead, the Rich Man scripted a narrative in which he became his own deity. Embracing an illusion offered to each and every one of us, that we are more or less worthy based on the hierarchical images this world provides.

Cue horror movie soundtrack.

And this, this right here is what truly terrifies me; Not the future threat of the Scripture, the possibility of eternal punishment, but the current reality that we have a choice to see or not see. A choice that not only impacts our own lives but the life of all living creatures. A choice to turn a blind eye to the suffering in our midst, to disqualify it, to justify it, to legitimize and contribute to it, to silently declare, “Not Me.”

And, the closer we get to abiding in the Land of “Not Me’ the more urgently we are being called into a story not our own; the pathway toward Abundant Life is one of living as if, “That could be me if…”

That could be me if
my skin were a shade darker, if
my seatbelt had not been buckled, if
my zip code had been two numbers different.

When we disconnect ourselves from this Holy Reality, that Christ is within us and The Other, we disconnect ourselves from Abundant Life. We isolate ourselves for the delusion of certainty, we author our stories for the myth of safety. Risking the price of true connectedness, we mold our lives into our own, comfortably congruent and controlled.

I think the Rich Man closed his gate every evening and locked it with this same, “Not Me” that is offered to us in each and every moment. And that “Not Me” is exactly what serves as the gate between our experience and Abundant Life.

So here it goes, I am going to break this down as much as I can because it can be confusing. Actually, I’m confused. If this makes sense to you, I would invite you to explain it to me later. Not today, though, I’ll be tired.

To see ourselves is to see the other; to risk being seen is the key to Abundant Life-to show up with your whole self, sores and all. If you cannot look inside and see the Christ within you; you cannot look outside and see the Christ within The Other. While The Rich Man may have not seen Lazarus, he also failed to see himself. At the core of his story is his denial to see himself; to know to whom he belonged and from where his abundance came.

Abundant Life is the process of awakening to that which prevents us from seeing and being seen. I can tell you this isn’t easy; it’s what we focus on in The Path Discipleship Process here at Hope UMC and I’m pretty sure everyone is going to drop out of that thing. It’s uncomfortable to look at your warts and claim them. We want to cut all the ugly parts of us off; but God created all of us, not just those parts the world defines as worthy of being seen.

For Abundant Life to become a reality here and now, the space we need to cultivate is within ourselves, setting aside that which blinds us from claiming that of Christ which abides in us, and that of Christ which abides in the other.

Sarah Napthali writes, “We see others in terms of how they meet our needs, practical and emotional. We stop seeing others for who they are, in this moment, and relate to an outdated or superimposed image we created long ago or which was created for us. We need to remember to be with ourselves and with the Other, ensuring we make time to pause occasionally and let go of doing, negotiating, judging, so that we can just see ourselves and the other in that moment. Not many people realize that the word “respect” comes from the Latin root sepc, which means “to see”; add the prefix “re” and the word “respect” translates as “to see again.”

Are we willing to commit to a process of seeing again ourselves and The Other so that we might know Christ and experience Abundant Life? Do we have the courage to look within and to see ourselves as Christ sees us? To see the Other as Christ sees them? Are we willing to reject a world that organizes people into categories at the price of their sacred story and embrace a new order, one in which we are all resting on an ever moving continuum of connectivity, where we all inherit an innate worthiness to belong.

That man just outside the gate–just outside my wall of understanding–that could be me. And I bring him into our story because our story is not our story, our story belongs to God. I bring him into my story because without his story, I deny the fullness of my own, and the completion of God’s.

Abundant life is one of partnership; resisting the urge to hustle for worthiness by embracing God’s love for us and in turn utilizing that to connect with others. It requires us to have confidence in Love, the power of Love for ourselves and for the world.

Yesterday afternoon my daughter, Fiona, and I attended the Installation Service for our new Bishop at Arvada United Methodist Church. Although I was attending because I wanted the witness the historic event that was the installation of the first gay bishop into the United Methodist Church, I wasn’t feeling particularly emotional. It may have been the five hours of sleep I had gotten the night before after hosting an eight-year-old sleepover but that is another sermon for another day. In truth, and not unexpectedly, I was feeling exhausted when the opening song began to play. A local church band began covering a secular hit, “Home” by Philip Phillips.

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home.

That was pretty much it. I wanted to cry, which given that the service hadn’t even begun yet, seemed bordering on socially inappropriate. My eyes were filled with tears and I was just about to lose it when I noticed a man sitting close by me wiping his eyes. I reached out my hand and set it on his shoulder, and looking him in the eyes, I asked without judgement, “Are you crying?” His head shook yes, and without reservation or much thought I just said, “Me too.” That was all I needed to be okay; to be seen and to see in that moment of mutual vulnerability.

If you want a starting place in the map-less territory of Abundant Life, trade in your “Not Me” Card for the “Me Too” Ticket to Abundant Life. Look around and reach out, first see yourself and then see the Other. Trust God, trust Love, and show up to the open the gates set before you. You might be shocked to find the hand that reaches out and the story that meets you in that spacious place we all belong.