Proper 21C The Episcopal Church at Yale
Heidi Oxford, Chapel on the Green September 9, 2019
The Now of Salvation
Jeremiah 32:1-2a, 6-15 / Ps. 91:1-6, 14-16 / 1 Tim. 6:6-19 / Luke 16:19-31
May I speak to you in the name of God, who creates, redeems, and sustains us. Amen.
For centuries, human beings have used our creative imaginations to envision life after death. The medieval poet Dante Alighieri saw hell as a highly ordered place, with specific levels and tortures for all of his favorite enemies. How thoughtful. In the 17th century, John Milton imagined hell as a nine days fall from heaven, which is three times further than earth. Google maps has not yet confirmed those distances. One of my favorite modern depictions of hell comes from the tv show the Good Place, in which gleeful demons specialize in different types of torture. Demons work in different torture departments, including: the spastic dentistry department, disembowelment, children’s dance recitals, and my favorite, holiday weekend IKEA.
Centuries before the Good Place, Milton, and Dante, we get to our parable today from the gospel of Luke. This one is pretty mild as far as depictions of heaven and hell go. Our parable begins not in death, but in life. There is a rich man who dresses well and eats well, and poor man named Lazarus who sits, hungry and covered in sores, at the rich man’s gate. Lazarus dies and is carried away by the angels to hang out with Abraham. The rich man dies and is carried away to a different place, the Bad Place we might call it. There the rich man is tormented, though the parable isn’t particularly interested in what that looks like. There is no disembowelment, no spastic dentistry department, and only the slightest suggestion that fire might be involved. But it seems clear that part of the rich man’s torment is that he can see Lazarus all the way up there, hanging out with Abraham. The rich man calls 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.”
Abraham responds by reminding the rich man that during his lifetime their roles were reversed – the rich man received good things, and the poor man received awful things. “Besides all this,” Abraham says, “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.” The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house, to warn his five brothers who are still alive about the fate that is coming to them. The rich man believes that this warning would make a difference. But Abraham is doubtful. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,” he says, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
What do we make of this parable? On a certain level, this story fits in a category with a handful of passages in the gospel of Luke that foreshadow Jesus’ death and resurrection. The last line of the parable, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead,” sounds like a direct allusion to things to come. People have turned away from God in the past and they will do so again, even as witnesses to Jesus’ miracles, death, and resurrection.
But beyond foreshadowing, I think this parable has something important to tell us about the nature of salvation. After all this is one of the few passages in the Bible that actually imagines heaven and hell. It’s not a passing reference but a parable, a story. This is Jesus’ opportunity to talk about how great heaven is – I’m talking streets of gold, all you can eat ice cream, kittens and puppies. And this is Jesus’ opportunity to talk about how awful hell is – to literally scare the hell out of people on earth and make them believe. But Jesus doesn’t do either of those things. Why? Because salvation isn’t actually about heaven and hell. Or at least, it’s not about the kind of heaven and hell that humans have dreamed up over the past two thousand years. Salvation is about life. This life.
This is the lesson that the rich man has to learn in the course of our parable today. The rich man thinks that salvation is all about where you go when you die. That’s why he thinks that if Lazarus would just go back and tell his brothers, he could warn them – save them from the same fate. What the rich man fails to realize is that hell – his hell – looks an awful lot like the life he chose to live on earth. The great chasm that separates the rich man from Abraham and Lazarus is a lot like the chasm that the rich man tolerated in his own lifetime, between his wealthy and secure life and Lazarus at the gate. Salvation isn’t simply a reward that we gain when we die. There is no elaborate point system, no scoreboard in heaven. Salvation is something that begins in life. Salvation is something that we experience as soon as we orient our lives towards God, and towards God’s kingdom. And the rich man? He misses the point. Even when he tries to warn his brothers, he sees salvation as something that happens after we die, instead of something that begins in this life that we’re living.
It’s important to remember that the parable of the rich man begins and ends with life. The parable begins with Lazarus sitting at the gate, with the rich man alive and well. And the parable ends with Abraham telling the rich man “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And that is the point! The resurrection isn’t about death; it’s about life – this life. Jesus rose from the dead to save us here, now – and our eternal life begins here, and now, if we embrace it. That’s why Jesus says, just a chapter further on in the gospel of Luke, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ Or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’”
Salvation begins here, in this world. This is something I have learned through the wisdom of liberation theologians – from Gustavo Gutierrez, and James Cone, and Leonardo Boff who writes this: “Initially, Jesus preached neither himself nor the church, but the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the realization of a fundamental utopia of the human heart, the total transfiguration of this world, free from all that alienates human beings, free from pain, sin, divisions, and death. He came and announced: ‘The time has come, the kingdom of God is close at hand!’ He not only promised this new reality but already began to realize it, showing that it is possible in the world. He therefore did not come to alienate human beings and carry them off to another world. He came to confirm the good news: This sinister world has a final destiny that is good, human, and divine.”
I am here today in part as a friend of the Episcopal Church at Yale, and in part as the program coordinator for Chapel on the Green, a street-based ministry that takes place just outside those gates on the New Haven Green every Sunday. This ministry is familiar to some of you already, because ECY has made a commitment to coming every first Sunday of the month – to worshipping with us at 2pm and then connecting with the people we serve, whether handing out a cookie, praying, or talking with a stranger. Chapel on the Green welcomes about 100 to 120 people every Sunday. These are people who are looking for salvation here on earth, now. They are looking for salvation from poverty, hunger, and homelessness. They are looking for salvation from craving and addiction. They are looking for freedom from loneliness, depression, trauma, and racism.
I believe that Chapel on the Green is helping to realize the Kingdom of God – or kin-dom of God, as some people prefer to say – here and now. We help in small, tangible ways, by providing a meal and referrals to other service agencies, when we can. But the most important thing we do is connect with each other. If hell is about distances, separation, alienation, great chasms that can’t be crossed – then the kingdom of God is about connection. It’s about places where our lives intersect with one another, where the barriers which divide us crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease.
New Haven is a city of great chasms, invisible rifts that divide neighborhoods on the basis of race, class, and even degrees of affiliation with Yale. In this city of separation, we are blessed to have the New Haven Green. It’s a messy intersection that draws together people from Yale, East Rock, Newhallville, Fair Haven, Westville, Morris Cove, and the Hill. It’s the one place where we can’t avoid each other. When I walk through the New Haven Green I try to imagine – what if this is what the kingdom of God looks like? And yet the New Haven Green is still a far cry from the kingdom of God as long as there are people without homes sleeping behind Trinity Church, and sirens on the corner responding to the latest overdose. The green is a far cry from the kingdom of God as long as we can walk through it, and still ignore one another.
I love my job at Chapel on the Green – NOT because I believe I am called to save the most vulnerable people in our community, the people who come to our program on Sunday – but because I believe that knowing them, and loving them, and supporting them, is tied up in my own salvation. I am the rich man. Caught up in my own concerns, at times obvious to the huge chasm that separates me from the poor, the marginalized, those whom society has put down in one way or another. I have been caught up in things that don’t matter – how well I perform at work, at school. I am in need of salvation – not just in the life to come but here, now.
Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian artist, activist and academic, says this: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” Our liberation is tied up together. Our salvation is tied up together – you, me, Lazarus, the rich man, the people on the green. Our salvation is tied up with every living person, especially those like Lazarus who sit at the gate hungry, hurting, and ignored. Salvation isn’t a reward that we earn at the end of our lives. Salvation is a journey – and we have miles and miles to go, and so much yet to learn. I hope that you will join me on this journey. I hope you will join me at Chapel on the Green this semester, this year. And I hope that we will never tire of seeking the truth of the gospel in one another – for in fact, the kingdom of God is among us. Amen.