One of the greatest joys of being a priest in the Episcopal Church is the awareness of our being the offspring of the Church of England, continuing our place in the Anglican Communion, ministering and praying with Anglicans all over the world. And, even more so here at the Church of the Advent, I have the pleasure of being surrounded by so many of close British decent, so that I am reminded over and over of the gentleness of the British voices, seemingly so less threatening than our Americanized harshness of diction. In London, as you board the Tube, you are gently exhorted to “Mind the gap.” Returning to the US, boarding the DC Metro, you will hear, “Step back, doors closing.” This morning’s parable from Luke’s Gospel always brings to mind these contrasting exhortations.
The authors of our lessons this morning from Amos, Paul’s first letter to Timothy, and Luke’s Gospel bring us the message: “Mind the gap” and instill a bit of fear of hearing the words, “Step back, doors closing.” Neither message allows for complacency.
The prophet Amos is the vessel of God’s message to the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom of the mid-8th century BC. During a respite from the threat of Assyrian takeover, the Israelites have become complacent in their faithfulness to God. Amos indicts them for their state of ease, feeling secure in their high positions, lounging and feasting, and anointing themselves with the finest oils. All this is the state of affairs while, at the same time, the Israelites ignore the impending ruin of their nation by their Assyrian adversaries – the Assyrians being the mere instrument of Israelite destruction – the root cause being their complacent faithlessness and spiritual blindness.
Paul’s exhortations in his letter to Timothy encouraging Timothy to fight the good fight are similar. Paul warns Timothy and us against our desire to be surrounded in earthly riches, which cause us to fall to temptation; to wander away from the faith; falling prey to senseless, harmful desires; plunging us into ruin and destruction where we are pierced with many pains.
And, in our lesson from Luke’s Gospel, the unnamed man of earthly wealth and royalty is not inherently bad. But, his attention to wealth and his absorption in its comforts have allowed for his complete oblivion to the suffering Lazarus who lay at his gate. Like the Israelites, he is complacent in his ever-increasing faithlessness and spiritual blindness.
The earthly gap between the unnamed rich man and Lazarus is extreme. The rich man is finely dressed in royal robes of purple as he feasts at his bountiful table. Lazarus, in contrast, is dressed in rags, exposing the sores that infest his starving body; he longs for the crumbs that might fall from the rich man’s table; only the dogs pay him homage as they lick his sores. The symbolism of the association with dogs further accentuates the uncleanness of Lazarus’ earthly state contrasted to that of the rich man by whose gate he languishes.
As in our Sunday Gospel lessons for so many weeks now, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees. Here, Jesus condemns the Pharisees as lovers of money in the words of this parable, which quickly flip-flops the state of affairs for these main characters. “Step back, doors closing.” From the words of Father Abraham, the rich man finds himself eternally condemned to hell for his complacency in seeking to aid poor Lazarus. Lazarus, on the other hand, after lying in suffering at the rich man’s own gate day after day, is now swept up into the wings of angels. The gate that separated them on earth is now a vast chasm, to the point that the rich man continues so oblivious to reality that, even from his position of eternal damnation, he speaks from his state of assumed greatness, commanding that Lazarus be summoned to bring him comfort in his fiery agony. The gap that separated the two on earth – the gap that could have been so easily bridged by the rich man’s attention to Lazarus’ suffering – has now become a “great chasm, fixed so that those who might want to pass” from one to the other cannot do so.
The rich man was not inherently wicked; his wealth did not bring about evil. It was his complacency – his oblivion to the suffering right before his eyes that cast him into the eternal torment of Hades. He failed to mind the gap that separated him from his neighbor who suffered so severely. He failed to see and accept the gift of God’s grace.
If you have been here at times when the Food Pantry and Clothes Closet are open, you become more aware of minding the gap. You are aware that the needs of our community are great, overwhelming the resources we have available. But for the individuals who are rewarded with the warmth and empathy of our compassionate volunteers as they load their bags of much needed food and clothing, the love of Christ is exchanged; they are lifted up; their hungry bodies and spirits are filled with good things. In this way, we do our best to mind the gap.
With God’s help, we seek to do our best to love without fear – to share our rich blessings with the needy, some of whom may not be as clean as we would desire, who may smell of alcohol and stale cigarettes, and who may slur their words as the result of the world’s abuses.
It is said that over the bathtub where Mother Teresa bathed those near death and freshly rescued from the streets of Calcutta, there is a sign that reads: “This is my body.” If our Food Pantry and Clothes Closet volunteers hear the words of our Lord, “This is my body” as they assist each patron with his or her bag of food and much needed clothing, others will hear the same words on their behalf. If, as we minister in so many ways to this community, we see Christ in the eyes of the sick and suffering, these sick and suffering will see Christ in our eyes. If we share with great intention the Peace of Christ with those seated near us in worship, that Peace will be returned with the same sincerity and intention. Being good stewards of God’s blessings as we contribute generously to the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ, those served by our many ministries will see Christ in the eyes of the Church of the Advent. Living faithfully and intentionally into the Body of Christ is our goal, closing the gap of earthly separation is our goal.
The rich man of our parable is not condemned to Hades because of his wealth; he is condemned because his love of earthly things renders him complacent, unaware of his true place in the Kingdom, and oblivious to the gap that separates him from the needy – those desperate for the love and comfort he is so well equipped to provide. This is Jesus’ urgent message.
Live faithfully and intentionally into the Body of Christ. Mind the gap; keep the door of your heart open and unlocked to the needs of the suffering, remembering always that each one joins us in the Body of Christ.