The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 29, 2019
So close and yet so far. Belfast, in Northern Ireland, is a city divided by history. Divided, quite literally. One side of the road is a Protestant neighborhood and on the other side, a Catholic neighborhood. But those neighbors cannot see each other because they are divided by a concrete wall, a towering fence, and locking gates. Neighbors, neighbors who live across the street, have not seen each other for forty two years. The distance from one neighborhood to another is no further than from me to the back of the church. If you took away the flags, you could not tell which side was which. So close and yet so far. Seeing this with my own eyes over the summer was distressing. That humans, all beloved children of God, can live so close to each other, and yet so far apart.
So close and yet so far. Jesus tells a story, a parable about a rich man and a poor man. And they too, are divided. Not by race, not by religion, not by anything else other than that one is rich and the other is poor. They live so close and yet so far.
Jesus continues with his parable – both men die and again and they find themselves divided. The rich man in the place of the dead and the poor man with Abraham. And here, finally, they can see each other. The rich man, cries out, asking pity not only for himself but for his brothers. The response is chilling – that the brothers won’t even believe if someone rises from the dead.
Now, this is not a parable about heaven and hell. This is not a parable about the afterlife. This is not even strictly a parable about the ethics of wealth. This is a parable about hope.
See, the God of Israel, the God of the Old Testament, the God we know and worship, has always promised to care for the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. But still in the time of Jesus, for the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden, this promise seemed so far away. They were still enslaved to debt, toiling away just to scrape by. Though God promised to care for them, things had not gotten better for them.
But in this parable we see a glimpse of hope, a new beginning. We see here that the God is remaining faithful to the promise. Because Jesus is accepting the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden into the Kingdom of God – not later, not tomorrow, not next month, not next year – but now. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to care for the poor. God’s promise to the poor had seemed so far and now it is close. The walls are coming down.
Jesus comes into our life not with peace but with a sword and tears down the walls we put up – our wealth and our egos. Don’t be scared off by the doom and gloom of this parable – what Jesus is describing here is nothing less than the dawning of a new age. This is a parable of hope. Jesus is saying that something new is afoot. This parable about the rich man and Lazarus is casting a vision of the new age where earthly distinctions make no difference to God.
And it is the church, the people of God, who must continue on with this work. We are that new creation that God uses. God uses us to show the world that new beginnings are always possible. This new age, this new life, this new beginning is, I believe, precisely what God has accomplished in our parish. We have not waited for tomorrow, or next month, or next year to get to our gospel work. You have answered God’s invitation and started that work now. I have seen you welcome anybody and everybody, not because it’s a strategy for church growth, but because that welcome is a sign of what Jesus has already done for your souls. Even faced with the troubling realities of our world, you have been undaunted because you believe in this new age and what God is doing in this world and in this church.
And yet we look around at us, we look at our church family, we look at the ways we serve the world and one another, and we see that we have still not fully lived into God’s invitation for this new age. We are so close and yet so far. The possibilities before us are only limited by the walls we build up in our souls. The possibilities before this church are only limited by our imagination and our commitment to God’s new beginning.
New Beginning. That is the theme for our pledge campaign this fall. This is the time in which the church expects its members to prayerfully consider their own finances. It is the time in which the church calls upon each of us to step out from behind the walls that we have built around what we have and to dream of what we could become.
And I want to speak frankly with you. I am asking each of you to make a commitment, a pledge, whether you have done in the past or not. This parish has no endowment, we have no single giver that keeps us going. It takes each and every one of us, giving out of our own generosity, to sustain this church. Yes, Jesus welcomes all people – rich and poor – into this new beginning with him. And yes, it takes all of us supporting this church to carry out God’s mission and ministry in this place.
Like you do every year, you will receive a pledge card and a packet describing all the wonderful things that we are able to accomplish with your financial support. But in your pledge packet you will also receive a piece of a puzzle. So here’s what I’m asking you to do.
Carve out a time with your family to pray, to look at your own income, and to make a pledge for the next year. Then, when you bring your pledge card back, also bring back your puzzle piece. And you are going to put your puzzle piece on the round table out in the narthex. We will only be able to complete this puzzle if we have everybody participate. Each of us need to step out beyond our little walls and work together to make us who we are. Jesus inaugurates a new age by welcoming everybody, and it takes everybody doing their part, to make this place work. Together, we are to be a sign to the world that God can indeed make things new.
And I will be honest with each of you. My family I will sit down at our kitchen table and do just that. We will pray, we will look at our income for the next year, and we will make our pledge. And yes, that number looks big to me. I think of what else I could do with that money. What else I could buy with that money. Vacations. Cars. A bigger house. Beyond our annual pledge, our family has decided to add on another year to our capital campaign commitment. We made a three year pledge that is supposed to end in 2019, but because we have seen the work that God has accomplished in this church, we will support the capital campaign for one more year. All those additional dollars will go directly to paying down our debt so that our mission and ministry can thrive for years to come. We want to be a piece of the Holy Comforter puzzle.
My friends, we are so close and yet so far. The only thing holding us back is fear. It will be fear that drives us backward behind our walls. It will be fear that makes us yearn for the old way of doing things rather than embracing the new beginning that God is calling us toward. The new beginning for this church will mean laying to rest some things from our past so that we can boldly claim God’s future. Just ponder the possibilities before us – yes, we already help people get jobs but there is yet more before us. Yes, we raise our children to be disciples of Jesus, but our staff and volunteers are stretched. Yes, we could provide services and worship and food banks but only for the limitation of our own imaginations. We are only limited by our own fears which seductively call us to go back behind our walls.
As we drove through Belfast, with those ominous concrete gates peering down at us, we heard somebody say, “we can’t bring down those walls, but maybe our children can.” And my heart broke again. Why settle for so close and yet so far? If we choose that mentality here at Holy Comforter – if we choose to defer the dreams God has for us – then we may as well close up shop and sleep in on Sundays. And the new beginning that God has in mind for us – new ways to serve our community, new ways for us to become closer disciples of Jesus – well, those dreams will fade away.
My friends, we are so close and yet so far. The choice before is clear, as clear as it has always been. We can dare to dream of a future together or we can shrivel into our own insecurity. We can worship God or worship money. We can grumble about the good old days or dream of the even better days that God has ahead of us. We can boldly step out into this new age, or we can cower in our fears. We can make a commitment, a real, financial commitment to our Lord God that impacts our own bottom line, or we can hedge our bets and lose everything.
And most of all, the Lord Jesus Christ has trampled down the final wall. Through the cross, through his resurrection, you are no longer enslaved to sin and death. You have been given a new beginning. Do not enslave yourselves again to something else – to your money, your wealth, or your status. Those walls aren’t keeping others out, they’re keeping you in and they are killing you. And Jesus is calling, as Jesus is always calling, for you to step out and to live free. Jesus is calling you to a new beginning.