Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture
September 25, 2022

16th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Luke 16:19-31

More than twenty years ago, I traveled to Fes’, Morocco, for the World Sacred Music Festival.  The heart of Fes’ is an ancient medina, a labyrinth of winding, narrow alleys, surrounded by thick walls built in the 15th century.  There are only a few gates to enter the city.

One of the most intense experiences was entering the gate.  As the path narrows, the crowds get compacted; everyone is pressed together.  To get through the opening, you are asked to contend with one another.  The gate was the place where pick pockets had their best shot at wide-eyed, unguarded tourists.  It was the place where hands grasped your arm, palm outstretched for a coin.  Guides jostled to be your best friend, swearing they knew the best and cheapest rug dealer in the city.  Donkeys, piled high with those things the residents needed, scraped up against you. You could smell perfume, and rot, sweat, and spices.

My strategy for getting through the gate was simply to set my sights on the door, walk directly in, not looking to my right or to my left, ignoring the pleas for a guide, clutching my wallet tightly.  I figured if I didn’t catch anyone’s eye, I would be safe and could buy souvenirs for loved ones who didn’t really need a rug or an evil eye talisman.

I’ve always wondered if that experience in Fes’ was much like the experience of the gate for Luke.  On one side is the rich man, dressed in purple, feasting sumptuously.  And on the other side is Lazarus, his oozing sores licked by the dogs.  By painting those scenes so vividly and oppositionally, Jesus draws us to that boundary at the gate, the chasm between rich and poor that still exists as stark and painful as the chasm between heaven and Hades.  I don’t think Jesus is giving us a parable about the existence of heaven and hell, or giving us careful instructions on how to get to one place or another.  I think what Jesus wants to do is to stir most of us up. Jesus wants us to experience the opening, the gate between a world organized around the rich man and a world of poverty and suffering.  Parables create an intensity of experience that make us have to choose how to be human with one another. They also reveal to us exactly where the heart of God resides.

 “So who will you be as you come to the gate, or in the crush of human life, or at any of the threshold between the divisions on the earth?” Who will you be when faced with the world of Lazarus?

Last week, Pastor Javen reminded us that feeling uncomfortable is, partly, what having faith does to us.  Being baptized isn’t the quick release from suffering or accountability, but an immersive experience into the fullness of human life and the fullness of divine life–life at the gate, where a few are rich and many are poor, where some have the privilege of intentional ignorance and others simply have to lick their wounds, not even a dog around to help.

Also last Sunday, at the forum between services, we discussed how our land acknowledgment statement can become concrete, more than words on the back of the bulletin.  How do we pick up the real work of repair and restoration with Native peoples.  Pastor Kelly Sherman Conroy, our Lakota, Lutheran guide for this journey, spoke simply about entering relationship, being in communion with one another, being the biblical community of shalom.  In a sense, she suggested that we really have to begin by letting ourselves be shaped by the truth of life at the gate.

Someone named the chasm.  “All of this really seems to fall short if we’re not really willing to give the stolen land back.”  I’ll admit that I’ve thought the same thing.  Are we just play-acting by coming up with strategies and programs that risk making us feel better but leaving the wound in place.  Pastor Sherman Conroy gently called us back to relationship. “Actually,” she said, “giving land back is legally quite difficult and can take a long time, but there are many things you can do.”  We can listen to one another honestly.  We can be aware of how we’ve benefited and tell our story honestly.  How, indeed, did the wide prairie turn into fenced farms, and how did Scandinavian immigrants become owners of land?  A member of the discussion circle added that perhaps we figure out how to stand with communities that are threatened with losing land or wading into the environmental effects on Native land from climate change and tar sands drilling.

It’s so easy to experience the chasm, the challenges and difficulties of making real change, and just throw up our hands and despair, “There’s nothing that’s really going to make a difference.”

In the parable, it’s a sign of grace that Lazarus is known by name.  The rich man is torment because he still cannot see Lazarus or the whole host of heaven as anything other than his own tool, for a drop of water or a warning to his friends.  They must do something for him.  Lazarus’ very presence, his visceral and wounded presence, was the rich man’s best hope for finding heaven.

He cannot see that his healing, his true salvation, is in waking to the needs of others.

That would be the end of the chasm and the fire once and for all.

That’s the grace that’s embedded in this parable.  At the gate, there is a threshold, a passageway from one world into another.  Always at the gate, there is hope.

Luther called this “the theology of the cross.”  We are best able to experience the love of God when we risk entering the suffering of the world.  The cross is the symbol of that threshold, the mark that places us at the boundary between worlds.

In a moment, we WILL stand at the gate:  the font, the table. An intensity of experience.  Standing with us is Lazarus, the rich man, Moses and all the prophets, and the Christ, with wounds of his own, our best hope for heaven.

This body.  This blood.  For you.