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The gate of our kingdom

Luke 16:19-31
September 6, 2015

I remember when it was fashionable to begin the sermon with a joke about a Presbyterian minister, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi arriving at the pearly gates at the same time. You might say that is what Jesus did with this story of the rich man and Lazarus. He found a different way to tell the story.

Scholars who study the parable find that it is very different in form than the usual parables of Jesus and they account for that difference by suggesting that Jesus used a type of Egyptian folk tale, which travelled home with Jewish travellers from Alexandria. These particular stories used ironic reversal to teach a moral truth and they were often told to teach what sort of behaviour would be awarded in heaven. Like the “pearly gates jokes,” these stories were known and used by almost everyone.

So, here is the “joke version” of Jesus’ parable:

There was a very rich man and he knew he couldn’t take his wealth with him, but because he had been good and generous with his wealth, he negotiated a special deal with God. God told him he could take one suitcase full of his wealth with him. (We need to remember that this man was not familiar with the popular opinion of the day, that the streets of heaven are paved with gold)…and so the man sold a bunch of stuff and converted it into gold bars, which he put in a suitcase.

When the time came, the rich man encounters St. Peter. “I’m sorry,” said St. Peter, “You can’t take anything into heaven with you.”

“But I have special permission.” He showed St. Peter his note from God.

“OK,” said Peter. “But I need to see what you have in there.”

The man opened his suitcase.

St. Peter looked puzzled. “Paving stones!”

The joke is much more entertaining than the story. No matter where the story comes from it should give us pause to think about how we spend our money.

The image of Lazarus at the gate is a disturbing one. The sin of the rich man, however, is not his love for money. We might say that the problem of this man is the way he tends to his gates. For there is a magnificent, high carved gate standing at the entrance to his estate.

Day in and day out, the rich man looks idly out the window of his master suite while the valet presses his pants.

Day in and day out, he sits in his limousine and the chauffier drives him back and forth to the office.

Day in and day out, the first thing he does when he arrives home is to check the day’s activities on the stock market.

Day in and day out, the rich man sits at a table, dining on Beef Wellington, asparagus and Caesar salad, sipping his vintage wine and watches as the scraps of bread which he used to wipe his fingers are carried by the butler to the wide open patio door and thrown to the watch dogs who sit waiting.

Day after day, the rich man is faced with the desperate form of Lazarus, through a window, through a door and through the gate - a limp and sorry heap of human flesh, covered by sores and comforted only by the compassionate licking of the otherwise ferocious dogs.

It’s not that the rich man does not see Lazarus lying there. For in the story which Jesus tells, he knows full well the name of Lazarus. The rich man sees Lazarus all right. The problem in this story is not with his eyes; any more that it is with his gold. The problem is about the way the rich man keeps his gate. In psychological terms, he would be called a narcissist. Or, a man addicted to his life style. The rich man’s problem is that he is absorbed in himself. He can’t see beyond his own wants. This man is blind to the need of the poor, the hungry, the ill, the outcasts of the world - because he simply does not care enough to see their need.

The rich man’s gate becomes his prison door. He gets to spend eternity right where he lives his life. Only now the values are turned upside down and it is poor destitute Lazarus who gets rocked in the bosom of Abraham.

Jesus tells the story to teach his followers, then and now, that there is a gate which stands between what is of value in the kingdom that we are creating here on earth, and how does that kingdom look as compared to what is valued by the world in which we live.

The danger to us. is that we read this story and think it has nothing to do with us. Most of us are not rich by the standards of this world. Our names are not published on the lists of the wealthiest Canadians living, probably not even on the lists of the wealthiest ones in our neighbourhood. We don’t identify with the rich man in Jesus’ story. It’s true, most of us were not born with a silver spoon in our mouths. But we were born to a life lived out on the side of the gate where the rich man stands. Simply because we were born in Canada, rather than in Asia, Africa, or India - we happen to have enough of the earth’s resources and then some. There is a gate between the worlds’ rich and us. A gate between us and the poor and those gates are there due to the circumstance of our birth. Most of us live very well on our side of the gate.

And we say that is because we take good care of what we have, we are sensible and hardworking. Because we feel we are fortunate and have lived right, then we haven’t had to face the life problems which throw people outside the gates and into poverty. These things have not come our way to put us on the street with Lazarus.

Jesus story is a wakeup call to us, a call to tend to the gate. It is a call to look at our lives, and to share what we have. Even the bread crusts, which were thrown to the rich man’s dogs, would have fed Lazarus well.

I remember the day very clearly. It was early December and it was a cold morning in downtown Saskatoon. I was in town doing last minute shopping before I headed back to Kelvington, my settlement charge. I parked on 21st street in front of Lulu Lemon. I headed towards Mid-Town Plaza and I could see a man begging at the door of the plaza. He was by Starbucks, so I just crossed the street, and entered the building from the doors at the other end so I would miss him. When I came back out, I came out where he was standing, asking for money. If I had remembered that he was there, don’t worry; I would have gone out the same way I came in. I started to rush past him and he said to me, “You could at least say good morning.” Of course I was embarrassed, and I felt inadequate, and I felt as though I should know better, after all I might be the one who understands how to respond to the poor. So, he taught me a lesson in life, and I guess that lesson is about the gate, and where I stand. Now I almost always make eye contact with people, who are begging or panhandling, and sometimes I speak to them and that doesn’t always work out well, but nonetheless it is my effort at responding. Sometimes, I get five, or ten dollars in loonies to give and when they are gone, they are gone. There is no more. I understand that this is not the answer. I am still pretty uncomfortable in my relationship with people who beg and in how I interact with panhandlers.

I believe it is very complex – how we sort out how we live and how we spend our money. As a society, as a people, as a culture how might we find ways to look after those on the other side of the gate? Most of you know that I lived and worked on Haida Gwaii for seven years. In that time my world view changed.

On Haida Gwaii, there is very little poverty and knew of no homelessness. The first food bank was started just a short time ago. No one begs and I saw only one panhandler in seven years. The last murder happened about thirty-five years ago.

Quite often the island is a place where people come to live when they don’t fit in anywhere else. I don’t know how they know to go there. Maybe it’s word of mouth kind of thing. But, once there, they form groups and they support one another in their struggle to find wholeness, they are accepting of difference and the rest of the island community in turn supports them in that difference.

It is difficult to articulate just exactly how that all works, but there is very little poverty, no prostitution, no homelessness, and maybe that happens because there is very little wealth, or not great gobs of wealth anyway. Maybe on that small island almost all of the people stand on the same side of the gate. They share what they have in a different sort of way. I know, now that I am gone, I probably have a romantic notion of life there, of course there are problems: drugs, alcohol, etc.

Back to the rich man, the parable allows us to see poor Lazarus being rocked in the bosom of Abraham. The story is designed to shock us. The story asks us to listen for the voice of the one risen from the dead and it comes to us in our sleep, jolting us awake from our sweet dreams of success. Asking us again and again, how much is enough? How are we sharing what we have?

Or, what about the crisis in Europe regarding refugees from Syria? This crisis is the result of years of warfare in Syria and Iraq, wars in which countries like the U.S.A. and Canada have had and still have, a part. Dictators like Assad in Syria are responsible for the crisis, but so are we by causing so much destruction and by leaving so many people homeless and at risk.

The question this morning is, who is shutting the gates and looking the other way? I believe most Canadians have been shaken by the sight of the three year old boy’s body washing up on the shore in Turkey, after the boat his family and other desperate people were in, capsized while they were trying to reach safety in Greece. So, the next question is, are we going to open the gates and possibly save thousands of lives of children, women and men?

We have done this before, we did it in the 1950s for the Hungarian refugees and in the 70s for the Boat People from Vietnam, so why not now for the Syrians? My sense is there will be an outcry from Canadians to speed the process up as we have done in other crisis situations in the past. You and I could be a part of pressuring the government to make that happen. This is not a partisan political issue; it’s a humanitarian one and I believe it should be an issue for all of us. This is an opportunity to offer our assistance in swinging the gate wide to allow the Syrian refugees into our country.

The Gospel story is meant to teach us that the gates in our kingdom, in our everyday lives, are created to swing wide and free. They are meant for all - no matter where we stand. It is not too late to check the condition of those gates, which stand between the poor, the suffering and the spiritually destitute. All it takes is a little oil, carefully placed on the hinges, to keep the gate moving smoothly. The oil of compassion and mercy, and generosity, hospitality and the oil of justice: it is all about how we interpret and understand the gospel message.

The best thing about this story is that it is not over yet. For the rich man, yes, but not for us. All that remains to be seen is what will we do about it.

Sharon Ferguson-Hood