The Bosom of Abraham

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 26, 2010

We hear another story from Luke with money overtones today, one about two guys, a homeless man and a millionaire.  Technically they’re neighbors, but only because the poor guy sleeps on the patch of sidewalk in front of the rich guys place.  It doesn’t matter whether the location is a condo tower in East Hartford or a gated community in Glastonbury… It doesn’t matter that the homeless guy has gaping open sores or that the rich guy had his latest plastic surgery and it still itches a bit…  Both guys die.

The poor guy is given a V.I.P welcome into heaven where Abraham meets him and holds him close in God’s love.  The rich guy finds himself in what feels like a torture chamber in hell.  From the depths of his painful existence, the rich guy looks up and sees the poor guy enjoying the company and comforting stories of Abraham.  He yells up to Abraham, hey give me a break and send that guy down here with some cool water, I’m burnin up here!

Abraham shouts back at him, sorry bub, no can do!  The tables have turned.  You had all the lucky breaks and took advantage of every one.  Larry here had it tough, he never had the breaks and good fortune you did.  What goes around comes around… besides even if he wanted to help you out, no-one can get from here to there, the gate is blocked off and locked.

All right then the rich guy says, send ah, what’s his name, I mean Larry back to my five brothers.  They’ve got to know that hell’s a whole lot worse than any horror story they’ve ever heard.  Abraham responds sharply,   so Moses and the whole list of couriers God sent weren’t good enough, huh?

The rich guy’s really sweating now… come on, send Larry, if someone were to come back from the dead, they’d drop everything, they’d be all ears, they’d listen and believe then.  Abraham says he doubts it, after all people got mouthy with Moses and said and did worse to God’s couriers.  He says they wouldn’t change their ways even if someone came back from the dead!

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This parable says much about our world today… even without a modern take on the story.  A time and place where the rich get richer, the middle class is shrinking and the poor get ignored by both.  Where gated communities keep us apart, are sought after as status in the name of security (even though gated communities do not have lower crime statistics).  By some estimates, gated communities comprise 10 percent of the new home market.  According to the US Census Bureau, in 2004, gated communities house an estimated 16 million Americans, about 6% of all households. 

But one doesn’t have to be rich to ignore one’s neighbor or poor in order to be neighborly.  This parable may be an attack against the belief of the time that wealth was an indication of being blessed by God.  Just turn on a TV preacher to see the gospel of prosperity today… we are falsely told that just be obedient to God  and riches follow.  Refuse to accept God and sickness or poverty follow.

 Some in the time of Luke took signs of punishment from God a bit further and concluded that they had better not interact with the poor who in their minds were being punished by God for some evil (even though Hebrew Scriptures are clear about helping those in need).

Today we hold the same attitudes toward the poor and needy.  “They made their bed, let them lie in it,” is a common phrase.  And today some see disease, addictions, mental illness, unemployment or unwanted pregnancies as God’s punishment for individual actions, sins or evil lifestyles.

But this parable is not proscriptive, live like the rich man and be forever banished to the fires of eternal hell.  Rather it is descriptive of actions and attitudes we have of the poor and needy.  Jesus uses this story to hold a mirror up to gated relationships, lifestyles, communities, and minds—whether in the first century or 2010.

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There is an old African American spiritual based on this parable that my mother used to sing to me when I was young.  It is a song covered by folk icons Peter, Paul and Mary and even Elvis did a song that echoes Rock My Soul.  The song speaks of the walls, divisions and gates that separate us from one another.  It speaks of the comfort of God as the bosom of Abraham and calls us to unlock the sin, separation and suffering that keep us from knowing each others names and being in relationship with God and one another. 

Rocka’ my soul in the bosom of Abraham
Rocka’ my soul in the bosom of Abraham

Rocka’ my soul in the bosom of Abraham
Oh, rock-a-my-soul!

So high, you can’t get over it
So low, you can’t under it

So wide, you can’t get round it
Gotta go through the door

This spiritual reflects the traditional idea that Abraham’s bosom is a figurative expression for heaven.  And the things that wall us from relationship and wholeness are high, low, and wide. 

It is interesting to me that the slang definition of gate is to be dismissed or rejected.  If you are given the gate, you are shown the door, fired, sent packing, kicked-out of the house, jilted, let go.  During the first century, the Roman god Janus (for whom we named January)  was the god of doors and gates.  He was pictured as having two faces, one on the front, and one on the back of his head (kind of like the villain Voldemort in a Harry Potter story).  Janus also represented choice and ambiguity, much as Voldemort represents evil and Harry Potter represents good.  A wall is solid and tangible, a gate is ambiguous as it might be locked or unlocked, and because you can choose to go through it, or not.

The door, the simple and direct approach to comfort, forgiveness, and community is the gate of God.  We often overlook the simple and direct,  the presence of God in others and in our lives.  We encounter and walk past gates each day and overlook their significance.  But where would we be without gates, but stuck on one side of a wall barred from reaching the other side and one another? 

Walls are barriers, but walls with gates, even locked and sealed hold hope.  Even the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War had the Brandenburg Gate, a sign of hope and ultimately a connection between East and West Germany when that wall fell.  The Great Wall of China is dotted with gates and no longer a security barrier, but tourist attraction and gateway into a beautiful countryside. 

But we do live in a world where there are walls without, or with few gates.  Walls between Mexico and the United States, walls between Israel and Palestine, and walls between rich and poor… right here in Connecticut.  Building walls, we all do it in one way or another.  Our sinful nature means that we default to what is easiest…

  • We fear rather than trust,
  • We hate rather than to love,
  • We speculate rather than to ask,
  • We fight rather than make peace,
  • We separate rather than reconcile,
  • We build higher fences rather than make good neighbors. 
  • We do good works and write checks rather than confronting injustice and getting to know the brother or sister outside our gates. 

But there are gates, and even the Israeli’s and Palestinian’s are talking again.  Chasms fill with hope, overgrown gates are uncovered, and lost keys found.

Jesus used an image of a chasm that couldn’t be crossed to describe the gate that the rich man didn’t unlock during his life.  Jesus through this parable reminds us about the gates we keep locked in our own lives.  Gates that stand between you and me, you and one another, each of us and our neighbors, and each of us and God.

God gives us the keys to open the gates throughout our lives.  The key is God’s grace given in the form of God’s only son, Jesus.  Jesus is the way, the truth, the light, and the key to the gates in our lives.  We are also given the freedom to act as if God casually tosses us those keys, to hold them close, or to use and share them freely.  The keys of God’s grace will unlock all that keeps us gated from one another and from God who loves us.

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