Harrowing Of Hell
September 29, 2019

Closing the Chasm by Grace

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

Have you ever had a friend who just kept doing the same old idiotic thing over and over again; and they always seem confused as to why their life is so “complicated?” So, you tell them, because it is obvious. You are really direct, and sometimes they are like: “Yes, I get it. You’re right.”  And then they go back and keep doing the same thing old thing. You’re trying to be a good friend, you’re trying to be helpful, maybe you’re a little impatient with them, a little frustrated (or judgmental), but you still want the best for them. So, you tell them another way, and another way and yet another way. And sometimes they seem to hear you and other times they don’t. It’s stupefying. It is like some bug has planted a larva of irrationality in their brain.

Have you ever had a friend like that? Each one of us is probably a little bit like that ourselves. A friend of mine calls it “hard-headed.” It can be challenging to admit you’re a little hard-headed, can’t it? And sometimes we all need a little help….hearing.

So, we come to church and Jesus gives us this parable of a rich man, and a poor man, and the patriarch Abraham. And maybe this story will be helpful in exterminating our irrationality, our hard-headedness, or maybe, it will give us some insight into God’s irrational love for us. We’ll see.

As usual, the purpose of the Jesus parables is to define some reality within the Kingdom of God which, in this case turns out to be: that one person can’t illuminate another person’s blind spot; or to say it another way one person can’t wipe off another person’s prejudice; or to say it another way one person can’t crack the hard-headedness of another person; or to say it another way using the words from the parable itself, one person can’t close another person’s chasm.

That was Father Abraham’s reality in the parable. There was a rich man who died. He ended up in the fires of hell. There was poor man who died. He ended up in clouds of heaven. And there was a chasm between them that Abraham couldn’t bridge made, I would argue, by a worm of irrationality  in the rich man’s head. There he is in hell, he is thirsty, and he calls out to Father Abraham: “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”

And if I were the rich man’s friend I might say: “Friend, you’re doing it again. That same thing you did during your lifetime, you’re doing it again, only this time from hell. Maybe that is why you’re in hell in the first place.

“What is the thing am I doing?” he might ask. I would reply: “You’re stepping past Lazarus, again. You ignored him in your life, and you’re still disregarding him. You’re going straight to the “top,” to Abraham, the big guy, and asking him to send Lazarus to do your bidding. I’m not sure why you’re doing that. Maybe no status advantage in knowing Lazarus? Maybe no economic advantage in knowing Lazarus? But whatever the reason, it seems to have carried over into your life in hell.”

As my mother-in-law is fond of saying: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”  I know what that is like. I am sure that surprises you.

I’ll tell you a story some of you have heard before. I was the General Manager of a steel pail factory in Streetsboro, Ohio. I was hired to start up this factory that made tops and bottoms of five-gallon steel pails to then ship to our three other factories where they would be assembled and sent to the customers. I reported to the owner, a guy named Chris. During the time I worked there, Chris would check in on me. We’d talk on the phone and, then, with increasing frequency, talk in person.

Chris was a nice, positive guy. He seemed to like my work, but he also would say things like, “You ought to check in with the other General Managers more often.” Or “You might want to bring all of this (my great spread sheets and manufacturing process flow charts) to the leadership meeting so, the others can see them. You might want to fly out to the other factories to see what they are up to.”  But I was just too busy getting people hired and trained and vendors put in place and parts out the door…And then I was fired.

Even in the rough and tumble world of industrial manufacturing the principles of the Kingdom of God apply…Relationship is primary. That is what Chris was trying to tell me.  And I forgot it, or ignored it, or maybe, truth be told, put my idol of efficiency before it. Irony of ironies. And yet, had I not been fired I may well not be standing here today saying to you…In the Kingdom of God relationship is primary.

This Kingdom of God reality took years to sink in, but it started too a bit two weeks after I was fired. I got a call from the daughter-in-law of the man I worked for prior to steel pails. We had a long and good relationship. She said, “I heard you might be looking for a job.  Ron (her father-in-law) would love to talk to you.”

The chasm for all of us, at its core, is the space between our relationships. It was the ambition or stinginess or entitlement of the rich man that created the chasm with Lazarus. For me it was the drive for efficiency and productivity.  Chris was telling me to focus on relationships, but I was too the hard-headed to hear. Even in industrial manufacturing relationship is primary. Even in hell relationship is primary. For there is no place that God is not, as irrational as that might seem.

Which is why Jeremiah purchases a piece of property. He is modeling the irrationality of our God. You recall Jeremiah. I introduced him to you two weeks ago. He is the weeping prophet, who was warning the people of Judea that they would be wiped off the map if they didn’t change their ways. 

Today we find Jeremiah perfectly teed up for a whopping, “I TOLD YOU SO!” He is trapped within the walls of Jerusalem. The Babylonians are at the gates, literally, and it is just a matter of time before they breach the ramparts and sack the city. Hello! The bigger mess has arrived.

And yet, instead of “I TOLD YOU SO!” Jeremiah buys a piece of property from his cousin Hanamel because the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. God told him to buy the land and he obeyed–even though it seemed irrational. Now you can be 100% certain that Jeremiah will never possess this land. In fact, there is an excellent chance that the Babylonians have already marched over this field and either salted it, burned it, or given it to one of their soldiers. 

And yet, Jeremiah, in a very public way, buys the land, then says: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Houses and fields, and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’” (Jer 32:15). In other words, the people of Israel will be back. They will return to this place that God promised them, as irrational as it may seem.

Jesus foreshadows the same foolish hope in the Gospel today putting these words in Abraham mouth: “Neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31b). “Neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31b). And yet someone does. 

Jesus! And he knows he is going to even as he is telling the parable.

Resurrection doesn’t make sense. Why would Jesus choose to come back to the place that hated him so much that they killed him on the cross…Why? Seems a little foolish, maybe even irrational. But that is the nature of God’s love for us. It is the irrational love of God that Jeremiah points to.  It is the irrational love of God, that Jesus hints at and then lives into through the resurrection.

And what that love does, why that love was given, is to allow us to close the chasms we dig with the idols we most treasure. Mine was efficiency. The rich man’s was entitlement. God’s irrational love for us has already closed all chasms in our lives, the questions is: Do we believe this enough to step out onto the bridge God made?

It is like that Indiana Jones movie: The Last Crusade. Indy has to go get something, save Big Tam (aka: Sean Connery’s) life. Indy runs through a tunnel that ends abruptly at a huge chasm.  Across the way the tunnel continues. Indy must cross the void, and there is no way…only an ancient myth that claims the chasm has been filled. You hear Big Tam’s voice saying, hoarsely: “You must believe.”

Indy, with his hand on his chest, eyes closed (dramatic moment) says, softly: “It is a leap of faith…” and then he steps out into the chasm, only to find firm footing on an invisible bridge.

Foolishness? What drove Indy to take the risk… it was love for Big Tam. Just as it is the irrational love of God for you and me that fueled the resurrection, even knowing, as Jesus said in the Gospel, that “Neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31b).

Love is the same reason you reach out to your hard-headed friend. Love was the reason the rich man asked Abraham to attend to his brothers. Love is the invisible bridge that Indy stepped out onto. Love is what closes the chasm, whatever chasm that is in our lives. As irrational as it may seem, love is what makes relationship is primary in the Kingdom of God.