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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

About that Chasm - 09/25/2016

Two roads lead in to Dettifoss (Det-TEE-foss) – a huge waterfall in Iceland that tourists flock to by the hundreds, if not thousands.

The older road must have fallen under some criticism of late. It is the more difficult beat up gravel road that is passable (most of the time) but still a little tough on the small front-wheel drive rental cars that scurry all over the perimeter of Iceland these days. Like Munising, Iceland has seen dramatic increases in tourism. So a second – paved – road is being built up the other side of the river and so to the other side of Dettifoss.

When we were deciding which road to take, I think Larry kept hearing the words of the rental car agent in his head like mantra: “The insurance you have does not cover damage to the undercarriage of the car.” So even on gravel roads we were technically permitted to drive on with the kind of car we rented, Larry would sometimes look out the windshield with a whole lot of skepticism in his eyes and then argue to skip it or find another way. Getting to Dettifoss was one of those times.

And that turned out just fine. There really aren't any roads you can go down in Iceland and be disappointed, especially if you really enjoy being surrounded by endless vistas of pristine creation. The road we took, the new road was paved the whole way as it wound it's way through amazing lava fields and finally to the parking lot and the short hike to the falls.

Dettifoss Landscape image

You can see the mists of Dettifoss rising up from about a kilometer away. It is said  to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It only falls about 150 feet where the river bed drops out from below it. That's not a long drop by Icelandic standards. It's about 550 feet wide – quite impressive. But the truly awesome (in the truest sense of the word) thing about this waterfall is the volume of water.

It's fed by a huge glacier and countless rivers and streams on its way to the Greenland and Norwegian seas and by the time it reaches Dettifoss, 14,100 cubic feet of water are crashing over the falls every second. You can feel the vibrations of the water through the ground and in your feet and you suddenly feel very, very small.

This is Dettifoss …

Dettifoss The Falls image

Now knowing that I was going to write this sermon straight away when we got back from vacation, I tried really diligently to carry our Gospel text from Luke around with me while we were gone. I'd read it, or one of the other texts, before we set out for the day and then I just waited to see what happened. I promise you it wasn't like work. It's a very enjoyable thing to do actually, to read from the bible and then see how the Holy Spirit breathes life into those words in our day-to-day lives. It's usually better than most of what you see on TV or in the news.

God did not disappoint in terms of the experience of Dettifoss … because there's a great chasm in the earth there.

Dettifoss Chasm image

That chasm was particularly noticeable as we watched a few people on the other side of the falls climb down slippery rocks to get as close as they could to the falls. It was a bit nerve-wracking to watch and I felt like I should yell out to the people to be careful and maybe reconsider this choice.

But through it all, this story of the rich man and Lazarus was breathed into life. “...between you and us a great chasm as been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
Suddenly this chasm I was looking at and feeling became a picture of what Jesus is teaching us about the nature of sin in this story. If we understand our sin to be an act of turning away from God, of moving away from God, at what point does that space between us and God become a chasm we cannot cross any longer? Chasms we create in our own lives, in the lives of others, or others create in us? When does it become a chasm that even God's greatest prophets cannot cross? I don't really know the answer to that question.

But I don't think it's any accident that Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus points specifically to our very human tendency to get so wrapped up in our own wealth and stature that soon we find we can see nothing else. Now, of course there are other ways we can sin, but I think it's noteworthy that Jesus is calling our attention to this particular flavor of sin.
We heard of it throughout our reading from 1 Timothy.

And our reading from Amos prepared our ear for this focus too. We hear from this prophet how the wealthy have created a chasm between themselves and care for their brothers and sisters among the people of Joseph in the Northern Kingdom of Israel being overtaken by the Assyrians.

“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp ... who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (6:4-6)

From there we come to this extreme story of a rich man who is dressed in the finest and most expensive clothes and eats more than he needs of very fine foods every day. He had reaped abundantly in life's necessities and the creature comforts God provides. But this unnamed man, and apparently anyone who came to his house, did not even give the poor man Lazarus a second thought as he lay dying a little more each day right at the rich man's front doors. I wonder if anyone even noticed the angels who took Lazarus away when he died?

The rich man dies too and he is given the proper and respectable burial due to someone of his wealth and stature, but he is not carried away by angels. Instead he lands in a place where, maybe for the first time, he can begin to perceive the distance he created between himself and God.

Realizing where he is and recognizing Lazarus as the man who hung around at his front door and where he is, the rich man still expects Lazarus, a man of no earthly wealth and no stature, to come ease his suffering. And even then, when Abraham tells him Lazarus could not cross this chasm if he wanted to – and visa versa – the man's ability to see others only slowly begins to expand to include his very inner circle, his brothers. There is still no compassion for the other, the stranger, the less fortunate. The chasm remains.

There is nothing the rich man can do, there is nothing even the greatest prophets can do to bridge that chasm. In other words, left only to humankind and our limited and often broken perspectives, we are incapable of completely conquering sin and the distance it places between us and God. We can feel the vibrations of our sinfulness through the ground and in our feet and suddenly we feel very, very small.

But there is Good News here, and it begins and ends with how our loving Redeemer Jesus frames this story for us. First, notice that when he begins this story, he doesn't give the rich man the honor of a name, that honor goes to Lazarus and then Abraham and Moses. In a world where the rich are often named and the poor and weak often die nameless, this is our first clue God is up to something unexpected here, something in answer to the problem of the chasms that come between us and God.

And the unexpected continues with the dogs. Now I realize this part of the story can be kind of … gross … but if we we can get beyond that initial reaction, we find that Jesus is telling us quite a bit about the ways in which God works to comfort the afflicted.

Dogs in the time of Jesus were used by shepherds and occasionally kept as pets, but overall they were seen as semi-wild scavengers. They were outside of the community – just like Gentiles and strangers, the sick and the possessed. Now those of us who consider ourselves dog people also may recognize that when a dog licks you, it is a sign of affection. Also, many of us have had dogs that seem to sense when we are not well and they will stay close to comfort or even guard us.

So although this scene in Jesus' story may seem a little gross in our contemporary western perspective of how we treat the sick, this is actually a picture of compassion and tending the sick. One source I read even said that some ancient Phonecians would charge you a fee to have dogs – who like a lot of other animals, have antiseptic qualities in their saliva – treat a person's wounds like this.

I'd like to lift two points out of this. First, I think we should all say a prayer of thankfulness for access to antibiotics in the form of pills and without dog breath.

Second, we begin to understand this part of the story as a way that Jesus shows us that even when God paved the way for the rich man and Lazarus to interact and find ways to help Lazarus regain his health didn't take happen; even when God provided a clear way for the rich man to live thankfully and generously and outwardly with all the wealth God had blessed him with didn't happen; even then, God found a way to comfort Lazarus. God finds a way around the chasms we create all the time and in ways that we can plainly see if we'll only look and in ways that we cannot even begin to fathom – through outsiders and scavengers if necessary.

We may not be able to overcome these chasms in our lives, not even the greatest prophets can do that –  but God finds a way around, over, under and through all the chasms in our lives. This is our Good News. This is the vibration we feel in our feet as we gather around this table for communion each week, as we are made to feel small and safe and cared for in the glory of God's love for us.

And that brings us back to the way Jesus frames this story, to the final line after the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus from the dead so he can warn his brothers about these dangerous chasms. “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”  (16:31)

And that, friends, is where we now know that God acted in astounding and unexpected ways to overcome these chasms. Because we are invited to live convinced and all because of the One who did rise from the dead – convinced that the sin that creates all manner of chasms has been nailed to the cross with Jesus Christ and the distance between us and God has been eternally bridged.

And of this bold truth I was reminded by another chasm we saw in another lava field of Iceland.

Krafla The Chasm Cross image

A chasm that took the shape of that very cross on which we are freed to live as God intends, fearlessly covinced by the One who rose from the dead, and inspired to live generously and outwardly in the unexpected and loving mercy of God. Amen


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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