A Church Without Walls

In his poem “Mending Wall” Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  He then goes on to explain that nature doesn’t love walls – that frost and roots and gravity make it their work to break apart the wall.  But we humans?  Well, we’re another story.  We seem to love our walls.  Frost acknowledges that in this poem with the famous line: “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Walls, gaps, separations and divisions keep order in life.  

When I was in kindergarten, my family and I moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana where my father took a new pulpit.  The church and parsonage sat on a very busy avenue.  Traffic rushed both ways making it virtually impossible to cross to the other side.  On the other side, it was a completely different world.  That’s where the black folks lived.  We could see them from our house, but that road was a wall.  It also happened to serve as a division for the school district, meaning that there were kids my age just across the street; kids I could see from my living room; kids I would never meet.  That wall of traffic separated us.  

Human history is filled with stories of fences and walls and great chasms that separate.  Walls are almost always built by the privileged classes.  And walls almost always do double duty, although that is rarely acknowledged. Motes around castles kept out enemies but also kept out the poor, who from time to time would rise in revolt.  Ancient walled cities protected the cities, but also protected the rich who always lived near the center of town.  During the day, the poor were allowed to come in to do business.  But at night, they were locked outside, unprotected and vulnerable.  In our day, a wall in the Holy Land is meant to deter terrorists and yet that wall also allows for Palestinian land to be seized illegally.  Along our southern border, people in gated communities hire the undocumented to keep their gardens tidy and raise their children, while at the same time keeping the children of their nannies on the other side of a wall. 

The Bible has a lot to say about walls, especially as they relate to the poor. And the Bible is exceedingly clear that God is always on the side of the poor.  And since that is the side that God is on, if we are not on the side of the poor, then those choices have dire consequences for our souls. 

The story of the rich man and Lazarus is certainly not one that I would have chosen to preach on Gathering Sunday, without the push of the Lectionary.  It’s a stark tale, hard-edged in its implications, without the warm fuzzies of a “welcome home” sermon. 

This story is very old and not original to Jesus.  It comes from ancient Egypt and would have been already familiar to the people of Jesus’ day.  And it was a crowd pleaser because the crowds, by and large, were made up of the poor.  In a world in which the rich always won, it was gratifying to hear a story about the rich getting their due.  But Jesus adds a twist to the story that implies that money is not really the issue.  Walls are the issue. 

Once upon a time there was a very poor man named Lazarus.  And every day Lazarus would lie outside the gate of the rich man’s mansion.  All Lazarus wanted, all he hoped for in life, was the bread thrown under the table of the rich man.   Why was there bread under the table? Well, it was the custom of the day for the rich to use bread like a napkin.  People would take a piece of bread, wipe their mouths and hands with it, and then toss it on the floor.  Sometimes this bread was used to feed the dogs.  Maybe it had fed the same dogs that licked Lazarus’ open sores.  Maybe he could smell the bread on their breath.

One day, Lazarus died from a preventable disease, because he couldn’t afford health insurance.  He was carried to the bosom of Abraham, a place of rest and comfort.  Likewise, the rich man died despite the best medical care that money could by.  But he was sent to Hades, where he was tormented in the flame.  Despite their two very different locations, Lazarus and the rich man could see each other over a great chasm of space. 

Now notice that although he is in Hades, the rich man still thinks of himself as someone to be served. He wants some water to cool his tongue and so he asks Father Abraham to send Lazarus, someone from the lower classes, to go and fetch it for him.  His request is denied.  So then he asks if Lazarus could be sent to his family, to warn them so that they could avoid a similar fate.  This request is also denied and with this stark explanation: “Your family has the Law and the Prophets.  They already know what God requires of them.”  And that makes me think that we have the Law and the Prophets too. 

So why, exactly, did the rich man end up in Hades?  Some folks think he got there simply because he was rich.  But the Bible is full of stories of rich people who were righteous, Father Abraham being one of them.  So being rich is not really the issue and for that we can all breathe a sigh of relief, because we are the rich.  If you don’t think so, then have a look at globalrichlist.com, and there you will discover that an income of $32,000 a year puts you in the top 1% of the richest people in the world. 

But this is not a parable about riches.  This is a parable – a warning – about the lengths that we go to to stay separated from others; to not to see the needs that are right in front of our faces.

Luke says that every day Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate.  That means that every day the rich man had to step right over Lazarus in order to leave his gated community.  Every day as he made his way to meet friends for lunch or go to the bank or to his pilates class, he practiced not seeing Lazarus.  In his overarching desire to lead a beautiful life, he refused to acknowledge the one whose very presence challenged that fantasy

Every day when I walk my dog, I see more and more people sleeping in the parks and sidewalks and stairs. This is happening at the same time that luxury high-rises are springing up like mushrooms all over this island.  We cannot walk the fashionable streets of Manhattan without sometimes literally stepping over the poor.  And it’s overwhelming.  And I often don’t know what to do.  And it’s easier to just not think about it.  

But I have the Law and the Prophets.  We have the Law and the Prophets.  We have the example of Jesus.  We have the power of the Holy Spirit.  And we know what is required of us. We are not without our resources.  And neither is this congregation.  We have resources – intellectual, creative and financial resources.  And if we don’t know at this moment what to about the poor that are all around us, well then, we need to figure it out. 

Today, we gather to begin our 177th year of ministry in the City of New York.  For the past 47 of those years, our primary identity has been as a Church Without Walls.  We sold our last building on 56th and Broadway, not just because it was expensive to maintain, but because we wanted to make a difference for the poor in desperate economic times.  We wanted to be unencumbered by all of our stuff so that we could be encumbered with the needs of those who are most desperate. 

It was a very grand idea.  And, as we know all too well, it is much harder to live into than any of our forebears imagined.  Everyone needs a home – congregations too. But more than a home, we need a mission and a purpose that is so compelling that we have a reason to continue to exist with or without a home.  

A church without walls – that’s what every church is called to be, from the storefronts of Harlem to the regal churches of 5th Avenue.  We follow a homeless rabbi, who showed us how to engage with the poor; who showed us how to tear down the walls of separation between class and race and gender and gender identity and sexual orientation.  The church’s primary task in the world is to tear down walls. 

Good fences may make good neighbors.  But they sure as Hades do not make good Christians.  Let’s be good Christians.  Amen