I must have been eleven or twelve years old when I discovered the gap for myself. I was spending a few days visiting with my grandparents in a small town in Mississippi. One day it came time to take home Precious, the warm, loving African-American woman who kept house for my grandparents, and I jumped in the car to go along on the brief drive across town.
I remember being stunned as that short drive took us into an entirely different world. We left behind the well-built brick house, green lawn, spacious rooms, and air conditioning. And we drove into a neighborhood of rundown, unpainted houses, rough unpaved roads, with beat-up sofas and chairs sitting out on the porches where there would be a chance of a breeze.
And I remember being shocked that a world as dreary and barren as that existed so close to the comfortable world of my grandparents. It was as if parallel universes existed side by side, and between them was a gap as deep as the Grand Canyon.
Today is Cathedral Day. This is our birthday Sunday, when we give thanks for the Cathedral’s founding a century ago, and we reflect on our mission as a church for the nation and this city and on what it means to be a Christian in these times. For this Cathedral Day I want to focus not on the soaring beauty of this building but on the city it is called especially to serve and on the gap between rich and poor that runs wide and deep both here in Washington, D.C., and in cities and towns across the country.
There’s a saying you will hear if you ever have a chance to ride a subway in London. An electronic English voice comes over the sound system as the train is about to stop, urging people to watch their step getting on and off the train since there’s a space between the train and the platform. “Mind the gap!” the voice says. Pay attention to the divide. Danger lurks there.
Today I want to talk about what it means to follow a Lord who calls us to mind the gap between rich and poor that runs through the heart of every American city, and none more dramatically than our nation’s capital.
Anyone who has been in Washington long would tell you that there is not one Washington but two. One is made up of magnificent monuments and avenues, of museums and memorials, of grand federal buildings and prosperous neighborhoods. Tourists spend more than $2 billion a year supporting the local economy. It is the world of Cherry Blossom Festivals and Redskins football and tour buses and lawyers and lobbyists and shopping plazas. This is the only Washington that most visitors seem to know.
But there’s another city, one that people discover when they venture outside the zip codes of Northwest Washington and cross Rock Creek Park. It is a city of pulsing neighborhoods with dozens of nationalities and languages, and it is also a largely African-American city. This Washington is a place of old neighborhoods and long histories, and also newer neighborhoods now being gentrified and pushing out families that have been in one place for generations.
This city faces immense challenges—from crime and gun violence, to sky-high unemployment for youth and adults, to an AIDS crisis on the level of many African nations, to one of the highest infant mortality rates in the developed world. Public schools are run down, streets are pockmarked with potholes, social services are unreliable, and decent health care is rare. This Washington many people now call a “colony.” After decades of effort its citizens have no voting representative Congress. In many ways, it is a city of powerlessness.
In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus is giving us a parable about minding the gap. You remember how it goes. There’s a rich man who’s clearly enjoying the good life. He’s dressed in royal purple and fine linen, and he feasts sumptuously every day. And then, just outside the locked gate of his grand house is a poor man named Lazarus, who’s living in misery that Jesus describes in grim detail: covered with sores, desperate for food, dogs licking his wounds. There is an immense gap between these men.
Hearing a story begin this way would have stirred up a whole set of assumptions for Jesus’ listeners. Plenty of prosperous people could point to passages in the Scriptures that said that God will pour blessings on the virtuous and faithful. The Psalms say countless times that the Lord will watch over the righteous, and it’s the wicked who will suffer. So by this view surely we are to admire the rich man.
There’s more than a little of that in our American mindset—the Horatio Alger view that anyone willing to work hard can pull him or herself up by the bootstraps and be a millionaire or become President. But as preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out, that might be true if everyone were standing at the starting line of the race when the gun went off, but some are so far back that they know they can never catch up, and they aren’t quite sure which way to run, and they don’t have the right shoes, and they never got a copy of the rules, and they’re in terrible shape anyway. And so they get branded a loser, and if it’s been going on long enough generation after generation they start to believe it.
There’s a deeper, more consistent drumbeat in the Scriptures that opposes the notion that wealth and virtue always go together. In fact, they say God is on the side of the poor. The prophet Amos describes God being determined to punish Israel because “they trample the head of the poor into the dust and turn aside from the afflicted.” The measure of the quality of our faith, the Old Testament prophets taught, rests on the character of justice in the land, and the measure of justice is how we treat the poor.
And Jesus is explicit. “Blessed are you poor,” he says in Luke’s Gospel, and “Woe to you who are rich.” In Matthew’s Gospel he says that we will be judged at the end by whether we fed the hungry and clothed the naked. To refuse to care for the poor is to refuse Christ himself.
Well, there they are, the rich man and Lazarus, separated by a vast gap. Then the story shifts abruptly. Both men die, and the rich man finds himself in the flames of hell while the poor man is in heaven with Father Abraham. Now for the first time the rich man really sees Lazarus and asks Father Abraham to send him like a good servant to bring him some water. Even beyond the grave the rich man can only see Lazarus as a go-fer to wait on him.
Dream on, Father Abraham answers. You’ve had your chance to enjoy the good things; now it’s Lazarus’s turn. “Besides,” he says, “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.”
Bear in mind, there’s no hint here that the rich man was a bad person or that Lazarus was particularly good. The rich man went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible so that he didn’t have to care.
It’s the gap that’s the problem, the chasm between rich and poor and how it isolates the privileged and blinds them to the sacred connection that binds all human beings together as children of God. The poor become invisible to the rest of us. People learn to look past them and not see.
Mind the gap. The fact is that everywhere you look you see the gap. Of the six billion people in the world, one billion of them will struggle today to find a few morsels of food to get them and their children through the night; another billion will be malnourished and have no health care. And yet it’s so easy to skip the news reports on Sudan or Mozambique or Haiti.
Here closer to home, the richest 1% of Americans have nearly as much wealth as the entire bottom 95%. We know how devastating it is that unemployment in this recession is still near 10% in many places—while CEOs continue to take away their vast salaries. Mind the gap.
Near the end of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we actually glimpse the first sign of compassion in the rich man as he realizes what has happened to him. “I beg you,” he says to Father Abraham, “to send Lazarus to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”
But they have had Moses and the prophets already, Abraham answers—prophets who said love your neighbor as yourself and give generously to those in need. “I never really listened to that,” the rich man says. “But if someone goes to them from the dead, then they will listen.” And so the story ends with Lazarus resting with Abraham, and the rich man trapped in the fire of hell. The gap is still there. How can we ever bridge this gap between rich and poor, how can we ever create one city, one nation, and one world?
That is what God has set out to do in sending Jesus Christ into our world. Someone has come to us from the dead to bridge the gap. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine once said, “In Jesus God hits the streets.” God has entered into the world to bind the wounds that divide us.
Jesus called his disciples to step into that gap and find ways to bring rich and poor together. He called them to serve the least of their brothers and sisters—to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. To do that calls for tutoring and feeding and visiting, but also for challenging the way our city and even our country are working—organizing, writing letters, creating coalitions to build a healed city here and across the country.
One of the great gifts to this Cathedral in recent years has been its partnership with Covenant Baptist Church in Anacostia, a remarkably faithful congregation in the heart of Washington’s poorest section. Our partnership meetings several times a year are always inspiring as we hear of their courage and risk-taking and many programs serving the poor of their community.
We enjoy fine food and energetic talk just catching up, and then we take some time to share what’s been going on in our churches—often talking about the struggles both churches are facing. Then we study Scripture together, and finally we spend time in prayer. A couple of times we’ve turned off the lights, lit a candle, and sat in silence for a while as we prayed.
And sitting the dark something happens. As the silence and the prayers go on, our differences fade away—differences of location, of resources, of background and experience. And there in the dark we are one with each other, and with Christ. There isn’t a gap any more—between Ward 3 and Ward 8, between Northwest Washington and Anacostia. There is only us, God’s people, the people Jesus came to live and die for, and it seems for those few moments as if we have actually crossed the gap into the kingdom of God.
I think the story Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus is really about us. You see, we are the five brothers in the story, the ones the rich man wants to get a message to, and this morning someone has come to us, back from the dead, to get us to see. He wants us closer to God, closer to our fellow human beings across the chasm. And his real hope is that we’ll mind the gap, and then reach across it, and go to work.