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Sermon: The Gates

October 3, 2010

A sermon for World Communion Sunday

Luke 16:19-31

A seminary classmate of mine was appointed to a church that was considered a new start.  About six or eight years earlier, some folks in a growing suburb—along with some encouragement from their Annual Conference—decided they should start a United Methodist church in this thriving community.  When my friend arrived just two years out of seminary, the congregation was still worshipping in a multipurpose room at an elementary school, but they were just beginning to make serious plans to buy property of their own and break ground on their own building.

The congregation had an interesting dilemma.  The property they were considering sat in a very nice neighborhood where many of the charter members also lived.  It had good visibility and was situated on an excellent corner.  Plus—and this may have been the most attractive feature of the site—the current owners of the lots had soft spots in their hearts for the new church and its people, and they were willing to sell at a very good price.  It seemed perfect.

There was one problem.  This particular property was within the boundaries of a gated community.  You’re familiar with gated communities.  There are fences around the boundary of the entire neighborhood, and the only way in or out is through a few access points that require you to pass through a checkpoint with private security or by using a key card that will open the gate automatically.  This fact caused no little debate among the members of the church.  That debate, as it turned out, was probably good for the congregation, because it forced the church to think carefully about its mission and the people it wanted to serve.

On the one hand, gated communities are safe.  If you can only come in or out with someone watching you, fewer strangers will attempt to come in for the purpose of committing a crime.  There are probably many of us here, who, if we had enough money, would choose the safety and security of a gated community.  They seem more private, and I, for one, value my privacy.  Gated communities can also be status symbols.  Most gated neighborhoods seem to be among the wealthier areas in a community.  And, in this particular case, the property was nearby many of the families who were already members of the church.

On the other hand, a gated community has gates!  Some of the church members wondered what sort of message that might send to the world.  We United Methodists have a slogan—still sometimes used—that claims we have open hearts, open minds and open doors.  The fear was that a church in a gated community could not truly be the church of Jesus Christ, open, available and accessible to anyone who may wish to be present.  Would not some people feel they might not be truly welcomed in the neighborhood of the church?  Would the gates be a barrier to participation by the wider community?

The people of the church discussed this for a short while, and ultimately decided to decline the offer of the property within the gated community.  They found a location on a highly visible corner very near a major shopping area.  That church is now a thriving congregation in a thriving community.  And, as far as some members are concerned, the best part is that no one has to pass through a gate in order to get to the church building.  Open hearts, open minds, open gates.

Our scripture lesson this morning also describes gates.  The first gate in Jesus’ parable belongs to an unnamed rich man.  He has become a wealthy businessman and is enjoying the fruits of his labor—fine clothes and sumptuous feasts every day.  The other person in the parable has a name—Lazarus.  Lazarus is destitute.  Every day he lies in the dust just outside the rich man’s gate.  Lazarus could see the daily deliveries of huge trays of fresh fruit and vegetables in their season, could smell the boxes of hot bread, could see the servants carrying in sides of beef and lamb, and jar after jar of fine wine.  But Lazarus had nothing.  He would have been very happy just to have the food that fell off the rich man’s table, but Lazarus had nothing.  The wild dogs in the neighborhood seemed to be the only ones who had compassion on Lazarus.  They would come around and lick his sores.

It should come as no surprise that Lazarus died.  How could he live?  When he did, angels came and carried the old, broken down man and took him to be with father Abraham.  Finally, there was comfort and compassion for Lazarus.

The rich man also died and was buried.  The rich man, however, went to Hades, the abode of the dead.  And it was not a happy place.  The rich man looked up and far away—sort of like looking from Death Valley up to the heights of Mount Whitney—and there was Abraham and some familiar looking guy sitting at table next to him.  Ah, Lazarus.  He seemed to remember Lazarus.  He used to sit just outside the rich man’s gate.  He was the poor man the rich man stepped over whenever he went out to visit the market to shop for some new clothes.

Ironically, here is where we find our second gate of the story—the gate of heaven.  This time it is Lazarus who is on the right side of the gate, and the rich man who is suffering on the outside.  The rich man was very hot.  There were flames all around.  (Remember, this is a parable, not a travel brochure.)  The rich man called out to Abraham a long way away.  “Abe!  Abe!  Would you be so kind as to send my good man Lazarus down here so that he might put a drop of water on my tongue?  It’s hot!”

Abraham called right back to the rich man.  “Son, you had your salad days, your high living, your wealth and security.  Lazarus had his pain and suffering and trouble.  Now, the great reversal has come.  The rough places have been made smooth, the crooked places have been made straight, the mountains laid low and the valleys raised up, the rich made poor, and the poor made rich, the hungry filled, and those who were once satisfied sent away empty.

“You are on that side of the gate, and Lazarus is on this side, and I can’t let you in.”

“My brothers!  Send Lazarus to my brothers!”

“No, they have the Law of Moses and the words of the prophets.  That is enough.  They should pay attention to those words.”

“Ah, but if Lazarus should return from the dead, they will listen!”

“No.  If they do not listen to the Law of Moses and the prophets now, they will not listen even if someone rises from the dead.”

In the Body of Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, there are no gates.  There are no gates to separate the poor from the rich.  The early Church pooled its resources so that those who were poor could have enough.  There are no gates to separate those who have great talents, who are so-called pillars of the church, who arrive as soon as the doors are unlocked and who then lock them behind them when they leave from those who have a hard time just making it to Christmas and Easter services.  There are no gates to separate those of us in the United States who worship in nearly complete freedom from those half way around the world who take their lives into their hands if they simply want to pray.  There are no gates to separate the new Christians from the old Christians, the traditional worshipers from the contemporary worshipers, the United Methodists from the Roman Catholics, the bread dippers from the cup users.

Human beings make gates, but in the Body of Jesus Christ, in the deepest desire of Jesus’ heart, no one single human being would be left out on the wrong side of the gate.  In Jesus, there are no gates.  We are one, and nothing should separate us one from another.  That is the promise of this day.

Should any congregation build its church within a gated community?

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